Bob Perkins, WRTI’s ‘BP with the GM,’ on jazz, his voice and tumbling into a radio career

Our new contributor, Tasso Hartzog, interviews his long-time radio favorite, Bob Perkins, whose velvety voice on WRTI has graced Philadelphia's airwaves since 1997. Perkins, who is retiring this year after a long career in radio, didn't start life as a radio personality, however, Tasso learns that he got an early start "broadcasting" from a mock radio station he set up in his bedroom in South Philadelphia, via turntables and a tape recorder. Perkins has many stories to share and we hope you enjoy Tasso's interview with the radio great! Bob Perkins's last weeknight show on WRTI airs on June 30, 6:00 - 9:00 PM, but the "BP with the GM" will continue his Jazz Brunch from 9:00 AM - 1:00 PM on Sundays.

Bob Perkins, a Black man with short salt and pepper hair and facial hair, wearing brown aviator-shaped glasses, a tan and cream colored collared shirt, smiling in front of a gray mottled photo background.
Bob Perkins, photographed by Gary Horn. Courtesy Sheila Perkins.

There is a universe, not so distant from this one, where Bob Perkins spent his career in insurance. It was 1964, a month after he had moved from Philadelphia to Detroit, and Perkins had just been hired at Great Lakes Mutual; he was due to start the next week. But “by divine hand or just plain dumb luck,” he walked out the door of Great Lakes Mutual and saw that on the second floor of the same building, there was a radio station, WGTR.

A week later, Perkins was sitting at the control board on the second floor, playing pre-recorded spots between remote broadcasts, making thousands of dollars less than he would have in an office on the first floor. One day, one of the remote broadcasting machines broke. “I called the general manager,” Perkins recalled, “and he said, ‘Well, read the copy.’” Perkins read the text himself, as instructed, and the manager called back.

“Why didn’t you tell me you could speak like that?” he asked.

“Nobody ever asked me,” Perkins replied.

Fifty-seven years after his voice first graced the airwaves, Perkins, best-known for his weeknight jazz show at WRTI, is entering semi-retirement after 25 years at the station. His last weeknight show on WRTI is Thursday, Jun 30, from 6 to 9 p.m., but he will continue to host Sunday Jazz Brunch from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

After broadcasting in Detroit for several years, Perkins returned to Philadelphia. He worked at WDAS, where he was editorial director, and then at WHYY before starting at WRTI in 1997. It was during his Saturday night pop and jazz show at WHYY that he developed his now-iconic tagline, “BP with the GM”— Bob Perkins with the Good Music.

Although his first radio job came about by coincidence, Perkins had been preparing for it since he was “a little skinny kid from South Philadelphia who had a dream of being a radio personality.” His father, an early radio devotee, built the first crystal set in the neighborhood, and Perkins remembers people flocking to the house, fighting to listen to whatever station they could pick up through a single pair of headphones.

Meanwhile, his older brother introduced him to jazz, teaching him to identify players and instruments by ear, and sparking what would become a lifelong love for the music. Soon, Perkins was running a mock radio station from home using a tape recorder and turntables he bought from a pawnshop. “I made myself a radio personality in my bedroom,” he said, laughing. “I cut stuff out of the paper and read them like I was a newsman and threw it to myself who was also the DJ. So I went back and forth, two people.”

It was the 40s, World War II was raging, and Perkins’ father, unable to work because of arthritis, kept the radio on all day. Newsmen like Edward R. Murrow became a constant presence in the house. “I listened to these magic voices,” Perkins recalled. “I learned to talk by listening to the radio.”

Perkins was never a musician himself, but he trained his radio voice as one might practice an instrument. (He briefly pursued singing and auditioned with a voice teacher in Philadelphia, learning only later that the young woman who accompanied on piano was Nina Simone.)

In addition to reading books on elocution, Perkins would tape himself doing impressions of Murrow or the sportscaster John Facenda.

“I kind of trained my voice to be somewhat, anywhere near theirs,” Perkins said, “so when the time came, if it ever came, I would be able to step in and maybe become a halfway decent radio personality.”

On February 20, 2007, representatives from the City of Philadelphia joined local musicians at WRTI’s performance studio and proclaimed Bob Perkins Day. In 2016, Perkins joined John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and other jazz greats on the Philadelphia Walk of Fame on South Broad Street. Those are just two honors among dozens.

Awards aside, the unusual devotion of his listeners indicates that Perkins is much, much more than “a halfway decent radio personality.”

When WRTI posted an article announcing Perkins’ retirement from his weeknight show, the comments section overflowed with kind words. Certain phrases recurred: “love you,” “miss you,” “thank you.” Commenters described Perkins as a “reliable friend” and an “evening therapist” who spoke in a “mellifluous,” “jazzy,” and “velvet, unmistakable voice.”

The loss, for many listeners, is immense, softened somewhat by the fact that Perkins will still broadcast on Sundays.

“Words fail me in expressing just how much I will miss BP on weeknights,” wrote Susan Gotshall.

But overshadowing any sadness is a deep gratitude.

“No matter how my day has gone,” Alan Symonette wrote, “I find peace through the music you play in the evenings. If they ever make a soundtrack of my days you are in it. Thank you thank you thank you.”

Although he will only be on air for four hours every week beginning in July, Perkins plans to keep himself busy. He is thinking about writing a book. “I want to share my experiences with other people because it may help someone,” Perkins told me. “Why should I die with this verbiage that I have, just keep it locked up, and not share it with somebody, you know? It wasn’t about that. I got it from people. I’m gonna give it back to people.”

When I was in high school, my family didn’t need to look at the clock in the evenings. If they heard me turn on the radio, they knew it was just about 6 p.m.—time for BP with the GM.

I listened in part because I love jazz, and Perkins played great jazz. He has introduced me to many of my favorite artists: Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Ahmad Jamal. But mostly I listened to hear Perkins play his own finely-tuned instrument. His voice is like music, accelerating and decelerating, pausing and letting the silence hang for a beat, reaching a harmony of tempo and timbre reminiscent of the great jazz soloists.

“When you can play a piece of music,” Perkins told me, “it must have come from somewhere… What you’ve been, who you loved, who loved you, who didn’t like you, what you like, what you don’t like. It’s all in there.”

Like the best jazz tunes, Perkins’ baritone somehow manages to distill a lifetime into sound. It is a magic voice, and we are lucky to be able to fall under its spell, even if only on Sundays.