Twin Cities media icon Bill Diehl dies at 91

“The Rajah of the Records, the Deacon of the Discs, the Purveyor of the Platters and the Wizard of the Wax, with all the musical facts.”

Take it from an old-timer: Those were some exciting days listening to the radio — AM radio, of course — when theatrical DJs talked rapid-fire and were as much a part of the entertainment as the music.

Bill Diehl made his name covering entertainment for the Pioneer Press for 53 years, changing the way pop culture was covered around here, the Pioneer Press’ Ross Raihala writes today in a lovely tribute to him. Diehl died yesterday at St. Paul’s Sholom Home East. He was 91.

The piece recalls an era long, long gone. And we’re not the better for its disappearance.

A St. Paul native, Diehl got his first taste of the newspaper business as a carrier at the age of 11. Each morning, he’d get up at 4 a.m. and was on the streets a half-hour later delivering what would eventually become a route with 250 customers. That attracted the attention of associate publisher Hal Shugard, who summoned Diehl to the Pioneer Press and Dispatch office. Diehl thought he was going to be fired but instead was offered a job at the newspaper upon graduation.

After completing his senior year at St. Paul Central High School in 1943, Diehl started working at the newspaper while taking night classes at Macalester College and the University of Minnesota. His first job was serving as a debt collector for the circulation department, but he soon angled his way into a copy boy position in the newsroom.

That’s how you got in the newspaper business back in the day. You knew every inch of the place and did every job. If you were lucky, you became a legend.

And this is how you got in the radio business: A DJ goes on vacation and asks you if you know how to do a radio show. You didn’t, but you lied anyway and said you did. That’s how he started at WMIN in 1948. Diehl raced to the library to read a book on how to be a broadcaster, according to Raihala.

What did he know about radio?

“I used to sit in the John, of all places, and I thought it would be great to be on the air,” he told an interviewer in 1965.

He introduced Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson on stage in Mankato and St. Paul six days before they were killed in an Iowa plane crash. Likewise the Rolling Stones in ’64 at the Excelsior Amusement Park, and the Beatles at Met Stadium.

  1. Listen MPR’s Cathy Wurzer talks with Bill Diehl and Charlie Boone

    January 28, 2009

He jumped to WCCO in 1967. His Saturday morning remotes from a Wally McCarthy dealership were legendary and made the station piles of money.

He left WCCO in 1996, which was also the year he wrote his last column for the PiPress. “I have been granted more fun, thrills, excitement, more of just about everything than any reasonable human being could expect,” he said. Fun. Thrills. Excitement. Man, those were the days.

There’ll be no funeral nor memorial service for the showman. That’s the way he wanted it, according to Raihala. His ashes will be spread on Lake Itasca, where he proposed to his wife.

Related: How Minnesota rocked in the 60s: The story behind ‘Surfin’ Bird’ (MPR News)