As a radio pioneer, Mary Mason ruled the Philadelphia airwaves with her firebrand style of talk radio.
For 40 years, she was an AM-frequency star whose in-your-face, controversial and weekday morning chatfests both informed and chastised the Black community.
At the height of her influence from the ‘70s through the ‘90s, Mason hosted successful radio telethons for Leon Sullivan, urged listeners to vote for W. Wilson Goode (who in 1984 became the city’s first African-American mayor) and sat on several corporate and major non-profit boards.
Today, at 86 years old, she sits quietly in a wheelchair in the middle of the residence hall of Sunrise Senior Living, whose sprawling Victorian building occupies a quiet lot in Lafayette Hill, Montgomery County. While her cafe au lait-colored skin remains smooth, and her smile — when exhibited — still dazzles, gone is the quick wit and boisterous exchange of conversation.
Mason, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, rarely talks, is catheterized, and leans slightly to the side as she sits.
Deborah Satterwhite, who has known Mason since she was 13, and who serves as her court-appointed administrator, only wants her dear friend to be comfortable in the final years of her life, and for her to be put to rest in the manner Mason envisioned – in a high-end wooden casket already picked out and priced at $9,000.
“She always talked about wooden,” Satterwhite says.
But neither of these final wishes may come to fruition for the former radio star, given that the unpaid bill for Mason’s stay at Sunrise now stands at $55,000, and with her court-ordered financial guardian having rejected – due to lack of finances – estimated future funeral expenses of $20,000, which includes her desired casket.
While Mason owned numerous properties and was well-compensated for some of her board memberships and promotional work, in January of this year, the $7,700-per-month bill for her care at Sunrise — once paid by Mason’s 32-year-old grandson Calvin Steven Turner, IV, her closest living relative — ceased.
Soon after, Montgomery County Orphans’ Court appointed financial guardianship for Mason to David A. Jaskowiak, Esq. In August, Jaskowiak filed an emergency petition, filed under No. 2016-X1812 in Montgomery County and seeking from Turner the return to Mason’s estate of an estimated $1.5 million.
Neither Jaskowiak nor Turner returned calls for this story.
Satterwhite, whom the Montgomery County court established as Mason’s court-appointed guardian, pulls out court documents that show six-figure checks Turner wrote for amounts of $100,000, $150,000 and $550,000.
Having watched Mason’s family, friends and money all dry to a trickle, Satterwhite says she is focused on Mason’s current comfort and final plans. To help, she has formed the “Mary Mason Care Project” with Warren R. Hamilton, Esq.
“It’s a sad story,” attorney Hamilton offers in regards to Mason’s current situation. “It’s a human story too.”
A radio star is born
Mason, whose real name is Beatrice Elmore Turner, became a radio star during an era when neither women nor minorities held such titles. The South Philly native was still in her 20s when she launched her broadcast career as a gospel, then popular, music host on WHAT-AM in 1958.
In the ‘40s, the station became one of the first in the nation to hire a full-time Black announcer, and to feature Black women as newscasters and hostesses, and to air a Black daily talk show.
Mason’s first talk show, “Mornings with Mary” debuted on WHAT in 1970. According to Philadelphia Radio Archives, “Mason became a prominent and politically influential fixture at the station, with a loyal audience that sought her opinions on a wide range of local, national, and international topics. Her shows on WHAT were the highest rated on the station. Mason also hosted programs on sister station WWDB and the former WCAU-AM.”
For the next 40 years Mason distinguished herself as an AM radio star with an in-your-face, controversial weekday format. “Mornings with Mary” could be an entertaining, yet raucous, listening experience.
For one show in 2002, Mason publicly questioned State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams’ support for Bob Casey, Jr. over Ed Rendell for governor, insisting that he call into the show to explain. Like most politicians who received Mason’s on-air requests for comment, he dutifully followed suit, and over the phone explained that his decision was personal. This led to Mason chastising Williams — and all politicians — for allowing personal feelings to get in the way of public business.
Mason’s family was also treated to her on-air lectures. Veteran radio broadcaster and communications specialist Thera Martin Milling wrote in the SCOOP newspaper in 2012, how Mason would “lovingly tease” her overweight son, Steven, about his health.
“Many a day, she would put her son’s business on the air, fussing at him,” Milling wrote. “She would also make reference to the fact that so many men take such good care of their cars for example, but do not pay attention to their own health like they do their cars.”
Milling, a former program director at WHAT, recalls her attempt once to get “Mornings with Mary” to broadcast live on the White House lawn. After several failed requests, she was finally granted permission. However, Mason had trouble getting through security, given that Milling had failed to submit Mason’s real name to Secret Service, and that Mason refused to disclose her real age.
“So she cussed me out,” Milling said. “I was so embarrassed. I felt like I just wanted to disappear. . . . We all got in, once she told the truth of her age. … Everything went well, and at the end of the day, she said, ‘Good job. Now let’s go get some drinks.’”
Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams became close friends with Mason in 2004 while working as a Pennsylvania State Representative on a response to the killing of Faheem Thomas-Childs, an honor-roll third grader and innocent bystander shot to death in front of his school yard. Williams said Mason was instrumental in coordinating the march that drew more than 10,000 people to Broad Street.
“She had a mean streak,” Williams said. But insists, “She also had a good heart.”
He witnessed Mason “give people money out of her pocket book” if they were in need. She donated money to listeners for food or for college expenses, or gave them a place to stay when their homes and belongings were lost in a house fire.
“She would put them up in one of her properties,” Williams says.
A human money-maker
Mason was also a founding member of the Black Music Association, a National Board Member of the Martin Luther King Foundation for Non-Violence and a National Board Member and Executive Vice-President of the National Black Media Coalition. According to a now defunct BMA website, Mason’s Community Foundation was “responsible for distributing close to a half-million dollars to radio disc jockeys that are down on their luck.”
She supplemented her base salary talent fee by promoting and emceeing live events, making personal appearances, selling radio time and voicing commercials.
“She made her money because she was the anchor of the station,” explained Ron Allen, a radio announcer who worked with Mason for 13 years at WHAT. “As the morning drive person, she was the largest revenue getter at the station, and because she held her ratings to a high standard she got top dollar and a commission. Everything that came into her station, she got a commission, in addition to whoever [sale person] brought it in. She was the main sales driver over there for years,”
“Mary came along in a strange era,” continued Allen. “For certain things, she was the go-to gospel person in this market for like [gospel legends] James Cleveland and C.L. Franklin and those big guys like that. She was the one in this market. She promoted shows and would pull up the house trailer bus outside the Met, open the side door and sell tickets, go inside and host the show and go outside with all the money. Mary was renegade radio.”
Mason also opened the door for several local media personalities, such as broadcaster Vince Hill, talk show host Al Butler and rapper Lady B — all of whom went on to blossom in radio careers beyond their WHAT starts. “Dave Clark, Merrill Reese, Pam Weddington and Paul Perrello — those were her news people. (She) worked with them all,” recalled Rhonda D. Hibbler, a former WWDB 96.5 producer.
End of an era
In 2007, a year shy of Mason’s golden anniversary in radio, WHAT was sold and thus silenced the longtime “Voice of the African American Community.” Undeterred, Mason put together a small group of investors in hopes of owning her own radio station.
Of the approximately 10,000 commercial radio stations in the USA, less than one percent are owned by African-Americans. The National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB) noted, “African-Americans are woefully underrepresented in the ownership of broadcast stations.” Mason agreed. “No more just working, I want to purchase,” a station, she told the Philadelphia Daily news in 2008. And, Mason did become the co-owner of several radio stations throughout the country.
When she wasn’t traveling, Mason paid (or really had her advertisers pay) for a two-hour Saturday talk radio show on WWDB 860-AM. But the decline of local media changed the face of Black Talk radio. The audiences that had depended on radio to deliver information to its community were starting to go online for its news.
The loss begins
Mason was last documented on the radio in 2010 — the year her Alzheimer’s disease was officially diagnosed.
Her initial symptoms of memory loss and unpredictable behavior alarmed her son, C. Steven Turner III, who took her to a Florida specialist. Mason and her son were resourceful, and made plans while she was still of sound mind. They anticipated death, but son Steve Turner’s unexpected demise at age 62 in 2012 was the ultimate game changer. In two years, the severity of Mason’s dementia has progressed to a point that she is unable to comprehend her only child’s death.
Nowadays, Mason, resides in near-abandonment. She is unaware that her child is dead or that her former homes have been sold for her upkeep. She is perhaps days away from eviction from the assisted living facility that has been her home since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Satterwhite, 59, checks on Mason several times a month, taking various toiletries or clothing to keep her comfortable.
Mason, who was once known as a vociferous speaker, can now only utter a word or two before frowning in frustration. However, during her visit last week, Mason immediately gripped Satterwhite’s hand and tried unsuccessfully to tell her something. Determined to say something, she held onto the younger woman’s hand for moments at a time, sometimes offering a gleaming smile when words failed.
After 30 minutes, Mason pulled Satterwhite close. Her words were clear: “I want to go home!”
For more information on the Mary Mason Care Project, call (484) 262-9388.