Back in the days when there were “showmen,” Twin Cities media personality Bill Diehl embodied the concept. In a career that spanned more than half a century, he was a radio disc jockey, a film critic, a newspaper columnist, an entertainment emcee and a star in his own right. Called “the last of his kind” by his newspaper colleague Rick Shefchik, Diehl passed away Wednesday while in hospice care at St. Paul’s Sholom Home East. He was 91.
Born in 1926, Diehl started working for the St. Paul Pioneer Press as a paperboy at age 15. From there, he managed to land a job in the newsroom, eventually becoming the paper’s lead movie critic and befriending many Hollywood stars. He also helped establish the Top 40 format for Twin Cities radio stations, moonlighting as an on-air personality for WMIN (now known as KMNV), WDGY and WCCO.
Steve Moravec, a radio station consultant in St. Paul, was 19 when he met a “glib and clever” Diehl at WDGY in the 1960s. Moravec remembers admiring the “commanding figure.”
“I don’t know how he did what he did,” Moravec said of Diehl’s varied professional pursuits. “I don’t think I have ever in my life had as much energy as Bill Diehl did for years and years.”
Diehl will be remembered as “the godfather” of the midcentury Twin Cities music scene, according to Moravec. For years, Diehl used his role as a radio personality to help Minnesota musicians book live shows and otherwise promote their work. He was a mentor and adviser to several local acts, introducing audiences to their music with airplay and by emceeing concerts.
Dal Winslow, of the Minneapolis band the Trashmen, said Diehl was an essential figure during the band’s early days.
“He was the one who said, ‘You guys gotta record that song,’ when we first came out with [the 1963 hit single] ‘Surfin’ Bird,’ ” Winslow said. “And we went back and played it for him at the radio station because that’s how helpful he was, and he said, ‘You should cut it down and rerecord it,’ and offered all sorts of helpful advice like that.”
Shefchik featured Diehl in a whole chapter of his book, “Everybody’s Heard About the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock ‘n’ Roll in Minnesota.” The author said Diehl used his role as the metro’s No. 1 disc jockey and emcee to advance Minnesota’s burgeoning scene.
But Diehl played a fleeting role in Minnesota’s midcentury music industry, said Shefchik. It was a position that “came and went with him.”
“After Bill left the radio scene, there really wasn’t anybody who filled his shoes,” Shefchik said. “The industry and business changed so much that there wasn’t even a place for somebody like him anymore.”
After retiring in the late ’90s, Diehl led a private life, preferring not to discuss his career. He granted Shefchik just a one-day interview for his book.
“He was this big showman, and then in his later years he kept his acquaintances to a pretty small group,” Shefchik said. “But the interview he gave — I had never spent more time transcribing something because it was so interesting and detailed. His impact on the music scene was so huge.”
“He was a larger-than-life figure,” Shefchik continued. “We never saw anyone like Bill after he left, and I don’t think there will be anyone like that again.”
Diehl is survived by his widow, Helen.
There will be no funeral or memorial services, per Diehl’s wishes.