Local DJ talks music, life with writing class

Andrea Wilson

A class of writers sat down with Philadelphia disc jockey Marilyn Russell on Monday to talk about music and its relevance to the world they write about.

English professor Mary Beth Simmons invited the popular WMGK radio personality to her Advanced Expository Writing class after meeting Russell at a concert and discovering their common interest in best-selling author Nick Hornby. The impetus for the discussion was the class’s reading of Hornby’s “Songbook,” a collection of essays about music and life.

The class discussed how putting thoughts about music into words can be challenging. “When we try and articulate our individual tastes in music, that’s when the real word work is involved, and we find ourselves trying to get it just right on the page,” Simmons said.

Russell tried to convey the qualities of music that never get old, but agreed that putting it into words can be a difficult task. Speaking of her favorite band, Led Zeppelin, and their song, “Stairway to Heaven,” she said, “I don’t know, there’s no ‘burn’ on it. That’s the measure of a great song.”

“Expository writing is about observing, interpreting and reporting on the world around us,” Simmons said. “Music is such an integral part of our lives.”

Russell told students that, in a society where religion and heritage are fading traditions, music is a binding factor for many families, including her own. As she recalled listening to Pearl Jam’s “Evenflow” as she fed her infant son with Evenflo-brand bottles, Russell explained that music, for most people, is very much linked to time and place.

She also said that writers and musicians share some similar struggles. “Writers and musicians are really cocooned in their own world. They can be really out of it,” she said.

Simmons thinks inviting guests from various fields to participate in discussions about writing is valuable to demonstrate that writing is a part of virtually everyone’s life.

“Marilyn Russell spoke to the class as a participant and observer in the world of music,” Simmons said.

“Here is someone so passionate about what she does, someone so articulate about her life and times in radio and someone generous in spirit who wanted to freely share these thoughts with Villanova students.”

“Everyone’s a writer,” she added. “A DJ is a writer. A sports anchor is a writer.”

Last spring, Simmons invited local sportscaster and former Philadelphia Eagles running back Via Sikahema to her Tutoring Writers class to share his story of the role writing has played in his life.

Russell began her professional radio career in 1993 at Philadelphia’s WDRE, a modern rock station that was sold in 1997. She then became part of the popular Y100 morning show in Philadelphia for five years and now hosts a weekend spot on classic rock station 102.9 WMGK.