Robert Drake is one of those exceedingly rare Philadelphia characters: He’s well known and universally liked. Seriously, trying to find someone who hates him is like trying to find somebody who hates the Phanatic. Even if you do meet that rare person, it’s mostly just unpleasant – for you.
I can’t be sure when I met him, but we certainly crossed paths when I was working for 611 Records in the late 1990’s and early 2000s, across from the now defunct Fluid Nightclub, just off of 4th and South streets. I remember seeing the fliers for Sex Dwarf, the popular, now legendary 80’s and New Wave night with DJ Robert Drake at the helm. Walking into a nightclub and hearing New Order or Dead or Alive, the music of my teens, was like a warm hug.
Even if the name was a little puzzling to people without an encyclopedic knowledge of the 1980s and its music.
For 40 years now, Drake has worked in music and media in Philly. He is a fixture on the radio with WXPN-FM for going on 35 years now, serving as producer for the iconic Kids Corner show with Kathy O’Connell, along with his own Land Of The Lost show, which is a tribute to 80’s and New Wave. Monthly, he produces the 1980s rock music party Sex Dwarf.
His status as local legend on the radio and in the DJ booth isn’t the full story, though. He’s worked in journalism and publishing, including serving as general manager for Au Courant, then one of two newspapers serving the LGBTQ community in Philly. The other newspaper, of course, was and is currently the Philadelphia Gay News. And it’s with that newspaper’s publisher Mark Segal that Drake launched Swirl magazine, a fun albeit short lived nightlife digest.
In other words, he’s seen a lot. Somehow, he’s maintained his cool and his reputation as Mr. Nice Guy. (How?)
We caught up with Robert to learn more about everything he’s done and does. It’s a lot. He doesn’t disappoint, either, sharing the origin story of his co-host Kathy O’Connell and where the hell the name Sex Dwarf comes from.
Karl Michelfelder/Philadelphia Weekly (PW): How long have you been DJing? How did you get started?
Robert Drake (RD): This year marks my 40th anniversary as a DJ! I started in 1982 at a small dive spot called Love Hall (some called it Love Club) located on Broad Street at South. I clumsily played 45s as a guest spot on an off night and fell in love with the magic and power of making folks happy via music!
PW: What about Kids Corner?
RD: As a faithful fan of WXPN-FM in the 1980s, I listened in 1987 when they began carrying a national radio show for kids called Kids America. Heard coast-to-coast, I was intrigued on how they used the radio medium to entertain young ears. Soon after being picked up by XPN, the funding for this national show ran out and XPN reached out to one of the hosts and asked if they would consider coming to Philly to do a local version of this national program.
In January 1988, Kathy O’Connell arrived in Philly to begin this new show and, during that first hour, asked for volunteers to come and help out. I stepped up and arrived the next night, January 4, and I’ve been here ever since. Starting as a volunteer, the station found some funding to hire me as a program coordinator. I quickly took the wheel and have been the Kids Corner producer ever since. This January marks my 35th year at WXPN-FM.
PW: Tell me a memorable story about Kids Corner.
RD: Having produced Kids Corner for decades, those first generation of kids are now parents themselves and they will always boast on how they turned THEIR kids on to the same program they listened to faithfully when they were that age. Opening up the airwaves so that kids can share their thoughts, opinions and more has been quite rewarding…especially since we began this format decades before social media and the age of oversharing everything. Kids respect that this show is for them and we respect their views and participation.
PW: Your monthly dance party. Can you share its origin story?
RD: Sex Dwarf began in 2003 as a way to celebrate my 40th birthday. I rented out both floors of Fluid Nightclub and The Latest Dish restaurant that night. Having a 70s mix downstairs, by DJ Botany 500 who is currently owner of Milkcrate Cafe, and I spun the music I loved upstairs. The response to my set was so intense that I decided to host a monthly party celebrating the rock of the 80s music I loved. The name, Sex Dwarf, comes from a song by the band Soft Cell. The thinking is those that know the song will instantly recognize that my party plays the hits and deep 80s tracks. Those that don’t know the song will hopefully be intrigued by the party’s title, though I’m not sure [which part] draws them in!
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PW: What’s the best story that comes out of Sex Dwarf?
RD: This August, we will celebrate 19 years of Sex Dwarf and begin the 20th year of celebrating the rock of the 80s! The best story about the party is the family of friends that have developed over the decades. I’ve had several couples meet at my event, in fact we’ve hosted a few weddings of Sex Dwarf regulars at our monthly gathering. Even though we left our first home when Fluid closed in 2013, we continued to draw in new faces with the mix of regulars as we traveled, nomad style, across the city. From Voyeur to Chatayee to Foto Club and now we have landed in what we feel will be our forever home, Broad Hall inside the Divine Lorraine Hotel on Broad Street at Fairmount, the first Saturday of every month!
PW: Then there’s Land of the Lost.
RD: With my love of 80s, I approached [XPN] station management about creating a monthly speciality program that would showcase the genre. In the fall of 2004, Land Of The Lost was born. It’s truly my happy place as I get to play whatever I want during these four hours each final Friday of the month from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. and best of all, The Losties, those fans of my show, are such lovely and loyal folk. Over 7,000 Losties populate the LOTL group on Facebook, chatting with me and each other all year long!
PW: How did you get started with Au Courant and subsequently Swirl magazine?
RD: I began my work in media by volunteering in circulation at the Philadelphia Gay News in 1981. From helping fill news boxes back when PGN wasn’t a free weekly, to traveling north to Asbury Park to deliver papers and interact with the community at the various gay watering holes.
In September of 1982, I helped launch Au Courant Newsmagazine. Frank Broderick, who was the editor of PGN, came on as our editor and Mike LaBance, who handled ad sales for PGN, was our publisher. I was the general manager and responsible for all the bar/club advertising – which was funny since I wasn’t 21 but you could find me in one bar or another every night. I ran Au Courant for four hectic years, leaving the paper in 1986 and, after a short pause, started my radio career in 1988.
In 2000, I met with PGN publisher Mark Segal and together we created Swirl Magazine, a free full-color magazine serving the LGBTQ nightlife. It was designed to reach an audience that might not be reached by its sister publication, the PGN. We hit the ground and had instant success but, as the country dealt with the terrorist attacks of September 11, ad revenues dried up and we had to shelve the project.
PW: What’s next for Robert Drake?
RD: Honestly, I couldn’t be happier today. I have a career I love, playing the music that makes me happy for others who get just as happy. This is both on WXPN and at my dance parties and gigs. Since 2007 I have been traveling my life’s path with my best friend and husband – he proposed atop the Eiffel Tower in fall 2019 and we quickly married right before the pandemic. Together we have a home in South Philly, overflowing with over 10,000 albums!