Wednesday, March 16, 2016

10 Years of Blogging: The WLS Interviews

This year marks my tenth anniversary as a blogger, and I've been dipping into my archives of 30,000+ posts to feature a few of my favorites. One of the great priviledges of this gig has been interviewing countless radio greats who worked at the radio station that meant the most to me in my childhood--WLS, the Big 89. Here are a few highlights from those many interviews...

Chuck Buell was a night-time jock at WLS in the late 60s, and was blown away by the station's reach...

Chuck: While we paid exclusive attention to our home town on the air, it was always fun to hear from those who were listening thousands of miles, and at times, an ocean away! (Remember, this was well before the world-wide blanket of the Internet!) I once heard from a girl who listened to our evening radio shows in Chicago as she was getting ready to go to school in Australia “the next morning!” Some US Navy radio communication specialists once wired up their ship’s radio shack receiver on their Naval battleship off the coast of Vietnam to listen when they could. One night, they actually called me on the phone, ship-to-shore, shore to landline, landline to satellite, satellite to land, and landline to Chicago! We had to yell at one another to be heard. Over!


Jeff Davis was the voice of WLS for decades. He still works on WLS-FM. He's also a WLS historian, and I asked him to give me a few stories...

Jeff: Almost everyone knows that WLS stands for World’s Largest Store and in its first several years was owned by Sears. Since its inception it has been responsible for many radio “firsts” and a stack of awards. The WLS First National Barn Dance was the inspiration for The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, having been brought to Nashville by George D. Hay, WLS’ first announcer. In the early 1930’s we were the first to simultaneously broadcast from land, sea and air. In 1937, WLS feature reporter Herb Morrison reported from Lakehurst, New Jersey as the Hindenburg derigible exploded and uttered the, now famous, words “Oh The humanity!” We won a DuPont Award from Columbia University in 1948. We’ve won many awards from news agencies such as AP and UPI and multiple wins of the Edward R. Murrow Award over the years and Legendary Station props with a MarconI Award. The number of awards won by our personalities is staggering.

WLS has also been home to legendary radio people who have gone on to Hollywood including Western movie stars Gene Autry, Rex Allen and Max Terhune. George Gobel (your parents will remember him as “Lonesome George”) was a national television pioneer who also was a regular on Hollywood Squares, Patsy Montana, Andy Williams, the legendary Pat Buttram (Mr. Haney on “Green Acres”)..There were many, many people who transitioned to even bigger careers from WLS.


Tommy Edwards had just about every job at WLS from production director to program director to air personality...

Tommy: Along with having fun in the production studio, we did cause some mischief. The time we spent calling listeners to ask them about their favorite radio station, we used the outgoing news telephone lines. Our special studio for that was small and located in the isolated area of the station. We could hear our news people making outgoing calls to news sources. Well on more than one occasion after our news person was put on hold, I'd pick up the phone and say: "Peacock. This is Ted Peacock can I help you?" The news person would identify themselves and we'd chat - not knowing it was actually me and my production engineer Al Rosen. They'd ask for a statement and I'd start to come up with something until I heard a click on the other end and stop talking. The real news source would start the conversation and our news person would say: "never mind, I got what I need from Ted Peacock". Well, then it would get very funny when everyone would be searching for this guy Peacock. We eventually got caught by the news director. But we were all known for causing mischief and having fun.


John Gehron was the PD, and worked with some of the biggest radio stars in WLS history. I asked him about his philosophy of dealing with those guys (and gals)...

John: I always found the big stars had an intensity about them, and part of my job was getting out of their way. The good ones knew what they wanted to do, and the great ones had a vision, and I had to give them the freedom to realize it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for talent—for their creativity. I know how hard it is to do what they do, to walk in and create something like that, because I can’t do it.


Les Grobstein was a sportscaster on WLS during the early 80s. He was in the studio the day that Larry Lujack threatened to fight Steve Dahl...

Les: I thought I was going to have to break up a fist fight. It was Thanksgiving eve, the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and the office was almost totally empty. Steve was ripping Larry on the air, which he did nearly every day. Garry had a broken foot. Larry was hanging out at the station, which is something he did on occasion, long after his show was over.

Well, Larry walked into the studio and wished Steve & Garry a happy Thanksgiving. It was very tense. They went back and forth, and back and forth, and one of Steve’s kids was there, and he started crying. After that, Larry left. After Larry was gone, Steve said "If he ever comes back in here, I’ll break both of his legs."

Well, things continued in the days to come. I flew to Miami for the Dolphins-Bears game (1985), because Steve & Garry were doing the show from Miami Beach. I got a lot of Bears players live on the air with Steve and Garry. We had Fridge, Fencik, etc. So anyway, I'm doing a sportscast from there, and at the end of the sportscast, Larry came on from Chicago to say “Hey Les, did you hear about my new feature? It's called 'Whose afraid of the big fat pig? The truth about to Steve Dahl.' Needless to say, this got back to Steve.

So, we're back in the studio in Chicago, and I'm doing my sportscast, talking about the Bears, when all of a sudden the door opens and Larry comes in and my mic is still open and I say “Lar, why couldn't you do this when Jim Johnson was in here?” Of course, he came in while I was there on purpose because I was on both of their shows. Jim was a Steve & Garry partisan, but I wasn't allowed to choose sides.

Steve says “Larry get out.” But Larry says, "I heard what you said the other day, so I just wanted to see if you’re going to break both my legs before I throw your head through the wall." It wasn’t a bit. It wasn’t fake. Then Larry says he is going to promote his new feature, so Steve and Garry leave the studio, and Steve says "Let’s leave Mr. Insane alone in his insane world." Garry, who has a broken leg remember, hobbles out of the studio. Lujack sits down at the console and says "So, I guess I’m finishing the show. He said 'Les, we were talking about football, right?' I did the sign off and got the f*** out of there.

About ten minutes later three Chicago coppers got off the elevators and most of the employees were gone. I greeted the cops and they said they got a report that a riot had broken out at WLS, and I told them there was nothing to worry about.

The next morning I was in studio with Larry for what was supposed to be the "Whose afraid of the big fat pig" thing, but he didn't do it. He said that he and Steve had a nice chat and had resolved their differences. Of course, within two days Steve was ripping him again and the war stayed on for the rest of their time there.


Bob Hale was one of the original jocks on WLS who introduced rock and roll to a generation of Chicagoans...

Bob Hale: In early 1960 I was sending a tape every two weeks to Sam Holman the to-be-program director of WLS. One afternoon, home in bed with a fever, and a couple of shots of Dr. Jack Daniels with honey and lemon - the late winter cold had struck - I received a call.

"Bob, it's Sam Holman at WLS, in Chicago."

Instant sobriety! INSTANT!

"Yes, Sam, how are you?" Actually, I didn't care how he was; I wanted to know why he called!

"Bobby, (right then I knew I was in! - 'Bobby') I'd like to come on to be my all-night man starting May 2nd. Interested?" Oh yeah...was I interested! "Besides, Bobby, you keep sending me all those tapes---I've got no room for more."

Dick Biondi and I were brought in early so that the three of us could make the rounds of newspaper people, record promoters and writers. Within 20 hours of that call two record promoters drove from Chicago to "meet me, and say hello." I had arrived!

When I came to WLS that first day at the old Prairie Farmer Building on West Washington Blvd, Sam and Dick and I were taken to lunch at Fritzel's--THE place to be seen! We weren't there more than 10 minutes, guests of Archie Levinson, well-known record promoter and husband of Fran Allison, of Kukla, Fran and Ollie fame, when we were joined by Milton Berle! I leaned over to Sam and said, "I wonder who they'll fly in tomorrow to impress us?"


Karen Hand was a newscaster on WLS in the late 1970s...

Karen: Being a 20-something wide eyed Okie, fresh in the big city, I fondly remember the mighty Larry Lujack walking into the studio just before I keyed the mic for my first newscast on WLS and said “Hi, I’ll be listening. Don’t fuck up!” I was TERRIFIED!! And THRILLED!!! And when Ronald Reagan’s deregulation ended overnight news on WLS, and I was set free from the overnight shift, Larry called me offering his support and any help he could offer in finding the next gig. I have always been very touched by that! And I remember Larry Lujack as one of the quietest and hardest working jocks I’ve ever seen.

My first night at WLS was Steve King’s last night on the air there. He took several hours to welcome me to the station and to Chicago. He was very kind! Steve is definitely one of the nicest people in radio.

Larry Langford worked at WDAI and took me under his wing to show me around Chicago and teach me about the city.

When things went wrong back in Oklahoma, we always said; “I’ll bet it doesn’t happen this way at WLS!” But when I got to ‘LS…I was amazed at how many things did go wrong! My favorite story is the fly that shut down the station. There were two transmitters out in Tinley Park designed so that if one took a power hit, the signal would automatically jump over to the second transmitter. Until that one fateful moment when a fly landed in the transmission path at exactly the same time as a lightening strike and off the air we went….or so the story goes...


Catherine Johns was a newscaster at WLS in the 70s and 80s, working alongside legends Larry Lujack and Fred Winston...

Catherine Johns: I started out in news, mainly because back in the ‘70’s that’s where opportunities were opening up for women. I worked at all-news stations reporting and writing and reading the news; I considered myself a serious broadcast journalist, and I brought those skills to WLS. My sidekick role grew out of that. The WLS GM called us in one day and said he wanted Larry to “interface with the newspeople.” You know Larry – he’s not the kind of guy who wants to interface with anybody.

(He once told a Tribune interviewer the best time of his life was the summer he spent as a look-out in a national forest – alone for about three months!) But the interfacing turned out to create a pretty good show. And what a blessing for me – it gave me the chance to become a “personality.” It was also an opportunity to learn from one of the best in the business how to tell a story for maximum impact. And perhaps most importantly, when to shut up.

Much as I loved being part of Larry’s (and later Fred’s) morning show, I loved hosting a talk show even more … for the freedom, the opportunity to connect with listeners, the chance to play with words. But doing a solo talk show is quite challenging – you’ll notice, not that many people do it. What I’d really like is to do a two-person, equal-partners, don’t-call-me-sidekick talk show.


Jim Johnson was part of the huge WLS newsroom in the 1960s and 1970s and stayed with the station for more than 30 years. Those early days were very different than the closing days...

Jim: In the 70s, we had up to 17 people in the newsroom including reporters, news anchors, and editors. I was a newswriter and editor who doubled as an on air reporter (belonging to two unions for awhile). I later became a full-time on air reporter and anchor covering city hall and breaking news and also filling in for various news anchors on vacation. I was also the “assignment editor" for awhile. I did not like being a so-called boss and eventually got rid of that chore.

In the late 1970s I also worked as a weekend on air reporter for WLS TV. The late Sixties and Seventies were like a scene from the TV show Mad Men....three martini lunches with the sales department and the older city hall reporters were quite common. And the Women's Lib movement had barely begun back then. There were more than a couple scandals involving on air people and young women who worked as assistants and secretaries. (My lips are sealed)


John Records Landecker was the night jock at WLS during it's 1970s heyday...

John: I came to WLS in 1972 just as the Watergate story was breaking. ("Make a Date with a Watergate") Everything started clicking shortly after that. There was 3-4 year span where WLS was in total synergy from programming to air personalities to sales to promotions. We got along. We hung out together. We were actually friends…and the station was super duper successful.

And there were some individual high points for me too. I was just thinking about one the other day. It was in the news that the space shuttle took a light saber from Star Wars because it was the 30th anniversary, and it made me think of my Star Wars bit…Radio Star Wars. I don't know how we did it, but we actually got Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher to participate in the bit. Rick Dees' song "Disco Duck" was a part of that bit too, and I've been talking to his company lately, so I just sent it to him too. It was a great kick to listen back to it. Bob Sirott was in it. The newsman in that bit, Jack Swanson, is now the GM of KGO Talk radio in San Francisco.

Those were some pretty incredible times. One day I was doing something like that, another day I had that memorable afternoon at Woodfield Mall with John Travolta, and another time I was doing the show from the original great America when it was owned by Marriot's. They flew me out there in a helicopter to be the very first person to ride "The Tidal Wave." There was a plaque up there for years.


Larry Lujack is probably the biggest star in WLS history, and Animal Stories was the all-time most popular bit. Larry passed away in December of 2013

Larry: WLS aired a farm report during mornings to satisfy FCC requirements for public service. The farm show had previously consisted of reading hog and grain prices, and it was really boring. So I started going through newspapers and magazines finding weird stories about farmers and their animals and reading those instead. I was amazed by what happened next. I started getting letters from all over the Midwest. In little towns the newspapers are filled with these stories. I read them on the air and before I knew it, people were calling to say, ‘I wish the farm show was longer!’ That blew my mind.

Tommy Edwards used to be in the studio getting ready for his show because he was on after me. At first he didn’t take part, he was just getting his music and paperwork together. He made fun of me, and giggled, and laughed, and scratched his ass, and sometimes I asked him a question or he asked me a question about whatever the story was that day. I started referring to him as Little Tommy and it gradually evolved into a two-man bit.

AM radio was no longer the hip thing by the late ’70s, early ’80s. These FM drug addicts would throw cabbages at our station vans when we were in parades. They thought we sucked! So I suggested we change the vans into ‘Animal Stories Mobile Units,’ and all of a sudden it completely transformed people’s opinions. They cheered the vans instead. From that point on, even the station’s commercials featured ‘Animal Stories.’ That one thing changed the image of the whole station.

We had a staff meeting at WLS one day to come up with a unique concept for a movie trailer to promote the station. Nobody was coming up with anything, so I raised my hand and said, ‘I know how to hypnotize a chicken.’ They loved the idea. The only problem was that I had never actually done it. I had only seen a guy do it once on a kids’ science show many years earlier. I was sweating bullets. I thought, ‘If this doesn’t work, they’ll have wasted thousands and thousands of dollars on the dumbest thing ever.’ But it worked like a charm, and I breathed a humongous breath of relief.


Ron Riley was a jock at WLS in the 1960s and had an on-going on-air "feud" with morning man Clark Weber...

Ron: I was the big Beatles supporter on the staff, and Clark took the other side of the Beatles argument. He was on the side of the other bands—Beatles competitors like the Dave Clark 5. I was called Ringo Ron, so he began to call me Ringworm Ron, just to rip me.

I used to take calls from these kids, and had them take shots at Clark on tape, saying things like “Down with Weber,” and I’d intersperse this into the show. I’d pretend to call him at home at night, (it was pre-recorded), and when he answered I’d make a loud trumpet noise, and he’d get all mad, “Riley, don’t you know I have to get up early!”

It was all this silly stuff. I had this character Bruce Lovely, and at Halloween, Bruce would drop pumpkins on Weber. It was just good clean dumb fun. This was ’65 or so. I’ve done twenty-plus years of radio and twenty plus years of television, and this is something I still hear about. A woman came up to me in the supermarket in Maryland just recently and said “Down with Weber!” Isn’t that something?


Bob Sirott was the afternoon star at WLS in the 1970s...

Bob: Working on WLS in the 70's was thrilling. After all, I was now broadcasting from the same studio where I would watch all those legendary jocks work when I was in the visiting room in the early 60's.

There really wasn't any competition at all--not friendly or otherwise. No rivalry. Not sure why, but we we were all just into doing our own thing. A few of us even spent a lot of time together off the air. JJ Jeffrey (10am-2pm) John Landecker (6-10pm) and myself (2-6pm) used to hang out with each other on weekends, and many times during the week after John would get off the air. What we did is still classified, but will be released to the public after we're all dead! Seriously though, mainly we would just go out for dinner--with or without our respective significant others--many times along with our great production engineer Al Rosen. I think we all kept each other in-line--nobody could get a big head or become too serious about what we were doing on the station because the rest of us would just heckle that person back into his senses.


Jim Smith was a music director at WLS during the mid-70s. He was there when a new slogan was created in a meeting with PD John Gehron...

Jim: It was in one of those meetings -- and the focus of this lengthy digression -- that we were kicking around one of those huge-nationally-but-not-scoring-in-the-Midwest tunes as a topic of discussion. John liked it. I did too but preferred to wait. He wanted me to make the case for not adding it that week. He was new to the station, after all, and wanted to make sure that my recommendations were solid.

"But Jim," he pleaded, "it's a good song." (Actually, it was. But my belief was that it would not be a Chicago home run, whether we played it or not.)

"But John," came my response, "there is a lot of good music. We have to play only the best music."

His head jerked. He looked wide-eyed at me, looked at the paper, looked at me again, looked back at his desk, and picked up his black felt-tip. I had no idea what was taking place, as he started to write "the best music" on the paper and underline it.

"That's it!" he said. "I am going to be cutting new jingles next week and am looking for slogan lines. 'We play the best music.' I'm going to use that."


Clark Weber was one of the iconic voices in Chicago during the 1960s as the morning man at WLS. Among his duties during those years...introducing the Beatles...

Clark: Capitol Records threw a luncheon that afternoon for WLS and the Beatles at the Saddle & Cycle Club on Lake Shore Drive. A good friend of mine, Jim Feeley, was dating a model named Winkie, and I invited them to come along. Well, Winkie showed up in a two-piece tennis outfit, and she looked incredible. I sat her next to George Harrison and his eyes almost popped out of his head. She made nice with him for a little while and George really thought she was going to be staying with him all day. When Winkie got up to leave a few minutes later to go to a modeling audition, George was wounded. “You’re not going anywhere,” he said. Winkie replied: “Oh yeah? Well watch me.” Later that night Feeley called me and asked if she could come to the concert, and I said—‘You’re really pushing it’, but I did get her in. So, flash forward twenty years later. A photographer from the Sun-Times called me up to say he had a photograph he wanted me to see. It was the Beatles on stage at Comiskey Park. I’m standing to the side of the stage and so is Winkie, and George Harrison is on stage looking right at Winkie, giving her the dirtiest look imaginable. Winkie later married a pro football player, moved down to Texas and had five kids, but George never got near her. As soon as Bernie Allen and I walked onto the stage, the crowd went crazy because they knew what was coming. There were 38,000 screaming teenage girls and the sound was indescribable. I told Bernie to hold his hand out with his fingers spread. We could feel the vibrations in our fingers. I don’t think anyone in that ballpark heard a single second of the show. I was standing right next to the stage and I didn’t hear it.


Fred Winston had every major shift on WLS in the 70s and 80s. When we spoke he named his dream line up of radio personalities. One person he didn't mention is someone who would be on mine...Fred Winston.

Fred: My night-time guy would be my good buddy Dick Biondi. He is such a great people person. He has more energy than two people 1/3 his age. He's the ultimate survivor. I'd also have Dan Sorkin. You may not remember him, but he was on WCFL in the '60s and was way ahead of his time. Very funny--a true personality. I'd also have the great Ken Nordine doing an overnight jazz show. Can you imagine how cool that would be? Plus, you have to include Larry Lujack and Steve Dahl. Larry is a great performer, and I love how dark he is, and Steve has his own distinctive style. No one can copy his style--he's a true original. All of those guys have one thing in common. They are all really intelligent.