Welcome to the Rock of Chicago

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM MY MEMOIR “RAISED ON THE RADIO” WHICH I LOOK TO RELEASE IN 2018

My first show day at WLS was Monday April 1st, 1985. USA for Africa’s “We Are the World”, Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” and more singles from Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” album got heavy airplay. The hot TV shows were “Miami Vice” and “Moonlighting” and the big movie in theatres was “The Breakfast Club.” Women sported Reebok gym shoes on walks from the train station to their offices where they changed into dress shoes while suited businessmen wore yellow print patterned power ties. Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his second term as President.

When picking up the newspapers that first morning I took it as good sign that on the cover of the Sun Times was the photo of someone I knew well. Amy Beja, the sister of my longtime friend Todd Beja, was pictured holding a fanned out selection of Chicago Cubs tickets as their home opener was approaching. I signed in at the security desk in the Stone Container Building at Michigan and Wacker just before 2 a.m. and took the elevator to the 5th floor. Despite being in disbelief of all this heady radio stuff, I kept it together because Larry was very businesslike on everything. My job was to help him get the best listener ratings possible so the ABC Corporation could sell their commercials for top dollar and make lots of money and we could keep doing the same. I could not play the role of geeked-out fanboy because there was work to do.

Still, the halls of the radio station echoed of the famous voices of the past. The walls had framed photos of stars like Dick Biondi, Clark Weber, Ron Riley, Art Roberts, Joel Sebastian, Dex Card, Yvonne Daniels, Bob Sirott and John “Records’ Landecker. Not to mention the current names, besides Larry, there was Tommy Edwards, Fred Winston, Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, Brant Miller and Jeff Davis. Any time of the day or night I was tuned in to any and all of these guys. How many nights did I not mind only having only AM radio in my car because Jeff Davis was playing the latest hits and classic Stones and Doobie Brothers songs for me to rock out to? For years I listened to all these people and was now aboard the good ship WLS, a legendary and still vibrant radio station. I went from fan to fellow co-worker. It was like the little leaguer who idolizes the New York Yankees and one day he’s putting on the pinstripes and taking batting practice alongside Derek Jeter.

1985 WLS AM Stars- Front row L-R Jeff Davis, Turi Ryder, Fred Winston, back row Tommy Edwards, Larry Lujack, Brant Miller.

In 1985, newspapers and the newswire stories were the lifeblood of radio content for most personality based radio shows. It was a matter of taking a single edged razor blade and slicing out the local gossip columns and other entertainment related news along with stories of interest and sports and circling the best information with a red flair pen. I would read through all sections of the papers and strip the best newsy meat off their bones to find things to talk about. Jeff Hendrix, the deep voiced news anchor who along with Catherine Johns made up a double barreled delivery system of the morning news on Larry’s show handed me the newswire copy of more offbeat stories.

Jeff and Catherine had a fast rhythm of pin-balling the reading of news stories between each other. They sounded like a news station and aspiring radio newscasters could learn much from listening to their air-checks. Personality wise, Hendrix was the resident cheapskate who once replaced the bumper of his VW Rabbit replaced with a two by four plank of wood. I saw that so called bumper, it was weird looking but economical. Jeff played lots of golf with Larry. Catherine Johns played the role of the young single woman and her dating life would sometimes be talked about on the show. It was by no means in the ‘ditzy bimbo’ way, Catherine was smart and a good foil to Larry during their interplay.

The physical set-up of the show was Larry seated in Studio A (the same one I watched him and other dee-jays do their show in while standing on the other side of the hallway glass for years) and opposite him in the control room was Larry’s button pushing engineer. Engineers worked an hour then were off an hour, so we had a rotation of at least two engineers per show courtesy of the Illinois Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Jeff and Catherine flanked Larry on his left and right and sportscaster/reporter Les Grobstein had a stand up microphone and copy holder behind Jeff.

Unlike most radio producers, I wasn’t stationed in the control room area or engineer’s side during the show. Instead I was in Larry’s office with a bank of studio phone lines on my desk. I could take listener calls, handle contests or buzz-ins from the hotline and had a side phone for me to call him directly with the push button punch of the numbers 5363. Funny how that stuff stays in your head after all these years. The stereo in Larry’s office was wired so I could listen to the show live and not hear it on the seven second delay that was activated while we were on the air. From Studio A to our office, you had to take a left, a right and a long left to the office where I was stationed. Being on the opposite side of the WLS office suite like that sharpened my listening skills and kept me locked in the only way that was needed, by sound. Larry told me when I first started to keep my eyes and ears open and I’d learn lots very quickly. He was right.

In less than an hour on that first day I was on the phone talking to Larry and the listeners. He needed me to preview a couple of callers who wanted to chime in with their thoughts on a story brought up about how April 1st was the day to have sex if you wanted to have a baby that was born on New Year’s Day. I spoke calmly and with confidence and was on the air with the Larry Lujack show. My crazy radio journey was in hyper-drive and REALLY happening! Lord only knew what was next…