It was the day that changed
had become radically different in 1960 than it was in the earlier years.
The "Golden Age"
was over. Television had
replaced radio as the medium of choice in the evening.
Old radio shows and live music had either transferred to TV or
simply withered and died.
the 1950's, Paramount Theatres owned half of the broadcast day on the
890 kHz channel, utilizing the station WENR.
NBC's old Blue Network, now known as the American Broadcasting
Company eventually purchased Paramount and took control of WENR.
In 1953, WLS and WENR merged to become WLS full-time. At the same time, the Prairie Farmer's WLS had begun to decline
in popularity. Chicago had
become much more cosmopolitan and the daily schedule of farm, religious
and western music had become less popular. And albeit a long run, the
Barn Dance was losing ground as well.
1959, ABC realized that something had to be done.
Contemporary programming had already begun to flourish at
company-owned KQV-AM (1410) in Pittsburgh
and was soon to do so in
on WABC-AM (770).
They were hot to get their hands on the 50,000 watt 890 frequency
full-time and The Prairie Farmer Company was looking to sell.
Stock options, owned by Prairie Farmer employees were swapped for
ABC stock. The transaction
was completed and the stage was set.
General Manager Ralph Beaudin and Program Director Sam Holman
were brought in from KQV to change the Prairie Farmer into a rock 'n
music in Chicago was only programmed as generally a nighttime feature on
stations like WIND (560), WGN (720) and WJJD (1160).
Many stations felt that the format was just a fad and could not
support itself. Beaudin,
Holman and ABC were out to change those perceptions.
After the format change, WLS would remain virtually unchallenged for nearly
five years until WCFL dropped its labor and brokered intensive
programming for hit music in 1965.
original seven personalities were brought in from all across the
country. Jim Dunbar from
Washington State for mornings; Ed Grennan, a holdover from the Prairie
Farmer days in middays; Mort
Crowley from New York City did early afternoons; Gene Taylor from
Milwaukee worked evenings, Bob Hale came up from Peoria to handle
"East of Midnight" and a raucous young hipster was brought in
for the important nighttime shift from Buffalo, Dick Biondi.
Sam Holman also held down an airshift in the late afternoons.
The first day on the air, WLS scored a major news scoop. That was the day that the WGN Radio traffic helicopter crashed, killing reporter Len Baldy. Harvey Wittenberg, a newswriter and reporter at the station remembers that they had it on the air right away. "We had the story verified and ready to go, thanks to our news staff and Vic Petrulis, who was our traffic reporter and a Chicago police officer. The story went on to be the News Tip of the Week.” Bob Hale got the news before his first airshift.
Despite a heady start, WLS had a tough go of it at first.
Long-time listeners complained because Prairie Farmer programming
was gone, a lack of station promotion at first prompted the jocks to
quip that two-way radios in Chicago taxis had more listeners.
WLS, which was originally located in building at 1230 W. Washington Boulevard, also housed the Prairie
Farmer Magazine. The neighborhood had fallen on hard times and was only
a block away from Madison Street, which in the 1950's and '60's was
known as "skid row." In
the building, when big
heavy palettes of paper were dropped on the floor in the basement
the vibration shook the building and made the records on-the-air
actually skip! (The station moved
to 360 N. Michigan Avenue by 1961). WLS was also saddled with a great deal of news and required ABC network
programming like Don McNeill's Breakfast Club, which didn't fit in well
with the latest offerings from The Everly Brothers.
Stiff competition from WGN and WIND kept WLS from making it up to
#1 (they stalled at #3 for some time), yet Beaudin had a vision of
making his new station a success.
as the years went by, WLS' popularity began to snowball and was not
handily passed up for some 26 years after the format switch. All told,
contemporary music held together until 1989's switch to talk, a full six
years later than Top 40 posterchild WABC (which bailed out to FM
competition in New York in 1982). The
original WLS jocks, many of whom were only in their twenties in 1960,
went on to become legends and inspired legions of new personalities such
as Larry Lujack, Bob Sirott, John Records Landecker, Steve King and
others (who went on to inspire many of those you hear on the radio
to Bob Hale, Dick Biondi and Harvey
Wittenberg for their recollections.
© 1999-2013, Scott Childers and Munchkin Studios