THE BRIGHT NEW SOUND

"One of America's two great radio stations!"

May 2nd, 1960. To some, radio history was made that day, while others would argue  that's the day that radio took a turn for the worst. After 36 years of broadcasting farm information, various "polite" entertainment, country music and the National Barn Dance, the sounds of "Alley Oop" by The Hollywood Argyles crackled out of radios tuned to AM 890 that spring morning. WLS was transformed from the old, creaky Prairie Farmer outlet into a hip, urban-minded contemporary-hit station. Sam Holman and Ralph Beaudin were brought in by ABC to transform the Prairie Farmer into a rocker. The first day on the air, WLS scored a major news scoop.  That day, the WGN traffic helicopter crashed, killing reporter Len Baldy.  Harvey Wittenberg, a news writer and reporter at WLS remembers that they had it on-the-air right away.  The story went on to become the station's "News Tip Of The Week."  They actually had the story on-the-air before WGN Radio!

                   
(L-R) Chuck Bill and Tom Fouts aka "Captain Stubby" of the WLS Farm Special show,
WLS president Ralph Beaudin, program director and on-air personality Sam Holman,
newsman Harvey Wittenberg, ABC's Don McNeill of The Breakfast Club.

Sam Holman, WLS' first program director of the "rock era" brought a new package of jingles to WLS, sung by the Anita Kerr singers ("...wonderful double-youuu elllll esssssss, in Chicago!") and a band of young disc jockeys ready to take the Windy City by storm. Bob Hale, Gene Taylor, Mort Crowley, Jim Dunbar and a hotshot named Dick Biondi, whose screaming and singing "On Top Of A Pizza" made him an instant success in Chicago. Prior to these five being hired, it was rumored in the Chicago Tribune's "Tower Ticker" column that Howard Miller and John Doremus were being considered, but that they were under contracts elsewhere. A Prairie Farmer holdover, Ed Grennan stayed on as a disk jockey after the format switch, as well as newsmen Jerry Golden, Harvey Wittenberg and Jerry Mitchell. In the coming years, WLS would introduce the Midwest to such musical acts as The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Dave Clark Five as well as local acts it helped make famous such as The Buckinghams and The Cryan Shames. But in the near term, a lot of hard work was ahead.


Chicago's Swinging Seven from 1962.


Dex Card counts down the Silver Dollar Survey.

 


Bernie Allen    Dick Biondi    Chuck Buell    Dex Card    Mort Crowley    Jim Dunbar    Ed Grennan    Bob Hale    Sam Holman    Jerry Kay    Joe Kelly    Larry Lujack    Don Phillips    Ron Riley    Art Roberts    Kris Erik Stevens    Gene Taylor    Clark Weber

 

 

Despite a heady start, WLS had a tough go of it at first.  Long time listeners complained because the Prairie Farmer programming was gone.  A lack of station promotion in the beginning prompted the jocks to quip that "two-way radios in Chicago taxis had more listeners!"  The other problem was that the station was still housed in the Prairie Farmer Building at 1230 W. Washington Boulevard.  Quite a long way from the downtown ad agencies that WLS salespeople needed to visit.  In addition, the Prairie Farmer was still being published in the building.   It had been noted that when big heavy palettes of paper were dropped onto the basement floor, the vibration shook the building so, that records being played on-the-air actually skipped! After early rumors of the station moving in with its TV sister station WBKB-TV into the State-Lake Building (which would eventually happen many years later), WLS moved to their famous digs on the 5th floor at 360 North Michigan Avenue in August of 1960.  The Prairie Farmer Magazine was eventually shifted to ABC's "Diversified Publishing Group" in New York (with smaller Prairie Farmer offices in Decatur and Indianapolis) and the old building at 1230 was sold off.

 

   

Home is where the radio is: (L) The Prairie Farmer Building at 1230 West Washington Boulevard.
(R) The London Guarantee Building, later Stone Container Building at 360 North Michigan Avenue.


In the early days of the rock era, the station was saddled with a great deal of news and required ABC network programming like Don McNeill's Breakfast Club, the early morning WLS Farm Special featuring Chuck Bill and Captain Stubby, Mid-Day, a half-hour news block at noon and the one-hour news block News-Scope at 6:30pm!  [see the WLS Schedule] Plus Martha Crane would continue to give social updates and housewife tips as she had done since the late 1930's.  Not the kind of stuff that fits in with the latest offerings from Elvis and The Everly Brothers.  Stiff competition from WGN and WIND kept WLS from making it to #1 (they stalled at #3 for some time), yet Beaudin and Holman had the vision of making the station a success.  As the years went by, WLS' popularity snowballed and was not handily surpassed for some 26 years after the format switch!

 

The "Wild I-tralian" Dick Biondi

The WLS/Chess Silver Dollar Album, "Treasure Tunes From The Vault."

Traffic reporter and "safety adviser" Officer Vic Petrolis.

 

He was the most popular personality in the Midwest at night, pulling in huge audiences.  Ranting and raving every night, talking with listeners and passing along their messages (there were no phoners in the early 60's), singing off-key in between songs, including his "On Top Of A Pizza," Dick Biondi owned every person under the age of 30. But Biondi only stayed with WLS for 3 short years. The old story of Biondi being fired because he told an off-color joke was simply not true.  Dick was very concerned about the high amount of commercials and news he had to run every hour and he let his displeasure be known to the General Sales Manager.  As a result, a literal fistfight ensued in the hallway of the station!   After it was over, Dick was told to go home and cool off.  He took this as being fired.  Eventually a mutual agreement was reached.  Biondi left WLS and went on to work at KRLA in Los Angeles, then later back to Chicago to WCFL.

 

Dick Biondi with his adoring audience.

Bob Hale


       

Dick Biondi with "Gayla Girl" Carol Anne Robel in 1962 and the WLS Personality Album Magazine from 1967.

By 1965, WCFL dropped its labor programming to take on "Channel 89."  It was the beginning of a long and bitter radio war that would last eleven years, with several personalities working on both sides of the river at one time or another.  As the decade progressed, many WLS personalities went on to become household names. "Mother Weber's Oldest Son" Clark Weber held down morning drive before becoming program director.  Midday disk jockey Bernie Allen also was a professional singer.  Ron "Ringo" Riley, who interviewed The Beatles when they came to town also appeared on the Batman Show and often "feuded" with Clark Weber.   Afternoon Silver Dollar Survey Show host Dex Card was known as "the crew cut fellow in the first row." 


Dex Card overseeing the fun at one of the many record hops the WLS jocks appeared at.

Art Roberts, who also interviewed the Fab Four, racked up with an incredible 62% audience share at night and released an album entitled "Hip Fables."  He also featured a radio serial entitled "The Wild Adventures of Peter Fugitive" featuring WLS Production Director Ray Van Steen.  Like Clark Weber, Don Phillips, who hosted the East of Midnight show was also a licensed pilot.  He would often fly to several record hops in the course of an evening.  In 1967 Gene Taylor, now WLS' station manager, brought over a young go-getter, recently in from Boston who was doing the all-night show at Super CFL...Larry Lujack.

 

 

 

Art Roberts at a WLS "record hop." 

 

Ron Riley

 

Larry Lujack

 


 

(L-R) Clark Weber, Dex Card, 
Bernie Allen, Art Roberts, 
Don Phillips, Ron Riley



Ray Van Steen as Peter Fugitive.

Ron Riley, Don Phillips and 
Art Roberts with the Fab Four.



The Monkees invade WLS in 1966.

 

Gene Taylor went from jock 
to PD to General Manager.



Young Larry Lujack


    
Ron Riley's Batman Club (left: pin, center: card, right: Ron as Batman!)

 

As the 60's came to an end, the sound of WLS began to shift to an even more frenetic pace. The music changed from the happy 3 minute ditties to a harder, more psychedelic sound. The sounds of Donovan, Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Doors began to dominate the WLS Survey. Records broke the 4 and 5 minute mark and WLS did what it could to sound contemporary. As a result, some of the personalities changed. Most of the original "Swinging Seven" had gone on to other places and a younger generation began to take hold. 

 

Chuck Buell and Kris Erik Stevens

WLS and Chicago welcomed new jocks Chuck Buell, Jerry Kay and Kris Erik Stevens under the direction of new PD John Rook, who arrived in 1967 and radically changed the on-air sound of WLS. WLS had been in a ratings war with rival WCFL since they signed on in 1965 and the Big 89 had "Super 'CFL" right on their tail. Rook tightened up the playlist and the on-air presentation of the station. Things began to head upward again. "I always insisted WLS was not a teeny bopper top forty station. Not only was the on-air disc jockey talent, the news men, but the jingles also had to sound BIG...after all WLS was "The Big 89." WLS was named "Radio Station Of The Year" by Bill Gavin of "The Gavin Report," a radio industry magazine in 1968. According to Rook, "During this period of time, no Chicago radio station out-rated WLS. The station was number one in all Pulse and Arbitron books with a total audience of 4.2 million listeners each week". WIP Radio Philadelphia Operations Manager Tom Bigby commented, "When WGN had a 12 share, WLS had an 18." 
As the seventies loomed ahead, how would "The Bright Sound of Chicago" 
continue to balance personality and music?

 

The WLS airstaff in 1969: Art Roberts, Larry Lujack, Jerry Kay. (seated) Kris Erik Stevens, Bill Bailey, Chuck Buell.

 

John Rook

 

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