By 1980 disco began to fade away. New wave artists such as The Human League, Devo and Thomas Dolby (as well as the reign of popsters Michael Jackson and Prince) were still a few years away from becoming mainstream.  With this void, corporate rock found a resurgence in the early eighties. Groups like Styx, Rush and REO Speedwagon were all over the radio and all over WLS. By 1981, the rock and roll product was so concentrated that several trade publications referred to WLS' format as "Rock 40." Other stations in Chicago and around the country began to (prematurely) refer to themselves as "Classic Rockers." With a heavy dosage of artists such as .38 Special, Billy Squier, Triumph, Journey and others, WLS dusted off an old moniker from the early seventies which really stuck, "The Rock of Chicago."

 

  
 
Tommy Edwards in WLS Studio A; Brant Miller and WLS staff in St. Patrick's Day parade.



The station began the decade pretty much the way it had finished off the end of the seventies. Jeff Davis rang in the new year by counting down "The Big 89 of 1979" live from Old Chicago Amusement Park. The show was heavily laden with disco hits (as was the "WLS Rock Hall of Fame" earlier in the year), but for most of them, this would be the last time they would be heard on the station. Now that disco was just about dead, the bell began to toll for another victim - AM music radio.

 
Jeff Davis broadcasting live from Old Chicago (which would close it's doors just months later in March 1980).


Courtesy of Tim Brown

Over the past several years, FM was starting to make a serious run at AM. While many stations began to scramble and change to an older-skewing or non-music format, WLS felt that it really had nothing to worry about. The station was Top 5 overall, with the #1 morning show, Superjock Larry Lujack. However in mid 1980, they were presented with a possibility that would insure their future for the near term. After suffering through nine months of low ratings, WLS' adult-rock formatted sister station WRCK-FM (94.7) knew it was close to bailing. ABC management let morning man Bob Sirott out of his contract and began simulcasting WLS in morning and evening dayparts. This would save W-Rock's face and expose FM listeners to Lujack in the morning and Brant Miller in the evening. The idea worked and by the end of the year, Lujack's numbers nearly doubled and the station became WLS-FM 95.  Click here to learn more about WLS' sister station. Even though the future was bleak for other AM stations, the larger than life image that WLS Musicradio had, continued to loom large. Tom Kent, who was on the air in the early eighties, looks back fondly to his time at the Midwest giant. "One of my fond memories of WLS was being in a big staff meeting in the conference room. (Program Director John) Gehron was holding court and the mood was very serious. All the legends were there, Landecker, Lujack, Little Tommy, Jeff Davis, Yvonne Daniels, Brant Miller - we were all in this HUGE serious meeting. There's Larry Lujack sitting there with his tattered jeans, old flannel shirt, western hat with his cowboy boots propped up on the conference table - showing absolutely no respect for any kind of authority. All of a sudden, there was this thunderous loud clank and everybody broke out into laughter. Our Production Director, Art Wallis, was leaning back trying to be cool like Lujack, and his chair flipped over. It's just one of those real life moments when you realize: We're all human and this is just another radio station."

 

 

 

    

Promotion was always WLS' hallmark.  Top: WRCK-FM sticker, The FM simulcasts, AM & FM advertisement. 
Bottom: Animal Stories bumper sticker (1981), The WLS Card (1980) and 20 Years of Rock button (1980).

 

Things on AM 89 sailed along smoothly until Steve Dahl & Garry Meier were hired for afternoon duty on FM 95. Newspaper reports said that  John Landecker, was feeling that he was not being promoted as vigorously as S&G and decided to leave for CFTR-AM/Toronto in 1981. The fact of the matter was that John was ready to move on to new challenges as a morning man, and Toronto at the time, was where the opportunity was. Chris Shebel was hired to fill middays and Tommy Edwards shifted to afternoons. Despite the shift switch, Lar and Tommy continued to do "Animal Stories" and made thousands of dollars for The Forgotten Children's Fund through the sale of three editions of Animal Stories albums. Fred Winston also returned to WLS when Tommy was reluctantly moved to the FM station. By 1984, Steve and Garry would find their show moved from FM to AM. After seemingly endless weeks of no-shows, name calling, legal litigation and numerous suspensions, the two returned to finish out their contract on WLS-AM. Even though they left for WLUP in 1986, they realized that being on the AM signal actually increased their audience and wasn't as bad as they initially complained about.

 
Steve Dahl, Garry Meier and engineer Marcus Palmer prepare to take an inaugural ride on the American Eagle rollercoaster at 
Great America in 1981; Steve Dahl and his band Teenage Radiation perform on the WLS stage at Chicagofest at Navy Pier in 1981.

1983 Airstaff:
(top) Tommy Edwards, Larry Lujack, Brant Miller.
(bottom) Jeff Davis, Turi Ryder, Fred Winston.

    
(L-R)  Larry Lujack, Teenage Radiation's first WLS record "RTA" in 1981, 
John Landecker appearing in a 1980 ad for WXRT-FM. 


Click here to look at the lists!

WLS broke ground in the concert industry on many fronts.  They were instrumental in presenting the Rolling Stones "Tatoo You" show in 1981 as well as The Police at Comiskey Park in 1983.  They brought The Who back for their final "farewell tour" show (the second time they played here on the tour) in December 1982 and got The Buckinghams back together for ChicagoFest!   In 1981, the station presented its own show, WLS Rockfest filled The International Ampitheatre for three days.  In addition to live station remotes, WLS presented several local bands as well as The Go-Go's, Point Blank, The Knack and Survivor as main acts.  WLS also broadcast the group Chicago benefit concert live from the Park West in 1982. It was the first live show to be heard in both FM stereo and AM stereo. The station earned the name "the station for the concerts."

         

The big WLS shows included The Rolling Stones, Rockfest, The Police and The Who.

 


Bob Bateman     Chuck Britton    Steve Casey    Chuck Crane    Steve Dahl    Yvonne Daniels    Jeff Davis    Phil Duncan    Tommy Edwards    Bill Garcia    Paul Gardner    Don Geronomo    Tom Graye    Leslie Harris    Brian Kelly    Mike Kelly     Tim Kelly    Tom Kent    John Records Landecker    Larry Lujack    Mike MacDonald    Rich McMillan    Garry Meier    Brant Miller    Don Nelson    Steve Perun    Susan Platt    Turi Ryder    Dave Sainte    Chris Shebel    Don Wade    Roma Wade    Art Wallis    Fred Winston    Mike  Wolf     WLS-FM Jocks:    Danae Alexander    Peter Bucalo    Chuck Evans    Kevin Malloy    Leslie "Slim" Nelson    Laurie Sanders    Amy Scott   

 

Following in its historical footsteps, WLS added another benchmark to it's history. On July 27th 1982, WLS shed 58 years of mono programming by becoming the first AM station in the Midwest to broadcast in stereo. Listeners were instructed to call 867-5309 (remember Tommy Tutone?) and hear how to tune two radios together until stereo receivers hit the market. Modifications had been planned at WLS for years before the transition, due to the FM simulcasts. What wasn't planned was that AM Stereo never really caught on, despite the obvious difference in sound quality with the new receivers.

         
         
More WLS airstaff (L-R top):  Chuck Britton, Steve Casey, Tom Graye, Brian Kelly, Tim Kelly, Tom Kent.
(bottom):  Mike MacDonald, Steve Perun, Susan Platt, Chris Shebel, Art Wallis, Mike Wolf.

Unfortunately, the FCC dropped the ball and never adopted a stereo broadcasting standard. As a result, four different manufacturers made four different transmitters, chips and radios, which were generally incompatible with each other. As time passed, a de-facto standard was agreed upon, but it was already too late for AM stereo to take hold, although a great deal of stations still broadcast in stereo today, including WLS.

 


By 1985, many AM hit-music stations had disappeared. WLS however, was celebrating it's 25th anniversary as a rocker. After a wonderful one-hour retrospective produced by Jeff Davis and Tommy Edwards, the station celebrated with a private party at newly opened Ed Debevic's. Subsequent weekends were filled with memories as former WLS jocks returned to The Big 89 to reminisce by playing old airchecks and jingles, recant old stories and take calls from fascinated listeners. Channel 7 aired a 25th Anniversary television special as well.


Clark Weber and Ron Riley rekindle their old rivalry in 1985.


Gene Taylor, Bob Hale and Sam Holman in WLS Studio E.



Charlie Van Dyke

         ...
............Fun at the WLS party!


John Landecker


Chuck Knapp

J.J. Jeffrey

Tommy Edwards, Larry Lujack,
 Charlie Van Dyke

Gene Taylor, Bob Hale, Sam Holman

Ron Riley

Don Phillips, Art Roberts, 
Clark Weber

John Gehron with Art Vuolo


Garry Meier


As the jubilee came to a close, changes were in and on the air. Tommy Edwards, who had been shifted to WLS-FM, left the station for a programming job at Q-101, John Landecker returned to WLS, after 2 years at WAGO/WCKG. US 99 midday jock Don Wade was hired for middays, along with his wife Roma. And in order to compete better with B-96, WLS-FM changed call letters to WYTZ (Z-95) and dropped the WLS-AM simulcasts.


WLS-FM became Z-95 in 1986. Click above to learn more about 94.7 FM.

 

  
Both Jeff Davis (left) and Chuck Britton filled the nighttime air on WLS in the mid 1980's.

 John Gehron, knowing the future of AM would be talk, encouraged his jocks to play less music and be more personable than ever before. Hot on the heels of WLUP-AM (1000), the station added more full-service elements like weather from Channel 7's Jerry Taft, movie reviews from Dann Gire and entertainment updates from the Tribune's Steve Dale. The station even stopped playing music at night and added sports shows featuring Les Grobstein and Chicago Bear Jim McMahon alongside John Landecker. Tom Snyder's gabfest and Phyllis Levy's "Sex Talk" were brought to the weekday line-up, later to be replaced by Sally Jessy Raphael's talk show.

 

1986 Airstaff:
(L-R):  Fred Winston, Catherine Johns, Les Grobstein, John Records Landecker, Don Nelson, Larry Lujack,

Roma Wade, Don Wade.   (sitting):  Jim Johnson, Phyllis Levy, Rich McMillan, Jeff Hendrix.


Fred Winston helps promote Chicago 18 in 1987. 


WLS NEWS AND INFORMATION HOSTS OF THE 1980's
WLS NEWS:  Maggie Brock    Harley Carnes    Bob Conway    Les Grobstein    Karen Hand    Jeffrey Hendrix    Catherine Johns    Jim Johnson    Bill Kenner    Kathy McFarland    Bud Miller    ..........   WLS TALK & PUBLIC AFFAIRS:  ReGina Hayes    Phyllis Levy    Jackie Runice


Click to see how the WLS Musicradio Survey changed thruout the 1980's

 

 

  Click to enlarge.

(L-R): The Lujack Afternoon Show: Rich McMillan, Larry Lujack and Jeff Hendrix,
In 1987, a tired Uncle Lar is ready to hang up the headphones,  
Larry's last memo to the staff (click to enlarge),  Longtime Program Director John Gehron.


John Landecker (center) and Les Grobstein (left) talk Hawks 
with Keith Magneson on his nightly talk/music show in 1987.

 

The writing on the wall was becoming clearer. WLS would not be "The Rock of Chicago" much longer. Several occurrences drove that home. Larry Lujack, tired of ten years of waking up in the wee hours, moved from mornings to afternoons in 1986. He was unable to carry the phenomenal audience of morning drive with him. Ratings had begun to sag, despite the addition of newsman Jeff Hendrix and sidekick Rich McMillan. After the added stress of his son's sudden death, Superjock knew it was time to go. On Friday August 28, 1987, after a slew of televison cameras, newspaper and magazine reporters joined him for his farewell, a tearful Larry Lujack signed off from radio and from WLS. His tenure at the station spanned three decades, a radio eternity! After his retirement, Uncle Lar stayed in Palatine until 1997 and then moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife Jude.

 

 

Just prior to Lujack's retirement, an edict came down from ABC to talk less and play more music. This flew in the face of Gehron's plan. After 13 years at the station, he too looked to the future. Stay with ABC and WLS or leave to pursue other management and ownership opportunities? On August 21st, just days before Uncle Lar would hang up his headphones, John Gehron, one of the brightest programmers the station would know, left to assume the role of vice president and general manager of WMRQ-FM in Boston, owned by CBS. For the first time in its history, WLS was being managed and programmed from New York, under the supervision of Norm Shrutt. General Manager Jeff Trumper had left in late 1985 to start his own business and was never replaced.  A lot of the staff defections were due to the sale of ABC to Capital Cities.  A much smaller company than ABC, CapCities was known to run a tight ship. In addition, many feared that the FCC would require the radio stations to be spun-off, due to the "same market TV-radio ownership rules" of the time.  As a result, corporate cut off the promotional and marketing dollars that made WLS viable and visible.   Eventually CapCities/ABC was granted waivers to keep their stations, but for WLS as an AM music station, it may have been too late.

Tom Snyder's late night
 talk show was added in 1988.

Z-95 and WLS Operations Manager
Ric Lippincott

Sally Jessy Raphael also joined the late night lineup in 1988.

 

With Gehron gone, major decisions were made at a corporate level. WYTZ-FM program director Ric Lippincott was given control of both stations, but it was clear that WLS' days as a music station were numbered. The music mix became a horrible blend of oldies, adult contemporary currents and standards. In any given hour, you could hear "Penny Lane" by The Beatles, "She Drives Me Crazy" by Fine Young Cannibals and "That's Amore" by Dean Martin! Format rumors ranged from traditional country to Spanish language. Adding insult to injury was a mundane billboard campaign that simply stated "WLS AM 89 - Try Us, You'll Like It." Listeners didn't. Ratings continued to drop and by Spring 1989, the station was down to an all time low of 1.4. The plug was mercifully pulled. John Landecker and Fred Winston were bought out of their contracts. The once proud "Big 89" and "Rock of Chicago," home to over 60 legendary air personalities was about to  become WLS Talkradio 890. The station was set to change formats on Labor Day weekend, but on August 23, 1989, the last song during the rock era was Chicago's "Just You 'N Me."  Phil Duncan, the last jock on WLS remembers, "No one really knew it was the last day until I looked at the log for the next day and realized there were no more music shows. We all knew it was coming soon, but did not know exactly when it was going to be all talk and no more music on WLS. We went into Sally Jessy Raphael at 7:00 pm and then never exited from talk again."

 

Many people have wondered why the WLS-AM format and personalities weren't simply "transferred" over to WLS-FM's frequency.  According to Ric Lippincott, "Moving WLS to WLS-FM was something we talked about back in the mid 80's. I have to tell you I would have voted against that if they'd asked me (...they didn't). And I'll tell you why.  At the time, FM radio was the new platform for the youth. Kids drove FM to success. And the kids in the early 80's wanted rock. The Loop came on strong and the mantra that deafened us, "Loop rules! WLS sucks!" Frankly I think WLS-FM needed to reinvent itself; and it did, in 1986 when it became Z-95."  By the time that WLS Musicradio had fallen, the FM station was successful on it's own and didn't need any help. Moving the AM programming by then would have been moot. Talk radio was the future of AM 89.

 

 

 

 


Phil "Doc" Duncan
The last jock on WLS.

(Click his photo for more on the last 
day of the rock era.)

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