With the format switch to talk, WLS had joined several other stations in Chicago doing the same format, including WGN-AM (720),  WLUP-AM (1000), WVON-AM (1450) and WJJD-AM (1160), home of former WLS program director Clark Weber. Weber had spent many years doing talk at WIND-AM (560) until they were sold and switched to Spanish language. Many in the industry felt that WLS switched to talk because ABC didn't know what else to do with it. And even though the ratings were dismal at the end of the rock era, speculation was that the new format would not do much better due to the crowded talk arena. Dick Biondi, upon hearing the news of the format switch opined that "...I'm sure that Sam Holman's probably spinning in his grave!"

 

 

WLS Studios at the Stone Container Building: (L) in 1980, (R) after the move to 190 North State in 1990.


Tom Tradup and Drew Hayes were brought in as new General Manager and Program 
Director respectively. Hayes had previously worked in Chicago as a midday talk show host on WMAQ in the mid 1980's. The only personalities to make the format transition were Don Wade and Roma. During the music days, it was apparent that Don and Roma were interested in doing talk. Even as John Gehron was cutting back on music, he still had to ask the duo to play at least four songs an hour during their shift. Early features of their show during the rock era included a fictional theme park called "Marcosland, " named after the exiled Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos.  Don also went in-character as Peter Suckwell, a homosexual regular on the show. The more flack Don and Roma received, the more popular they became.  With their impressive showing in middays, the two were promoted to morning drive just before  the switch to the new format and have become very successful.

 

     

(L-R) Tom Tradup, Drew Hayes.
Don Wade and Roma, Bob Lassiter, Stacy Taylor, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Snyder.

 

Full-time hosts brought on-board included Stacy Taylor from San Diego and Bob Lassiter from Tampa. Other imports included syndicated talkers Rush Limbaugh from WABC in New York as well as Tom Snyder and Sally Jessy Raphael, who first appeared on the station back in the late eighties.  Part timers included former politicians Mel Reynolds and Ed Vrdolyak, former Fred Winston show producer Thom Johnson (who later went on to WMAQ-TV), Ted Lauterbach, sports guy Mike Murphy and Roe Conn among others. Oddly enough, just before the format switch, WLS was honored by the National Association of Broadcasters with a Marconi Award as "Legendary Station of The Year" for 1989.  Kind of a fitting end to the rock-era and the launch to a new chapter for the station!

 

         

(L-R) Leslie Marshall, Mel Reynolds, Jackie Runice, Thom Johnson, Ted Lauterbach, Sally Jessy Raphael.

It was a slow rise from a 30 year low, but several factors help change the station's misfortune. Rush Limbaugh became a ratings highlight. Al Lerner and Ed Curran, longtime mainstays at rival WGN made their way to WLS. Hosts were moved around and paired in different combinations. Vrdolyak was joined by Ty Wansley in afternoons. Newsperson Catherine Johns was given her own evening talkshow.  Still, the ratings just slowly blipped up.  Capital Cities/ABC, realizing that the format was costly, was running out of patience.  In 1992, corporate was reportedly hours away from changing WLS' format once again, this time to country music, delivered by satellite!  According to Hayes, even an internal memo announcing the change was distributed. All the station's on-air employees were slated to be let go.  However at the 11th hour, local management was able to make the execs change their mind. Thankfully so, as WUSN-FM (99.5) was purchased by Mel Karmazin's Infinity Broadcasting.  After the sale, US-99 posted its highest numbers ever. WLS felt that they would have been pounded if they had gone with the country format.

 

  

Al Lerner & Ed Curran, Ty Wansley & Ed Vrdolyak

 

     

Catherine Johns,  Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Jay Marvin

After Whitewater broke, it was clear where Don and Roma stood!

 

Instead of changing the AM, they changed the FM.  This time for a younger version of the talk format.   In 1994, WLS-FM Talks debuted with the lineup of Robert Murphy in the morning, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper and Rush Limbaugh middays (simulcast), Jay Marvin in afternoon drive, former WLS jock Turi Ryder returned for evenings and Johnny Vonn on late nights.  The thought was to bring the talk format to the 25-49 crowd.  Then the OJ Simpson incident happened.  Everyone wanted to talk about OJ, and once the trial began, WLS-FM aired the court proceedings.  Roe Conn came to prominence by following the trial locally and with daily wrap-ups for the ABC Network.   Despite the FM's younger approach to the issues and the OJ trial coverage, the numbers didn't do as well as expected.  By mid 1995, most of the FM hosts were gone, replaced again with the AM simulcast.  In November, the station switched to all Christmas music for the holidays, just ahead of its transition to "Kick's Country" on December 26th.

 

  

 

Meanwhile on the AM side, WLS was honored with another Marconi Award as the NAB Station of the Year.  Just five years earlier, the station was in a sonic slump.  Now, it had come around full circle and was rating in the Top 10 again. With all that had been done, Tom Tradup felt that it was time to move on to other challenges.  The first general manager of the talk era resigned his post.  By November, two new general managers were hired.  Zemira Jones, came to WLS from WMAL-AM in Washington D.C.  His first hire was Gregg Lindahl as new general manager for 94.7 Kicks Country.  One of his first big decisions was to give Garry Meier an audition.

   
Mike Elder and Zemira Jones
 

         
          

WLS News during the talkradio era (L-R): 
Jeff Hendrix, Jim Johnson, Wayne Messmer, Paula Fagan, Steve Scott. 
Susan Carlson, Jennifer Keiper, Cisco Cotto, Bill Cameron, John Dempsey.

 

After the Steve and Garry breakup, Garry Meier held a bunch of different jobs in the "business."  He hosted his own midday show on WLUP-FM (97.9) and went on to file entertainment and off-the-wall stories at WGN-TV (Channel 9) for their new morning show.  After a chance meeting with Drew Hayes (actually passing each other on State Street and Hayes asking him if he wanted to play on the radio). He and Roe Conn "auditioned" on a couple of consecutive Saturdays at WLS.  The shows went so well, the duo did a one-week trial, which eventually led to the two working together permanently.  The new partnership received a warm welcome from the media, as well as from the listeners.  By 1996, Roe and Garry moved to afternoons, alongside newsman Jim Johnson.  Despite Garry's departure in 2004, the freewheeling and fun show still currently ranks as one of the top rated afternoon AM-radio programs in Chicago.

 

     

Garry Meier, Roe Conn, Jim Johnson and The Canarble Wagon on Abbey Road.

Roe & Garry confer with ABC's Cokie Roberts at the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

Drew Hayes left WLS in 1996 to become General Manager of the ESPN Radio Network at their headquarters in Bristol, CT and later went on to program sister talk station KABC in LA before returning to Chicago to CBS. When Hayes moved on, Zemira Jones' next task was to appoint a new operations director for WLS.  That job would go to Mike Elder.  Working with longtime programming assistant Diana Bodkins, Mike was ready to take the station to the next level. 

Other additions to WLS included Dr. Laura Schlessinger's popular therapy show, newscasts at the bottom and top of the hour and a shift in the slogan to NewsTalk 89, to reflect the station's commitment to news and breaking stories.  In late 2000, Bill Cameron, a 30 year veteran reporter and City Hall correspondent joined WLS News after the demise of all-news WMAQ-AM.  

Another aspect of the station that shifted is that of their history. Both Jones and Elder realized that WLS has a long rich history. Rather than ignore it, WLS built on its past. The "Big 89" slogan has returned. For a time, Don Wade and Roma featured Animal Stories reruns on their Friday morning shows. ('Ole Uncle Lar even returned to celebrate Jeff Hendrix's retirement in July 1999!) Also in 1999, former WLS-AM and FM talk host Jay Marvin returned to the station after a three year absence to host evenings. Following his stint as afternoon host at KHOW-AM in Denver, "The Nation of Marvin." returned to WLS and then back to Denver in 2005.  


1999 billboard touting Jay's return.

 

 

Being on the scene during a breaking news story has always been important to WLS. They were the first to report on a helicopter crash on May 2, 1960 - the station's first day as a rock 'n roller. The copter belonged to rival station WGN, but WLS had the story on the air first. Newsman Jim Johnson was on the scene when a DC-10 jet crashed shortly after takeoff at O'Hare airport in 1979. And the biggest story in recent history was covered by many news organizations, including WLS - the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. WLS News Director Steve Scott volunteered to file reports from Ground Zero for the station as well as for the ABC Radio Network. 

As Steve recalls "ABC kept me very busy. I was on many top of the hour newscasts and bottom of the hour "status reports. Plus, I was doing one-on-one interviews with ABC affiliates across the country. And, I also had to gather and feed audio, and file voice pieces for ABC's "Newscall" feeds. And, then there were pieces to produce at ABC after some one would relieve me at Ground Zero. The hours were long -- 12+ each day -- and it was harder work than you might expect. There was a lot of walking, because the NYPD had set up a wide perimeter around Ground Zero. No vehicles were allowed, only pedestrians. The smoke and other odors were pretty bad at times. Like everyone else there, I used a surgical-type mask to filter the air. And, it was very emotional. You try to stay focused while you're working, or the immense human tragedy can really catch up with you."  In 2008 Steve, who now works at WCBS Radio in New York had been given some pictures of his reporting from the scene. Here is how he described them:

"My boss, WCBS News and Programming Director Tim Scheld, walked up to me in the newsroom yesterday and said, "You have these pictures, don't you?"...and then showed me the photos.  I did not have them.  Tim was a correspondent for ABC News Radio in 2001.  ABC called me in from Chicago to help cover the story...and I worked side by side with Tim for eight days.  I took almost no photos while I was in NYC for 9-11...I just couldn't bring myself to treat it as a photo op.  But, Tim did take three pictures of me standing on top of an apartment building a block north of Ground Zero (you can see the pile still burning behind me).  ABC sublet an apartment in this building - we used it as our Ground Zero "bureau."  I had forgotten about the pictures...and, while I have audio from Ground Zero, I figured I would have no photographic proof that I was there [until now]."
 

In addition to being on the radio airwaves for over 75 years, WLS has kept pace with cutting edge technology.  The station relies heavily on their website at www.wlsam.com, which ranks in the top twenty most visited websites on the internet.  News, opinion polls and a live audio stream of the broadcast can be found there.  Even with the advent of new technology, a bit of nostalgia has recently returned to WLS.  In the spring of 2000, the station began re-airing jingles that were a staple during the Musicradio days, updated for the talk/personality format!  Longtime WLS jock Jeff Davis, now a voice talent in Los Angeles, voices station liners, promos and sweepers.  But Jeff's biggest charge has been as WLS historian.  Several WLS specials have aired over the past few years, chronicling everything from the Musicradio Era to the station's 75th Anniversary and ten years of talk radio.  Jeff has carefully put together audio vignettes that have done WLS proud! 


Clockwise from right: Tommy Edwards, Fred Winston, John Landecker, Tom Kent, Chris Shebel, Catherine Johns, Les Grobstein.
Center: Reliving memories (L-R) Mickey Nelson, Lyle Dean, Fred Winston, Mark Romness.

However, the biggest "blast from the past" occurred on Memorial Day 2007, when the Big 89 Rewind took listeners back to the seventies and eighties, as WLS once again became a music station, even if it was for only one day. After many months of planning, WLS Program Director Kipper McGee brought back the familiar sounds of Larry Lujack & Tommy Edwards, Fred Winston, John Records Landecker, the fabled WLS news staff and other personalities of the rock era live and in-studio - playing music, telling stories and reliving memories, just like the old days. The Big 89 Rewind caused quite a sensation and instantly became a part of radio history. So much so that it returned with several more former jocks in 2008! Read more about the 2007 WLS Rewind here and the 2008 Rewind here.

In 2004, the "classic" WLS logo returned to help celebrate the stations 80th Anniversary, 
as seen in this billboard on the Eisenhower Expressway.

Many listeners have commented that they are glad that WLS is the station it is today because of the station it was yesterday...and will be tomorrow!  Even as the station celebrates it's 90th Anniversary in 2014, WLS continues to be a proud example of modern radio in touch with the community - just like it was in 1924.


Don Wade (and later Roma) debuted on WLS, middays in 1986. After the switch to talk three years later, the duo moved to mornings. When Don suffered a brain tumor in 2012, the married couple chose to retire to continue his recovery.  Don & Roma Wade were the longest running Chicago morning team, spending 23 years on wake-up duty. Don passed away in 2013.

 

 

   

   

Current weekday lineup (L-R top):  Bruce Wolf & Dan Proft, John Kass, Rush Limbaugh.
(L-R bottom): Roe Conn and, Richard Roeper, Michael Savage,  Mark Levin.

On June 28, 2013 Jim Johnson turned off his microphone and hung up his headphones after an amazing 45 years in the WLS Newsroom! When he began his career at WLS, Clark Weber and Ron Riley were still cranking out new Beatles tunes and crowds were marching to protest the Democratic National Convention and the Vietnam war. He worked with greats like Larry Lujack, Steve Dahl, Garry Meier, Don Wade and Fred Winston and alongside news collegues Bud Miller, Catherine Johns, Jeffrey Hendrix, Lyle Dean, Karen Hand and Steve Scott, among others. Upon word of his retirement, the Chicago City Council even recognized his achievement. A recipient of the Edward R. Murrow award for broadcast journalism, Jim is the longest-tenured employee at the WLS, eclipsing Martha Crane who spent just over 40 years on the air (1928-1969). Between the two of them, their careers make up 85 years of the the stations history!

 


CLICK HERE FOR FINAL THOUGHTS:

 

 

 

1999-2014, Scott Childers and Munchkin Studios

terms of use