Licensed initially in the 1950's as WENR-FM and simulcasting the audio portion of its television sister station (WBKB-TV) as well as classical music and Broadway show tunes, the station was reportedly located in an old broom closet at WBKB and ABC kept it on the air with a minimum broadcast schedule hoping that FM radio would become a viable outlet.
In 1965, the call letters were changed to WLS-FM and the the station was "let out of the closet," featuring a Beautiful Music format from 12 noon-midnight daily (and Blackhawk home games) under the leadership of Harvey Wittenberg. Broadcasting in stereo, the station made it's debut as WLS-FM by airing live coverage of the National Clay Court Tennis Championships from River Forest. By 1968 its hours were extended to 6:00am-midnight...simulcasting WLS-AM from 6:00-8:00am (Clark Weber) and carrying Don McNeill's Breakfast Club from 8:00-9:00am. In addition to sports, the station carried standards, show tunes, light classical fare, jazz and folk tunes "selected from the finest stereo albums." Air staff included Mike Rapchak from 9am-2:30pm, Steve Hodges handled afternoons and Bob Porter in the evening.
Even though WLS-FM was easy listening during the day, the underground progressive rock show "Spoke" came about in the summer of 1968. It originally aired from 10:00pm to midnight and was locally produced by Gordon Anderson, featuring a lot of reverb and disjointed sounds.
"Love," syndicated soft adult rock format from ABC came about in 1969. That aired on WLS-FM from 7:00pm-1:00am. A news release at the time described the format as not necessarily an "underground station," but more of a fine-arts station. "It not only plays quality rock, but mixes in classical, blues, folk and cultural experiences in tune with its listening audience." In September 1969, ABC decided to switch WLS-FM to full-time Progressive Rock. They brought in a new staff...including Mitch Michaels and John Platt and tossed out Harvey Wittenberg along with Art Hellyer, Mike Rapchak and others.
The station was full-time Progressive and changed to WDAI in early 1971. Jim Kerr hosted mornings while Dave Van Dyke held down the afternoon shift. What's ironic is ABC messed up on the call-letters. At that time they wanted to distance all their O&O FMs from the AMs. WABC-FM in NYC became WPLJ, KABC-FM in LA became KLOS, KQV-FM in Pittsburgh turned into WDVE, KGO-FM became KSFX in San Francisco. WDAI was supposed to be the designated calls for WXYZ-FM in Detroit (The "DAI" standing for Detroit Auto Industry) and WLS-FM was to be WRIF (no doubt for guitar or blues "riff").
In 1972 WDAI softened its Progressive Rock a bit but still remained an Album Rocker until 1978 when Disco got morning man Steve Dahl up in arms (pictured above right with Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh). After the format change, he was fired. Dahl went to WLUP and paired up with Garry Meier. Through his "Coho Lips Army," Dahl mounted a vocal "Disco Sucks" campaign and was bent on demolishing WDAI. Despite this assault "Disco DAI" did very well at the height of the Disco craze. Mixes were also heard on WDAI in 1979 with Lou Divito, Peter Lewicky, Scott Adams, Charlie Di Giovanni and future member of the Hot Mix 5 Kenny Jason. Divito was the first Chicago disco jockey to have his mixes played on the radio.
By Spring 1980, disco had died and the station was reformatted as an adult Top 40/Oldies mix under the calls WRCK. Bob Sirott was hired as morning man, but was unable to start for several months, due to his contractual obligations that still remained after he had left WLS at the end of 1979. When he finally did start, he only lasted a few months before working his way out of that contract to head to television. As a result, WRCK merged again to become WLS-FM.
The music was adjusted to sound like the AM programming and morning and evening drives were simulcast. In addition to Danae Alexander, Tom Graye, Rich McMillan and Chuck Evans, Superjock Larry Lujack began the day and Brant Miller ended it from the WLS-AM studios. Chris Shebel, who originally aired on WLS-AM in 1982, moved over to FM 95 a year later.
Steve Dahl (along with Garry Meier) returned to the station in 1981 for afternoon duty after being fired from The Loop for "assaulting community standards." Their audience moved with them to the new station and eventually increased. Along with Maggie Brock on news and producer/engineer Marcus Palmer, Steve and Garry's five years at WLS were fraught with controversy and multiple suspensions. A short lived Sunday night ABC Radio Network show, entitled "The Steve Dahl Breakfast Club," aired for a short time, beginning in 1981. Dahl and his band Teenage Radiation continued to release albums, including Pet Fishsticks, and singles like "I'm A Wimp," and "RTA," as well as play live events, such as Chicagofest and other area venues.
Dahl & Meier were moved to WLS-AM (after a month long walkout in dispute of their contract) by October 1984, replaced with Tommy Edwards who made the jump to the FM band. Peter Bucalo, known on the air as Peter B. took over evenings when the AM simulcast was eliminated. Dallas Cole assumed Program Director duties, while WLS-AM & FM music director Tim Kelly grabbed the PD chair for AM 89 when Steve Casey exited.
In 1986 the station changed again. This time to WYTZ (Z-95) to compete more solidly with WBBM-FM (B96). The WLS-AM airstaff vanished with the exception of Brant Miller, Susan Platt, Paul Gardner and (for a time) Jeff Davis, replaced by morning man Paul Barsky and his "Z Morning Zoo," Mark Sebastian and Greg Thunder among others. Ric Lippincott, Program Manager at WLS from 1980 to 1982, returned to ABC head up Z-95. "Right after I arrived at Z95, [GM Jeff] Trumper left the company and I took over as acting General Manager. A position I kept for over a year. Later Norm Schrutt, then President of ABC Radio Group II, brought in a GM and made me the Operations Manager over both WLS AM and Z-95 FM. Z95 had rocketed to the top and it became one of the most remarkable Top 40 stations in the country."
After taking on it's rival B96 for nearly five years, the station was "blown up" by consultant (later programming head of Clear Channel Communications) Randy Michaels. For three tumultuous weeks, WYTZ went through a drastic change, playing only a handful of dance and rap songs over and over, airing station voiceovers and Gulf War updates in Spanish while waging constant attacks on B96, station program director Dave Shakes and their morning team Eddie & JoBo. Despite Z-95 morning jocks Welch & Woody's daily updates that "...a big announcement was coming," none really did. That is until "Hell." For about a week, the station referred to itself as "Hell 94.7." This caused quite a stir in the media and outrage from listeners who were upset with the new satanic slogan. The plan failed (maybe it was supposed to) and for a short time in 1991, WYTZ reverted back to Top 40 as "Hot 94.7" under program director Greg Cassidy.
In late 1991, "Bubba The Love Sponge" was brought in to do mornings. Todd Clem, aka Bubba had come back to Chicago from Orlando, after previously working in Philadelphia and also evenings at rival B96. However his tenure would be short lived. According to Bubba, "...Randy [Michaels] called me to do mornings, and it lasted about 83 days before Norm Schrutt [ABC Radio programming head] blew it up and fired the staff. The day I was hired, they hid me in the green room, made me sign some dumb ass contract then fired Welch & Woody. On my first day, Kevin O'Grady, the GM of 94.7 resigned and [WLS-AM General Manager] Tom Tradup did double duty."
In 1992, WYTZ once again became WLS-FM, surrendering the signal as a fulltime simulcast of WLS-AM, which had gone talk in 1989. By 1994 Robert Murphy, Lise Dominque, Johnny Von, Turi Ryder and Rich Roeper among others were brought in by Drew Hayes to make WLS-FM a "hip" talk station for younger listeners. WLUP was too well entrenched with top talk/comedy personalities such as Johnathan Brandmeier, Kevin Matthews and Steve Dahl. 94.7's FM talk format did not attract listeners and within a year and it was back to simulcasting WLS-AM.
In November 1995, WLS-FM began airing all Christmas music with a promise of a new format after the holidays. That format was country WKXK "Kicks Country." Again 94.7 tried to take on a big competitor, this time WUSN. Ratings failed to kick Kicks in and by 1997, the format and it's air staff that included country veteran Nancy Turner were gone.
This time the format changed to Classic Rock as CD94.7, WXCD. Initially the station ran jockless with a wide playlist under the direction of Bill Gamble. As time went on the playlist was trimmed down and AOR veterans Bob Stroud (along with his famous "Rock 'n Roll Roots"), Patti Haze, Joe Thomas and Mitch Michaels joined on. Alan Stagg recreated the underground sound of the early progressive FM days with his late night "Sanctuary." While it continued to maintain it's slogan of "Classic Rock with Less Talk," WXCD hired Kevin Matthews as morning man. Previously the station ran jockless in the AM drivetime.
By 2000, rumors swirled that 94.7 would change again. Despite reports from management that the WXCD was healthy, a flip seemed inevitable. On November 29th at 6pm, CD 94.7 became The Zone, a rock based 80's format, featuring the sounds of REM, Stray Cats, Phil Collins and The Cure among others. All fulltime WXCD airstaff, with the exception of Kevin Matthews were let go. For the 10th time in the station's history, the call letters were changed - this time to WZZN. New jocks included Steve Fisher, Jeffrey T. Mason, Brooke Hunter and Paul Gant among others.
Less than 9 months later, the format would undergo another overhaul to a more contemporary alternative rock sound (to compete with crosstown WKQX and WTMX). While the station's handle would remain "The Zone," the entire Kevin Matthews morning show was dismissed in August 2001. Over the next few years, 94.7 The Zone would morph into a harder alternative/active rock station. After several years of competing with crosstown rival WKQX (Q101) which left both stations at the bottom of the ratings heap, ABC finally pulled the plug on The Zone at noon on September 26th 2005 in favor of "The True Oldies Channel."
The True Oldies Channel, an ABC satellite delivered late 50's - early 70's format, debuted to fill the void left when Infinity Broadcasting took WJMK out of the oldies business earlier in the year after switching to 104.3 Jack-FM. Bill Gamble, the station's Program Director for the past ten years, since the classic rock days, was let go along with the rest of the on-air staff.
However, a year later a bright spot appeared on the radar as Dick Biondi returned to the air, and to ABC after 43 years. In November 2006, Biondi was hired to hold down his old WLS timeslot from 9:00pm-midnight, joining John Records Landecker, who was hired earlier in the year for afternoon drive. Former Kevin Matthews Show alum Scott Mackay was brought back for mornings. Later, Chicago radio icons Greg Brown and Brant Miller joined the staff. Legendary New York City voice Scott Shannon, who is the Program Director of the True Oldies Channel (and WCBS-FM morning man) was heard middays and weekends.
On June 19, 2008 it was announced that the station would return once again to the WLS-FM call letters, the fourth time in it's history. At midnight on June 26th, 94.7 WLS-FM - Chicago's True Oldies slogan went on the air with a welcome from Dick Biondi, followed by the song "Life Is A Rock (WLS Rolled Me)" by Reunion. Since the advent of the Portable People Meter (PPM) audience measuring system, WLS-FM has once again returned to the top of the ratings with its hybrid of Oldies and Classic Hits.
On May 2, 2010 WLS-FM and WLS-AM merged together for one evening as Dick Biondi celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the day WLS began playing contemporary music (and Biondi's first day in Chicago on WLS). It was attended by the biggest names in Chicago rock history as well as being officially named "Dick Biondi Day" in the State of Illinois by Governor Pat Quinn.
In the early days, the station's transmitter shared space with sister station WBKB-TV (Channel 7) atop Marina City. It's "circle 7" was visible for miles around. After the completion of Sears Tower in 1974, Channel 7 (now WLS-TV) moved to the world's tallest building. 94.7 moved to the John Hancock Center, then to Sears in 1983 where they continue to transmit from today.
1999-2015, Scott Childers and Munchkin Studios.