"WLS ... The Big 89"

A Radio Essay by Larry Shannon




































































Waterloo, Illinois ...  It's 1955 ... A five year-old, skinny, crew cut kid is riding with his father down rainy, two-laned Highway 3 toward St. Louis and the Mississippi River's Jefferson Barracks Bridge. The radio is playing a Hank Williams song, "Jambalaya," and his dad is singing along with it --- "Oh me-oh-my-oh -- Son of a gun we'll have some fun on the bayou!" That is my first memory of listening to radio.


Fast forward to 1965. I was on a 75 mph night flight path, low to the road, headin' north and hugging US Highway 75 on  the way to Northwest Missouri. Halfway across Oklahoma, north of McAlester, the Buick's Sonomatic radio seemed to come alive, shoot sparks, shake and shimmy with the sound of music, DJ's, jingles and personality radio from 3 states and 700 miles away. It was the first of many one-on-one moments that I'd be spending with WLS 890 in Chicago. From that moment on, the "Windy City Wonder" was locked in behind the red dot on my dashboard radio dial.


What "Beatles Generation Jock" doesn't remember fearing that his car speakers would quiver and split when rocked, rolled and rattled at full volume with that familiar, top of the hour, revved-up reminder that boasted, "The Big 89 presents the sound of music and ____!"  In the 40 plus states that the WLS 50,000 watt signal saturated, WLS brought big time radio and bright dreams to thousands of small town and large city radio hopefuls. Even KLIF 1190 and KFJZ in Dallas-Fort Worth, KOMA in Oklahoma City, WHB in Kansas City, WQXI in Atlanta, KIMN in Denver and KXOK in St. Louis were no competition and couldn't match the inspiration that came from listening to the clearest channel of the night from WLS in Chicago. In those days, many kids looked up at the moon and stars and wanted to go there.  Beatles Generations Jocks had greater ambitions.  They tuned in 890 and wanted to work there.


Legend has it that older, veteran union engineers, hard of hearing, tuned the transmitter and were responsible for that rich, deep, full, bottom, middle and top sound that WLS had. Many of us at lesser-blessed radio stations across the country wondered if these engineers would ever consider making house calls and tune our transmitters, too. The first time I visited Chicago, I just knew that the transmitter towers would dwarf  the Sears and John Hancock Towers when I saw them, all lighted up and pulsating, with the prairie skies as a backdrop. Surely the towers were at least a half-mile high, I imagined.  WGN, WBBM, WMAQ and WCFL always took a back seat when they were matched up against the bright, crisp, full sound of radio of  WLS. The radio towers flung the signal like a big fishing net across Lake Michigan and showered the sound upon the Midwest and the Americas as they sent the nighttime signal tumbling and somersaulting across the country's plains, mountains, prairies and deserts.


The hair on the back of my neck still stands straight up when I hear the WLS ABC Contemporary Radio news intro.  The majestic, electronic "Da-da-da-da-da-da-dahhhhhh" could pierce the cold, black armor of any winter's night sky like a red-hot laser beam and cut through the toughest, darkest Titanium. It was the starter pistol shot that sent young radio hearts racing.  Lyle Dean or Chuck Scott would headline the Midwest news, carefully climbing and timing their ways over it's electronic news bed, managing -- without fail -- to precisely end at the right millisecond -- just in time for the ABC :55 network news intro to sound again and bring in ABC network news from New York. Across America, young radio newsmen-in-waiting would tuck in their chins -- half in prayer, half in practice --- and repeat the lines, trying to imitate Lyle's and Chuck's voices, their perfect pitches and tall timbre -- without much success. If God ever decided to work in radio, he'd probably sound just like Lyle Dean or Chuck Scott.


In the 60's and 70's you could hear almost every series of PAMS or Johnny Mann Singers jingles on radio stations from coast to coast. But, all of those jingles didn't have the "89 WLS" melody or call letters -- and that was the difference. John Rook argued for, introduced and presented the PAMS WLS acapellas to the Midwest radio audience. Arguably, for usability, simplicity, endurance and versatility, the WLS acapellas have stood the test of time. Ricky Irwin's www.reelradio.com  is a sanctuary and home to them now. You'll find them on the "John Rook Collection" page at http://www.reelradio.com ... Listen to those WLS acapellas and you'll explore sixty-three seconds worth of memories that reach back almost 33 years ago. Has it been that long?


It came to be an almost sacred moment, a little past the top of the hour at WLS, when we'd hear the tympani downbeat coming out of the first record, as the inimitable Ray Van Steen would boldly announce, "The Big Eighty-Nine (boom!) presents the sound of music and _________ !"  Right then, you knew that all was right in the world.  In music radio, a jock walks on quicksand across the territory between the end of the jingle and the first vocals of a song. It is a perilous place to be. But, in that "No Man's Land," WLS jocks could say more in 6-16 seconds -- sell a song, tell a joke, promo the station or get a psa or point across -- than the $6 Million Dollar jocks of today who take 60 minutes to say nothing worthwhile or memorable.  WLS jocks talked one-on-one to millions of listeners ... The Big 89 jocks didn't need a studio full of accomplices, radio groupies and hangers on to entertain an audience.  They spoke to and communicated with America, not just to the 4 or 5 cast members who hang around in a lot of radio studios today and bore radio audiences with their "inside" jokes.


Nighttime truckers, travelers and hitchhikers all counted on The Big 89 from most everywhere they were, coast to coast. Whether inching along the highway through Indianapolis, climbing the Appalachians or moving up and down the mountainsides in Colorado, WLS always kept you company at night.


How listened to, today, is the WLS of yesterday? In ReelRadio.com's top 40 list of most heard airchecks, you'll find that WLS has 6 spots. Only KHJ has one more with 7. WLS jocks sometimes received phone calls from Los Angeles after hour's people who listened to the Big 89 deep in the night while driving down the LA freeways. KHJ's signal could never climb over Big Bear and other mountaintops to reach the rest of America.  KHJ had to be packaged and shipped on reel-to-reel tape to young jocks and programmers who wanted to hear them.  WLS was free, with no waiting -- anytime, any night -- to radio listeners from coast to coast.

Until I listened to WLS, I never knew how to correctly pronounce "W."  There's an art to it, you know.  For me, it was always, "dubya" or "double yah."  I practiced saying "Double U" during my WLS night rides -- until I had it down pat, or the people staring at me from the car next to mine at the traffic lights would shame me into stopping.


The unofficial WLS halls of fame list dozens of personalities who broadcast from behind the microphones at the Midwest radio giant during the 60's and 70's. These people are among broadcasting's "Big Shoulders" that Chicago breeds and brags about. There will never be a "complete" list, just the most "recently" completed list of these legends. Those names include Clark Weber, Ron Riley, Art Roberts, Larry Lujack, Bernie Allen, Don Phillips, Mort Crowley, Dex Card, Tommy Edwards, Chuck Buell, Charlie Van Dyke, John Records Landecker, Kris Erik Stevens, Tom Kent, Jeff Davis, Fred Winston, Yvonne Daniels, Jerry Kay, Bill Bailey, Joel Sebastian and Gary Gears. You'll find more names and a hundred thousand memories at special WLS temples on the Internet.


Just click to Scott Childers' homage at www.wlshistory.com ... Jeff Roteman pays tribute to WLS at http://musicradiowls.musicpage.com  ... On these two Web sites, you'll find jingles, notes from those who spent some time at 360 North Michigan Avenue and a thousand surprises under the WLS tower. If you have never visited these two Web sites, you're in for rare listening, viewing and reading treats!


I am and will always be a fan of WLS -- and it will always be, to me, the Big 89, in Chicago.  I'm like the old high school football player who still drives past the high school stadium, remembering the aroma of Friday night popcorn, the roar of the crowd, the sound of the band and the rustle of pom pons waving in the air. WLS was a football field of wonder for many of us who grew up listening and became the Beatles Generation Jocks. To remember WLS, the Big 89, is to be a little nostalgic.  Young folks need to dream and have heroes to look up to.   One wishes that the young radio talent of today had been around to listen and learn from the jocks of The Big 89. The quality of today's radio might improve if they'd have learned from these Midwest radio masters.  Then they, too, might become heroes to thousands of radio hopefuls in their own communities.


Beatles Generation Jocks stole lines and ideas from the WLS jocks. Only now are the jocks learning how much influence they had on an entire family of radio people. If you were among those who haven't e-mailed or written to say, "Thanks," to them, there are more opportunities than ever before today to track them down and do so via the Internet and e-mail.  Many are listed under "Radio People" at www.radiodailynews.com.


WLS jocks inspired performers and radio talent in Chicagoland and throughout America. The Sunday night, "Hey Baby, They're Playing Our Song" show with Art Roberts led Chicago's Buckinghams to write and record their hit song of the same name in 1968.  Art wrote and recorded "Hip Fables."  Ron Riley had his Batman Club and made a guest appearance on the "Batman" TV show. Larry Lujack inspired, among others, David Letterman, comedian Bill Murray and today's highest paid radio performer, Rush Limbaugh.


On pages 146 and 147 in Paul C. Colford's book,  "The Rush Limbaugh Story," Colford relates that Limbaugh's brother, David, told him that Rush listened to Limbaugh growing up in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. "To work at WLS was one of Rush's lifetime goals," says David.


To listen to Limbaugh today is to hear bits and pieces of Lujack's heavy influence. As noted in Colford's book, Lujack's "...serving humanity tonight," became Limbaugh's line that he, too, is " ... serving humanity." The most notable steals by Limbaugh have to be Lujack's line, " ... across the fruited plain" and his "dadalup, dadalup, dadalup!"  Limbaugh uses the trumpeting sound to introduce his updates and tirades on the homeless, environmental wackos and feminists. But, Lujack invented it and used it first on his 5:30 pm "Clunk Letter of the Day" feature.  John Rook never hired Limbaugh.  Limbaugh has never forgotten it.  From time to time on his talk show, Limbaugh blames Rook for not hiring him at WLS and to this day he puts down Rook on the air.  He says Rook told him he would never be a big time jock....Rook was right!  Limbaugh never DID become a big time jock. 


The WLS jocks and leaders of the 60's and 70's are heard no more on The Big 89. They're scattered from Chicago to Gardnerville, Santa Fe to Los Angeles, Phoenix to Fargo and Coeur d' Alene to Cleveland. But, their lasting legacies can be discovered and rediscovered with a couple of clicks at www.ReelRadio.com,  www.WLSHistory.com and http://musicradiowls.musicpage.com. Their stories are passed around among the Beatles Generation Jocks when we get together and ask, "Whatever happened to ___ ?"


I've spent some time in Chicago through the years. Each time I go there, I find myself saying, "I can't believe I'm here." It's heady stuff for a fellow from the midlands of Missouri and Texas to stand on street corners and look up at the tall buildings or walk down State Street and Michigan Avenue.  There, Beatles Generation Jocks hear again in their head the WLS commercials and station promos that talked about Marshall Field's, the many long gone retail stores and more.


The last time I left the Windy City, as I drove southward, I watched Chicago disappear through my rear view mirror. WLS lassoed my radio and followed me down Interstate 55, across the flat plains and through Springfield, and well past the outskirts of St. Louis. I stopped a few minutes in Waterloo, Illinois, and walked around the little town and past the Waterloo Public Schools Building where I attended kindergarten classes forty-seven years ago. Highway 3 is still two-laned and tree-lined, and the shaded old town square hasn't changed a bit since 1955. As the day's light began to fade, folks were still sitting in the gazebo, probably talking about how things change but stay the same.


Nighttime was slowly sneaking its way westward and a light rain was slowly falling as I drove, alone this time, on Highway 3 toward St. Louis and the Jefferson Barracks Bridge, making my way back home to Texas. I turned the radio on, punched the WLS button and listened to Jay Marvin as I crossed the wide Mississippi River. It was a comfort to have a friendly voice to keep me company.


Chicago's still home to the Big 89. It's changed from Musicradio 89 to News Talk 89 now and is always a top 5 favorite.  WLS veteran, Jeff Davis, voices the promos and intros.  The days and nights are filled to overflowing with Don Wade and Roma, Dr. Laura and Rush Limbaugh, Roe Conn and Garry Meier, Jim Johnson. Bill Cameron, Jay Marvin, Eilene Byrne and Art Bell, Coast to Coast. Mike Elder's got his hands full with programming -- and the air personalities have the added responsibilities of past radio legend's memories and reputations to measure themselves against. The whispers and dusty memories of the WLS 60's and 70's are in every corner at the WLS studios. Visit there, if you can. You'll feel the chill and thrill when you walk through the front door of the building. And, perhaps, you'll find the same inspiration inside that filled the radio and influenced carloads of Beatles Generation Jocks who drove down country and city lanes, in the darkness of the nights as their dashboards came alive with the magic of the music and the jocks of "The Big 89 -- WLS." 


Larry Shannon is the president of First Strategy Corporation and a partner in The Wilson Shannon Company, an entertainment productions company with offices in Hollywood and Texas.   A radio broadcaster at 16, he has nearly a decade and a half of experience in the broadcast industry.   A recipient of an Addy award for commercial writing and production, he has published two books, the most recent titled, Making the Transition.  During and since the 2000 elections campaigns, Shannon has served as a political analyst for the Dallas-Fort Worth CBS television affiliate, KTVT.  He  appears on radio as a strategist from time to time and co-hosts the weekly radio program, Computer Junction, on KRLD News Radio 1080.

Larry wrote this essay in 2002.