by Alex Cosper
see also American Radio History
For more information on radio history, visit Donna Halper's website. Donna is a radio consultant who helped contribute to this page.
Chicago is the third biggest radio market in America and is considered the hub of the entertainment industry in the Midwest. In the sixties and seventies, in the "golden age" of top 40 radio, ABC station WLS ruled the airwaves. In the eighties, like so many AM top 40 stations around the country, it dropped music in favor of talk, as music formats migrated to FM.
Chicago began to feature stations on the AM dial from the very beginning of commercial radio, which was the early 1920s. The earliest call letters in the market belonged to KYW, a Westinghouse station whose license was issued November 9, 1921 by the Commerce Department. It started with an opera format. The next few stations were WBU and WGU. The City of Chicago's WBU, which was licensed on February 21, 1922, ceased operations on November 7, 1923. The Fair Department Store's WGU, licensed on March 29, 1922, later in the year on October 2 changed the call letters to WMAQ.
Other stations that were assigned to the AM dial in the early twenties included Ray-Di-Co's WGAS, Mid West Radio Central's WDAP (which was acquired by the Chicago Board of Trade in 1923), Zenith Corporation's WJAZ (which returned to the air as a portable station in 1924 and ended up in Mt. Prospect the following year), and the Chicago Daily Drovers Journal's WAAF. In 1924 the Chicago Tribune acquired WAAF and changed the call letters to WGN. Also that year the Tribune acquired WDAP, whose programming and equipment were simply absorbed into WGN. WCFL, named after its first owner, the Chicago Federation of Labor, launched in 1926 at 610 AM, but later moved to 620 then 970 and eventually 1000. The CFL hung on to the station until 1979.
The dial continued to change in the thirties and became more set in the forties after an FCC reallocation. By 1942, the AM dial included WMAQ (670), WGN (720), WJBT (770), WBBM (780), WLS (890), WAAF (950), WCFL (1000), WMBI (1110), WJJD (1150), WSBC (1240), WGBF (1280) and WGES (1390).
FM radio slowly began to appear on the dial in the forties and fifties, but did not start to gain significant audiences until the sixties and seventies. By the eighties FM had become the band for music while talk stations flourished on AM. Corporate consolidation has dominated industry headlines from the eighties through the present.
WLS entered the Chicago radio dial in 1924 at 500 watts. It was originally owned by Sears & Roebuck, which was how the station got its name, from the Sears slogan "World's Largest Store." An early show that lasted decades on the station was the "National Barn Dance," featuring comedy and country music. The station set the standard in the midwest for farm reporting. In 1929 Sears sold the station to Praire Farmer Magazine, headed by Burridge Butler. The company held the station through the fifties.
WLS had an early home at 870 AM but moved to 890 in the FCC reallocation of 1941. In the early days it was common for different stations to share dial positions. Until 1954, WLS shared its dial position with WENR, owned by ABC. After ABC and Paramount Theatres bought controlling interest of WLS in 1954, 890 AM became simply WLS while the WENR call letters remained with Chicago television channel 7 and the 94.7 sister FM station. By the end of the decade ABC dropped the farm programming that WLS was known for since its inception.
On May 2, 1960, WLS transformed into a top 40 radio station for the first time under the programming of Sam Holman. Early jocks of this emerging format at WLS were Clark Weber, Bob Hale, Gene Taylor, Mort Crowley, Jim Dunbar, Dick Biondi, Bernie Allen and Dex Card. Two WLS jocks, Ron Riley and Art Roberts each interviewed the Beatles. Clark Weber became morning host in 1963, two years after joining the station. He was Program Director from 1966 until 1968 when John Rook arrived. Weber then moved to WCFL for a few years and then did a series of other Chicago radio gigs for many years.
WLS still aired several news programs during the early sixties to meet FCC requirements. WLS rose to the top three during this period along with WGN and WIND. Biondi did nights for three years then ended up at KRLA in Los Angeles but later returned to Chicago at WCFL.
In 1965 WCFL switched from labor news to top 40 as "Super CFL," bringing competiton to WLS, which billed itself as "Channel 89" and then "The Big 89." WLS emerged as the victor by 1967 under the direction of Station Manager Gene Taylor. A new jock line-up was brought in that included Larry Lujack in mornings, Chuck Buell, Jerry Kay and Kris Erik Stevens. Program Director John Rook tightened the station and by 1968 WLS was number one and won a "station of the year" award from The Gavin Report.
The only time CFL beat WLS in the top 40 battle was in the summer of 1973. It led to changes at WLS as Tommy Edwards advanced as PD and Fred Winston moved from afternoons to mornings. New talent was brought in that included Bob Sirott, Steve King and Yvonne Daniels. By the Fall WLS was back to number one. WCFL dropped the format in 1976 as WLS continued its dominance until the late seventies.
WLS-FM (94.7) was previously WENR FM. It became WLS-FM in 1965, playing "beautiful music" and sports programming. In 1968 it began simulcasting the WLS-AM morning shows Clark Weber (6a-8a) and Don McNeill's Breakfast Club (8a-9a). In September 1969 ABC decided to change the FM's format to progressive rock after an experimental show called "Spoke" tested well. WLS-FM became WDAI in 1971 while remaining progressive. The following year the station began moving in a softer rock direction. Then in 1978 the format completely switched to disco. Steve Dahl was let go so he went across town to WLUP with partner Garry Meier, having great success.
Meanwhile, the disco trend only lasted a few years and by 1980 WDAI-FM had burned out, so it switched format to oldies in 1980 briefly as WRCK then as WLS-FM again, which began simulcasting the AM's evening show. In 1986 WLS-FM became WYTZ (Z-95) as a top 40 competitor of B96 (WBBM 96.3). The call letters shifted back to WLS-FM again in 1992 and became a full-time simulcast of the AM, which had moved completely to a talk format in 1989. From 1995 to 1997 it was country station WKXK (Kicks Country), up against rival WUSN. Then it changed again in 1997 to classic rock as CD 94.7 under the Programming of Bill Gamble, who had success leading Q101 as an alternative station. In 2000 CD 94.7 became The Zone," moving more toward alternative music.
WXRT (93.1) has been the long-running rock station that has shifted from progressive to current rock to alternative and since 1994 has been adult alternative. The station first ventured into progressive rock in 1972. The former call letters were WSBC. The WXRT call letters had previously been used in Chicago at 101.9 FM back in the forties and early fifties. Norm Winer had previously programmed WBCN in Boston and did mornings at KSAN in San Francisco before arriving as head of programming for WXRT. In 1991 ownership changed hands from Daniel Lee to Diamond Broadcasting. In 1995 the station was acquired by CBS Radio, which later merged with Infinity Broadcasting.
In the nineties, when the alternative format had its highest ratings, Q101 (WKQX) was one of the top alternative stations in the midwest. Throughout the eighties it was a top 40 station owned by NBC, who sold it to Emmis in 1988. The station kept the call letters but flipped to alternative in 1992 under the programming of Bill Gamble, who jumped across town five years later. Alex Luke, who had programmed KPNT in Stl Louis, then became Program Director until 1998 when Dave Richards arrived for a three year stint. Richards had programmed rock station WRCX (103.5), which flipped format and changed call letters to WUBT. Mary Shuminas had worked for the station for twenty years but left in 2004 as Assistant Program Director. WXRT began to lead Q101 in the ratings beginning in the early 2000s, suggesting that alternative fans prefer a wider-open playlist as opposed to tight top 40-like rotations. In the 2000s Alex Luke went on to be Director of Music Programming and Label Relations for the iTunes Music Store at Apple.
Chicago's top morning show from the mid-nineties through early 2000s was Mancow Muller. He had come from top 40 station Z95 in San Francisco, in which he had made national news by getting arrested for holding up Bay Bridge traffic - as he got a haircut. It was a stunt that lampooned an incident involving President Clinton. Muller first came to Chicago in July 1994 at rock station WRCX. The show was called "Mancow's Morning Madhouse." The show expanded to national syndication in 1997. The following year Mancow moved his morning show to Q101. In 2001 Mancow's show came under intense scrutiny by the FCC, resulting in several fines concerning the show's content.
WLS-AM's flip to talk radio in 1989 was a symptom of the fact that by the eighties, music fans had moved to FM. Other AM talk stations at the time included WLUP (1000), WVON (1450) and WJJD (1160). WIND (560) had also done talk before being sold and going Spanish. It's interesting to note that even though music fans primarily moved to FM in the eighties, the top station in town at the end of the decade was adult contemporary station WGN-AM (720), owned by Tribune. WBBM-AM (780) also soared to the top three by the late eighties as a news station. Although its sister FM, B96, was the leader in contemporary hits, WGCI (107.5) and WVAZ (102.7) ranked higher in the ratings with their urban formats. Evergreen's WLUP (97.9) also did well as a rock station. Then it sold to Bonneville, in which it failed as an adult contemporary station but returned to rock in July 1997.
In the nineties WGN-AM continued to lead the market, although the format shifted to news and music, known as the "full service" format. WGCI switched owners from Gannett to Chancellor Media, who also picked up competitor WVAZ and shifted its format to more adult urban. Chancellor later became AMFM and then merged with Clear Channel. Throughout the changes the urban leaders remained top stations in the market. Chancellor also bought WGCI-AM (1390), and made it an urban oldies format. By 1997 Chancellor owned seven stations in the market, as ownership limits had been loosened with the Telecom Act of 1996. WBBM AM (news) and WBBM FM (hits) also did well throughout the nineties, as did talk station WLS (890).
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