You Never Hear Stuff Like That on the Radio Anymore

There are several radio jocks I claim as influences. Two of the biggest are radio legends: Larry Lujack, for making me want to do what he did, and Fred Winston, for making me want to be funny while doing it. Another Chicago guy from the 70s, Bob Dearborn, was the smoothest jock I ever heard, doing his thing with a seemingly effortless grace that I always admired and have never achieved. Through the years, the jocks (and colleagues) I have admired the most are the ones who make what they are doing on the air seem as natural as breathing.

Which brings us to Bob Collins, who worked at WGN in Chicago for 26 years, 14 of them on the morning show, which he inherited from Wally Phillips in 1986 after several years on afternoons. It was a show that moved at an impossible pace every day, crowded with commercials (for it was the top-rated morning show in Chicago by a mile), newscasts, farm reports, traffic reports, weather reports, with a cast of several people required to pull it off every day. And there in the middle was Bob Collins, who seemed to be expending as much effort to keep it together as a guy cracking another beer in the hammock on a Saturday afternoon.

I never met Collins, although one year he was named grand marshal of the Cheese Days parade in my hometown, the sort of sideways honor he enjoyed, and as it happened, the convertible in which he was riding stopped right in front of our parade-watching spot. One of the guys ran a beer out to him, which he was happy to accept. A friend’s father was on the event’s organizing committee, and he told us that Collins was actually a quiet, self-effacing man, not at all the inveterate wisecracker we heard on the air every day.

Bob Collins was not his real name. He was born Harold Lee, and in his early days, he went by Buddy Lee on the air. He was calling himself Robert L. (“as in lovable”) Collins by 1967, when he showed up on the doorstep of WOKY in Milwaukee, telling the station manager, “I’m looking for a job playin’ rock ‘n’ roll and talkin’ dirty.” He left WOKY for KFI in Los Angeles and KCBQ in San Diego before returning to Milwaukee’s WRIT, and soon, back to WOKY. (Until I started doing research for this post, I didn’t realize he was briefly married to a Milwaukee TV personality named Valerie Voss, who eventually became famous as chief meteorologist with CNN in the 80s and 90s.) He got to WGN in 1974, replacing John Mallow’s Music Unlimited in the evenings. It was quite a change from a deep-voiced jock playing Mantovani to an irreverent guy with a crackly voice and an easy laugh, who numbered among his favorite songs Loudon Wainwright’s “Dead Skunk.”

Collins remained at WGN until February 8, 2000, eleven years ago today. He was a man who loved cars, motorcycles, and airplanes, and he and a friend were flying in the north suburbs of Chicago when his plane collided with another and crashed into a hospital. There’s an aircheck at Chicago Radio and Media today of crash coverage from Chicago’s WMAQ, during which it dawns on the reporters that one of the crash victims is Collins, a man they knew.

There’s much more about Bob Collins’ life, career, and impact on listeners and fans here. Audio from Collins’ years at WGN is here. If you’re only going to listen to a couple, scroll down to “Furtive Family of Fine Frogs,” or listen to him murder a commercial for Rex’s Cork and Fork. You’ll never hear stuff like that on the radio ever again.

5 responses

  1. And taking over for Mr. Collins was one Spike Odell who was from my hometown. Spike and I went through “radio school” together and when the time came to leave the Quad Cities, Spike went north and I went west to Kansas City. I know how much Spike adored Bob Collins, and vicariously, so did I. Spike was another guy who made it sound so easy. Wonderful piece, very well written.

    1. Here’s another piece from Chicagoland Radio and Media–Spike’s recollections of Bob Collins on the first anniversary of Bob’s death: http://chicagoradioandmedia.com/multimedia/audio/1391-wgn-am-spike-remembers-bob-020801

  2. I was a loyal WGN listener back in those days. When Spike was officially named the new morning show host, one of his most daunting jobs was moving into Bob’s old office. As they were sorting thru the various work and non-work related items, Spike discovered an open, but mostly full, bottle of Jack Daniels in one of the desk drawers. On the one year anniversary of Bob’s death the entire morning show toasted Bob’s memory with a small sip of the whiskey in little Dixie cups. Beginning the next year they regrouped and toasted him on his birthday (Feb 28th), which they did every year until the bottle ran out, and Spike retired.

    Despite everything that has gone on at WGN in the past few years, one thing they’ve done right – they have left the Bob Collins page pretty much in tact on their website, with additional memorial items added to it. I hope they never forget the genius that was Bob. http://www.wgngold.com/people/bobcollins/index.html

    I still have a “recurring event” on my calendar, marking this day. In the months after his death, WGN put together a CD of The Best of Bob, which I listen to every year on February 8th. He was one of a kind.

  3. […] stuff, and this year we did plenty. We paid tribute to a trio of deceased personalities (here and here and here). We noted a couple of remarkably lame moments in the history of American Top 40 (here and […]

  4. Hello. `Just ran across your article about Bob Collins. While I can fully understand why you’d use the term, my dad was miles away from the image conjured by the term ‘deep voiced jock.’ John Mallow was a staff announcer at WGN for over thirty years. The main duties during a day’s shift would be prepping and delivering the fifteen minute live TV newscast that aired before Bozo’s Circus or the Cubs games, depending on the year; simple station breaks; and of course, the Music Unlimited program. Employing a full time script writer, music librarian, record spinner and engineer behind the glass, it wasn’t anything like the basic music rotation, time and temperature, talk-up-the-intro gig of the stereotypical ‘disc jockey.’ As a kid, I’d go to work with dad on the occasional Friday after school and even at a young age, marvel at his ability to back time a chunk of copy to the second to meet the top of the hour. I was so inspired that I followed my dad into the business as first a progressive rock dj, who moved from Des Moines to Kansas City to New York City and then on to AOR, adult contemporary “Mellow Sound” and to #1 in NYC on “Disco 92, WKTU,” the nation’s first full-time disco station. Believe me when I say that toppling the giant WABC in the ratings not only surprised everyone involved, but also was when I officially became an actor. I hated disco with a passion. I’ve long since left radio behind, having segued into commercials, animation, video games, audiobooks and whatever else they’ll pay you to do behind a mike here in LA. Please don’t take my note as criticism. . . dad was a ‘jock’ in the broadest sense, but back in those days WGN was a station almost frozen in time in its suit and tie sophistication and heritage as a true relic of a completely different and long-forgotten era.

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