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.