The death of Larry Lujack last week has radio geeks everywhere thinking of the glory days of WLS. To me, one of the most glorious things the station did involved its Christmas programming. In 2007, a reader sent me several hours of the 1980 WLS Holiday Festival of Music, which he’d taped off the air back in the day. It remains one of the most serendipitous gifts I’ve ever received, and among the most treasured.
I first heard the show in 1970, on a Christmas Eve of mythological proportions. I would hear bits of it annually for years thereafter. I’m not sure when WLS stopped airing it, although I think it was well before 1989, when they switched to talk. It changed over the years; when I first heard it, the show was commercial free for over 24 hours and consisted entirely of music and produced segments, interrupted only by the occasional live newscast. It would get shorter over the years as well, starting later on Christmas Eve and ending earlier on Christmas Day.
The 70s weren’t very far along before some of the WLS jocks became part of the festival. I remember hearing Steve King late one Christmas Eve, and he was surprisingly—inappropriately—candid about not wanting to be there. Years later he confirmed in an e-mail exchange what I thought I had heard that night—that he’d brought his cat to work with him so he wouldn’t be alone. A poster on the WLS Musicradio Facebook group tells of hearing King disgustedly pulling the plug on a Muppets Christmas song, live on the air, and replacing it with Nat King Cole.
I once e-mailed John Rook, legendary WLS programmer and the man Lujack once called “the greatest program director of our generation,” to ask about the show. He was not especially interested in answering my questions, but he did tell me that not all of the stuff was produced by WLS. Some of it came from the ABC Radio Network, and was presumably used by its affiliates or owned-and-operated stations across the country. Presumably segments were repeated from year to year—some of the most compelling stuff on the 1980 tapes is voiced by Charlie Van Dyke, who hosted mornings on WLS briefly in the early 70s.
Inside baseball aside, the Holiday Festival of Music is tremendous simply as entertainment. It sets a mood and sticks to it, and part of its brilliance is that the mood can accommodate both Andy Williams and Bruce Springsteen, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Booker T. and the MGs. The produced segments evoke a sense of anticipation and wonder on Christmas Eve, and of joy and satisfaction on Christmas morning. Some of the segments are overtly religious, appropriate for an era that was less concerned with religious pluralism than ours.
Even though research today shows that the number of people listening to a typical station on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day might be several orders of magnitude greater than the numbers tuned in on a typical Tuesday or Wednesday, few radio stations seem to aspire to this kind of thing anymore. It’s enough to put the whole Christmas library, whatever it is, on shuffle, or to pick up some syndicated special where celebrities talk about their Christmases and play the same two dozen holiday songs the station has been rotating since Veterans Day. Few mindfully strive to create an experience that augments and enhances what the listeners are doing at any given moment on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The WLS Holiday Festival of Music did that, superbly.
Here’s a random segment of the show, which originally aired around 10:30PM on Christmas Eve, 1980. It runs about 21 minutes. Listen to it today, tonight, or tomorrow. You won’t be sorry.
I’m pleased to say that my station, Magic 98, does an excellent job with Christmas programming. Our “98 Hours of Christmas Magic” is going on now, and in a world such as this, it comes as close to the spirit of the Holiday Festival of Music as we’re likely to get. I always ask for the last shift before the auto-pilot kicks in on Christmas Eve—today it’s from 1 to 4PM US Central—because it’s my favorite day to be on the air.