When radio stations change formats nowadays, it’s signaled by what’s known in the biz as “stunting.” I remember a station about to adopt an oldies format and the slogan “cool FM” that played nothing but the Little River Band’s “Cool Change” for an entire weekend. When an adult-contemporary station I worked for briefly changed to classic rock, it played “Another One Bites the Dust” for two hours before making the switch. It’s become common practice for stations planning to change format in the new year to go all-Christmas at the end of December. The intent is to signal to the audience that something new is about to happen.
Forty years ago today, the legendary, decade-long duke-out between WLS and WCFL in Chicago ended when ‘CFL changed from Top 40 to elevator music. They signaled it with a stunt: playing two hours of rolling surf to cushion the transition. But it’s what they did beforehand—what management allowed to happen beforehand—that made the WCFL format change a unique event.
Format changes generally happen with no warning apart from the stunting. WCFL didn’t do it that way. The station announced at the beginning of March that the change would take place on the 15th. It also accepted advertising from competing radio stations seeking to lure the Top 40 audience. Today, station staff often finds out about an impending format change when they’re ushered into a conference room and fired. WCFL didn’t do that, either. Management told the jocks that they would all be fired after the 15th except for afternoon jock Larry Lujack and asked the others not to immediately discuss the change on the air. Most of them obeyed the request, except for morning team Dick Sainte and Doug Dahlgren, who went on the air the day after the announcement and torched the place for 3 1/2 hours before getting yanked.
I can’t find it at YouTube, but I have heard an aircheck of midday jock Bob Dearborn doing his last show on ‘CFL on March 15, 1976. He talked about the change, and in his last break said to his engineer, “Al, hit that button one more time” to jingle into his last record. At 2:00, Lujack took over. The surf was set to come up at 5:00. At 4:40, Lujack played “American Pie” before delivering what he called his “last major address to the nation,” about the format change, in which he mentioned the commercials from other stations and made an endorsement regarding which station people should listen to. And also, “I’m not saying goodbye, because I ain’t going nowhere.” The next day, he was on the air as usual, playing elevator music. He was under contract, and ‘CFL intended to keep him from going elsewhere, although he’d be back on WLS before too long.
I was listening to WCFL 40 years ago today, and I heard Lujack’s address live. I can see myself even now, up in my bedroom at home, listening on my little console stereo, hearing Lujack’s last wisecrack over the surf and then just the surf, before being called downstairs for supper. Young and green as I was, I knew enough (and suspected enough) about how radio worked to feel as though what Lujack did was extraordinary, and I was right. Thanks to old Uncle Lar (and the decisions of WCFL management before the last day finally came), there’s never been another format change quite like the one WCFL made.