Tag Archives: WCFL

Pulling the Plug

When I got fired from my first full-time radio job, they didn’t blow me out the door right away. They let me work for six weeks while I was finding another job—and while they were finding my replacement.

Why I decided to hang around where I wasn’t wanted is simple to explain: I was 23 years old, and I didn’t know any better. I gladly accepted the opportunity to stay on while job-hunting, and I continued as a productive employee and genial colleague right through my last day. What I should have done with their offer was to say, “Thanks but no thanks, I’ll be fine,” and hit the street the same day they told me I was out. But since I was newly married and afraid to be unemployed, I did what seemed like the right thing.

On the air that last day, I didn’t explain precisely why I was leaving, only that I was. Because KDTH jocks were embraced by listeners as part of the family, I took lots of calls from well-wishers that day, and it was a gratifying experience. It could have been otherwise. I could have told the audience that I had been fired and why, and expressed bitterness about it—and I was indeed bitter. But I thought of myself as a consummate professional, so I went out the door like I imagined a consummate professional would.

Only in later years did I realize how unusual my situation had been. Usually, when you get fired, you’re out the door instantly. (Ken Levine says he thinks that studio chairs are on wheels so management can roll guys out in a hurry when the time comes.) That’s because not everybody reacts well to being fired.

On March 1, 1976, the decade-long Top 40 duke-out in Chicago between WLS and WCFL ended with WCFL’s surrender. Rather than simply throwing the switch on a new format out of the blue, WCFL announced it in advance, a couple of weeks before they intended to switch to elevator music. They told the jocks that all of them would be fired except for Larry Lujack, who would serve out his expensive contract by playing the Swelling Strings Orchestra in afternoon drive.

The jocks were told not to discuss the format change on the air. They worked their shifts as usual for the next two weeks (like consummate professionals), with one exception. The morning after the announcement, the morning team of Dick Sainte and Doug Dahlgren, freed from the need to toe anyone’s line, spent their show fooling around, bashing the management, bashing the current format and the coming format change—and even calling WLS morning man Fred Winston live on the air. The show went on for nearly four hours before management finally pulled the plug on Dick and Doug a half-hour early. They never returned to WCFL’s air, although a couple of weeks later, they spent an hour on WLS with Winston, continuing the farewell anarchy that had marked their final morning on WCFL.

The audio archive at Chicagoland Radio and Media has airchecks of Dick and Doug’s last show and their appearance with Winston. The site calls them “classic 70s radio” and that’s right—36 years later, nobody does this kind of thing anymore, and those of us who loved it then love hearing it now. Nevertheless, I wonder how the average listener felt about those shows while they were actually happening on those fabled mornings. Both are remarkably silly, even by standards of Top-40 morning shows, and are crowded with in-jokes that likely zoomed over the heads of most of the audience. But for fans of Chicago Top 40, they’re a time-trip worth taking. It’s the style of radio I fell in love with; Dick, Doug, and Fred were who I wanted to be when I grew up.

Still do.


Born and Reborn

One of the taglines for this blog says “In my head, it’s still 1976.” So when I found a YouTube video that featured the countdown of the last minute of 1975 as heard on Chicago’s legendary WCFL, I knew I’d have to mention it, even if I’m the only person who’ll care about it. The audio quality is poor, and because there are way too many people in the studio, it’s impossible to identify any individual voice as 1975 ebbs away—although one of them may be the great Ron O’Brien, who had returned to ‘CFL earlier in 1975. But it’s that first moment of the new year that gets me—the marriage of the greatest station ID jingle in radio history with the words “It’s 1976 at the Voice of Labor,” and then the slam into the Number One song for all of 1975.

At that moment on December 31, 1975, I was listening to the countdown on WCFL’s great competitor, WLS, since ‘CFL was not audible at night in southern Wisconsin. (Within 2 1/2 months, ‘CFL as a rocker would not be audible anywhere. In March it would flip to beautiful music, bringing to an end one of the great radio duke-outs of all time.) I had no idea, of course, of the place 1976 would come to hold in my personal mythology, but it’s kind of cool to think that somewhere, there’s a radio record of the second that year began.

Recommended Reading: Since 2008, I have been a contributor to the website of WNEW, the legendary New York City classic rock station, now reborn on HD in the New York area and on the Internet. WNEW.com has gotten a spiffy upgrade from the people at CBS Interactive, and it looks great. (My usual features will continue to appear over there—Five Things About . . . on Tuesdays, This Week in Rock History on Wednesdays, and Rock Flashback on the weekends.) The fact that WNEW no longer broadcasts in the old-fashioned sense is not especially newsworthy, because what it means to be a radio station in the second decade of the new millennium has changed. Terrestrial radio, operating in real time, no longer competes only against other terrestrial radio stations operating in real time—it has to deal with Internet streams like WNEW’s, online services like Pandora, on-demand content, and even satellite radio. Clear Channel is about to take a major leap into the future by placing its IHeartRadio app, which was originally intended to easily stream Clear Channel content on smartphones, into automobile dashboards. Consultant Mark Ramsey explains what it means.

There will be a new post here on Super Bowl Sunday, so stop back then.

Top 5: Gimme an A

Several years ago, I attended a lecture by a prominent critic whose gig was decrying the commercialism of education. One example he cited was a promotion by a restaurant that would give a student a free dessert for every A on the kid’s report card. He seemed to think this was, in the middle of the 1990s, a new innovation—but it wasn’t. At the end of the school year 44 years ago, at WCFL in Chicago, night jock Barney Pip invited his young listeners to send in test papers on which they’d received A’s or B’s. Papers with A’s were eligible to win albums in a drawing; papers with B’s were eligible to win singles. One grand prize winner would receive a Honda—which would have been a motorcycle in those days.

Some of the music the kids were listening to during the week of June 16, 1966 has endured as classic: “Paint It Black,” “Paperback Writer,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Some of it has faded into the mists of history. Our task here is to dispel some of the fog.

14. “You Wouldn’t Listen to Me”/Ides of March (debut). This was the first single for the Chicago band that would later score more famous hits with “Vehicle” and “L.A. Goodbye,” but it doesn’t sound much like either one of them, or anything else the Ides would do. But as an example of garage pop circa 1966, you can scarcely do better.

15. “Oh Yeah”/Shadows of Knight (up from 17). From the garages of Mount Prospect, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, the Shadows of Knight had launched their version of “Gloria” earlier in 1966. “Oh Yeah,” which bears a completely understandable resemblance, was the followup, but it wasn’t long afterward before the band began to splinter. By early 1967, only one original member was left.

16. “Day of Decision”/Johnny Sea (up from 19). The Wikipedia entry for Johnny Sea is one of the more interesting Wiki pages I’ve ever come across. It features copious parenthetical corrections by somebody claiming to be Johnny Sea himself. One of the corrections is that Sea had never heard Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” before he wrote the spoken-word “Day of Decision.” Perhaps. It doesn’t address McGuire’s contentions directly, preferring instead to drown dissenters in a wave of timeless patriotic glurge. (Lyrics here.)

New: “The Pied Piper”/Crispian St. Peters. One of the underrated earworms of the 1960s, “The Pied Piper” became an international smash that kept St. Peters (given name Robin Peter Smith) singing professionally and writing songs, over 300 in all, for 30 years before a stroke in 1995. St. Peters died last week at age 71.

(Digression: Is there a more perfect trio of happy summer songs than “The Pied Piper” and two other songs from this survey’s “Sound 10 Stairway” section, “Oh How Happy” by the Shades of Blue (another Midwest act, from suburban Detroit) and “Red Rubber Ball” by the Cyrkle? With all those earworms playing in your head all the time, you’d scarcely need a radio.)

New: “Race With the Wind”/The Robbs. Another act semi-local to the Chicago area, the Robbs were from Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, a little bit west of Milwaukee. They were a group of cousins, and according to their Wikipedia entry, they hit the Bubbling Under chart without crossing into the Hot 100 more often than any other act in chart history, which should probably make them the patron saints of this blog. If the perfect pop record that is “Race With the Wind” didn’t make it, nothing of theirs was going to.

In June 1966, I had just finished Miss Morgan’s kindergarten class. I would teach myself to read that summer, and I was looking forward to the arrival of a new sibling in the fall. In my life, change was already constant, but how would I have known?

Recommended: Many of the most influential radio stations in my life were from Chicago. If you were a fan of Chicago radio in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Chicago Radio Online is worth a listen. Meanwhile, Kinky Paprika discusses the radio stations of his life, and Michele Catalano has some advice for bands touring this summer. And finally, if you’re on Twitter, you need to be following Tweets of Old.

We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet

Those of us who loved the old radio duke-outs of yore—two or more stations in a market going head-to-head with exactly the same format and the devil take the hindmost—don’t get to enjoy the spectacle much anymore. Nowadays, with many markets dominated by two or three ownership groups controlling the majority of the stations, competition means something different. In a market with two stations sharing a format, the goal for Station B might not be to beat Station A straight up—it might be to take away just enough of Station A’s listeners so that Station C, one of Station B’s sister stations, can pass Station A in some desirable ratings category. In other words, competition consists of guerrilla actions that inflict cumulative damage, instead of an old-fashioned battle that ends up with one army defeated in detail.

I have always believed—although I may never have said it here, I don’t remember—that maximizing your demographic reach is not the same thing as taking on all comers and playing to win. It may lead to higher ad revenues and more money for everybody, but it’s not as romantic. (I say that knowing that I have the luxury of being in radio for the romance of it.) Which is why I’m fascinated with the Chicago rivalry between WLS and WCFL, which was played out over the decade between 1965 and 1976. Within that span, both stations tweaked, both stations maximized—but at the same time, they were eyeball to eyeball and going for the gold.

So here are the top 10s from WLS and WCFL for the same week in February 1967. First ‘CFL, chart date February 2, 1967 (which you can hear in montage form below):

1. “Georgy Girl”/Seekers (up from 2)
2. “I’m A Believer”/Monkees (down from 1)
3. “Pushin’ Too Hard”/Seeds (up from 8)
4. “I Love You So Much”/New Colony Six (holding at 4)
5. “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet”/Blues Magoos (holding at 5)
6. “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”/Royal Guardsmen (down from 3)
7. “I Had Too Much To Dream”/Electric Prunes (up from 11)
8. “Ruby Tuesday”/Rolling Stones (up from 17)
9. “Kind Of A Drag”/Buckinghams (down from 7)
10. “Tell It Like It Is”/Aaron Neville (up from 12)

And WLS, chart date February 3, 1967:

1. “I’m a Believer”-“I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone”/Monkees (holding at 1)
2. “Georgy Girl”/Seekers (up from 3)
3. “Pushin’ Too Hard”/Seeds (up from 5)
4. “Ruby Tuesday”/Rolling Stones (up from 11)
5. “We Ain’t Got Nothin’ Yet”/Blues Magoos (up from 6)
6. “I Love You So Much”/New Colony Six (down from 2)
7. “I Had Too Much to Dream”/Electric Prunes (up from 9)
8. “Kind of a Drag”/Buckinghams (down from 7)
9. “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”/Royal Guardsmen (down from 4)
10. “Gimme Some Lovin'”/Spencer Davis Group (up from 12)

Amazingly—or perhaps not amazingly—there’s not much to choose from here. Both stations were likely gathering sales information from similar sources, although radio station charts were rarely based solely on sales. The top nine songs are the same on both stations, albeit in a different order; WLS charts the B-side of “I’m a Believer,” and I’d be willing to bet they WCFL played it some. Only Number 10 differs: “Tell It Like It Is” is on WLS at Number 16, down from 11; “Gimme Some Lovin'” is on WCFL at Number 11, up from 15. That the winter of 1967 was part of the golden age of garage psychedelia is not in dispute, with the Seeds, the Blues Magoos, and the Electric Prunes all blasting from Chicago’s AM radios. The New Colony Six were a Chicago group whose local profile extended far beyond “Things I’d Like to Say” and “I Will Always Think About You,” which were both major national hits; the Buckinghams were from Chicago as well. The novelty “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” was an absolute rage across the country that winter, the Stones were the Stones and the Monkees were the Monkees, and “Georgy Girl” fit in the pocket between Swinging London and the birth of the hippie.

Further down, each station charts its share of housewife music (Bobby Darin, Petula Clark, Tom Jones) and its share of records that became obscure. WCFL seems to have a bit less of the latter, but they also chart only 33 records in all as opposed to 40 on WLS. Each station was likely playing more than that, however—a 1967 WLS publication says that the station chose about 65 records for airplay each week. With little appreciable difference between the stations based on the music they chose, the difference between them was likely defined by their personalities, several of whom went from one side of the street to the other and back again during the decade-long war, Clark Weber, Ron Riley, Joel Sebastian, Dick Biondi, and Larry Lujack among them. WCFL was market leader in 1967, but by the end of the decade, that would change–and that’s a subject for another time.

Programming Note: Watch for a special Super Bowl weekend post, either tomorrow or Sunday.

WCFL Capsule Countdown/February 2, 1967

Top 5: You Get What You Need

I have written here previously of my amazement that the whole country didn’t end up diabetic in the summer of 1973, given the sugary goop that was proliferating on the radio: Donny Osmond’s “The Twelfth of Never,” “Sing” by the Carpenters,” “My Love” by Paul McCartney and Wings, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” by Dawn, “Playground in My Mind” by Clint Holmes. But holy smokes, look at the top of the chart from WCFL in Chicago dated May 26, 1973: How many other charts of the 1970s were topped by two instrumentals, and by two hard-rockin’ instrumentals at that? “Hocus Pocus” by Focus and “Frankenstein” by Edgar Winter hold down the top two spots, with Steely Dan’s guitar-driven “Reelin’ in the Years” at Number Three. Plus Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, the Stones, and Pink Floyd are on the chart to counterbalance the cotton candy.

This is why I love me some 70s Top 40.

Elsewhere on the chart, these tunes were happenin’:

8. “Cherry Cherry”/Neil Diamond (holding at 8). This is the version of “Cherry Cherry” from Hot August Night, a live album recorded as Diamond’s transition from rock ‘n’ roll kid to tasteful adult balladeer was in progress. In later years, Diamond would sound uncomfortable singing these rockin’ old numbers—or maybe he just had trouble summoning up the passion to do them one more damn time.

18. “Let’s Pretend”/Raspberries (up from 21). After you’ve made one of the greatest AM radio rockers of all time in “Go All the Way,” what do you do for an encore? The same thing, again. “I Wanna Be With You” was “Go All the Way” with extra caffeine, while “Let’s Pretend” is the prequel, before the protagonist of “Go All the Way” got quite so horned up. Its failure to become a national hit on the scale of the earlier two singles is a crime against art. Here it is, in a TV performance from approximately 1973:

21. “Back When My Hair Was Short”/Gunhill Road (up from 24). One of the profoundly great one-shot singles of the 1970s, “Back When My Hair Was Short” narrates a young man’s experiences growing up in the 1960s. He’s a sock-hop refugee from the 1950s making his way in a decade of change; the song is goofy/nostalgic, and damn catchy. But that is not the story the song originally set out to tell. The version that appeared on Gunhill Road’s eponymous album was vastly different, and in no way fit for AM radio circa 1973. A representative verse follows:

Back when my hair was short
Before I’d been to court
For selling dope to some kids
Only a couple of lids
They stood around and made bids

The Gunhill Road album and both versions of “Back When My Hair Was Short” were produced by a fella named Kenny Rogers. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

22. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”/Rolling Stones (down from 19). This song had been on the flipside of “Honky Tonk Women” in 1969, but was released on its own in 1973 in hopes of spurring sales of the Hot Rocks 1964-1971 and More Hot Rocks compilation albums, which had both been released the previous year.

25. “Wild About My Lovin'”/Adrian Smith (up from 28). I have been able to learn practically nothing about Adrian Smith, except that she’s not the guitarist with Iron Maiden. The phrase “tiny lady, big voice” pops up in a significant number of web citations about her self-titled album, but that’s it. “Wild About My Lovin'” rode the charts at WCFL for at least 12 weeks in the summer of 1973, and it got some play on other Chicago stations as well. If you know anything more, help a brother out.

“Back When My Hair Was Short” (original album version)/Gunhill Road (the Gunhill Road album and various compilations that once contained the 45 version of “Back When My Hair Was Short” are all out of print; as is often the case with officially out-of-print material, used and after-market copies remain available; see comment below)

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