Wednesday, April 28, 2010

My one-nighter

One of my favorite radio legends, Dale Dorman read my recent piece on playing the same records as the competition at the same time, and reminded me of another chestnut from my checkered radio career.

For years (decades really) WLS Chicago was a monster Top 40 radio station. Clear channel from Chicago (that meant no other stations on that frequency), you could hear WLS at night almost coast-to-coast. Teens in far away hamlets in Iowa and Arkansas would thrill nightly to the likes of Dick Biondi, Art Roberts, Steve Lundy, and others. I used to hear them in Los Angeles.

So WLS was a station I always wanted to work at.

As fortune would have it, in 1988 my father became the General Manager of WLS. By then I was on staff of CHEERS. But when dad asked if the family would come out to Chicago for Thanksgiving I said, “Yes, under one condition. I want to do one all-night shift on WLS”. He must’ve really wanted to see his grandkids bad because he agreed to that.

So we arrive in Chicago a few days before Thanksgiving and he says I can go on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. Remember, I had been a disc jockey for a number of years at this point and was quite comfortable in the role.

I arrive at the station at 11:30, enter the studio, and see the memo that my father had posted. It said: “My son Ken will be doing the all-night show from midnight-to-six.” A better way of putting that might have been “Ken Levine will be doing the all-night show from midnight-to-six.” It’s the “my son” part that made it look like “bring your kid to work day”.

At one time WLS had engineers who played all the songs and commercials and jingles. The disc jockeys just talked. Now the disc jockeys also did their own engineering. I prefer that actually; gives me more control.

The jock on duty was surprised to see this new person. He obviously hadn’t read the memo. When he did he said, “Uh, there’s a problem. No one is scheduled to run the board and I have to be somewhere at 12:15. It’s going to take a while to get somebody down here.” Obviously, he thought this was just some lark. The bosses’ kid always wanted to be on the radio so what the hell?

I decided to have a little fun with him. I said, “I don’t need an engineer. My dad said I could do everything myself. “

The jock gulped and with great hesitation said, “O-Kay”.

The control board was very standard. Slide pots, one for the mic, one to bring up network news, one to bring up the phone, and the others for the cartridge machines to play all the music, jingles, promos, commercials, whatnot. You pushed a button to turn on a channel, you raised and lowed the volume with the slide pots. It’s far more complicated today with computers.

Anyway, this was pretty much the conversation:

HIM: Okay, well this is the control board.

ME: Where are the records?

HIM: Records? We don’t play records anymore. All the songs are on carts.

ME: Carts? What’s that?

HIM: (holding one to demonstrate): These. They’re called cartridges.

(I knew full well what cartridges were. Anyone who’s been in the business eleven seconds knew what cartridges were.)

ME: Oh. Cool! Where do they go?

HIM: Uh, in these slots. We have eight cart machines.

ME: Give me a second. I want to take notes.

(By now this poor guy is dying. WLS is a 50,000 watt powerhouse and this rube is going to go on the air… unsupervised?)

ME: (now with pad in hand) Okay. Ready. Carts go in those slots.

HIM: On the board here are numbers corresponding to the cart machines. So if you put something in cart 5, it’s number 5 on the board.

ME: (scrawling) … Number 5 on the board. Got it.

HIM: (biting his lip) You turn the volume up and down with these slide pots.

ME: Volume? Is that how loud it is?

HIM: (ready to kill me and my father) Yes. That’s how loud it is. You press the red button and it goes on the air.

ME: Simple enough. Where’s the microphone?

HIM: Pot 1.

ME: How will I hear the songs?

HIM: You have these headphones.. That’s what they’re for. No disrespect but, have you seen a radio show before?

ME: Sure. It’s just that Dr. Johnny Fever didn’t wear phones and he heard the music.

(Just one of the many inaccuracies of WKRP IN CINCINNATI).

HIM: You need headphones.

(By now it was time for him to sign-off and go to five minutes of ABC network news at :55. He had me sit down.)

HIM: Okay, now at the top of the hour you have to play this jingle.

ME: Which jingle?

HIM: (ready to explode) The one that says “Top of the Hour”.

ME: Oh.

HIM: What’s your first record?

ME: You mean “cartridge”.

HIM: Yes, what’s your first cartridge.

(I selected it, and inserted it tentatively into the machine.)

HIM: Now what you have to do when the news is over is pot down the news here, play the jingle here, and when it sings “WLS Chicago”, right after you hear Chicago play the …rec, uh “cartridge”.

ME: Let me write this down. News…jingle…cartridge. When do I turn my mic on?

HIM: Once the song starts.

ME: Then I’m pushing two buttons at once.

HIM: You can turn it on earlier… or later. Whenever you want.

ME: Okay, I’ll give it a try.

(Sweat is pouring off this poor guy. The news ends. I turn on the mic, pot down the news, fire the jingle, blast the song and say:

ME: 12:00 in Chicago. My name is Ken Levine. I’ve been on the radio in Bakersfield, San Bernardino, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles. But never at the same time. THIS is WLS!

(And talked right up to the vocal. Once I turned the mic off: )

HIM: You asshole! You’ve done this before!

ME: Yes. Of course. Do you think my father is going to put someone on a 50,000 radio station who’s never done it before?

For the life of me I don’t remember the name of that jock. But I owe him a nice dinner… and maybe a month’s worth of therapy.

And by the way, being on WLS in the middle of the night was just as cool as I always imagined. Maybe more. Today of course, you can hear just about any station anywhere through the internet but it’s not the same thing. Not the same thing at all.


Audrey Antley said...

Absolutely awesome story.

And very CRUEL of you.

Must have been tons of fun!

Prisoner#13344 ValleyState said...

I love you. You rock.

(No fears, I won't stalk you. Probably.)

Unknown said...

This is one of the great Chicago radio stories EVER. Thank you for sharing it and bringing a huge smile to the face of someone who never got the chance to be on WLS.

Hope we can meet up in the press box at Wrigley on the next Dodgers trip into Chicago.distram

Mister Charlie said...

How f'in cool, Ken! :) I grew up on WLS in a Chicago suburb, and eventually got into radio myself in the 80s. But to do a shift on WLS would still be a thrill, and this is a great story. Except for the poor guy you nailed. You should find out who it was and make it right. :)

Tom Quigley said...

When I first read the title on this blog and then saw the picture with the letters "WLS" on the entrance to the building, I figured they stood for "Wilshire-LaBrea Slumbermotel" and you were going to reveal the details of a secret tryst you had with Natalie Wood, or something along those lines...


Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

I nearly peed my pants. Gracious, was that funny.

Swell. Just swell.

J S Swanson said...

I love WLS stories. I grew up in Rockford, IL so we got WLS very loud & clear. Listened to it a lot growing up & a day was not complete without listening to Larry Lujack & John Records Landecker during my High school/ Jr College years in the late 60s/ early 70s. I'll never forget The Enormous 89 -- and obviously you won't either.

Anonymous said...

Is there an aircheck?

The Milner Coupe said...

You knooow you made a tape. That was a great story and probably the fulfillment of the dream of quite a few of us. Very cool.


DwWashburn said...

WLS!!! Wow that takes me back. I grew up in rural Tennessee (Paris, Tennessee to be exact). We had a small station that broadcast from sunup to sundown and only played rock on Saturday from 1PM until signoff. So to hear the Beatles, Monkees, etc we had to listen to very staticy WHBQ in Memphis (130 miles away) or wait until sundown and hear WLS.

Our local record store carried the WLS Silver Dollar Survey even though we were 500 or so miles from Chicago. Ron Riley and Dex Card were my generation's constant companions. I still have my "Ron Riley's Batman Club" button and WLS magazine that contained bios on all the jocks.

We seldom got to hear Clark Weber because in the mid sixties he was on the morning shift and by that time the small rural stations like the one in Paris had fired up and were blocking out the "clear channels". It's a shame that WLS (which stands for World's Largest Store) has went to all talk now.

Geno said...

Many's the summer day a teenage me stood in the viewing area, watching the WLS jocks do their thing ... all except for Lujack, who always kept the curtains closed while he was on the air.

Although I never got to work in those hallowed halls, they did let me do a legal ID on WLS a couple of years ago, when they were doing a holiday weekend throwback to Top 40. Wish I had the audio!

Pat Reeder said...

Sounds like you gave the guy at WLS the vicarious DJ's nightmare, where you sit down to do a very important show, you realize you've never seen the board before, and none of buttons do what the labels say. So you're trying to sound cool while your voice is quivering and you're bathed in flop sweat. I haven't run a board in 20 years and now write other people's material, but I still have that nightmare from time to time.

My favorite prank on another DJ came when I was doing mornings at a mid-size market. The mid-day guy was always coming in late. It was annoying because I'd do my farewells to the audience, throw to the news, then we'd have to come back to me still there with egg on my face.

I finally got fed up one day when he didn't show again. I always spoke in my natural voice, but he had one of those deep, growling "radio voices." So after saying goodbye, I went to the news, and came back out by impersonating him. I growled, "This is XXX XXXX, with the mid-day madness!" and did his whole spiel in the most over-the-top way possible. It went on for about 15 minutes until he finally walked in and gave me a look that could kill. He got over it when I suggested we turn it into a bit. He got on a second mic, I began talking as him, he interrupted me, and suddenly there were two of him, arguing over which was the real one.

Ah, radio before it was ruined by programmers promoted out of Sales.

VW: Spoling - New Olympic demonstration sport from Norway that involves ice skates, whisk brooms and a bed spring.

Brian Kelly said...

I was programming the FM at the time Ken. I'm trying to remember who would have been there. I think the possibilities are: Don Wade, Dave Saint, Mike McDonald, Paul Gardner, Bob Bateman, or Phil Duncan. Any of those ring a bell?

Paul Duca said...

I have only one thing to say, Ken.....BOOGER!!

benson said...

If it was McDonald, the story of his exit at WLS is pretty funny (now).
I wonder if your dad was there for that.

BTW, Dick Biondi's 50th anniversary on WLS is being simulcast on both wireless frequencies and the other way too, this Sunday night.

Jack Leyhane said...

Dick Biondi is still very much with us (from Robert Feder's blog, 4/21/10):

On May 2, 1960, a skinny kid from Endicott, N.Y., arrived in Chicago and signed on at WLS-AM (890) as the new Top 40 station’s nighttime screamer. Five decades later, Radio Hall of Famer Dick Biondi, 77, is still playing the music that rocked Chicago — from 7 to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday on oldies WLS-FM (94.7). To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Biondi’s debut on WLS, the Citadel Broadcasting station will air a not-to-be-missed live special from 7 p.m. to midnight on May 2. Biondi will host the five-hour Sunday night extravaganza, featuring appearances by celebrities and highlights of memorable moments in his career. “We’re proud and privileged to have Dick broadcast on our station every night,” said Michael La Crosse, operations director of WLS-FM. “He still sounds as great now as he did then.”

I was just another of a million kids who wanted to be on WLS (or WCFL -- in those days we only needed two buttons on the car radio) and be like Larry Lujack or Bob Sirott....

Mate Famber said...

WLS is now the home of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and a few other Angry White Men.

That's right. It's now a 24 Hour Comedy Station.

Jon J said...

Slider pots, carts, pooh. You wanna talk radio you gotta talk mic switches, rheostat pots, reel tapes on the Ampex, Western Union clock on the wall and vinyl on the turntable. Now that's RADIO!

Another Condon & Cook Alum said...

Jay Levine is your father. Now it all makes sense.

Larry Lujack may have been great, but what a miserable guy.

angel said...

I was laughing so hard it caught the attention of my Husband. So he made me read your sign on to him. OMG! It's perfect! THIS IS WLS! :-)

By the way, he remembers listening to it, growing up in Fresno.

Dawn Marie said...

I grew up in Rockford IL also, JS Swanson, a few years behind you. Have a brother about your age and WLS and Larry Lujack were a huge part of our growing up also. First thing I ever remember learning from my big brother was Larry Lujack's name! And I can still hear the WLS jingle.

Only time we changed the channel was for Cubs games on WGN with Vince lloyd and Lou Boudreau (pre supertation - Harry Carey years). I was too young to know how they rated as baseball announcers Ken, but they will always be the voice of the Cubs to me.

Great story!

By Ken Levine said...

No, my dad is Cliff Levine.

DwWashburn said...

>Mate Famber said...
WLS is now the home of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and a few other Angry White Men.

That's right. It's now a 24 Hour Comedy Station.>

LOL. Good one, Mike. And not even good comedy at that.

Mayweather said...

I like that story that never heard before.

normadesmond said...

isn't the name dale dorman out of my past? wrko, boston?

Aaron Barnhart said...

As I recall, John Records Landecker was doing the 7 to midnight shift on WLS in 1987, my last year in college.

dav said...

Here in Nashville, we listened to WLS every night and every morning while getting ready for school (until the sun came up) ..... but more importantly what was the rec/cart you came out of the ID with at midnight?

Joey H said...

<<>> "Eighty Nine...Double-you-ELL-ess....Chi-CAW-go"

Stuman714 in Indy said...

My Dad turned me on to WLS in the mid-late '60s and I was forever listening to it on a little transistor am radio with a single-ear piece headphone. (For the younger generation they came standard with all transistor radios back in the day.)
I remember Larry Lujack (sp?) as the man at WLS in those days. I was forever tainted with rock 'n roll-itis after that.
Great story! Thanks for the memories!

Stuman714 in Indy said...

Sorry--spacing out after reading this. I should have said I was listening on that old transistor in Iowa City.....

jackscribe said...

I was one of those 'clear channel' listeners. Late at night in Des Moines, I'd tune in WLS and WGN from Chicago, as well as WWL from New Orleans. BTW, readers may not know that WLS stood for World's Largest Store (when it was owned by Sear's) at its founding.

Unknown said...

Ken, great story but one question: You mention talking right up to the vocal. Why do jocks do that? I have always found it infuriating. As entertaining as the talk may be, once the music is on, I just want to hear the music. I can't imagine I'm the only one.

Unknown said...

And "Records" truly was, as John Landecker always said, his middle name. (His mother's maiden name, as I recall). Unfortunately I wasn't listening to WLS much by 1988 but from about 1966-75, when I finally discovered FM, the dial did not move from the Big 89. Lujack, Sirott, Landecker...and the other so-called gods of our legends, though gods they were...Great story, thanks.

Anonymous said...

GREAT story Ken! You made me smile today! Wish I'd been a fly on the wall in the WLS control room that night!

Bryan Simmons

sarah said...

1) most radio station names in USA seem to start w/ a "k" or "w". do you know what the letters stand for?

2) even season 1 episodes of bewitched are available in color on the Internet (while the original telecast seems to be in black and white). do you know how that's possible?


Stuman714 in Indy said...

Reply to:

sarah said...
1) most radio station names in USA seem to start w/ a "k" or "w". do you know what the letters stand for?

When the FCC established the Radio Communications Act--I believe it was 1934--they established all stations west of the Mississippi would start with K and all east of the Mississippi would start with W. There are certain exceptions-in the case of one if not the original stations in the east that does start with a K. It's been awhile since I studied it and my memory isn't as good as it used to be. Maybe Ken can help to fill that one in!

The Oracle said...

Write a book of this stuff. Write it now. I command thee.

John Trumbull said...

Great story, Ken. Could you expand on the other radio inaccuracies you found in WKRP? Sounds like a great idea for a post.

Pat Reeder said...

To those of you who want more radio stories, I'd suggest a book by my friends, Ron Stevens & Joy Grdnic. They're a husband and wife comedy/morning radio team. A few years ago, they put together a book of true radio stories. My story about being in the studio with Gary Busey is in there (and he thought I was insane. Top that!) You can order it and see excerpts here:

Paul Duca said...

Pat, can you verify that link to the Stevens and Grdnic site? I keep trying and nothing comes up. I'm having almost as much of a problem with it as if I were ordering....


sarh said...

Thanks stuman714 in Indy, for the reply on radio station names! At least, I've some idea now..

bella said...

That is such a great story. I would never had the guts to mess with someone like that, or the talent to pull it off.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Growing up in central lower Michigan, I also listened to WLS when it was a music station, and loved John Landecker.

I still listen to AM news radio at night before I go to sleep -- and it's not the same on the internet. I like a little hiss, some fade and static with my traffic reports.

DJ said...

WLS...Larry Lujack and "Animal Stories" (with midday DJ Tommy Edwards, who as PA announcer for the Bulls, created the pregame intro with "Sirius" by the Alan Patsons Project)...Bob Sirott in the afternoon...John Landecker and the " Boogie Check" at night...

Sometimes a memory can warm you better than an electric blanket.

K.M. Richards said...

Ken, you were just too mean to that poor night jock. Remind me to have you do a fill-in shift somewhere and I'll have all the board labels removed just for the occasion ...

Dave Clary said...

Cool story. I used to listen to WLS at night in Lafayette La (71-72). One night I heard a promo where they were giving away t-shirts that had pictures of the jocks. I wrote a letter (as in snail mail) to Bill Bailey asking if there was any way I could buy one. A couple weeks later I got a t-shirt in the mail and a note from Bill. It was the hi-light of my DJ wannabe days!!

Ross Brittain said...

I happened to grow up on Chicago's North Shore, and missed WLS (and Super CFL) when I went to college, so I used to listen on the skip in Atlanta. I always wanted to work at WLS, but never was lucky enough. However, after I was in radio for awhile, I got a gig at WABC and I remember being amazed when I walked into the studios there and they'd engineered it so that the speakers were out of phase with the mics and you could actually crank the speakers and talk on the air at the same time! I'm sure it made most of the engineers deaf much earlier. And of course, radio personalities being the insecure group they are, everybody wore headphones anyway. Great story, Ken!

VP81955 said...

WLS was arguably the first U.S. station to play a Beatles record, in late February 1963 ("Please Please Me," from Chi-Town's own Vee-Jay Records, which issued it after Capitol spurned Parlophone's request). Here are two WLS surveys, from March 8 and 15, where the song charted at 40 and 35:

Biondi, who normally was the first at the station to play new music, believes he was the first jock to play the Beatles at WLS.

For more on the Beatles in the U.S. in 1963, go to

Ed from SFV said...

WLS was the greatest Top 40 station in the 70s. My personal fav jock was Bob Sirott. His franchise was "BS, love counselor." His voice and his shtick made him, to this day, the single coolest indvidual to walk the planet, imo. ( I know, Steve McQueen, HUmphrey Bogart, Paul Newman and a host of others have an argument).

But I will never forget the moment on a late weekday afternoon, I was driving home from high school, and Sirott debuted Chicago's immortal hit, "If You Leave Me Now." I was driving down the street that bordered the golf course at Notre Dame.

That cosmic occurrence brought together my three favorite things....the group Chicago, Sirott, and Notre Dame. Only radio, imo, could make this happen. I'm quite sure I am not the only one who can recall that particular moment, either.

robgrayson said...

When WLS-FM came back as an oldies station using their version of the classic logo jingles a few years back, I noted that the station was missing out on potential revenue. All they had to do was offer the weekend overnight shifts to all the Musicradio wannabes like me for a nominal fee, and folks would line up to PAY to get to do an airshift on "WLS"; sort of a DJ fantasy camp.

Mike Bell said...

Amazing. Not one comment from DeRoo or Bob Harlow.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Ken. Like others that have been in the control room (I have 5 years under my belt, back in the day) I could picture this poor sap soiling his shorts while you light him up the entire time. I can imagine his middle finger was in the erect position for a while after that "stunt". A classic moment! Oh, what we would consider giving for just one hour on 'LS back then....

Doug DeRoo said...

What were you expecting, Bell? Some comment about how many one-nighters that Levine had in Bakersfield?

Doug DeRoo said...

What were you expecting, Bell? A comment about how many "one nighters" Levine had in Bakersfield?