Saturday, December 28, 2013

My one-nighter

Yes, this is a re-post but it's one of my most requested.
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.


Phil In Phoenix said...

Ken, I'm going to guess that jock was Brant Miller. The Big 89 was indeed a big deal. "Superjock" Larry Lujack died about 10 days ago. Dick Biondi is STILL working! Chicago radio was great in the 70's and 80's.

Jack Leyhane said...

This is such a great story even if it is a rerun -- and it occurs to me that we may be able to track down the person you tortured that night. I've launched a query into a WCFL Facebook group that I've joined. In the early 70s, when I was in high school, there were two radio stations that kids listened to, WLS and WCFL. There were declared partisans of each (who looked down their noses at the dedicated fans of the other), but most of us who were lucky to at least know someone with access to a car knew that there were two buttons worth pushing, and we moved back and forth if the song on one was lame or when the zit cream commercials came on. There are some ecumenically-minded members of the current Facebook group and some long-time radio industry employees and... who knows? Perhaps you'll be sending someone dinner....

Les's Bandaid said...

Great post. So, Friday question: What are some of the other inaccuracies in WKRP?

Jack Leyhane said...

If it was Brant Miller, he's still doing radio -- and is also the chief weatherperson on the NBC Chicago affiliate.

Brian O. said...

Absolutely NOT the same thing at all via the internet. Almost like comparing The Theater to YouTube.

Yes, more input re WKRP!

Brent said...

What a cool story! WLS was a huge influence on me. To do an overnight show on the Big 89 would have been so awesome. Thanks for re-posting! Happy New Year!

ODJennings said...

Not to change the subject, but every time I see those call letters I'm reminded that they stand for "World's Largest Store," a carryover from the days when Sears owned the station.

Chicago also had WVON ("Voice of the Negro"), WCFL ("Chicago Federation of Labor') WMBI ("Moody Bible Institute") and of course WGN ("World's Greatest Newspaper').

I realize lots of call letters stand for something, but moving up and down the dial in Chicago always seemed like a quick lesson in Chicago history.

But I'm a romantic. Put me in charge of CBS and we would be back to calling it The Columbia Broadcasting System immediately.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The Chicago station I always looked for in driving through in the late 1970s was WBBM - for the CBS Mystery Theater. (Which has its own Web site now, where you can download any of the thousands of shows they did.) Which I have always assumed was the inspiration for the FRASIER episode where they do the radio mystery play.


Mike Barer said...

What a great story, I got 15 minutes on KJR in the mid 90s when thei sattelite system went awry and they were calling for listeners to come in and do a shift. But this column is about you and it must have been a real thrill to see your dream fulfilled.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Wonderful story Beav'

At one station (KBEST 95 in San Diego), I'd get headaches from running the headphones so I rigged a cue monitor to run at a low, non-feedback volume. No more pain and I could still hear the tunes. Maybe Dr. Johnny Fever did the same? (Naw...)

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Wonderful story Beav'

At one station (KBEST 95 in San Diego), I'd get headaches from running the headphones so I rigged a cue monitor to run at a low, non-feedback volume. No more pain and I could still hear the tunes. Maybe Dr. Johnny Fever did the same? (Naw...)

have a great 2014!

Real Old Jock said...

Actually there is a way to not have to wear headphones. The engineers at WSM in Nashville devised a way to drive the studio monitor a half cycle off the broadcast signal so there was no feedback from the monitor thru the mic.

Anonymous said...

The engineers at WDAF (61 Country) did the same thing with the studio monitors. That was the only time I ever saw it. They also had a real stop light in the studio instead of the standard lights on the cart machine.

Thanks for the story Ken. Dream come true.

Mike in Seattle said...

Growing up in southwest Michigan listening to AM on my little Zenith transistor from about '64 until FM took over about '70 we could get WLS during the day. It was a gas flipping around between the local top 40 station, WLS and CKLW in Detroit/Windsor. Plus WGN for Cubs games. At night if the weather cooperated you might even be able to pull in WABC and hear Cousin Brucie. For a small town kid that was some kind of exotic listening. After about '69 there was an FM station at Western Michigan University that ran a syndicated program, I think out of KLOS, with JJ Jackson. That was a whole different world.

Brian Drake said...

Great story! I'm at KCBS in SF and this makes me want to go down the hall to the music station and do a shift!

VP81955 said...

But I'm a romantic. Put me in charge of CBS and we would be back to calling it The Columbia Broadcasting System immediately.

Speaking of which, Columbia Square -- which I'm sure Ken has driven past on Sunset Boulevard countless times, probably entered inside on several occasions and maybe even worked briefly at one time or another -- is being renovated into a combination office-retail-residential complex. And the good news is that it's going to retain many of the architectural features that made it a marvel when it opened 75 years ago this past April. Be thankful it didn't suffer the same fate as the old NBC building down the street.

Learn more about its history (and see some pictures from its glorious past) at

Rick said...

Great story. You are right about the thrill of picking up a distant station on a radio. I remember picking up WLS in Los Angeles in 1972. Don't think that is possible today. It;s not the same as the Internet,but thanks to your blog I heard you on KABC Thursday night and KIRO on Friday afternoon on my Internet of the greatest little items I ever purchased.

Anonymous said...

@VP81955. Thanks for the Columbia Square connect. I worked there for 20 years, starting in 1957 and am active in the CBS Alumni Assoc. I have not seen most of pictures. I have forwarded the address to all the people on the committe who are active in the preservation of the site. Went to NBC first, but they were closed for Thanksgiving. Went down the street to CBS and got hired. Thanks again. TLB

Mike in Seattle said...

Ken a question for you. You may have been too young at the time, but here goes.

After listening for so long to Boss radio and WLS, did things change for you when you started hearing stations like KLOS and DJs like JJ Jackson?

For me those changes seem to coincide with changes in the music, too. The end of the Beatles, the beginning of Zeppelin.

I moved to Phoenix where we had the great Bill Compton as a DJ and he played songs like Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat that I had never heard before. Blind Faith, many other bands you didn't hear a lot of on AM.

Thanks Syung Myung Me said...

FWIW, most of the stations I've been in have it set up where the records &c play through the monitors, but the mic pot has a kill-switch built in, so as soon as you turn on the mic, the monitors cut out. (the headphones of course, do not cut out, because that'd be silly.)

Mike in Seattle said...

I don't think I phrased that question very well. I guess I meant for somebody who has an ear for radio, was FM and what people were doing with it something new and exciting or is it all just a change of wardrobe?

VP81955 said...

Thank you, TLB. It's always important to remember that classic Hollywood transcends the movie industry, and that what's popularly known as "old-time radio" played a major role in it, too. In fact, at least four of the most important radio series in history -- "The Jack Benny Program," "Lux Radio Theater," "Dragnet" and "Gunsmoke" -- did either most or all of its episodes from Los Angeles.

Unknown said...

At 18, I managed to snag a job at a 5000 watt radio station in Digby, Nova Scotia. We broadcast three hours in the morning, three in the afternoon, and three in the evening. Everything else was fed from the CBC and the Annapolis Valley Radio Network.

I lived at the station (yes, there was a pull out couch and a small kitchen--but, other than the control room and a small studio, nothing else.) I got up at 5:30am to gather weather readings outside, relay them to the network, then go back to bed before having to do the morning stint of middle-of-the-road music interspersed with a live Swap Shop--where listeners got to call in with articles they wanted to buy, sell or trade.

The afternoon shift was almost entirely country. And the evening was Top 40.

I did it all, usually changing personas for each shift. Morning I was fun and sophisticated (or at least as sophisticated as an 18-year-old could be), afternoons I was relaxed and friendly, and in the evening I was fast-talking, energetic and as hip as I could be.

I look back on that year with equal amounts of embarrassement and joy. It was probably the greatest job I ever had. I left in September for university... and, truthfully, I haven't had a job that has ever come close to allowing me so much fun.

Thanks for the story, Ken. It evoked a lot of great memories.

Bryan said...

I know I related this to you last time you ran this post ken, but you really need to find the aircheck of that shift! Still so funny to imagine the looks you got from that jock. And you are correct about being on such a blowtorch at night. My one shift on the Super 64 KFI in 1983 was a blast with callers from states as far away as Colorado, Wyoming and Washington. It was a blast!

Bob Summers said...


Please do a post about the inaccuracy of WKRP.

benson said...

Bob, I've said it for over 30 years now. WKRP was not a sitcom, it was a documentary.

The only inaccuracies were with headphones.

Phil in Phoenix, I'm pretty sure it's not Brant. I have an idea who it was, and if it's who I think, he actually has a pretty funny (not for the lawyers) radio story attached to him, too.

Real Old Jock said...


As I posted earlier, not wearing headphones is very possible if you have a creative engineering staff.

PD in Waterloo said...

Great story. Reminded me of my own olden days doing all-nighters (I was a student and went straight from my 12-6 shift to an 8 AM Econ class).

One small thing: At a couple of stations where I worked, headphones were not necessary; opening the mic automatically caused a relay to reduce the main speaker volume to a level below feedback. I hated using cans and really appreciated that it wasn't necessary.

Also, one station where I worked was also a cart manufacturer, making and shipping tens of thousands of "Aristocart" brand carts all around the world. Their breakthrough innovation was to have the tape come of the centre spindle and go up the end of the cart furthest from the head openings, to allow the tape to travel further and thereby reduce the flutter of earlier carts, on which the tape came off the spindle and went down towards the corner where the heads opening was, a shorter path.