(Above: Rock, brother.)
“Dude – you made it!”
The first phone call I got on my first shift at WJMK in Chicago – 21 years ago today – was shortly after the start of the first song that I played on the station. It was from my friend Dave. Dave had been there since the beginning of my career. Hell, Dave had been there long before that. We became friends in the third grade. We’ve given the toasts at each other’s weddings. But Dave’s connection to my radio career goes back to my college days at WLRA. He would head out on Tuesday nights to answer phones on my show and join the WLRA staff at the inevitable gathering at the Flyer’s Den. Over the years he helped to move my records in to crappy apartments so many times that I lost count. But that Sunday morning in 1996 he was calling to acknowledge that I was finally in the job that I had always dreamed that I would get.
I was always partial to Oldies music. From the first records I got from my folks shortly after my 4th birthday, to creating 60s mixtapes for my car in high school, I was always – shall we say – behind on current trends in music. (I prefer to quote Brian Wilson: “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.”) My radio preferences were no different. I was an early devotee of WFYR and WCLR in Chicago, the latter on their all-request Saturday night Oldies show. I would often stay up until 4am when the show ended as it was easier to call Jack Miller and get my requests played. The success of those stations led to the launch of “Magic 104” in 1984. It immediately took the first button on my radio. In a high school diary entry dated January of 1985 I note that it’s what we listen to now. So when I finally decided to try my hand at radio in college it was only natural that I’d set it as my unattainable goal.
The path was long. When I decided to forego my college eligibility and turn pro in 1988, I wanted to hit it big. Jobs took me from Joliet to Davenport twice (at both KRVR and 97X), to Macomb, Morris, and Springfield, Illinois, and even to New Zealand. The first time I sent my demo material to WJMK – in 1992 – I received a very nice flush letter.
My sudden return from New Zealand in 1995 led to the single biggest burst of resumes mailed ever. I was starting over after a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had taken the ultimate risk, accepting a job in a town I had never visited and putting all my things on a boat hoping they’d arrive. (Oh, yeah – waiting for the flight to leave, it was Dave, Rich, Chuck and Pat – my best friends – who sat with me at the airport until I got on the plane.) I am sure that one of those fresh resumes went to WJMK when I returned to the US. The first interview I had was in Benton Harbor, MI, at a station in search of a program director that didn’t count my NZ programming experience as “real.” The first job that I got was weekends at WYSY, the all 70’s station in Chicago that Cox Communications moved downtown from Aurora. My regular shift there was working from 11pm Friday to 6am Saturday each weekend, and occasional other shifts as needed. It was, as they say, a paycheck.
I worked at WYSY for six months, and for three of them I was waiting to see if I was leaving. That’s because I interviewed at WJMK the day after Christmas, 1995. Kevin Robinson agreed to meet me for lunch and asked me to chat with him about becoming the station’s assistant program director/music director. There were six candidates, and then three, and then – me. The day I turned 27 – March 18, 1996, I reported for work for my first day on the team at WJMK. The station I joked with my college classmates that I’d one day work for had, in fact, hired me on.
The first few days were surreal. The station’s lineup was a veritable who’s who of Chicago air talent, and I was now picking the music that they’d play. Dick Biondi, the first American disk jockey to play a Beatles record, was the nighttime host, and we became fast friends. The second day I was there a figure appeared in my doorway.
“Hi, my name is John, and I do the morning show.”
John was John Records Landecker. You weren’t a kid in Chicago in the 1970s if you didn’t sneak a transistor radio to bed and hear his show. And now he was standing in my office, saying how he looked forward to working with me. (Neither of us had any idea that exactly twenty years later he’d be a primary source for my doctoral dissertation on rock and roll, or that I’d help him finish college.) Over the next few days I met the rest of the team: Greg Brown, Scott Miller, the aforementioned Jack Miller, and the whole staff of sister station WJJD, which included Bob Hale. Bob was introduced to me as “the man who killed Ritchie Valens,” which led him to tell me the story of the Surf Ballroom. I was mesmerized.
The last one I met was Pat O’Kelley, and that’s because he worked all nights. He also did Sunday mornings, and I was to follow him on my first shift. I had known his name since 1984 since – come on – how often do you hear your own name on the radio if you are not named Michaels? And now, here we were, and he was telling the audience I was coming up next.
Nine years of toiling for just above minimum wage. Nine years of moving from town to town, up and down the dial. Dealing with owners who had gone bankrupt, or had gone to prison, or had just gone. These are the stories I tell my students now. The beginning of a broadcasting career isn’t pretty. You miss family events. You work odd hours. You ask yourself if it’s all worth it. But – sometimes – if you work hard, and believe in yourself, and push yourself to be the best you can be, you can become the thing you only dreamed you could.
“My broadcast brother, Len O’Kelly, is next,” Pat said, as he handed over the controls just before 10 AM. I put on my headphones, waited for the last song of his show to fade out, hit the top of the hour jingle, and hit the button to play my first record on WJMK. It was one that we did an insanely stupid dance to at high school sock hops. It was one that I did the same insanely stupid dance to at my wedding reception a few years later. It was the song that I made sure was the first one on my music log, because I knew it was the first one I wanted to hear through my headphones in that studio.
It was “Shout” by the Isley Brothers. If you have headphones on, you can relive my moment by clicking here.