Word spread rapidly this morning that Merlin Media, who had been trying to sell Chicago’s WLUP, finally found a buyer: the Educational Media Foundation. EMF serves the contemporary Christian format over satellite to its affiliates. The format, called “K-Love,” has been on the air on a signal out of suburban Elgin for some time, but now it’s going to have full coverage in the metro. Will that work? I’m not sure. I spent a brief bit of time working as the production director for Salem’s “Fish” format in Chicago, which had trouble catching on. The metro area is more Catholic than Evangelical, and the format may be a tough sell across a mass audience. But that won’t matter, as EMF has the cash. (They’re only paying about $21.5 million for it: for comparison’s sake, when Infinity was sold to Westinghouse in 1997, the estimated value of WJMK was about $120 million. It’s a buyer’s market, and wait until iHeart starts selling properties.) Longtime media expert Robert Feder has a full story here.
This is a station with a storied history. The 98 FM frequency was originally WSDM (Smack Dab in the Middle), the FM sister station to Leonard Chess’ WVON. WSDM was a bit of a programming novelty in that it was ‘the station with the girls’ – the entire airstaff was female. WSDM became WLUP when Phil Chess sold the station in 1977. Of course, it was also the station that featured Steve Dahl and Garry Meier in 1979. Exiled from their morning show at WDAI-FM, which became “Disco ‘DAI,” Steve got an idea to stage an anti-disco event at Comiskey Park between games of a doubleheader with Detroit. You’ve probably heard that one before.
I knew about The Loop by the late 1970s, but didn’t become a regular listener until the mid-80s. I was more partial, musically, to WMET, which disappeared famously (“Enough is enough!”) in early 1985, and I also split my time getting my oldies fix from Magic 104, where I would later work. It was at that time that Jonathon Brandmeier was starting to really make headway in the Chicago radio ratings, and that show was a regular fixture in my car on the way to high school. I then started paying more attention to the shows that weren’t Johnny. I’d tune in to Bob Stroud middays, and especially on the weekends for his “Rock and Roll Roots” program, which played the oldies I enjoyed. I appreciated his style, as I did with Bobby Skafish in the afternoon. In the summertime, if I were out driving late, I’d catch Scott Dirks on the all night show.
A few years later, when I decided to answer the calling that was going into radio, I borrowed so much style from so many people that I should probably pay them all royalties. My college on-air persona featured attempts to replicate the sarcasm of Larry Lujack, the dry wit of John Landecker, the laid-back feel of Rob S, and the deep musical knowledge of Stroud. I wanted to become a mixture of all of them, and – as usually happens, ended up becoming something completely different.
There’s much being written about the rise and fall of the Loop. Kevin Matthews is working on a project to this end. My friend Rick Kaempfer, who had a front-row seat for all of this working on-air and as producer for Steve and Garry, has written much, including a great retrospective piece today. I’ll leave that to those who were there. I came around too late and had too different a career aim to have been a part of the station in its prime. All I can claim is that I learned from some great jocks who taught me some great music.
I got to thinking about the music today, and – since this blog is largely about music – I figured I’d think of some songs that I inextricably link to WLUP in its late 80s/early 90s prime. You’ll note that I’m not picking stuff from the “kickass rock and roll” era. While I appreciate the station’s place in history, that wasn’t my era. This was the stuff that I was enjoying hearing instead, and that’s why it’s here.
Bruce Hornsby and the Range, “The Way It Is.” I was sitting on the outbound side of the Dan Ryan expressway one afternoon late in 1986, and Bobby Skafish front-sold this as a brand-new release. That evening, when I went to work at Orland Square Mall, I stopped into Musicland and bought the CD based on hearing this one track. I have never regretted that purchase and still love this album. (I think I told this story here, since David and David’s “Welcome to the Boomtown” has a similar tale.)
John Kilzer, “Red Blue Jeans.” This is one that Scott Dirks served up one night in 1988, and led me to find the Memory in the Making CD. I think I finally sold that one a few years ago, and since I was probably one of the few people to buy it in the first place, I made a few bucks. But damn, did that sound great coming out of a car stereo at two in the morning.
10,000 Maniacs, “Like the Weather.” Fun fact: the drought that gripped Chicago in 1988 began the week that WLUP added this song to the playlist, and the rains resumed when they stopped playing it. You can look it up.
The Five Emprees, “Little Miss Sad.” I burned up more than a few cassettes trying to grab oldies from Bob Stroud’s “Rock and Roll Roots” program. Magic 104, paired with my parents’ records, got me into 60s pop. Stroud played the ones that I couldn’t hear anywhere else, and set me on more than a few musical treasure hunts over the years. At the time, I had no idea that I’d be coding a group from St. Joe, Michigan as a “local hit” when writing a dissertation on AM radio. I just knew that I loved the song enough to make it the first track on the cassette marked “60s Cruising Tape” that I kept in my 1969 Buick. I can make the same claim for The Shangri-Las, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss“ and the entire LP of A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector. (Note to self: The Shangri-Las need their own post at a future date.)
Mr. Big, “To Be With You.” In the early 90s I was trying desperately to grab an audience for my morning show at WLLI-FM in Joliet. I’d usually listen to WLUP when I wasn’t on the air to see what sort of music we might be missing. This was a song I heard them play, which led me to the LP, which led me to throw “Green-Tinted Sixties Mind“ on my shows in an effort to make a hit out of it. My efforts, of course, failed, but it’s still a great record.
Robert Plant, “Tall Cool One.” I wore out at least one copy of this record in the summer of 1988 and went years before hearing it again. It made its way onto at least one mixtape that summer, and remember hearing it a lot on the Loop.
Anything that became a Brandmeier show piece. To this day, I don’t hear “Rock Me Amadeus” as anything but “Eat Me I’m a Danish.” Paul Simon’s “Graceland” became “Cheeseland” (complete with the line “Everybody’s rippin’ farts,” which I will sing when the lyric comes up), and I’d love a copy of it. I am also still looking for someone who has a copy of the reworked version of Midnight Oil’s “The Dead Heart” to be about Johnny. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Brandmeier records themselves: “We’re All Crazy in Chicago,” “The Moo Moo Song,” “You Won’t See Me on MTV,” and “Hey Dere Milwaukee Polka.” I tried explaining to my students once that only two acts ever completely sold out Poplar Creek Music Theater, and that Johnny B was one of them. That didn’t make sense to them, and it sort of doesn’t make sense to me either – but it’s true. (Wait until I dig out my copy of the concert video for them.) Even though I kept getting morning radio assignments, I never saw myself being like Johnny. I couldn’t do it.
(Edited to add: How could I forget “One More Day For Johnny?” I’ve even sung it to myself on the way in to work on the last day before a vacation. It’s actually called “One More Day” by the legendary Win Stracke.)
I’m sure there are many more, and I’ll need to spend an evening wading through boxes of CDs just to see how many of them I bought after hearing them on the radio. But that’s a project for another day. Today, I’m sad to see a station so irrevocably linked with my teen years go away. At the same time I’m glad that I was there to hear it, even if only as a listener.