(Above: “The Pizza Song” had a picture sleeve, which my copy is missing.)
I never imagined radio without Dick Biondi on it somewhere.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m nothing if not something of a realist. No one lives forever, nor works forever, nor should they. And, hell – years ago I didn’t imagine a world where *I* wasn’t on the radio somewhere, yet here we are. But in so many ways Dick Biondi is a sort of alpha and omega of rock and roll radio: he was there in the beginning, and will be there in the end, as it ever shall be, Amen.
That’s why the news reported by Robert Feder this morning that WLS-FM has cut their ties to Biondi was especially jarring. Biondi, who has been dealing with health issues, has been off the air for a while. At the age of 85, it was beginning to look like maybe he wouldn’t be back. Lest there be any doubt, today’s announcement suggests that if Dick Biondi will be back on the radio in Chicago, it won’t be at WLS, a station that he’s been connected with in the minds of listeners in that city for almost sixty years. I’m not understanding why they couldn’t have done a deal here like they do with athletes: give him the option to retire as a member of the airstaff for a day or something. Better yet: just keep him on the roster – save the salary, if you must, since Cumulus Media, the parent company, has financial troubles – and let him be. I would think the goodwill and positive PR the station would receive would outweigh the cost of any paperwork. But, that’s why I’m no longer in radio station management: thinking.
I had the honor of working with Dick in the 90s at WJMK. There I was, the 27-year-old assistant program director, being told that I was in charge of an airstaff that included freakin’ legends. Dick and I chatted often. He made it a habit to call, usually daily, to see how everything was going. Often he’d call on payday to make sure that he had a check. “Dick, you have a contract,” I’d tell him. “When you’ve been fired as many times as I have,” he’d say, “you need to make sure.”
Without question, Dick was the best in-person air talent I have ever seen. I hated – HATED – doing remotes and making personal appearances. Introverts like me are drawn to radio because we can stay in a room by ourselves, not get up and work a room. Dick had this ability of making every person that he met feel special: he’d listen to them tell some story he’d undoubtedly heard before, always compliment their partner (“She’s too cute to be with you,” he’d say.), and send them away happy that they took time out of their day to come to a live broadcast. Today, you rarely see these anymore, because who wants to drive across town to see some disinterested promotions assistant sitting at a table, texting, ignoring you? That’s what I see today. In 1997 Dick was out on remote 48 Saturdays at a cost to businesses of $12,000 per remote. That’s the value that he brought to them, and they lined up to book him.
Students of mine now learn about what Biondi meant to rock and roll radio. They get to hear his work from WLS, and we talk about how much radio has changed in the over fifty years since. He was the first person to play a Beatles record on the radio, spinning “Please Please Me” on his show in 1963. He pulled something like an unheard-of Pulse rating of 70. He once joked that if anyone saw the boss’ car that they should throw rocks at it – and they did. I also use him as an example of how people think that they hear things that they don’t. So many of the people who would shake his hand at live appearances would insist that they were listening on the night he told the dirty joke that got him fired from WLS. Some would go so far as to repeat the joke. The thing is – it didn’t happen that way at all. Dick left the station over a disagreement over the number of commercials on his show. But the urban legend of the dirty joke is so pervasive, it’s the accepted version. Dick would just smile, since you wouldn’t want to tell a valued listener that something they believed to be true for 35 years didn’t happen.
I hadn’t talked to Dick in a very long time. I reached out to him when working on my dissertation to get his perspective on the early days of rock and roll radio, and we were never able to find a time that worked. In all honesty, I’m not entirely sure that he remembered who I was – after all, it had been fifteen years since I’d seen him, and he’s worked with so many people that I surely blended into the background. I’d still like to have that conversation, and need to sooner rather than later.
The subject of Dick leaving the station came up once. It was suggested that perhaps I’d be the heir apparent to his nighttime program at WJMK should he decide to retire. I declined before it was offered. “I never want to be the person to replace Dick Biondi, because whatever I do will be awful in the minds of the listeners. No one can truly replace him.” I stand by the last part of that sentence today.
Of course, we always put music into this blog, so we close with spinning “The Pizza Song.” You can hear it by clicking here.