Until recently Pete McMurray was holding down the fort overnights at WGN Radio. When the talent lineup was shuffled a few months ago, he found himself doing the 7-11pm shift. That has been a great development for the well-traveled McMurray, although there is a downside.
“I hate that I get tempted by to go out after the show,” he admits about the 11pm ending time. “I have a family, I need sleep, I’m weak, and I can’t be tempted! It’s like the scene in Animal House – producer Scott’s (Miller) on one shoulder saying ‘go out, let’s have some fun’ My wife on the other shoulder saying ‘you need to come home,’ wake up early and take your son to school.’ So many tough decisions. It’s rough, man!”
The WGN listeners that had been accustomed to the evening sports-talk of David Kaplan et al, are now getting a regular diet of talk about music or food or pop culture, and it’s definitely skewed toward a younger demographic. McMurray says the listeners have handled the change pretty well.
“If you listen to our show we get all ages because we can relate to everyone. We’ll hear from the grad student going to Berkeley listening online; Marty, the 72 year old woman listening in her living room; Dan, who listens on his app at work and sends us texts messages throughout the show. We have high school students calling in! I’m not kidding; we’re all over the board! We get the content out there on the radio, video, online, the app and especially on social media. We’re all over social media and constantly pushing pictures, videos and audio to drive people back to the show.”
McMurray is enjoying every minute of this ride. He’s doing a high-profile shift, on the highest of profile stations, and it seems like he’s meeting some of his heroes on a nightly basis.
“Who doesn’t love Billy Corgan playing a new song?” he asks rhetorically. “Or, Wayne Newton playing guitar and talking old Vegas? Buddy Guy, JY from Styx all played for us. Joan Rivers, Mark Wahlberg, Bob Costas, the Mayor was just on…all were great! If I’m excited to talk with some celebrities, that’s why we have them on,” he says. “If we get excited, the listeners will get excited too. Scott R. Miller (producer and co-host) talked to one of his idols on the show, Aretha Franklin. We were all excited for him until he tried to ask her out! It’s fun talking to celebs, but what I really enjoy most is when we talk amongst the show – Scott, Rob, Jill and myself. Then, the listeners chime in. That’s my favorite part. It’s like we’re sitting in someone’s family room having great conversation and laughs.
McMurray makes a point of including the entire ensemble cast as much as possible. “I get bored very easily. One person talking bores me to tears. And, it bores most people. I ALWAYS look at my show as an ensemble. I look at the greatest sitcom in the history of television. The title was ‘Seinfeld’, but the show got laughs and story lines from every character. Seinfeld gets the credit, but it’s the cast that made the show. Ours is similar. I drive the bus, but there’s someone on our show on any given day that anyone listening can relate to.”
And no subject is off-limits. “We’ll throw it ALL out there,” he admits, including discussions of their personal lives. “What you hear, is EXACTLY what we are. We’re just like our listeners: taking care of kids, juggling multiple jobs, sometimes struggling to find money, having fun at games. We live the lives of the very people that tune in. That’s why we have such a connection with our audience. Why hold anything back if we can relate to that person? Maybe they can help us and just maybe we can help them. We’re all in this together.”
That’s an approach to radio that McMurray learned listening to his Chicago radio idols. “I listened to Steve and Garry on WLS growing up. Dahl said one day on the air, ‘I can’t believe I get paid to talk!’ That stuck with me. I thanked him years later when we worked together at ‘CKG (he then threw me out of the studio! Aaawww, the love). My girlfriend at the time moved to Chicago. I’ll never forget coming up on the bus from Peoria and seeing the Loop Billboard (AM1000) on the Stevenson. It’s like the skies opened. That’s when I found Johnny B on the dial. Brandmeier is king in my eyes. Johnny set the bar for personality radio. No one is better.”
And now McMurray has not only worked with his idols Dahl, Meier, and Brandmeier, he is working with the guys who put that old Loop lineup together in the 1980s. Now that he has seen the way they operate close up, McMurray understands how the Loop came to dominate Chicago’s radio airwaves back in the day. “Larry Wert and Jimmy de Castro. Special, special people. They are the ones who make WGN a special, special place. Like NO other. Add Todd Manley, and a great morning host in Steve Cochran, who pumps up the staff and you have 1988 radio all over again!”
F–U–N is back, baby!