2016 was a rough year. We lost some of our favorite musical and pop culture icons. But we also lost some beloved members and former members of Chicago’s media community. I had the opportunity to interview a few of them, and for those I never met, I reached out to some of their former friends and colleagues to pay tribute.
Dan Sorkin was a huge star in Chicago at WCFL in the late 50s and early 60s. The morning man discovered a local comedian named Bob Newhart, and helped propel him to fame. Sorkin was 89 years old when he passed away in June. His life changed forever in 1964 when he suffered a terrible motorcycle accident. I interviewed him in 2010, and he told me that accident was a blessing in disguise. “Because of a broken back and left leg amputation, my outlook on life and the value and perspective of day to day living took on new meaning. The motorcycle accident grew me up. It gave me a wider understanding of how others cope with life. It sharpened my sense of humor and purpose. It caused me to found a whimsical global amputee support network called Stumps ‘R Us.” Dan may be gone, but Stumps ‘R Us is now in 15 countries and 22 states.
Megan Reed was a long-time midday music jock in Chicago at WLIT and WSHE. She was only 52 years old when she passed away in February. I got a chance to interview Megan in 2011, and she wouldn’t hear of it when I asked her if radio was heading toward its impending demise. “I’ve been hearing these stories that radio is dying, or that radio isn’t any fun anymore, and that nobody cares about it, but I don’t buy that for a second. I don’t think radio is going anywhere. As for me, it’s still great fun. I think you get out of it, what you put into it. I choose to make it as fun as I can.” It’s been a little less fun since Megan left us.
Doug Banks was a beloved figure in Chicago radio for decades, with WBMX, WGCI, and WVAZ. He also co-hosted 190 North on WLS-TV. When he passed away in April at the age of 57, he was still at the top of his game. John Records Landecker was his friend for more than 20 years. “Doug was one of America’s really great radio personalities,” Landecker recalls. “When he moved his syndicated show down to Dallas, we stayed in touch one way or another. A few years ago he was back in town doing his show from the WLS studios for a day and I went back in there and bugged him. It was just like old times. I couldn’t believe it when I heard he passed. What a great guy. He will really be missed.”
Herb Kent, the Cool Gent, was simply one of a kind. Among the many accomplishments during his 50+ year career (at stations like WVON); Herb coined the term “Dusties”, launched the musical careers of The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and Curtis Mayfield, and mentored a young Don Cornelius. Melody Spann Cooper is the Chairman of Midway Broadcasting Corporation, the parent company of WVON.
“Chicago lost a true broadcast legend this year,” she says. “Herb Kent had been around so long, it’s sometimes hard to remember which came first, radio or Herb, but one thing is for sure, radio won’t be the same without him. He is a radio icon, Chicago’s national treasure. My only hope is that the city will find a way to honor him in such a way.” Herb passed away in October at the age of 89.
Dave Mitchell’s broadcasting career began in 1973, but it was at WBBM-AM (beginning in 1992) that he made his mark. The veteran traffic reporter, anchor and weekend sports reporter was only 60 years old when he passed away in an automobile accident in April. Bernie Tafoya was a longtime colleague and friend. “Dave was an upbeat guy who had a great sense of humor and loved his family, hockey, and his country,” Bernie recalls. “He was a professional and well-prepared broadcaster who especially relished being a key part of WBBM Newsradio’s annual Chicago Air and Water show broadcast. He has definitely been missed.”
Mike Tsolinas was a television weatherman/meteorologist at two different stations in Chicago (WFLD and WBBM) for many years, but his final years were spent on the air in Las Vegas. He died suddenly in July at the age of 57. Fox 32’s Dane Placko was his former colleague. “Like the weather itself, Mike was a force of nature,” Placko says. “He was a local guy from the northwest suburbs who seemed to know everybody. Mike was a key player during our formative days here at Fox 32.”
Next to Terry Hemmert, Leslie Witt was the longest serving disc jockey at WXRT. She had been there since the late 70s, and possessed an incredible enthusiasm and knowledge of music. Mary Dixon was her colleague for many years. “We knew that Leslie was very ill,” Mary says, “but her death was still a shock. We lost someone who was kind to everyone, loved music, and after nearly 40 years was still very much a part of the family. It was hard on everyone here. The silver lining is that XRT listeners shared in our grief, and in Leslie’s honor contributed $32,625 to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund Alliance through our sale of teal throwback XRT t-shirts.” Leslie was 63 years old when she passed away in June.
Scores of other local broadcasters also passed away in 2016.
We salute them and their many accomplishments, and root for a much less tragic 2017.
– Rick Kaempfer