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Media: August 2015

| July 31, 2015
6925214832_7d6b1817a2_oWLS' John Dempsey (photo courtesy of Margaret Larkin)

Growing up in the Chicago area, radio was always a part of WLS Newsman John Dempsey‘s life. “I was a Sox fan and listened to the games at night, so the next morning my radio was still tuned to WMAQ (AM 670) and I listened to the Jerry G. Bishop show. It was the funniest thing I ever heard. His use of sound effects, the way he’d say Berwyn, the way he made fun of the sponsors. It was highly entertaining.”

But it wasn’t Jerry’s show that made John consider radio as a profession. “The person who made me want to be in radio was Steve Dahl. It was 1978, and I was hooked from the very beginning of his time at WDAI. It was a daily drama with all these characters and I didn’t know if it was written or ad-libbed, but I was so blown away by that. I just felt that this is what I wanted to do.”

Dempsey now works at the same radio station as Steve Dahl, but his journey has gone down a very different path than his former radio hero. For one thing, he knew pretty early on that news was a safer route for him. “In those days before deregulation every station regardless of format was required to carry news, and there wasn’t as much ratings pressure. I liked politics, I liked to write, and I’ve been very lucky and fortunate that I chose that route.”

After graduating from SIU-Carbondale, Dempsey really learned the news business at WJOL in Joliet. “Joliet was a miniature Chicago with old-style corruption and crime, and it was a great training ground for a young reporter. I had the Will County board beat and the City Hall beat for a while, and I learned how to develop sources.”

He got his first job in the Chicago market exactly 30 years ago this summer, and it also laid a news base. “I was at WBEZ during the Council Wars era (Harold Washington/Ed Vrdolyak/Ed Burke) – so it was a very exciting time.”

It might have been the big time, but in some ways, it sure didn’t feel like it. “Back then WBEZ was owned by the Board of Education and we were always battling for funding. The station was in the Banker’s Building at 105 W. Adams and we had to take an elevator to the 39th floor, take the stairs to the studios on the 40th floor, and another set of stairs to the newsroom on the 41st floor. It was decrepit and old. Infested with ants. A depressing room with particle board dividers separating our electric typewriters (laughs).”

Nevertheless, it led John to one of his all-time favorite radio jobs. As a kid he listened to WMAQ (670 AM), and as an adult he found himself working there. By then, it was airing a hybrid news/talk format. “I loved WMAQ. Lorna Gladstone was the PD then, and it was nothing like the stereotypical boring stuffy news station. No stiff humorless anchor people. We were actually encouraged to have fun on the air. Lorna really believed in me. I started out doing nights and within a few months she had me on morning drive with Pat Cassidy. A year later I was made the made the main guy on the afternoon shift.”
Unfortunately for John, the station was sold, and the Score was moved to WMAQ’s frequency, ending the station’s days as a news/talk station. It also led to an unexpected temporary re-routing of Dempsey’s career.

“Fox 32’s Larry Yellen put in a good word for me at Fox, and that’s where I really learned how to do television reporting. I was there for five years and it was among the best years of my life. I had so much fun working with that group of talented people. I liked the idea of being part of a team. You needed the cameraman, and the assignment editor, and the video tape editor, and the news writer back at the station for everything you did. Everyone in that chain was so good at that time.”
Eventually his career road led to his current place of employment, WLS Radio. Dempsey has been a mainstay now for a decade, and has worked with three different high profile shows as the morning news anchor. Again, this has not been a typical stuffy newsman job.

Don and Roma (Wade) often interrupted my newscasts to comment on stories and we would banter back and forth, and I absolutely loved that. It showed what pros they were because they listened to the whole show like the listeners – they were engaged and curious and paying attention to everything that went on in their show. Bruce (Wolf) and Dan (Proft) were fun to work with too. I wasn’t quite as big a part of that show because it was a different kind of show, but I still thoroughly enjoyed my time with them and they’re both friends of mine. And now (current WLS morning man) Big John Howell is a different story altogether because he is not as political as Don & Roma or Bruce & Dan. He’s conservative but he doesn’t always wear it on his sleeve, and because he is doing the show solo he really does welcome my contributions.”

And while those contributions may occasionally swerve into humor or commentary, John Dempsey is still a newsman first and foremost. “Even though I like being a personality and saying something that will make someone laugh, at the end of the day I am a newsperson, and I have to maintain my objectivity and credibility. I especially don’t like to weigh in on heavy topics. The heavier the topic, the more complex it is, which doesn’t lend itself to dime store analysis anyway. But on more light hearted topics, it’s a different story. “John Dempsey’s contributions can be heard every weekday morning on WLS, AM 890.

-Rick Kaempfer

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  1. David Berner says:

    John is a great guy, a great friend, and a consummate professional. It is the real deal.

  2. Christian Mahnke says:

    I first met John on close to one of his first days reporting at Fox32, being a photographer at the station we worked alot of days together and worked close together (working out of a live truck), we became great friends and still are to this day. John is a great newsman and is really good covering politics. I wish him well he is a great guy and Chicago is lucky to have him!