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Media: February 2018

| February 1, 2018

Fred Winston

When I called Chicago radio legend Fred Winston (WLS, WMAQ, WFYR, WCFL, WPNT, WJMK, WLUP, and just about every other station on the dial), the gentleman farmer now living in Southwest Michigan, was in the middle of a project. “You caught me repairing a doorknob. Thank God for the internet. There are scores of YouTube videos. If you have any mechanical talent at all, you can do it.”

His baritone voice sounds as strong as ever, exactly like Fred Winston has sounded since he arrived in Chicago in 1971. “It still comes out of the same hole,” he points out.

Does the “R” word now apply to Fred?“ I guess I am retired,” he admits, “although I don’t feel like it’s done. I’m always reticent to say that I’m done now because I do feel like I could drop back behind the mic and with a little DW40 in the mouth, I could pick up where I left off. But I’m busier than ever these days. I have a small farm here that has enough crap going on to keep me busy every day. I’m in Berrien County which is the highest point of elevation in this region, so if it farts on Lake Michigan, I get it here. We’re currently in the throes of a major blizzard. We’ll have an additional two feet of snow in the next three days. The frustrating thing about being a gentleman farmer, as you call me, are the many tiny engines that need spark plugs and oil changes. Rather than flap my mouth, I now bang my knuckles.”

Does he miss radio at all? “I don’t really miss radio the way it was (is) when I last did it. We were told that’s the way the business has evolved. People just don’t want to hear you speak for more than eight seconds. It’s not about you. It’s about the music, man. ‘Hey, I dug that break about the Doobies, man.’ I thought ‘Aw shit, what have I gotten myself into?’”

It’s been five and a half years since his last full-time radio gig– at WLS-FM. It didn’t last long, and there was a good reason for that. “It was five months after I had major heart surgery,” he explains. “When you have a life-altering experience like that, you kind of shift your priorities and look at things a bit differently than beforehand. It just wasn’t for me. And Jan Jeffries, the PD at the time, is a dear friend of mine. We just agreed to part ways as gentlemen. I just didn’t like it.”

Just because he’s not on the air anymore doesn’t mean he doesn’t follow the business. “I’ll tell you the biggest problem,” he opines. “About two decades ago the consultants got their noses into the business and talent wasn’t being developed anymore. There was no bench. Although you know what? I’ll tell you who is doing really well–Hollywood Todd Manley at WGN. He’s a guy who gets it. He develops talent. Because I’m so ancient now, I don’t sleep, and I get up in the middle of the night, so I listen to the all-night show, Nicky D, and the group. I love the show. And when he’s not there, and I listen on the weekends as well, they run their bench through the AM station. They are also doing a lot with podcasts, and now have a wealth of talent that is being developed. I can tell. I have noted their progress over the years. Unfortunately, the rest of radio, in general, hasn’t done that.”

Fred’s in a good place right now, both mentally and physically. Most of all, he’s thankful for all the good fortune that has come his way. “I’m a lucky guy. I was on the air in the heyday when creativity was at its highest. At WFYR in the late 70s, I would start the show with Monty Python’s ‘Sit on my Face March.’ Can you imagine being allowed to do such a thing now? It was unbridled freedom, and the social mores were different then. The timing was perfect for a Fred Winston.”

How does he scratch that creative itch now? “I’ve got two sets of drums in the basement and a bass amp, and I plug-in a Yamaha keyboard when necessary. I practice my tubs every day. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was four years old. I really enjoy photography, music, the occasional voice over, and cooking. My famous chili is better than ever.”

Most importantly, his health scare has not slowed him down in the slightest. “There are two schools of thought after heart surgery. Some people have a come to Jesus moment and say ‘this is it. From now on it’s going to be baked salmon and an occasional white wine.’ I’m from the other school that says ‘Well fuck that.’ You never know when it’s going to be your last day and I’m going to go 75 MPH until I can’t go 75MPH anymore! My priority for the rest of my life is just to be a decent human being. All the fucking pretensions are gone.”

Does the gentleman farmer ever return to Chicago? “All the time,” he says, “usually to get a haircut for myself and my dog.”
He pauses for a second, his timing still perfect. “Different barbers.”

-Rick Kaempfer

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  1. Glory-June says:

    Nice to read this. I briefly worked with Fred (well, we were on opposite times so I didn’t see him very much), but he was a nice guy. I remember meeting him for the first time in the break room and he boomed out (I’d call it bass, not baritone) “HI, I’m Fred Winston” and all I could say was “yes you are!” How cool that he’s ended up in God’s country. I grew up just on the other side of the line from Berrien Co and still get up that way when I can.