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Media: June 2024 • 100 Years Of The Big ’89

| May 31, 2024


Clark Weber and Ron Riley (circa 1965)

This year, WLS-AM 890 is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a radio station. It’s really been three radio stations during that time. From 1924 to 1960, WLS served the farmers of the Midwest. Since 1989, it’s been a conservative talk radio station. But for 29 glorious years (1960-1989), it was the biggest Top-40 station in the Midwest.

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to talk to dozens of WLS stars from that era, but only three of them were there in the earliest days. Here are a few of their memories from that historic time.

Bob Hale was the first all-night guy at WLS during the top-40 era.

“In early 1960, I was sending a tape every two weeks to Sam Holman, the to-be-program director of WLS. One afternoon, home in bed with a fever and a couple of shots of Dr. Jack Daniels with honey and lemon – the late winter cold had struck – I received a call.

‘Bob, it’s Sam Holman at WLS in Chicago.’

Instant sobriety! INSTANT!

‘Yes, Sam, how are you?’ Actually, I didn’t care how he was; I wanted to know why he called!

‘Bobby, (right then I knew I was in! – ‘Bobby’) I’d like you to come on to be my all-night man starting May 2nd. Interested?’ Oh yeah…was I interested! ‘Besides, Bobby, you keep sending me all those tapes—I’ve got no room for more.’

Dick Biondi and I were brought in early so that the three of us could make the rounds of newspaper people, record promoters, and writers. Within 20 hours of that call, two record promoters drove from Chicago to ‘meet me and say hello.’ I had arrived!

When I came to WLS that first day at the old Prairie Farmer Building on West Washington Blvd, Sam, and Dick, and I were taken to lunch at Fritzel’s–THE place to be seen! We weren’t there more than 10 minutes, guests of Archie Levinson, well-known record promoter and husband of Fran Allison, of Kukla, Fran and Ollie fame, when Milton Berle joined us! I leaned over to Sam and said, ‘I wonder who they’ll fly in tomorrow to impress us?’

The midnight shift at WLS was incredible – we reached 42 of the 50 states. I had a fan club at a secret Air Force base near the Arctic Circle. The guys called sometimes via a link-up with an air base in Indiana. I had to promise to NOT dedicate anything to a name. I’d couch it by playing a tune for some of my “Nightly listeners north of Chicago, who I know are listening to me with one ear and other conversations with the other ear.” They were monitoring Russian Airwaves!

The late Clark Weber was one of the biggest stars of the early Top-40 WLS days.

“Sam Holman, the PD that started up the top-40 format here at WLS, worked with me in Milwaukee. Sam was a wonderful guy, but a mean drunk. One night we were getting our car, and Sam was loaded. He made a nasty remark to the parking attendant, who promptly pulled out a tire iron and was about to beat the hell out of him. At the time I was able to conjure up an incredibly loud whistle. I ran onto the street and whistled for a nearby cop, who arrived just in time to save Sam’s life. Sam told me that night that he would pay me back someday for saving his life. After he got to Chicago, he called me up and said, ‘Remember when I told you that I would pay you back for saving my life? How’d you like to come Chicago?’ I became the afternoon guy. Eight months later Mort Crowly took ill and had to resign for health reasons, and suddenly I was the morning guy. Then in 1966, they threw an extra $150 a week my way, and I also became the program director.”

Ron Riley was also a popular jock at WLS in the 1960s and had an on-going on-air “feud” with morning man Clark Weber…

I was the big Beatles supporter on the staff, and Clark took the other side of the Beatles argument. He was on the side of the other bands—Beatles competitors like the Dave Clark 5. I was called Ringo Ron, so he began to call me Ringworm Ron just to rip me.

I used to take calls from these kids, and had them take shots at Clark on tape, saying things like ‘Down with Weber,’ and I’d intersperse this into the show. I’d pretend to call him at home at night (it was pre-recorded), and when he answered, I’d make a loud trumpet noise, and he’d get all mad, ‘Riley, don’t you know I have to get up early!’

It was all this silly stuff. I had this character Bruce Lovely, and at Halloween, Bruce would drop pumpkins on Weber. It was just good, clean, dumb fun. This was ’65 or so. I’ve done twenty-plus years of radio and twenty-plus years of television, and this is something I still hear about. A woman came up to me in the supermarket in Maryland just recently and said, “Down with Weber!” Isn’t that something?”

Yes, it is.

Many historic events have been broadcast on WLS over the last century, but for some of us, those halcyon days of the Big 89 will always remain our favorite.

-Rick Kaempfer

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