To quote from Charles Dickens....
It was the best of times.
Being a kid in the late 50s was special. The rock and roll phenomenon was in full swing, as were Elvis's hips. Owners of AM radio stations around the country began to realize that there was gold in rock and roll music, and quickly changed their formats to cash in on that fact.
In the late 1950s, I remember listening to WJJD, AM 1160, to hear Gene Vincent, Little Richard, and other up and coming stars of the day. Then, WLS changed its format, and became a "rock" station. It shook up not only Chicagoland, but kids all over the states. I remember as far back as early 1961 and all the great noise that they made. It helped change radio forever.
Those earliest memories, at age 11 or 12, were of Bob Hale, Art Roberts, Gene Taylor, Clark Weber, Don Phillips, and many others. But the guy that always stood out was Dick Biondi. The Wild I-tralian. The Screamer. Paisan. I KNEW he was good, because my dad kept yelling at me to turn the volume down.
I remember the crazy jokes. The Pizza Song. The commercials for May Sons and the teen clothing stores that stocked "in" clothing like Levi's and "A-1 Pegger Jeans". Certain things just seem to leave their marks. The outcome of all of this craziness was that WLS and its staff of talented deejays made us feel GOOD.
I remember the evening I wandered over to the Boys' Club down the street from where I lived, and there was a sock hop going on. I edged into the crowd, and was surprised and delighted to find that Dick Biondi was DJing the dance! During a break, I asked for an autograph, but I had no paper. I handed Dick my handkerchief, and he graciously signed it. The next day, I tried to find it, but my mother had thrown my pants into the washing machine without checking the pockets, and that was the end of my autograph. I am pleased and proud to say that since that evening, I have amassed more autographs from Dick than I can keep track of, on shirts, record jackets, WLS Silver Dollar Surveys, and what-not. I will prize every one of them forever. I'm ashamed of myself for not staying in touch with Dick as much as I should have over the decades, but in the past few years I've gotten out to see him whenever it was possible for me. It's always nice to see him and all of his loyal followers in person.
The "ratings war" of the mid-60s between WCFL and WLS was a wild ride. Each was trying to outdo the other, through musical quality, quantity, and craziness of all kinds: WCFL had Chicken Man, the Tooth Fairy, Amazon Ace, Barney Pip, ad infinitum. WLS had the war between Emperor
Weber and Ron Riley, the Batman Club, and others. You couldn't leave your radio tuned to either station for very long; you were afraid that if you stayed on one station for too long you'd miss something really cool over on the other one, and vice-versa. Decisions, decisions. Nothing has changed. Radio stations have always hired the craziest or most interesting people to fit various time slots, in order to capture the largest market share. That's the name of the game.
In 1963, I discovered that there was an atmospheric phenomenon that caused AM radio signals to bounce off the ionosphere and travel many thousands of miles, sometimes around the world. This occurs after local sundown. I would sit up until 4AM listening to not only monster 50-kilowatt stations like KAAY in Little Rock and the mighty CKLW in Windsor, but with some patience and luck I found that I could also pick up squeaky little 250-watt "local" stations in Texas and North Carolina. Again, those nagging decisions.... what to listen to?
In my senior year of High School, I built an FM broadcast transmitter from a project in an electronics magazine. It had very low output, with a range of about 400 feet. Half a city block. That didn't cut it for me. So I did what any 18-year old mad scientist would do: I erected an antenna on my roof, which increased my range a wee bit, to about 1/4 mile. I hope the FCC isn't reading this. I'd record a "radio show", complete with the music of the era, on a one-hour reel-to-reel tape (remember that stuff?). Being a huge Beatles fan, the majority of my music was the content of the "White Album" ( I used to love to play that LP backward to hear the story of Paul's "death"). I thought I might become the next Dick Biondi.
Ummm, nope. No one will ever fill his shoes.