Don McLean famously wrote about ‘the day the music died’ in his 1971 career swan song “American Pie” – a tribute to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper who died together at the apex of their careers in a tragic plane crash in 1950. This past week, an iconic radio voice was silenced forever as Larry Lujack died in New Mexico of cancer at the age of 73.
Over a more than 20-year run on Chicago Top-40 station WLS-AM through the 70s and 80s, Lujack ruled the airwarves and dominated Morning Drive radio – and not just in the Windy City. Broadcasting on a 50,000 watt, clear channel AM frequency (ala WJR in Detroit), Lujack and his on-air brethren were beamed into cars, offices and homes across the country. Why was he so popular? As veteran Chicago Sun-Times media writer Robert Feder noted this week in his tribute to Lujack, the self pronounced “Super Jock” was different; an often dour and sarcastic personality in a land of overly effervescent, put-on, hit music DJs.
Lujack as much as anyone else I listened to growing up inspired my first career in radio. Traversing the airwaves into my hometown of Champaign, Illinois, he and WLS were to me like CKWW in its hey-day were to millions in Detroit – exciting, fast-paced, fun and funny, creating an irresistible ‘theater of the mind’ with hit music interspersed with interesting bits (i.e. ‘Animal Stories’ which would later inspire David Letterman’s ‘Stupid Pet Tricks’). Listening to WLS at that time was like listening to a whirlwind of music and comedic entertainment that was hard if not impossible to resist. For a sample, click here: http://youtu.be/Jnl8_tdEtA8
Lujack was in the right time at the right place with the right platform. While many complain today that traditional radio plays the same songs over and over and/or the jocks talk too much consider this: Top 40 radio was exactly that: the same most popular 40 songs played over and over and over again. Yet, with jocks like Lujack (and John ‘Records’ Landecker and others on WLS), you listened as much for what they had to say as to the music. And, their quick-witted, rapid-fire banter (often delivered right over the beginnings of the songs they played) meant the music and overall programming virtually never stopped (these guys often read the commercials live in their own comedic style), leaving you spell-bound and coming back for more. These jocks were also promoted significantly by their stations including on billboards, in television commercials and via personal appearances. I remember being in awe as a kid at getting Lujack’s autograph on a copy of the photo shown in this blog during a Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place.
As I am apt to say, as a former radio personality, programmer and observer, today’s programmers and management should be required to watch video airchecks of the greats like Lujack. One local programming master and appreciator of classic music radio, CBS’s Tim Roberts, has his WOMC-FM humming along like the stations of old with an adept blend of catchy songs and great personality, an even more audacious task in the shadow of today’s Portable People Meter audience monitoring system. Such programming is an all too often lost art today as is the voice, style and talent of a personality like Larry Lujack. Though off the air for the past 25 years, the terrestrial radio dial last week lost a bit more of its luster and connection to when radio was at its finest.