BY CHUCK SCHADEN
When I was a kid in the 1940s I was a devoted listener to radio (some surprise, huh?).
I heard all my favorite programs on most Chicago stations –local and network– and I knew all the call letters and places on the dial by heart.
My favorite call letters belonged to the station in the Wrigley Building. The station was WBBM and its’ broadcast signature was, This is the WBBM Air Theater, Wrigley Building, Chicago.
What a picture that signature painted for me. An “Air Theater” that transported me from the Zenith console radio in our living room to the “stage” on which were played a thousand dramas daily.
Forty years later, on December 16, 1985 I became host of WBBM’s Old Time Radio Classics which was heard Monday thru Friday from 8 to 9 p.m.
No longer the WBBM Air Theater, the station was now WBBM Newsradio, but there I was offering “Air Theatre-type” programming smack in the middle of the station’s all-news format which began in 1968.
Newsradio had had some experience with drama in the middle of the all-news format. For eight years, from 1974-82, the station carried the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre, an hour-long dramatic program broadcast seven days a week. It was well-received and had very good ratings.
I had had some experience with multiple-day programming. In addition to my Those Were The Days weekly show which had been on the air for 15 years, I had hosted a three-hour Hall Closet program on weekday mornings from 1972-76, first on WLTD and then later on WXFM; and three- and four-hour Radio Theatre programs on weekday evenings from 1983-85 on WCFL and WAIT.
When the opportunity came to host and produce Old Time Radio Classics on the legendary WBBM, I jumped at the chance.
On November 16, 1990 my weekday program moved to Midnight-1 a.m., while the weekend broadcasts continued from 8-10 p.m.
On January 10, 1994 the weekend program was moved to Midnight for an hour and Old Time Radio Classics was heard thereafter seven nights a week on WBBM from 12-1 a.m.
As 1995 was coming to an end, I noted that my 10th Anniversary on WBBM was approaching. I also noted that I had just passed the 25 year mark with my Those Were The Days program. At that time I decided to reduce some of my broadcast activities by closing Old Time Radio Classics, completing a very satisfying and tidy 10-year run.
During my 10 years at WBBM, I was told that the weeknight program from 8-9 p.m. was the most listened-to on the station outside of morning drive time and when the show moved to the midnight hour, it was the most listened-to in the Chicago market.
After Old Time Radio Classics closed on WBBM, station WMAQ in Chicago, which at that time was also an all-news outlet owned by CBS, began carrying the syndicated program When Radio Was, hosted by Stan Freberg, in the Midnight—1 a.m. time slot. Later, when WMAQ’s format changed, When Radio Was moved to WBBM.
In 2006 when Stan Freberg retired from When Radio Was, I was asked to replace him as host of the nationally syndicated series. Although I had been on the air with vintage radio programs since 1970, I had never hosted a seven-times-a-week coast-to-coast series, so I agreed.
My first program was aired on October 9, 2006 and I found myself once again on WBBM, the Chicago outlet for When Radio Was, which was also heard on a couple of hundred other stations across the country. My original “tour of duty” was scheduled for one year until October 7, 2007 and at that time, seeking less broadcast activity in my so-called “semi-retirement,” I decided not to sign for another year. Greg Bell, who was hosting old-time radio shows on Sirius XM satellite radio, became host of When Radio Was and continues in that role on WBBM and all the other WRW stations as well as Sirius XM.
ONE SPECIAL BONUS for me as part of my years at WBBM came in 1987 when I was asked to write a history of the station. This would commemorate the 65th anniversary of the station and the 20th anniversary of the Newsradio format.
The result was the (now out-of-print) book, “WBBM Radio, Yesterday and Today.” This gave me the opportunity to dig through the station’s photo and historical archives as well as doing extensive independent research to tell the story of WBBM from its’ earliest beginnings in 1911– when a “spark” station was built and run by 17-year-old Les Atlass and his eight-year-old brother Ralph in Lincoln, Illinois –to 1988 when an anniversary celebration was planned.
In the course of my research, I recorded many interviews with on-the-air and behind-the-scenes people, from the WBBM Air Theater days to present-day Newsradio reporters and anchors.
Those unabridged interviews provide a rather comprehensive history of WBBM and all appear on the Interviews page of our Speaking of Radio web site. You may access any or all of them here and now simply by clicking on the links below.
Jay Andres, program host
Mrs. H. Leslie Atlass, widow of WBBM’s founder
Tommy Bartlett, announcer/program host
Mal Bellairs, broadcast personality
John Cody, reporter
John Coughlin, staff announcer/weatherman
Bob Crawford, reporter
Dick Helton, news anchor
Paul Heyn, technician/engineer
Bernie Howard, producer
John Hultman, news anchor
Frank Johnson, facilities manager
Sherman Kaplan, news anchor
John Madigan, political editor
Felicia Middlebrook, news anchor
Donn Pearlman, reporter
Gregg Peterson, general manager
Milt Placo, technician/engineer
Regine Schlesinger, news anchor
Art Thorsen, program director
Len Walter, business editor
ADDITIONAL LINKS TO RELATED WBBM PROGRAMMING:
WBBM RADIO CLASSICS (7-26-1987) Chuck Schaden with a Sunday Nostalgia Night program featuring special guest Tommy Bartlett, legendary radio announcer, host and entrepreneur. Mr. Bartlett, whose career included a long-running stint as a staff announcer at WBBM, talks about his days in radio. Program features two complete broadcasts from Mr. Bartlett’s personal collection: “The Tommy Bartlett Show” from March 6, 1947 and “Welcome Travelers” from April 12, 1953. Plus listener calls and comments. (2 hours)
WBBM RADIO CLASSICS (8-9-87) Clayton Moore, who portrayed the Lone Ranger on television, joins Chuck by telephone for a Sunday Nostalgia Night program. Mr. Moore takes calls from listeners and answers many questions about his career and his portrayal of the Masked Man. This excerpt from the broadcast features Mr. Moore’s complete visit as well as a radio adventure of “ The Lone Ranger” with Brace Beemer in the starring role. (104 minutes)
WBBM RADIO CLASSICS (9-13-87) “Commercials.” Chuck Schaden with a Sunday Nostalgia Night broadcast. Guests are Bruce DuMont, president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, and Hooper White, advertising consultant and producer of radio and television commercials. In conjunction with an exhibit and events at the broadcast museum in Chicago, this program features vintage commercials, how they were produced and who produced them. Plus behind-the-scenes stories and fond memories. (2 hours)
WBBM RADIO CLASSICS (4-17-88) “Tribute to Jim Jordan” who died April 1, 1988 at age 91. Chuck offers a Nostalgia Night salute to the man who starred on radio as Fibber McGee. Included is a Fibber McGee and Molly broadcast from January 7, 1947; an excerpt from the first program in the 1974 series “Fibber McGee and the Good Old Days of Radio”; a 2-15-74 McGee cast interview with Jim Jordan, Gale Gordon (Mayor LaTrivia), Hal Peary (Gildersleeve) and show writer Phil Leslie. Also: Mr. Jordan’s “favorite” Fibber McGee and Molly program from December 26, 1939 featuring both Mr. Gordon and Mr. Peary. (2 hours)
WBBM RADIO CLASSICS (7-23-89) “Salute to the Big Band Era” with Chuck and special guest Karl Pearson, noted big band historian and Nostalgia Digest columnist. They take listeners back to the good old days of radio band remotes and tune in to many excerpts from programs originating from hotels and ballrooms across America in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. (2 hours)
WBBM RADIO CLASSICS (5-8-93) “WBBM Roundtable” Chuck Schaden interviews five broadcast veterans who recall their radio days at WBBM, Chicago on the 70th Anniversary of the station. Reminiscing with Chuck (seated) about their WBBM experiences are (from left) program hosts Cliff Johnson, Mal Bellairs, Tommy Bartlett, Jim Conway and singer Billy Leach. (101 minutes).
VIDEO RELATED TO WBBM’S 65TH ANNIVERSARY:
WBBM CHICAGO 65th ANNIVERSARY PROGRAM (May, 1988) Documentary video created in observance of the anniversary of the CBS radio station, narrated by Charles Osgood and based on the book “WBBM Radio, Yesterday and Today” by Chuck Schaden. (14 minutes).
WBBM’S 65th ANNIVERSARY (May 9, 1988) In this segment of Eyewitness News on WLS-TV Chicago, reporter Gary Deeb reports on an event related to the 65th anniversary of WBBM Radio. At the Wrigley Building in Chicago, shown are Radio Classics host Chuck Schaden with WBBM veterans Tommy Bartlett, Josh Brady, Billy Leach and Jim Conway. (3 minutes).
CHICAGO TONIGHT — WBBM’S 65th ANNIVERSARY (May 12, 1988) Host Bruce DuMont, subbing for John Calloway, discusses the history of radio station WBBM, Chicago, with broadcasters Chuck Schaden, John Hultman and Jim Conway. WTTW, Channel 11, Chicago. (28 minutes).
CLICK HERE FOR LINK TO WBBM NEWSRADIO, CHICAGO