• The City of Broad Shoulders makes hauling watermelon easy
• Old Style is not only the local beer brand, it’s the way WMET partied
• Classic Rock, ahead of its time
The Cubs cap speaks for itself. The watermelon? It was at a party, about to be injected with vodka. Pretty well sums up my three years in Chicago (1981-83). Except for one big thing: WMET-FM. One great, gone-too-soon, radio station.
Before Classic Rock became a widely-adopted radio format, WMET grabbed the Classic Rock rubric and ran with it. Up against strong competition – WXRT-FM (alt rock), The Loop – WLUP-FM (rock) and WLS-FM (shock jock Steve Dahl) – WMET hammered away with the Stones, the Who, Beatles, Elton, Led Zep, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and all the other staples of the baby boomer audience. The Mighty Met had a secret weapon: its staff. The DJs, the production department, the promotion department, the entire off-air staff….they were all top-shelf radio people and it showed in the on-air product.
Bruce Holberg, the GM at Philadelphia’s WMMR-FM, had been moved to that position in Chicago by Metromedia, owner of both stations. Bruce rescued me from Dial Sports and hired me as news director in the Windy City. It was summertime, and I had accumulated a tan, plus a new layer of red when I stopped to visit friends in Michigan on the drive out to Illinois and we had played some baseball. I arrived at WMET in the morning, walking in during a staff meeting. The music director, Dave Benson piped up: “We hired one of the Beach Boys?” and I was greeted with a wave of laughter.
I don’t mean to dismiss all the other great WMET people by singling out Benson, but there’s not enough time or space to describe each of these talented, unforgettable colleagues.
The studios on North Michigan were right above the Billy Goat Tavern, fabled subterranean hangout of columnists Mike Royko and Irv Kupcinet and inspiration for John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s “Cheeburger, cheeburger” sketch. We did live remotes from there, including one with then-Jeopardy host Art Fleming and NBC announcer Don Pardo.
The WMET staff once played a softball game at Wrigley Field against the Cubs’ front office. (It was played in the outfield, the infield being off-limits. I still faked a catch up against the ivy.)
When I left Chicago for NY in 1983 I moved into an apartment with a terrace and a wall covered with grape ivy. I painted a tribute to Wrigley that, today, needs a touch-up:
I was enlisted in the Chicago Radio All-Stars and played charity softball and basketball games against local pro teams’ players and staff and high school faculty. One night I shifted nervously in left field as the Cubs’ Hall of Famer Ernie Banks came to the plate. “Please, please, please don’t hit to left, Ernie!”
Our promotions director, Jim Corboy, once pulled me backstage at a Who concert at the Rosemont Horizon. The show was sponsored by one of our rival radio stations, but Jim had me wait in a stairwell as the show ended and then brought me Pete Townshend for a brief taped radio interview. I wish I had a photo of this, because Pete – as his wont – had blood dripping from his right hand. He had “windmilled” the skin off his fingers.
Lisa Glasberg, who would go on to a long career on New York City urban radio morning shows, was a WMET reporter. They still talk about her “scoop” when the Rolling Stones were in Chicago. She finagled her way into their hotel and taped an interview with . . .the room service guy who had delivered Mick Jagger’s breakfast!
The Chicago Film Festival in 1981 honored my favorite international director, Francois Truffaut. At the ceremony, I got a few moments to tape an interview. Among other things, I mentioned to him that in his two most recent films he had given the male protagonists jobs where they worked with miniatures: One was an aeronautical engineer working with model airplanes in a wind tunnel, the other taught oil tanker skippers how to navigate harbors using quarter-scale boats on a lake. I asked Truffaut, “Are you maybe saying something about “boys and their toys?’” His eyes lit up and he said, “Ah, monsieur, you are very observant.” He autographed my copy of the paperback script of “Day for Night.” The cinephile in me can now die in peace.
One of the saddest days of my career in broadcasting was the day John Lennon was shot. On December 8, 1980, I was temporarily out of radio – in between the Philadelphia and Chicago jobs. It practically killed me not to be able to report that story, it being, sadly, one of the biggest a rock and roll radio station news department could ever broadcast. In 1982 I felt a little better about that when a report I did on legislation in the Illinois General Assembly, “Handgun Control and John Lennon’s Death,” won the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Award for Best Documentary by a Chicago station.
An indication how special this radio station and its people were – despite its relatively short lifespan — came in 2013 when the “alumni” held a 30th anniversary reunion. Seemingly everyone who ever worked at WMET came from far and wide for a dinner and cocktails at Harry Caray’s restaurant. In attendance were some of the key people at our old rival radio stations who came to praise the Mighty Met, not bury it. Their admiration was sincere and touching.