October 1-15, 2004

Chicago's Legendary WLS: Part I, The Studios

As we've mentioned in the past here on Tower Site of the Week, one of the things that comes with marrying someone from Fort Wayne, Indiana is, alas, a lot of time spent in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Not that we'd say anything bad about Fort Wayne, Indiana, but one of the most positive attributes of that fine midwestern burg, at least in our opinion, is its proximity to the much more interesting city of Chicago, just under three hours away (if the traffic isn't too bad) by car. In recent years, we've had several good excuses to head west from Fort Wayne and spend some time visiting the radio landmarks of the Windy City - and we found yet another one this past July, when we made a brief trip there with the express intent of seeing as much as we could of one of Chicago's most historic radio stations.

Do we really need to retell the long and wonderful history of WLS here, when it's been so ably recounted by Scott Childers over at www.wlshistory.com, and before that by Jeff Roteman at his radio history site? We do not. Suffice it to say that it's a rare station that has, in its lifetime, been owned by Sears, then the Prairie Farmer magazine, then set the standard for top-40 radio for decades, and then became one of America's most influential talkers. Still want to know more? Go read Scott and Jeff's sites - but then return with us to Chicago's Loop, and in particular to 190 State Street, the home of ABC in Chicago.

WLS is actually a relatively recent occupant of 190 State Street, a building with a broadcast history that's much more closely tied to TV, beginning with the early efforts of the Balaban and Katz theater chain. Their first WBKB-TV, Channel 4, went on the air here in 1948; it ended up being sold to CBS and becoming WBBM-TV on channel 2. A few years later, the WBKB-TV calls returned to the Chicago airwaves on ABC's channel 7, which started out as WENR-TV, operating with sister stations WENR (sharing time with WLS on 890) and WENR-FM (94.7) from 20 North Wacker Drive, a few blocks away. WBKB-TV moved into the 190 North State Street building - and the merged WENR/WLS radio operation (now just WLS) eventually ended up in the historic Stone Container Building at 360 North Michigan Avenue, overlooking the Chicago River. It was from that facility that the legendary Musicradio WLS emanated, and it was from that facility that WLS became one of the last big AMs to drop music for talk in the summer of 1989.

The next year, WLS radio left the Stone Container Building to become a tenant (literally - the radio side pays rent to ABC-TV) on three floors of 190 North State Street, and that's where we caught up with it and its sister stations, with engineer Ed Glab as our tour guide.

Our tour begins on the top floor of the facility, the one devoted to WLS's operations. The studios are arrayed down one long hallway, with engineering facilities at the rear, several production studios, a rack room, and then the main event - the master control room, the talk studio and, facing into the talk studio, the newsroom/news studio. (No separate news booth here - WLS news anchors go on the air from the newsroom itself, sitting at the desk facing into the studio.)

Jay Marvin was on the air when we stopped by, and he showed off one of the niftiest features of the talk studio: instead of provoking an argument about whether the studio would be used in sit-down or stand-up mode, the engineers who built the studio put the entire desk on a hydraulic riser. With the push of a button, the desk rises up to stand-up level or sinks back down to Jay's preferred sit-down mode.

Heading down the hallway to the sales area in the front of the building, we pass the historical plaques put together by WLS historian (and LA voiceover talent) Jeff Davis - neat stuff!

On the next floor down, we see the current incarnation of the old WENR-FM/WLS-FM. For many years, the FM side of WLS struggled along, doing rock as WDAI and WRCK, then returning to the WLS-FM calls for much of the eighties (with a brief detour as top 40 WYTZ, "Z95"), making several attempts at FM talk in the early nineties, a stab at country (as "Kicks Country," WKXK) in 1996-97, and classic rock (WXCD, "CD94.7") from 1997-2001. Since 2001, it's been WZZN, "94.7 Zone," and it's doing reasonably well now as a modern rocker. The WZZN facilities are laid out much the same way as WLS - air studio at the front of the hallway, production and rack rooms in back.

All the way in the back of this floor, a caged-in area houses the newest addition to the ABC Chicago radio cluster. WRDZ (1300 LaGrange) is the Radio Disney outlet for the Windy City, and it's just these racks and a transmitter site out to the southwest.

One more flight of stairs down brings us to another relatively recent addition to the family. WMVP (1000) is the descendant, ironically enough, of the old WCFL, WLS' blood rival in the top-40 wars of the sixties and seventies. When WLS reinvented itself with talk, WCFL struggled, ending up paired with WLUP-FM (97.9) and doing talk as WLUP(AM), then going sports as WMVP - and then being spun off to ABC amidst ownership-limit concerns, at which point the station became "ESPN Radio 1000." It's known as the home of the Bulls and the White Sox, and there's a decent amount of local talk amidst the Bristol-based offerings on the schedule. Like its upstairs neighbors, WMVP's studios stretch down a hallway, with a sizable newsroom in front to keep those "Chicago SportsCenter" updates coming every hour.

Below here, ABC's Chicago TV operations fill the rest of the building - WLS-TV (Channel 7), of course, as well as regional sales operations for ESPN, ABC Sports and ABC Television Sales, the Chicago bureau of ABC News, and the offices and studios of the Ebert & Roeper show. (Yes, I got to sit in the "balcony" of their studio and give a thumbs-up; no, I'm not vain enough to put that picture here.)

But it's radio we're after (well, that and a Vienna Beef hot dog with the full Chicago topping package on it, which we find a block away at Gold Coast Dogs) - and so from here, we move along to the transmitter of the mighty WLS, which we'll examine in two weeks right here at Tower Site of the (almost every) Week. (We're away from the computer next week, visiting another favorite market, Los Angeles, and gathering some really nifty future Site of the Week material, then attending the NAB Radio Show in San Diego.) See you in two weeks!

Thanks to Ed Glab and Elaine Hynson for the WLS studio tour, and to WLS chief engineer Warren Shulz for making it happen!

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