Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ron Riley

Ron Riley was a part of the legendary WLS lineup in the 1960s. He also worked in Milwaukee, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Baltimore, but considers his time at WLS the pinnacle of his radio career. He later worked in television for more than twenty years.

Rick: I read somewhere that you got your start in radio by winning a contest when you were in high school.

Ron: I was one of those extroverted high school kids in northeastern Illinois, and WKRS-Waukegan had a contest to get a high school reporter to do high school news. I won that contest, and got to do it once a week, which was a real kick.

After college I got a full-time job there, doing newscasts and playing polka. My heroes at the time were from WOKY in Milwaukee. They had these great guys on the air before WLS played music, and I tried to sound like them. Well, one day I was doing a polka show and reading birthdays on the air, and the engineer said there was a guy on the phone that wanted to offer me a job. I thought it was a joke, so I told him to take a number.

After the show, I called the guy, and it was Jerry Bartell from Bartell Broadcasting. They owned a bunch of stations, and he said he’d like me to come to work for WAPL at Appleton. Are you kidding? And that was my first real morning show/disc jockey job. They had different names for everyone on the air, and the sales manager had just come back from a fishing trip on Lake Riley and he gave me the name Smiley Riley. Appleton was OK, but the whole time I was there, I wanted to go to Milwaukee. I was so excited when they finally offered me a stint as the all-night guy there. They paid me $90, and I said “You’re On!”

Rick: In Chicago, you’re best remembered for your days at WLS. Talk a little bit about your arrival at WLS, and the double-duty you were pulling during that first early stint.

Ron: I was doing the all night show in Milwaukee, but I was in the Reserves and they called me up for active duty. I had to go into the Navy for two years. When I came back from the service I got a job at KXOK in St. Louis. It was a rock station, and those were the stations that were really going to town at the time. But shortly after I started there they got a new program director, and you can probably guess the rest of the story. I was fired in three months.

I went to WJJD in Chicago on a part time basis—they were doing country music at the time. I knew Gene Taylor at WLS (photo), and so I called him to ask about a job. He said he didn’t have anything for me: “Sorry, Ron. I’m all set.” I got a part time offer in Cleveland, but it wasn’t set to start for awhile, so I called Milwaukee, and they asked me if I could do a few weeks of afternoon drive, as a fill-in. “Afternoon drive? Really? Sure.” I was living in Lincolnshire at the time, so it was a no-brainer. I had no sooner set the phone down when Gene Taylor called again, and asked me to fill in on the all-night show on WLS.

I said, “I just agreed to work in Milwaukee!” He told me that I should really think about it—it could open doors for me, and I decided—he was right. So I did both jobs for awhile. I would drive up to Milwaukee, do the afternoon show, drive back to Lincolnshire, sleep a few hours, and then go downtown and do the overnight show on WLS. Luckily, that only lasted a few weeks.

So I went to Cleveland and was enjoying my time there with a great team, and suddenly the Biondi thing blew up. He got blown out for getting into a fight about the number of commercials on his show. Clark Weber called me to tell me about it, and said, “Call Taylor.” So I did. I called him a lot, but he never took my call, and he never called me back. I figured I was out of the running, until Clark called again to say that they had narrowed down the list to two people and I was one of them. I kept calling Taylor’s secretary to leave phone numbers wherever I went (remember this was long before cell phones), and she was getting annoyed, but she did take down the numbers.

I’ll never forget...I was in the barber shop getting my haircut, when the barber said: “You've got a phone call.” It was Gene Taylor. He said “Ron, how would you like to work here?” I was very emotional when I got that call. I can still feel that emotion today when I talk about it. I sat down in the barber’s chair and tears started rolling down my face. The barber asked me if my mother had died or something.

I knew this was my big break. I just had no idea how big of a break it was. None of us knew at the time what an impact we were going to have on people. At one point during my WLS time, I had two secretaries answering all of my mail, because that’s how much of it was coming in from all over the country. The station booked us to do these record hops all over the place. Biondi and Clark would fly to their record hops. I wouldn’t go further than Kokomo, but I still did a ton of them. It’s gratifying even today to see that we impacted so many people. One time a girl in Minnesota sent me six notebooks that were filled with notes about all of my shows, what I talked about, what records I played. It was unbelievable. (Photo: The WLS staff at the time, Ron is in the lower right hand corner)

Rick: You were there for a pretty exciting time in music history; the dawning of the British Invasion. You even got the chance to interview the Beatles.

Ron: That’s true. Art Roberts and I were more tuned into the younger demos at night, and we climbed onto every bandwagon that came along. The people that ran the station had the insight to leave us alone and let us do what we thought was right. We developed our own character within the format, but we were pretty free. If we saw a trend, we could jump on it, and they would back us. The Beatles came on the scene, and the station got the record company to back us, and we got to be the station at their concert at Comiskey Park. They took a silver dollar survey and drew long hair on us, and I became “Ringo Ron.”

Rick: What were the Beatles like?

Ron: They were young kids, and they weren’t real sophisticated yet. They were way over the top. Everything was a big joke to them. They were very distracted. Art Roberts and I did a phone interview with them. They were on the set of A Hard Days Night at the time. They just passed the phone around to each other. “Would you like to speak to John?” Then Paul, etc. We recorded it in the afternoon, and played it back on our respective shows.

Rick: Being a part of WLS in the 1960s, you probably had more than a few memorable brushes with rock and roll greatness. Can you recall any others?

Ron: The record guys were calling all the time, saying they’d bring this band or that band up to my show. I was told by my program director to do what I wanted as far as the interviews went, as long as I didn’t talk too much. I had the Hollies on all the time. I still talk to Graham Nash occasionally. I still talk to Chad from Chad and Jeremy. He lives in Idaho now. We had Herman’s Hermits on. The Hollies would even take calls from the kids. In my mind, we were just putting another dimension to the music by exposing their personalities. That really worked out neat. I remember one time I was talking to Graham Nash, and someone called to say “Mama Cass is here,” and Nash said “Oh god, she’s following me around the country. Hide me.” She arrived with a rose between her teeth. We talked for awhile, and she kept asking about Graham Nash, and I pretended like I had no idea where he was.

Rick: Chicago in the 1960s was the center of the universe for awhile. Hugh Heffner was living in the Playboy Mansion on the north side, making headlines around the world. In 1968, the Democratic Convention came to Chicago, and everybody remembers those police riots in Grant Park. And throughout it all, the soundtrack for the decade was the rock and roll played by WLS. What was it like to have a front row seat to that time?

Ron: You know, it’s funny, all of that was going on in Chicago, but I was really so dedicated to what we were doing and so into it, that I didn’t really look around and take note of what was going on around us. When the riots were going on, Chuck Buell said to me, “I’m going to go check it out,” and he went out there and a cop kicked him, so he came back in pretty fast. I said “What did you expect?”

I guess I never really thought about it. I know that sounds strange now, but it’s true.

Rick: When I talk to radio guys about you, the thing they always mention is the “feud” you had with Clark Weber. When I interviewed Clark a few years ago, I asked him about you, and he joked: “He lives in a radio announcers home for the lame.” You wrote a blurb for his book recently and took a shot at him. The feud continues. How did that all start?

Ron: I was the big Beatles supporter on the staff, and Clark took the other side of the Beatles argument. He was on the side of the other bands—Beatles competitors like the Dave Clark 5. I was called Ringo Ron, so he began to call me Ringworm Ron, just to rip me. (Photo: Clark and Ron in the studio)

I used to take calls from these kids, and had them take shots at Clark on tape, saying things like “Down with Weber,” and I’d intersperse this into the show. I’d pretend to call him at home at night, (it was pre-recorded), and when he answered I’d make a loud trumpet noise, and he’d get all mad, “Riley, don’t you know I have to get up early!”

It was all this silly stuff. I had this character Bruce Lovely, and at Halloween, Bruce would drop pumpkins on Weber. It was just good clean dumb fun. This was ’65 or so. I’ve done twenty-plus years of radio and twenty plus years of television, and this is something I still hear about. A woman came up to me in the supermarket in Maryland just recently and said “Down with Weber!” Isn’t that something?

Rick: While that feud with Clark wasn’t real, the competition between WLS and WCFL was real—and it was fierce. Describe if you can how you perceived that competition, and how you reacted to it.

Ron: I didn’t pay any attention to that. Ron Britain was opposite me, but I made it a point not to listen to the competition and I didn’t really want to hear what they were doing—At least that’s the way I looked at it.

Sure, we were envious that they had Orkin, and we’d hear from the kids about the great stuff that Orkin did, but we weren’t used to sharing the audience. The kids started switching back and forth between the stations, and that changed what it was like behind the scenes at WLS. The fear was that we would lose money to WCFL, and that’s why we brought in a new program director. We did the format change, and went to this fake Drake format, and that wasn’t us--that stifled us a bit. We weren’t quite as innovative anymore after that. I couldn’t change. I did try, but I didn’t like it. And eventually they found a reason to let me go.

Rick: A friend of mine collects radio station records—that is, the promotional records that radio stations used to release. One of them in his collection is a record that you and Clark Weber did for the soldiers in Vietnam. How did that come about?

Ron: We had no real game plan. My whole life was an ad lib, but that record really was ad-libbed. We used to get lots of requests from servicemen in Vietnam for airchecks of our station, and we were sending out all these reel-to-reel tapes. It was getting a little pricey, so Gene Taylor said to Clark and me—“Go in there and do a show, and we’ll press a record.” So we played some hit records, a few beer commercials, and tripped over each other trying to get in some one liners. Mostly we were just putting each other down, kidding around. Occasionally one of those records will show up on eBay. I think I still have one around my house somewhere.

Rick: Another one of the memorable things from your WLS time was your connection to the show “Batman.” That was huge at the time.

Ron: I used to give updates on the air to people listening on the radio. The PR department came up with this idea of the Batman club, and got a Batman suit from Hollywood, and we did a promo at Channel 7. We made up a fan club card, and got bumper stickers, and it was way bigger than any of us thought it would be. Someone sent me a picture of a tank in Vietnam with my bumper sticker on it. I remember when we started, Taylor asked me how many bumper stickers they needed to print up, and I guessed we’d need about 5000, but it ended up being about 100,000 or so.

I even got a cameo on the show. ABC set it up. It was the episode called “Ice Spy” and I flew out to Hollywood with my brother. I had a trailer and a costume and eight words in the script. I was playing an usher in an ice rink, and walked into the box Adam Ward was sitting, and I said, “Mr. Wayne you have a phone call.” I think it’s on YouTube. People send it to me occasionally.

Rick: After you left Chicago in 1971, you moved east, landing in Baltimore. You eventually had an entire second career as a television weather man. How did that come about?

Ron: I was a program director in Baltimore—we were one of the last AM Rockers there, and I could see the writing on the wall—it wasn’t going to last much longer. One day I got a call from the program director at Channel 11 in Baltimore. He said he was a fan of mine from back in the WLS days, and he was doing a local show called “Bowling for Dollars,” and he wondered if I would be willing to audition for it. I hadn’t really done any television other than a few guest spots, but I went to the audition, and I got the job. So for awhile I was doing both the program director job, and the “Bowling for Dollars” show. I did that for four or five years.

About that time Plough Incorporated, the owner of the station, brought in a consultant that knew less than we did, and I figured, that’s it. It’s time to move on before they move me on. They changed over to country, and I was very fortunate that Channel 13 called me. Another former WLS fan was running it, and he asked me if I would consider doing the weather. I had never done anything like that before, but I figured I’d give it a try. Spencer Christian was their weatherman, and I filled in for him. There wasn’t a huge learning curve at the time. We didn’t have all the computer graphics, we were using refrigerator magnets. (laughs). But I kept that up and kept working there, as a weekend and fill in guy.

Oprah worked at that station too. When she got the offer from Chicago she pulled me aside and said “Ron, you’re from Chicago. I got this offer to do a talk show there. Do you think I should take it? Is it a good move?” I was thinking to myself, oh boy, she’s going to get killed in Chicago, so I said “Everybody loves you here. You don’t want to go to Chicago.” Good thing she didn’t listen to me.

I went over to Channel 2 after that, and then I got a call from another former WLS fan, a guy in Washington. He hired me to work at Newschannel 8, an all-news cable station, and that’s when I got my first full time morning television show. I never did get my meteorology degree, but I did get a National Weather Service seal, and I did learn quite a bit about the weather. Although, in all honesty, I was more of a personality, and less of a “metereologist” per se. But I was there for 16 years. I just retired two years ago, and I now I do part-time radio work for WTOP, delivering weather forecasts to the all-news station. I get to work out of my house, which I love.

Rick: Do you ever make it back to Chicago any more? Do you keep in touch with any of your former colleagues?

Ron: Absolutely. I come to Chicago a couple of times a year. We have a lot of relations in town. I was back in August and had lunch with Bernie Allen and Clark Weber, and a couple of record guys, and it was great. I love Chicago.