Saturday, May 14, 2011
Tommy Edwards is a Chicago radio legend. He can currently be heard on K-Hits (WJMK), and he is the operations manager of several channels of AccuRadio's Chicago Radio Online.
Rick: First of all, good to hear you back on WJMK. This is actually your second go-round at this frequency, isn't it?
Tommy: I guess you could say it's my third go around. The first occurred in early 1986. My WLS contract expired in November 1985 and I was offered a 10 year deal but decided it was time to move on. I took the month of December off and shortly after the first of the year I went to New York and was offered a prime position at WCBS-FM. I decided it wasn't right for me so I came back to Chicago and had discussions with a couple of stations.
One day Harvey Pearlman, GM of WJMK, called and said he needed someone to fill in for Joel Sebastian who was ill and all he needed was a couple of weeks of work. I agreed and tragically Joel passed away during that time. So Harvey asked me to stay permanently and I wasn't sure that's what I wanted to do. I decided after the Bears won the Superbowl to resign and program WKQX. After a couple of years Harvey invited me to lunch and convinced me to come back to do mornings at WJMK. I did that until late 1989 or early 1990 and left for Boston to program WODS for CBS Radio. That lead to two years in Boston and I was transferred to Los Angeles to program KCBS-FM for about 12 years.
Rick: I interviewed Gary Spears a few weeks ago, and he agreed with me that this format is very reminiscent of WLS back in the late 70s or so. You were part of that powerhouse lineup in those days, and you've started doing this format now too, so I suppose I should pose the same question to you. Does it feel similar?
Rick: You've worked at many stations in Chicago, but people probably remember you the most from your time at WLS. There aren't many people that can claim quite as much of authorship of that memorable era than you; as program director, production director, and of course, air personality. Looking back on that era now, what do you think was the secret to Music Radio WLS' tremendous success?
That major contest was followed by the Forty Ford Giveaway - Forty Fords to forty winners! The Disney World promotion set the bar extremely high. WLS had exceptional talent on the air, exceptional talent in the promotions, engineering, marketing, sales and every other department of the radio station. It was a very unique experience - and you know what? We didn't realize how influential it was to the rest of the industry. That became evident later.
Rick: Do you have any favorite memories from that time?
Rick: Of course, you were also the co-host of what may be the most famous bit in Chicago radio history; Animal Stories. I listened every day when I was a kid, but I don't remember how it started. Is there a good story there?
Tommy: I'd spend about a half-hour in Studio A next to Larry preparing for my 10am-2pm show. We did a lot of True Value Hardware live 60" spots and sometimes I'd chime in and make comments and he and I would start laughing. Management wasn't all that happy about that until True Value mentioned they loved the spots.
The first T-Shirts WLS created had artwork of a rooster with a hat on with "press" on it and a wrap of "Larry Lujack's Animal Stories". It evolved into the Uncle Lar and Li'l Tommy beavers and became the main promotional identity of the radio station including re-painting the promotion van from the "Magic Bus" to the "Animal Stories Mobile Unit". We did movie trailers for the Plitt Theatres and we even had a flavor of ice-cream named after us one summer.
Rick: When I was producing Landecker's show on WJMK we had both you and Larry on the show for John's 50th birthday, and I believe that was your first time on the air together in something like ten years. At the time you were preparing to release Animal Stories on CD. I see that they're still available now.
Rick: If you don't mind, I'd like to take you back even further. What was it about radio that drew you in the first place, and how did that journey eventually bring you to Chicago?
Tommy: I was in a lot of theater in school. As a sophomore in high school, I had a part in a school play where everyone else in the cast was a senior. One cast member was also a DJ at the local radio station in Topeka, Kansas. I asked if I could visit him at the station, KTOP-AM, and I eventually got a job as a "go-fer". I'd prepare newscasts, update the weather, run and get food and drink for the jocks and anything else they wanted me to do. And I didn't get paid a dime. Eventually I got a paying job watching the Associated Press teletype machine and listening to the police radios. And from that I started reading news on the air and when the all-night DJ called in sick, I volunteered to do the show and the manager liked it and gave me a weekend shift. Years later I worked in suburban Washington, DC, at WEAM-AM while serving in the Pentagon in the U.S. Navy. And after a few years I was offered a weekend shift in New York City until I was discharged from the Navy and then began a full time midday shift on WOR-FM. From there I came to Chicago and WLS.
Rick: You've actually been in programming many times in your career--and you continue to program portions of Accuradio's Chicago Radio Online. Do you actually prefer it to being on the air?
Rick: I also can't let you go before I ask you about your time with the Bulls. You've been the PA announcer for the Bulls for the past five years, but you also did it for many years before that (1976-1990). Unfortunately for you, you missed the championship years in that window you were gone, but you must have a few favorite Bulls memories from your front row seat.