|Broadcast area||Chicago market / Northern Illinois|
|Slogan||Chicago's Talk Leader|
|Frequency||890 kHz C-QUAM AM Stereo|
|Repeater(s)||94.7 MHz WLS-FM-HD2|
|First air date||April 12, 1924|
|Transmitter coordinates||NAD27) (main tower)
(NAD27) (auxiliary tower)
|Callsign meaning||World's Largest Store (original owner Sears)|
|Former callsigns||WES (April 9–11, 1924)|
|Former frequencies||870 kHz ("345 meters" or "344.6 meters", 1924–1941)
670 kHz ("448 meters", pre-April 12, 1924)
|Affiliations||Westwood One News, NBC News, The Weather Channel, Premiere Networks|
(Radio License Holdings LLC)
|Sister stations||WKQX, WLS-FM, WLUP-FM|
|Webcast||Listen Live (via iHeartRadio)|
WLS (890 kHz, "89 WLS") is a commercial AM radio station licensed to Chicago, Illinois. Owned by Cumulus Media, WLS has its studios in the NBC Tower on North Columbus Drive in the city's Streeterville neighborhood, and its non-directional broadcast tower is located on the southern edge of Tinley Park, Illinois.
WLS is a Class A station broadcasting on the clear-channel frequency of 890 kHz with 50,000 watts of power using C-QUAM AM Stereo. The station's daytime groundwave service contour covers portions of five states while at night its signal routinely reaches 38 states via skywave. The station's programming is also available to listeners in the Chicago metropolitan area with an HD Radio receiver via a simulcast on the HD2 subchannel of sister station WLS-FM. Despite different owners and affiliations, 89 WLS, ABC owned-and-operated ABC 7 Chicago and ESPN Radio owned-and-operated ESPN Chicago maintain a strong partnership.
WLS has a talk radio format, with its weekday programming consisting of local hosts and nationally syndicated shows such as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, "Red Eye Radio" and "First Light." Limbaugh is syndicated by Premiere Networks and the rest are from Westwood One, a subsidiary of Cumulus Media. Local hosts include "Big" John Howell and veteran Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl hosts afternoons. Weekends feature programs on money, real estate, auto repair and brokered programming. Syndicated weekend shows include Kim Komando, Bob Brinker, John Batchelor, Ric Edelman and Larry Kudlow.
WLS carried Notre Dame Fighting Irish football and basketball games through the 2015-16 season, when they moved to WMVP. Since 2016, WLS has been the flagship station of the Chicago White Sox baseball team and the Chicago Bulls basketball team.
In the 1920s, Sears, Roebuck and Company was a major retail and mail order company. To get farmers and people in rural communities to buy radio sets from its catalogs, Sears bought time on radio stations, and then decided to form its own station. Just before the permanent station was ready, Sears began broadcasts on March 21, 1924 as WBBX with noon programs using the WMAQ studios. WLS was one of the original 50,000-watt Class I-A clear-channel stations which did not share its (original) frequency of 870 AM with any other station during nighttime (sunset to sunrise) hours, when AM radio signals can travel long distances via skywave.
Sears broadcast test transmissions from its own permanent studios on April 9, 10 and 11, 1924, using the call sign WES (for "World's Economy Store"). On April 12, 1924, the station commenced officially, using the call letters WLS (for "World's Largest Store"); and on April 19, aired its first National Barn Dance. Sears originally operated its station at its Chicago headquarters on Chicago's West Side where the company's mail order business was located. Sears then moved the WLS studios into the Sherman House hotel in downtown Chicago.
Sears opened the station in 1924 as a service to farmers and subsequently sold it to the Prairie Farmer magazine in 1928. The station moved to the Prairie Farmer Building on West Washington in Chicago, where it remained for 32 years. For a few months after ABC's 1960 purchase of it and the format change, the "bright new sound" that began in May 1960 was broadcast from the Prairie Farmer Building. WLS didn't make the move to downtown Michigan Avenue's Stone Container Building, located at 360 North Michigan Avenue, until October of that year. Thirty years later, it would move once more, to its present location at 190 North State in downtown Chicago. It was the scene of the National Barn Dance, which featured Gene Autry, Pat Buttram, and George Gobel, and which was second only to the Grand Ole Opry (itself a local National Barn Dance spinoff) in presenting country music and humor.
The station also experimented successfully in many forms of news broadcasting, including weather and crop reports. Its most famous news broadcast was the eyewitness report of the Hindenburg disaster by Herbert Morrison. Morrison and engineer Charles Nehlsen had been sent to New Jersey by WLS to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg for delayed broadcast. Their recordings aired the next day on May 7, 1937, the first time that recordings of a news event were ever broadcast.
Starting in the 1930s, WLS was an affiliate of the Blue Network of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and as such aired the popular Fibber McGee and Molly and Lum and Abner comedy programs (both produced at the studios of Chicago's NBC-owned stations, WENR and WMAQ) during their early years. When the Federal Communications Commission forced NBC to sell the Blue Network, WLS maintained its affiliation with the network under its new identity, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Under this affiliation, some programs from the network that were not commercially sponsored or which were scheduled to cross the time that WLS and WENR shifted its use of the same frequency (such as baseball or football games) were transferred to air on a third Blue Network/ABC affiliate in Chicago, WCFL. Blue/ABC network broadcasts of addresses by labor leaders were also shifted away from WLS and WENR to WCFL, which was owned at the time by the Chicago Federation of Labor.
WENR became active in late 1924 and early 1925, the creation of E. N. Rauland, whose company manufactured the All-American brand of radios. Rauland started with 10 watts on 1030 kHz in 1924; on March 19, 1925, he received his license for WENR at 100 watts. By late 1925 WENR was using a 1,000-watt transmitter designed by Rauland himself. The station quickly entered into a time-sharing agreement with WBCN, owned at that time by the Chicago Southtown newspaper. The two stations changed frequencies to 1040 kHz a year later.
By 1927, Chicago investor Samuel Insull had taken serious interest in both stations. A founding partner of KYW, he sold his interest in it and had started Great Lakes Broadcasting. Insull purchased both stations, paying $1 million for WENR alone. Under Insull's management, the two stations once more changed frequencies, this time to 870 kHz, when the combined stations became the first Chicago radio station operating under 50,000 watts of power from a new transmitter in Downers Grove, Illinois in 1929. Insull's Great Lakes Broadcasting holdings also included a mechanical television station, W9XR, which went on the air after the Downers Grove transmitter was installed. Insull moved his stations first into Chicago's Strauss Building, and then to his own Civic Opera House. The investor's fortune began dwindling by 1931; Insull then sold the licenses of both stations to National Broadcasting Company. By early 1933, WBCN's call letters had left the airwaves and the frequency was occupied by WENR, which became part of NBC's Blue Network, and by WLS. NBC shut down W9XR by 1933, just as it had done with WX9AP, which it acquired in its purchase of radio station WMAQ.
Changes were made regarding AM frequencies in 1941 as a result of the North American Regional Broadcasting Agreement; this moved WENR and WLS from 870 to 890 kHz. In August 1943, NBC was ordered to divest itself of the Blue Network and its stations; WENR and Blue were sold to Edward J. Noble. In 1945 the Blue Network would be renamed as the American Broadcasting Company. The 1931 sale of the station to NBC moved WENR from the Civic Opera House to the Merchandise Mart, NBC's Chicago headquarters. The station continued on at the Mart until 1952 by becoming NBC's tenant, moving back to the Civic Opera House in that year. Paul Harvey's Chicago broadcasting career began at WENR.
WENR and WLS used the same frequencies in a time-sharing arrangement until 1954, when ABC (then known as American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres) bought a 50 percent interest in WLS and combined the stations. In November 1959, ABC announced its purchase of the Prairie Farmer and its half of WLS, giving ABC full ownership of the station.
The WLS Musicradio era
On May 2, 1960, at 6 a.m., WLS went full-time Rock and Roll/Top 40. Mort Crowley was the first on-air voice of the new WLS; the first song played was "Alley-Oop" by the Hollywood Argyles, four full weeks before it debuted on the Hot 100.
The first DJs were Sam Holman and Ralph Beaudin. WLS then quickly hired Bob Hale, Gene Taylor, Mort Crowley, Jim Dunbar and star disc jockey Dick Biondi (a 1998 inductee of the National Radio Hall of Fame) from WEBR in Buffalo, New York.
Late in the 1960s, then into the 1970s and beyond came Larry Lujack, Dex Card, Clark Weber, Chuck Buell, Kris Erik Stevens, Joel Sebastian, Gary Gears, Jerry Kay, Bob Sirott, John Records Landecker, Yvonne Daniels, Steve Dahl, Garry Meier, Brant Miller, Tom Kent, Steve King, Jeff Davis, and Tommy Edwards. Some of the production directors responsible for the sound of WLS were Ray Van Steen, Hal Widsten, Jim Hampton, Bill Price and Tommy Edwards.
In the 1960s, WLS was a major force in introducing new music and recording artists.
The first US airplay of a record by The Beatles ("Please Please Me") was on Dick Biondi's show on February 8, 1963. WLS was voted by broadcasters nationally as "The Station of the Year" in 1967, 1968 and 1969. John Rook was named "Program Director of the Year" in 1968 and 1969 as WLS was estimated attracting 4.2 million listeners weekly by Pulse research. Dr. Cody Sweet became the voice of "WLS Super Summer Radio" in 1967.
The WLS News Department included Lyle Dean, Jeff Hendrix, Catherine Johns, Dick Harley, Linda Marshall, Karen Hand, Jim Johnson, Jerry Golden, Jim Wynne, Stan Dale, Bill Guthrie and Les Grobstein was the station's Sports Director.
WLS also produced the weekly Silver Dollar Survey from October 14, 1960, to December 22, 1967, broken by the Silver Beatle Survey on February 21, 1964 (see picture to the right) and the Super Summer Survey from May 5, 1967, to August 25, 1967. The survey nominally contained 40 current listings, except for occasional weeks when it contained less current listings, usually 20, plus a special listing of greatest oldies. From 18 September 1964 through 25 December 1964, the survey consisted of the top 30 pop hits, followed by the top 10 R&B hits. Thereafter, the survey changed its name numerous times (89 WLS Hit Parade, 89 WLS Chicagoland Hit Parade, WLS Musicradio 89, etc.). Starting with the July 20, 1970 survey, the number of listings dropped from 40 to 30, then varying from 25 to 40 starting June 26, 1972, then dropping to 15 by March 9, 1974, then increasing to a high of 45 by the end of 1975. No "take home" surveys were printed from March 13, 1972, through July 16, 1973 (these were limited to one poster-size weekly survey displayed at record shops). The year-end listing was the 20 greatest hits of the year for each year from 1963 through 1966, increased to 89 from 1967 onward.
By the mid-1970s, WLS became conservative about introducing new songs, and many record promoters referred to the station as the "World's Last Station" to add new releases for airplay, usually only after the songs had reached the top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100. (However, in 1974, the station started playing the track "Lady" by the Chicago band Styx from an older album of theirs, resulting in other stations around the country adding the song and making the track Styx' first national Top 40 hit.) During the 1970s WLS ran a Sunday night music interview program called "Music People."
Well into the 1980s, WLS continued as a mainstream Top 40 formatted station. By 1985, the station evolved into more of a Hot AC format. In 1986, WLS began airing evening talk programming as its ratings were on a steady decline.
Unique "WLS-only" versions of songs
Like many AM radio stations of the seventies, WLS edited many of the songs they played into a more "radio-friendly" or "radio edit" (a term still used today) format, usually 3–4 minutes in length. Even songs that were only 4 minutes in length as a single were sometimes edited. Of course even longer songs, such as Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", were heavily edited for time. Other special editions of some Top 40 songs exclusively made for their broadcasting were done by the musicians themselves or sometimes by the WLS audio engineers. Among these were:
- Reunion's "Life Is A Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" (1974) – Reunion changed audio lyric to "Life is a rock/WLS rolled me" (like it had for competition WCFL)
- Johnny Wakelin's "Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)" (1974) – Added quotes from Howard Cosell between vocals.
- Benny Bell's "Shaving Cream" (1975) – Added additional verse making reference to WLS disc jockey Bob Sirott.
- John Denver's "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" (1975) – added "farm animal" sound effects.
- Captain and Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together" and "Por Amor Viveremos" (1975) – Created a "Spanglish" version with alternating English/Spanish vocals. The Spanish-only version of the song ("Por Amor Viveremos") charted in 1975.
- Dickie Goodman's "Mr. Jaws" (1975) - Introduced as "This is Dickie Goodman at WLS".
- The Pointer Sisters' "Fire" (1979) – Changed audio lyric to "I'm riding in your car/you turn on W-L-S." Again, done by the Pointer Sisters who did similar for other Top40 stations in other markets.
The WLS Talkradio 890 era
By 1987, WLS was an adult contemporary station during the day and talk at night. Their approach was no longer music intensive. By 1988, the station evolved into a soft AC format with very little (if any) current product, and liberally laced with oldies. By this time, the station focused more on personality and less on music, including a Sunday night late night talk show called "Sex Talk" and a daily late night sports related talk show.
In June 1989, WLS announced it was going all-talk by the end of the summer. Rumors were that the change was to happen September 1. Air personalities were becoming more talk intensive anyway and midday talk was added as well. But quietly, with no warning, on August 23, 1989, at 7 P.M., WLS stopped playing music altogether. Phil Duncan was the last DJ to play music on WLS, and as Duncan finished up his show, a voice in the back of the studio (that of then-WYTZ worker Steven Craig) was heard saying "Goodnight!" (Craig unknowingly (and unofficially) became the last live voice on Musicradio WLS.) Appropriately, the last song was "Just You 'n' Me" by Chicago. WLS then became a talk station, with Sally Jesse Raphael as its first host. In the beginning of the talk format, WLS featured high-rated talk talents from around the country, such as Bob Lassiter from Tampa Bay, Stacy Taylor from San Diego and the station's biggest hit, Rush Limbaugh out of New York. After a few years, however, Lassiter, Taylor and some of their other national hosts were dropped in favor of more local hosts. Jay Marvin also had several stints on WLS, where he was one of the few liberal voices on its political talk shows, which had mostly conservative viewpoints. The station iserved as the "flagship" broadcast outlet for the Sunday night, national political talk show, Beyond the Beltway with Bruce DuMont.
By 1992, WLS had such low ratings that ABC's national management was planning on flipping the station to a satellite-fed country format (management went so far as to distribute an all-staff memo and hosts being told they were about to be let go). However, in what was described as an "eleventh hour decision", ABC cancelled the planned format change due to convincing from local management. Throughout the 1990s, ratings began to grow, with the station occasionally ranked in the Top 10.
On Memorial Day, 2007, WLS took a cue from sister station WABC and ran a special day of musical programming, "The Big 89 Rewind," featuring live visits from Larry Lujack, Tommy Edwards, Fred Winston, Chris Shebel, Jeff Davis, John Records Landecker, Tom Kent, and other D.J.s, sounders, and airchecks from the Musicradio era. The broadcasts re-aired on Independence Day 2007, and there was a new Rewind in 2008.
ABC-owned radio stations which were not affiliated with ESPN Radio or Radio Disney, including WLS, were sold to Citadel Broadcasting on June 12, 2007, with Citadel licensing the name ABC Radio for 2 years after the sale. Citadel was bought by Cumulus Media on September 16, 2011.
Longtime morning show hosts Don and Roma Wade retired in December 2012. They had been off the air since October due to Don Wade's cancer treatments. On September 6, 2013, Don Wade died of a brain tumor.
Cumulus radio stations made their final break with ABC at the end of 2014, when they no longer carried ABC Radio News. WLS and most Cumulus news/talk stations began running Westwood One News on January 1, 2015. (Westwood One is a Cumulus subsidiary.)
On June 23, 2015, WLS announced that they had picked up broadcasting rights for Chicago White Sox baseball starting with the 2016 season. In addition, WLS had also picked up broadcasting rights for the Chicago Bulls, beginning with the 2016-17 NBA season.
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