Legendary WGN Broadcasting Pioneer Wally Phillips Dies



Once a week for several years I would get up before the sun and leave Sturgeon Bay to visit my home in central Wisconsin.  I was in my early 20’s, working at the local radio station, (WDOR) and feeling bouts of homesickness.  On the road in my blue Chevette I would drink coffee and drive westward as the day opened.  And on the radio was a friendly voice I had known since my high school days.

As I drove along I would marvel at the way Wally Phillips weaved the calls from the listeners with wit and information in such a way that it seemed effortless.  It was obvious from his banter and gentlemanly ways that he cared for, and respected his audience.  One thing was easy to discern when listening to him, in fact it was always clear from the start, Wally Phillips cared for those on the other side of the microphone.

Today the voice died.  Wally Phillips was 82 years old.

I heard the news early this morning as I was listening to WGN radio.  It was only natural that I heard about the famed Chicago broadcaster’s death on the station that was home to Phillips, the man who pioneered modern day talk radio.  It was his warmth, wit, and professionalism that first drew me to WGN as a teenager, and I never left.  WGN has awakened me every morning of my adult life.

Wally Phillips was the first person to make me truly enthusiastic about a possible radio career. (Clark Weber and Eddie Schwartz from WIND and WGN were the others.)  I would listen to Phillips as a kid and wonder how he did the amazing voice ‘drop-ins’, and seemingly effortless talk show that took place each day.   I wondered how he was able to be so funny and yet never cut loose and laugh himself, since I found it hard to be funny and not also enjoy the laugh with those around me.  

It was after I started broadcasting school that I discovered how proficient he was as a broadcaster, and how truly remarkable his production efforts were every day he was on the air.  I discovered how hard his job was even though he made it seem as if his whole audience was just a part of a large friendly conversation.  But in the studio he was a pure professional who had his hands on the dials and buttons that made him the host of the largest audience on AM radio.  In fact, he was number one in his morning time slot from 1968 until shifting for an afternoon slot in 1986.

As the Chicago Sun-Times reports his audience was almost 1.5 million listeners per day.

At the peak of his popularity as morning star at WGN, Phillips attracted half of all Chicago area radio listeners — an audience of nearly 1.5 million each day — making him the most listened-to radio host in the country.

“When we say ‘WGN Radio is Chicago,’ I quickly add that ‘Wally Phillips is WGN,'” said Wayne Vriesman, vice president and general manager of the Tribune-owned station. “He is the most creative, humorous and innovative person I have ever met in broadcasting. . . . (with) a lifetime of great radio listening and a public service never equaled in broadcasting.”

Wally Phillips was the first broadcaster to start the use of phone calls while on the air, allowing the listening audience to be a part of what he developed as the interactive nature of radio.  The calls were fun and uplifting, and interspersed with lines that were prerecorded with funny voices and ‘dropped-in’ at a moments notice.  It was a joy to listen to!

From 1984 listen to Wally Phillips.  The audio here is one of several that can be found on  WGN ,  the above segment is one where Wally celebrates “Goof-off Day” with a series of the “Candid Camera”-style phone calls he made famous. This edited segment includes a montage of calls originally taking place over several hours, including several to people in Atlanta and Lexington, where NCAA Tournament was being held, in which Wally attempts to see if the unsuspecting victims will offer weekend accommodations to him and his large family.

As The Chicago Tribune reports Phillips had an edgy streak that won him applause form his audience.

Phillips’ delivery occasionally had an edge to it, like the time he tracked down formal-wear mogul Ben Gingiss on a cruise ship on the Pacific Ocean and got him on the phone, saying “We’re down here at the store. . . . Where do you keep the fire extinguisher?” More typical was the morning when he started his broadcast by chatting with farm reporter Orion Samuelson about the coming Stomach Rumbling Finals in Stuttgart, Germany.

The Chicago Sun Times has a slide show of  Wally Phillips.

Wally Phillips was a far cry from what passes for much of talk radio today.  He was never mean, boorish, or ‘blue’ on the air.  After his more than 40 years of broadcasting had concluded he was considered by all as the king of his genre.  Much has happened to radio since Wally Phillips ruled the airwaves and helped encouraged this kid to give it a try.  I only wish that today’s youth would have the opportunity to know and love AM radio as it once was.

Thanks for the smiles Wally!  

I might add that WGN is still that diverse and wonderful station, that is often it seems, an island of great broadcasting on the AM dial.

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