I have loved me a lot of DJs over the years, guys who have been important to me for various reasons, whether they made me want to do what they did, or they just provided me lots of enjoyment as a listener. For example, Larry Lujack and Fred Winston are two of the reasons I got into radio. Both of them held down morning drive slots in Chicago during the 1970s and into the 80. But as popular as they were, as influential as they were to me and guys like me, they never ruled the ratings in Chicago. That honor belonged to Wally Phillips, whose ratings at WGN often doubled his nearest competition, and did so for over 20 years.
I remember hearing Wally way back in the ’60s on my parents’ radio, and I got up with him regularly for several years after college. He was not an influence on me the way Lujack and Winston were—I was seduced by what they were doing when I was just a kid, but I was already in the industry when I became a regular listener to Wally. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Wally was the Platonic ideal of a radio broadcaster—in fact, the best ever to sit down behind a microphone. He understood not just what to do on the radio and how to do it better than anybody else, but why it matters. He was sharper and quicker than anybody else, but it came so effortlessly that he hardly seemed to be working at it, and it seemed as contrived as the weather. He could make you laugh out loud, but much more often, he’d settle for making you smile. He had a fierce commitment to his audience, once saying that broadcasting at WGN meant “50,000 watts to touch lives and make them better.” As important as he was to WGN and its staggering success (and as staggering as his own success was), his show was never about him, but always about the people listening.
Wally Phillips died today at age 82. He’d had Alzheimer’s Disease, an especially tragic affliction for a mind so sharp. I was shocked to be reminded that he’d left the morning show at WGN in 1986—it doesn’t seem like that long ago. He did afternoons for a while, then weekends, and finally retired in 1998 after over 40 years at WGN. A year later, however, he was back on the air at a suburban station, because old radio men do radio. They don’t know how to do anything else.
There’s a ton of Wally goodness at WGNGold.com. Whether you grew up listening to him or you’ve never heard of him before now, check him out. He was the king.