Larry Lujack


Interview by Bill Schenold in 1985
 

Larry Lujack was kind, considerate and generous with his time. He was vey tired when we conducted this interview -- almost ready for a nap. Thank you Larry -- I really appreciated this.

I want to get into Larry Lujack the "person" rather than Larry Lujack the "radio guy."

Good idea -- because he's a fascinating individual.

Actually, my getting into radio was kind of a fluke to begin with. Radio wasn't something that I originally wanted to do as a young man; if fact, I'd never considered it as a career. I was going to college majoring in biology with the thought of one day working for the Idaho Fish and Game Department in the exciting field of "wildlife conservation" -- doesn't that sound noble? I was going to save our nations wildlife. But then, like a lot of college students, after money for room and board, tuition, books -- I was always broke. It was getting to the point where I didn't have anything to eat with.

One day I went looking for a part-time job. I walked into the administration building at the College of Idaho in Caldwell Idaho (a real big time school) and there was a bulletin board that kids would put cards on if they were trying to sell things. Maybe they were trying to sell their car -- or typewriter -- or some books or bicycle. There was a little note on the board that said: WANTED: PART-TIME RADIO ANNOUNCER -- EXPERIENCE PERFERED.

Now -- I had of course -- "zero" experience in radio. I'd never even been in a radio station before. K-C-I-D was a little biddy two-hundred-fifty watt daytimer in Caldwell. The station wasn't looking for people that were any good -- just people who worked real cheap. There wasn't any competition -- they were the only radio station in town.

When I walked into the station I gave them this "shuck and jive" routine about all the experience I'd had working for the forest service in the summer fighting fires. I was trying to con them into thinking that I had some actual radio experience -- I'm talking about working as a "dispatcher" or something at the forest service -- sending people out to fires and doing a lot of radio type things. It was just a "crock" -- I was just one of the guys out there on the frontline with a shovel!

But, you didn't really have to be good to work at K-C-I-D because nobody else there was any good either. The station made a tape of me. Geez, I was so scared. My knees were shaking, my hands were shaking -- my entire body was shaking.

Upon reviewing the tape they said: "Well, the voice isn't too bad -- obviously you need a lot of work -- but we think we can train you."

So that's how I got started. I was working part-time to begin with -- and then it got to the point where I was spending all of my spare time at the radio station because I fell in love with it. This was back in 1958 and I was only eighteen years old. I thought -- my gosh I get to sit on my rear end -- play Elvis records, Bill Haley, Conway Twitty, Buddy Holly " ---- and they will pay me money to do this?"

It got to the point where I was spending every waking hour at the radio station. I would get off the air at night and go back into the music library and sit there listening to albums. Naturally I started flunking out of everything. I started not showing up for classes because I wasn't getting any sleep. Because of all the excitement of "radio," I decided to "bag" the nations wildlife -- figuring that they could somehow save themselves. I was going to go into show business -- to be a "big star." That's how I got started.

Larry Lujack -- the firefighter.

The first summer that I fought fires -- when there were no fires early in the summer -- they would have us doing other things -- like clearing brush back in the primitive area near logging operations and stacking it up. In the fall, after the snow came, they would burn these piles. It's called "slash." The fire job was real hot, dry, dusty, boring work. I'd pick up these dead branches off trees and stack them up all day long. I thought it was going to be real glamorous in the forest service -- fighting raging fires.

Finally, one night we were all asleep and the little alarm bell went off: FIRE!

They loaded us all up into the trucks and off we went. I was really looking forward to this -- but when we arrived -- the fire was in a damn dump! I guess that quite frequently they have fires in these dumps. The bears prowl around these dumps looking for something to eat and some tourist had discarded something that was burning into the dump. So here I was on my first "big fire" putting out a little piddley blaze in a garbage dump in the middle of nowhere. That was my introduction to fire fighting.

I had some rather scary experiences however on big fires. There were times during sudden shifts in wind where it got real scary. I can remember just dropping my shovel and running for my life along with a bunch of other guys.

I hated fighting fires "so much" that the next summer I tried for a job on a lookout in a primitive area. I was successful in getting that position. I spent what I still consider to be the best summer of my life, all by myself, up on top of a mountain. There were no roads; no civilization of any kind; just me -- and the deer -- and the raccoons, chipmunks, little birds -- and the badger who lived outside the door. It was great.

I met you on your very first night at WLS in 1968. We talked just before you went on the air. You were sporting a crew cut. What's gone on since then?

Oh, just the same old rock and roll.

What was it like to come from Idaho to the city?

Culture shock. I hated it because I was raised in the wide open spaces where you could get on a horse and ride in any direction you wanted to -- for as long as you wanted to ride -- with no fences or nothin. It was like that first radio job in Caldwell where I lived clear on the other side of town. If the three stop lights between me K-C-I-D were all on green -- I could make it to work in five minutes. There were no freeways and there were no traffic jams; there was no pollution and the water out there was clean. It's the old thing: "There's no place like home."

I have never liked living in Chicago; I don't like any big cities. I worked in Boston -- I hated that town; it was very depressing. I worked in Seattle. Seattle wasn't bad for a big city. I have never liked living in Chicago. I have hated it. So why is "he" still here?

I'm still here because -- obviously, in this racket, if you want to make any money -- if you want to pay for your kids braces and put them through college -- you've got to make money. You don't make any money working in radio in places like Caldwell Idaho. That's why I'm still here in Chicago -- but hopefully it's not going to be for much longer -- because -- I wana be back where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free.

So basically you're an unhappy person working in Chicago?

Miserable. Ha ha ha.

The thrill is gone?

Yeah, it's certainly not the big thrill that it once was for me. I've been doing this for my entire adult life -- since I was eighteen. I am now (1985) forty-five. How long is that? That's a long time. Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year of walking into a radio station, putting on those headphones and -- it's just a job to me now. It's no big thrill anymore.

What comes after you retire? Many radio people are looking to fill your job.

One of them is gonna get it!

I'll tell you what I'd like to do -- but there's no way I could do this. When I hit fifty I'd like to join the Senior Golf Tour and play golf for a living. But I'm not good enough at golf. So what I will do, I don't know. I do know I'll go west. I've got a couple places in mind: one in New Mexico and one in Arizona. I think I will probably just get some menial job at a golf course somewhere just to have something to do and be able to play free golf all the time.

WCFL was the first station you worked at in Chicago. Relive that first night on the air for us.

Am I allowed to use a profane word?

Umm -- I was "terrified." The first night I went on the air doing the all night gig at WCFL I was thinking: "Geez -- God -- Chicago! -- this is what I've been dreaming about ever since that first radio job in Caldwell." Prior to my doing the all night show, CFL was rock and roll during the morning, afternoon and evening. However, the all night show was programmed jazz because they'd sold it to some beer company. The station's contract with the beer sponsor had not run out. When the contract ended they were going to program rock and roll twenty-four hours a day. Finally, the contract ran out -- they needed a guy to play rock and roll -- so -- "here's me."

Geez, that jazz show was popular. Sid McCoy and Yvonne Daniels with the nighttime people -- ya know, the prostitutes out there, the cab drivers, the gas station guys. Everyone listened to that show -- and everybody listening to that show hated my guts when I came on the air playing "Bebop Baby" by Ricky Nelson and other oldies. For a while WCFL was just playing oldies on the all night gig. Here I was broadcasting all this Elvis stuff and Buddy Holly and just lovin' it. I started picked up the request phone -- and I remember the very first call I got from a fan in Chicago was the voice of an elderly black woman -- who'd probably tuned in that night to hear a little Duke Ellington asking: "WHAT'S THIS BRENDA LEE SHIT BABY?"

The calls got progressively worse after that -- so finally I simply stopped answering the phone. They hated me, they hated the music, they hated everything. So that was my introduction to Chicago radio -- with everyone tuned into the radio station -- hating me.

Ken Draper was the man who hired you the first time around at WCFL. Some people hearld him as a radio guru: a genius.

Ken Draper ... (long pause) ... a very strange individual. He had just unbelievable loyalty from his staff. I'd never seen that before, and frankly, from the short time I was at WCFL the first time I thought it was "undeserved." Draper and I never signed a contract, and so that's why I was able to leave four months after I got there. WLS called me up -- Gene Taylor was the general manager at that time. Here I was doing this all night show and he said to me: "Hey, how'd you like to work daytimes and make a bunch more money?" I said: ..."yeah."

I didn't have a contract with Draper -- and none of his people did. He'd brought a whole bunch of them up from Cleveland -- and they just thought he was some sort of radio god. I didn't feel like I owed him any loyalty or owed him anything -- so I left.

Dave Schussler (now deceased) was your on-air engineer during your SuperCFL days in the seventies. He was special to you.

Dave was probably the best friend I've ever had in this business. He was real young. I was twenty-seven, he was probably five years younger than me. He was a real nice guy, and just a little on the wacky, crazy side. He was a fun engineer to work with. The "engineer" aspect of my radio career brings up an interesting point. One of the reasons I was so panicky when I came to Chicago was that I had never worked with an engineer before -- I'd always run my own control board. I thought: "My gosh, I can't do this -- if there's an engineer on the other side of the glass controlling everything, I'm not going to have the feel for it -- I'd be lost -- I wouldn't know what to do or say." That feeling went away real quick. I discovered how great it was to have somebody else doing all the work while I could sit there and think about things to say.

Tell us about the Animal Stories "Anteater" episode.

Ahhh ----- you -- you don't want to hear about that. That's pretty risque. If we're targeting mom and dad, junior and sis here ------- you don't want to ah, --- in fact that one was banned for re-airing here on WLS. That episode can never be broadcast again. I have strict orders from management on that. We got a little carried away with that. In fact, officially ---- "I don't know what you're talking about."

How did the Animal Stories feature come about.

In 1970 WLS switched me from afternoons, to morning drive. This was back in the days when they still had Don McNeil's Breakfast club on the air. Early in the morning, prior to 5 a.m., we had a farm show on the air. It consisted of five minutes of reading the hog prices and stuff like that -- which I thought was really boring to do.

I started getting hold of a bunch of farm magazines -- you know -- WLS having been the "Prairie Farmer" station. Even though we were playing Beatles and Stones, we were still getting these farm magazines. I began thumbing through them and finding these weird stories about farmers and their animals. I started reading them on the air instead of broadcasting the stupid grain prices. A lot of the stories were about farmers getting attacked by their animals, horses having quadruplets -- and other strange things. People started calling up the station -- and geez they really liked the farm show. I couldn't believe that. Rock and roll fans were actually calling up requesting that the farm show be made longer. After the farm show got dumped by management, I just renamed it Animal Stories and branched out. Animal Stories was not only about farm animals -- but any kind of animals. Without a doubt, this feature was the most successful thing that I've ever done from a listener acceptance standpoint. It's just a great common denominator thing: everybody at one time has had a pet dog, or a pet rabbit, or a pet cat. Everybody likes to go to the zoo -- everybody likes animals.

Were you just in the right place at the right time to become who you are in radio?

Yeah, I think -- and I'm not being overly modest about this -- I think in my case a great percentage of it was just "luck." I was in the right place at the right time, with whatever it was somebody happened to be looking for. A lot of the guys I once worked with in places like Moscow Idaho, Boise and Caldwell never made it. I can drive through those places and I can hear guys that have talent -- and yet most of those guys won't make it to the big time because they won't get lucky enough.

Do any of those guys you worked with out west ever call you -- asking for help to get into Chicago radio?

That used to happen a lot, but I got so tired of that -- I was getting to feel like "Larry Lujack's Employment Agency."

You look exhausted. Do you hate getting up at 3 am?

He looks tired, because he is tired sportsfans.

I - never - wanted - to - do - mornings. And I - still - don't - want - to - do - mornings. I originally did mornings at WLS because: "A" it was for a lot more money. At that time my kids were eight, nine, ten years old. I was starting to worry about college for them -- plus, geez, you make it into the big time in the city -- you don't know how long you're going to last -- you could get blown out in six months. You're trying to make all the money you can as fast as you can. I had no idea I would still be here eighteen years later. If somebody would have told me when I came to Chicago that I'd last eighteen years I'd have said: "you're crazy."

When WCFL offered me more money to do afternoons -- there was no contest -- I booked from WLS. I went over to WCFL, and after one year, we actually beat WLS in the ratings -- which was the first time that had actually been done. Then things, for a lot of reasons that I don't even want to go into, started to gradually decline. The situation got worse and worse and worse -- until finally the switch to beautiful music came and they fired every disc jockey in the place. They didn't fire me because I was the only one who had a contract. They would have loved to have canned me as well, but they couldn't. They tried hard to find something, some loop-hole somewhere -- or nail me on something -- to get rid of me. It got to the point where Lou Witz had a tape running on me all the time. If I made a mistake on the air, he went around and actually had secretaries sign their names that they had heard me accidentally announce the incorrect time or something. That was really Mickey Mouse stuff. It got to the point where my coworkers were afraid to talk to me because they knew management was out to nail me -- and they didn't want to be connected to that because they didn't want to get in trouble themselves. It got real tense and very uncomfortable for a while.

In a way, I could see the station's side of things. They were in business to make money, and they were paying me tons of money to do next to nothing. All I did for four hours every day was come in, sit down, and every fifteen minutes I would maybe give the time and the temperature. I wasn't even allowed to say my name. And maybe, in a real exciting quarter hour I'd get to do a live ten second spot -- you know -- in between these tapes of these Mantovani and Ferranti and Tichner and Henry Mancini records.

It was really unpleasant. They were hoping they'd make it so unbearable for me -- that I'd eventually quit. But, they had no idea how badly I wanted that money! There was no way I was going to give that up. After several months they could see that I wasn't going to quit -- and they were not going to be able to fire me. Suddenly the thing with WLS came up and we worked out a deal where for a while I was getting paid by two radio stations. They took the remaining years of the contract and split it -- WLS paid a certain amount -- WCFL did likewise.

Do you have a collection of "Best of Larry Lujack" shows on tape?

I threw them all out.

(also see: Ralph Squires who was an engineer on Lujack's show at WLS)

 

copyright 1985 William Schenold

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