Ralph Squires

Interview by Bill Schenold

Ralph Squires was the technical engineer for the Dick Biondi Show at WLS in the early 1960's. He began his career at a suburban station.


How did you get started in radio?

I started working part-time at a small station in Evanston. Radio fascinated me -- but there were no job openings at the time. By the time I'd gotten out of school the Federal Communications Commission had frozen all construction permits for new stations. Every Tom, Dick and Harry was applying for a radio license at the time and the jobs just weren't to be had -- broadcasting jobs were few and far between. I bided my time for a couple of years and landed a job at NBC (WMAQ) here in Chicago. I spent a year there; and then five years at CBS (WBBM).

What do recall about those days at CBS -- programming wise?

I have vivid memories of CBS. The Arthur Godfrey Show emanated out of Chicago; and I was part of that. Then there was Edward R. Murrow -- I sat down with him and broadcast coast-to-coast. The program I cherished most of all was the Gene Autrey Show -- which was broadcast live from the Chicago Stock Yards. The show was sponsored by Wrigley Gum at 5:45 on Sunday evening. I had listened to Autrey's show when I was a kid living back home in Pennsylvania -- and then, years later, here I was engineering the program from Wrigley Auditorium at the Stock Yards! Autrey appeared regularly as a talent at the rodeo. When I engineered his broadcast we had a live audience, musicians, sound effects men -- the whole thing; it was fantastic.

What were the technical aspects of radio back then like? You worked with vacuum tube equipment?

Everything in radio operations was based on the vacuum tube. Each Sunday night was the regular maintenance night were we took every one of those tubes and tested them; they had to be up to specification. Back then, all the stations left the air between midnight Sunday, and 5 am Monday, to perform routine maintenance. The stations proof-of-performance checks and transmitter logs had to be perfect -- and general operations had to be up to specifications. The FCC was very stringent back then. One time I had a golf game lined up with a buddy of mine who was visiting from Denver. One of the station secretaries pulled me off to the side saying: "The FCC examiner is here." My buddy (who also worked in radio) said: "Well, there goes our golf game."

What were your first days at WLS like in the 1960's.

We were a "swingin" station -- my God. I had come to WLS from WBBM where everything was "spit and polished." Coming to a rock and roll station that was "out of control" with a Top 40 music format was an unbelievable experience. Chicago was one of the last big cites in our country to go rock and roll. We were the first station in town to play rock and roll music. We knocked this city on its ears with that format. Everywhere you went -- to the hot dog stand or beach -- they had Dick Biondi on their radio's in the evening. You'd go to the drug store -- the gas station -- anywhere you went it was "WLS" you'd hear. The station was great -- we did not play commercials in the very beginning -- just continuous rock and roll music. And it really went over with a bang. The station immediately went from 17th in the ratings -- to #1.

The Automatic Tape Cartridge Player was the one technical advance that proved revolutionary to the presentation of programs at WLS.

The cart machine, with its capability of putting music, commercials and spot news at the fingertip was what made the fast paced sound of WLS possible. We no longer had to cue records on turntables -- nor play commercials from reels; it was a miracle machine.

Most memorable news event.

The day Mayor Richard Daley passed away stands out. It was hectic. Everybody was trying to get information and they were calling all over. There were reports and rumors, everybody was trying to get the stories straight -- it kept snowballing. This was long after he'd keeled over -- information was at a premium.

Election nights were hectic. We'd get reports from all kinds of sources. We'd have our own people out there and we had the network's facilities available. There were all sorts of special reports coming in. All the reports were recorded, edited and transferred to news carts. Everything was instantly available on a moments notice -- which was fantastic.

The Illinois Central commuter train crash in 1972 was a very big event. Forty-five people died; hundreds were injured. We had reporters at the hospitals, on the scene and in the studio. The crash was hard to imagine. Any big story, like the American Airlines DC-10 crash at O'Hare, causes a lot of commotion and confusion in the newsroom.

The big snowstorm of 1967 paralyzed the city. WLS provided me with a room in a hotel next door to the studio.

The American Federation of Radio and Television Artist's strike in the mid-sixties.

We -- as engineering and technical staff -- did not go on strike. The talent and news people at WLS walked out for a lengthy period of time however. The on-air personalities were replaced by a conglomeration of office girls, janitors, bellboys and management people. Anybody and everybody they could get was put behind a microphone. We had office secretaries who didn't know the first thing about broadcasting. The gals didn't even know how to pronounce words. We could have cooperated with the strikers on the picket line if we hadn't offered a lot of advising to these neophites. We could only go so far as to tell them how to do -- or say -- something on the air. They didn't know how to play the jingles, music or even how to read the live announcements. They sloshed through it the best they could. It wasn't professional -- but entertaining at it's best.

Working with Larry Lujack.

Lujack was a quiet guy. Larry was very dedicated to his program. He was one of the most dedicated announcers I've ever known. He was a nice guy, generous and a good "golfer." I never beat the son-of-a-gun at golf. His professional dedication in broadcasting stood out. He'd be at the station until one or two in the morning preparing for his show. He would formulate his show, getting all the bits and pieces together of what he would do. Sometimes he'd still be at the station at ten or eleven at night-- working on something pertaining to his program.

Dick Biondi.

I worked with Biondi every night. I taught him how to golf. We both worked evenings, therefore we had mornings and afternoons off.

Working with Dick was just a "scream." He was basically just a real nice guy -- but different. He set Chicago on its ear. He was the #1 man -- bar none. I don't think anybody has ever gotten those kinds of ratings since. He was a "screamer" -- they called him the "Wild Itralian."

Biondi violated every rule in the book as they were established up to that time. He'd cough on the air, clear his throat, curse off-air and came off sounding like he was having a good time "and to hell with all the protocol." We always had good food on his show because he'd talk about Sally's Rib joint -- and the next thing you knew they'd send down a half-dozen sandwiches. He'd give these free spots (plugs) out to pizza places. Thinking back on it now, we'd have weighed a million pounds if his show had lasted another five years.

It was great working with Dick Biondi. He was like an untamed colt that was released onto the airwaves -- and this town just dug him. He was the great -- the great one.


copyright 1999 Bill Schenold - All rights reserved



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