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WGN stalwart Phillips was longtime king of talk-driven morning radio

Posted: March 27, 2008
Inside TV & Radio



Tim Cuprisin

 

Some Milwaukeeans were regular listeners to Wally Phillips during his 42-year run at Chicago's WGN-AM (720). But even if you never listened to him on the radio, you've heard his impact in the talk-driven world of morning radio.

Phillips died Thursday at 82 after a five-year battle with Alzheimer's disease, a decade after he left WGN, a Chicago station that for many years targeted a much wider audience throughout the Midwest.

But it was in Chicago that he was king of morning radio, at times commanding half of the audience during his 21 years behind the morning microphone.

Phillips pioneered the use of the telephone in on-air comedy bits, including a variety no longer allowed by the FCC: putting people on the air without their knowledge.

He used sound effects and bits of audio to provide a comedy edge to the interactive morning radio he pioneered, with callers asking for directions or information that was supplied by other callers.

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His reign lasted long enough to lose creative steam, and he was frequently parodied in the 1970s and '80s by a Chicago radio up-and-comer, Steve Dahl, who pioneered the next generation of radio, a rougher, looser variety of talk on the FM band.

At that point, Phillips' "people helping people" style of radio was still at the top of the ratings.

One of Phillips long-running bits was his "black box," which contained a secret name that listeners tried to guess. No one ever guessed that it was Jean Rogers, who played Dale Arden in the 1930s "Flash Gordon" serial.

Phillips left the morning shift in 1986, replaced by former Milwaukee deejay Bob Collins, and retired from WGN in 1998 after 42 years with the station.

WGN has a handful of audio clips from Phillips' career posted at wgngold.com.

CHANNEL SURFING: Channel 58 kicks off NCAA coverage tonight at 5:30 with a half-hour special on the University of Wisconsin making it to the Sweet 16 round of the tournament. UW plays Davidson tonight at 6:10.

• Discovery World at Pier Wisconsin will provide continuous screenings of Milwaukee Public TV's "Making of Milwaukee" documentary series starting at 2 p.m. April 5, when Brew City history guru John Gurda, the on-camera face of the series, offers a presentation. DVDs of the five-hour series will be available in the museum gift shop.

• Whitefish Bay native and Marquette grad Colleen Foy does a guest shot as Emma Walker on CBS' "Cold Case" at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channel 58. She played the grown up Mary Sunday in "There Will be Blood."

• It's still not official, but Kyle Chandler, the coach in "Friday Night Lights," tells David Bianculli in an NPR interview that there's a deal to keep "FNL" afloat for a third season despite lackluster ratings. Bianculli blogs at www.tvworthwatching .com.

WHY IT DIED: The final episode of CBS' "Jericho" drew just under 6 million viewers Tuesday night, according to Nielsen Media Research numbers.

That's below its average for the season.

CBS announced last week that the season ender would be the swan song for the series that was canceled last year and then brought back after loyal viewers launched a publicity campaign.

The moral: The intensity of a show's fan base is meaningless in the business of TV. It's the size that counts.

Reach Tim Cuprisin at (414) 224-2397 or tcuprisin@journalsentinel.com. Read his blog at blogs.jsonline.com/cuprisin.


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From the March 28, 2008 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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