Second City producer Kelly Leonard has a theory about talk radio. He thinks there’s a relationship between what Second City teaches and what professional gabbers like Steve Dahl and Howard Stern do on the air for three or four hours at a stretch. “Second City builds personalities; radio is a personality medium,” Leonard says. Eureka: Second City Radio.

Leonard, who’s been steeped in radio since childhood (his dad was WGN fixture Roy Leonard), mentioned his idea to WCKG station manager Jeff Schwartz, who wanted to give it a try. “We’re not going to do sketch comedy on the air,” Leonard explains. “We’re going to take the part of Second City that builds personalities and translate that to a radio format.” He envisions Second City folks hanging out the way they do backstage, talking about everything from the day’s headlines to their personal lives, doing character bits and taking phone calls. Leonard recruited Second City alum Jim Zulevic as a host, and for six weeks starting July 2, Second City Radio will air live from ten to midnight every Saturday on 105.9 FM. Zulevic, who will be joined by cohosts T.J. Jagodowski and Ed Furman, does the funnyman promos between sitcoms on the local Fox station, but he’s never done radio before. He says that’s what makes him perfect for the job.

After cutting his teeth at Second City from ’91 to ’98, Zulevic, a south-side native and Columbia College grad, moved to LA to take his career as a writer and actor to the next level. He landed bit acting gigs on shows like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but mostly learned to hate the LA scene, where, he says, “you have to pitch your agent” and the agents are “fucking cocksuckers.” Working with producer Bob Teitel (Barbershop) and Mr. Show’s Bob Odenkirk, Zulevic wrote a screenplay about the infamous Disco Demolition Night hosted by Steve Dahl at the old Comiskey Park. (Dahl has signed on as an adviser and producer for Second City Radio.) Zulevic says the script is about to be optioned, but he started thinking about leaving anyway when there were no takers for an animated John Waters series he was working on–even though all the gatekeepers professed to be Waters fans. “I thought, I don’t know what the fuck these assholes want,” he says. “I haven’t watched a sitcom since Cheers, and I haven’t been in a movie theater since Fahrenheit 9/11. I don’t like the product that comes out of Hollywood; I’m out here working at it just for a paycheck.”

One of the things Zulevic detests about LA is the “20 glorified cubicle dwellers” you have to go through to get anything produced. By contrast the chance for “just going on the air and spouting off about whatever” sounded great–“like being back at Second City.” He got to try it out in April, when ‘CKG aired two quickie trial runs of Second City Radio–a bumpy outing that exposed both possibilities and challenges. Zulevic says the show will differ from most talk radio because “I’m not interested in interviewing strippers” and “I don’t care what guys Tom Cruise may or may not be fucking.” He vows he won’t be leaning on the last episode of Desperate Housewives or a load of call-ins either. “We might do a parody of radio traffic reports that will be a fictional party alert,” he says, but this will be “performance- and personality-based radio that’s also about news and issues.” Think The Daily Show with Zulevic as resident iconoclast. As for the competition, Zulevic says he loves the FCC and its regulations because “those people who have absolutely nothing to say–like Stern and Mancow–they’re being shown for the artistic maladroits that they are.”

Stern, he argues, is a hack who’s only kept afloat by the same old shock-radio tricks. But Stern’s departure from Infinity Broadcasting (which owns WCKG) to join satellite radio is the big bang fueling this and a frenzy of other radio activity. Starting in January, ‘CKG and the 40-some other stations that carry Stern nationally will have a huge hole in their schedules. Stern has at least eight million regular listeners, and Sirius Satellite Radio is paying him $500 million over five years to bring them over. Stern casts this as an escape from the constraints of the FCC, which has repeatedly fined him for breaking its language rules, but if his listeners follow him they’ll have to pay $12.99 a month for the privilege, and that’s after investing $100 or more in hardware.

So now everyone’s scrambling to be the next big thing. A local radio slot could boost Second City’s Old Town box office, but the real prize is the chance to go national: Zulevic says stations in Dallas, Detroit, and Los Angeles are already expressing interest.

Schwartz is more cautious. “If it works,” he says, “there would be a chance for other markets to absorb the show.” But at this point it’s an “experiment in weekend programming, a sort of MADtv or Saturday Night Live option for people in their cars.” Noting that some of the trial “was pretty good and some of it wasn’t,” Schwartz says, “People tend to think, ‘It’s radio, that’s easy.’ There is nothing harder than looking at the microphone and–when the producer points to you–starting to talk. At Second City they get immediate judgmental reaction–either laughter or no laughter. When you do radio it’s as if every joke, every comedic routine, has failed, because the only ones laughing will be the couple of people in the studio. We’ll see how it goes. Call me when the six-week run is over and we’ll see if we’re geniuses or not.”

Second City Radio

When: Saturdays, 7/2-8/6, 10 PM

Where: WCKG FM, 105.9

Info: 312-591-9254

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.