He Doesn’t Do Jack

At the Harley-Davidson superstore in Woodstock, Illinois, a crowd of motorcycle enthusiasts has gathered for a barbecue and sale. Inside, in the corner of the showroom, another crowd mills around a table decorated with a WJMK FM banner, where a slightly built 72-year-old man is seated. You wouldn’t know to look at him what the fuss is about, but as soon as you hear his voice, it’s evident.

Chicago broadcasting legend Dick Biondi, who’s been on the radio for more than 50 years, spends the afternoon posing for photos, signing autographs, and giving away talking bobbleheads of himself. He greets everyone with the same frothy enthusiasm he displayed when he introduced the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964 or championed the young Rolling Stones in the mid-60s. You’d never guess he’d been making appearances like this 40 to 50 times a year for more than two decades–or that WJMK had just pulled him off the air after 21 years on the job.

On June 3 Biondi was scheduled to do a live remote at a Meijer in Bloomingdale. “Ten minutes before I walked out the door the phone rang,” he says. “As many times as something like that happens in your career, you’re never ready for it. It’s like having good health and then all of a sudden they tell you you’ve got a tumor.”

That afternoon Infinity Broadcasting, which owns seven radio stations in town, switched its oldies outlets in New York and Chicago to the canned genre-busting format called Jack FM. The change provoked a hue and cry among listeners and media observers alike. The next morning the New York Post ran the headline “Bloodbath at CBS-FM” (Bruce Morrow, better known as WCBS DJ Cousin Brucie, had also lost his job after more than 20 years), and on June 7 Chicago Tonight host Bob Sirott asked his audience, “I don’t really want to live in a world where Dick Biondi is not on the radio–do you?”

WJMK’s most recent Arbitron ratings were respectable: 11th place out of 33 stations in the Chicago market. It had an affluent and dedicated boomer audience and a solid ad base, billing more than $16 million in 2004. But Infinity saw room for improvement. “The station was ranked as low as 17th among 25-to-54-year-olds during certain day parts,” says general manager and vice president Dave Robbins. “The thing we want to do with the station is to move it into the future, and the way to do that is to take this [oldies] format and to put it onto a digital stream of high-definition radio.”

Since the switch to Jack FM, WJMK has preserved its oldies format only on the Internet and without DJs. This week Biondi and his fellow jocks will resume their usual shifts online, and by July 4 the oldies format will be on the air again at 104.3 FM–but as a digital signal that only special HD radios can pick up. The conventional analog signal at that frequency will still be Jack FM.

Biondi may be witnessing the terminal decline of a format he helped create. Born in Endicott, New York, he arrived in Chicago in May 1960 to DJ at WLS, which had just decided to focus on Top 40 and rock ‘n’ roll. The station’s 50,000-watt AM signal reached at least 38 states and much of Canada, and the magnetic Biondi–whose nicknames included “the Wild I-tralian” and “the Supersonic Spaghetti Slurper”–became a national celebrity, broadcasting six nights a week. At his peak in early 1961 he had a 56 share in the Chicago market–the best-rated show in town today has an 8.8–and in February 1963 he became the first American DJ to play a Beatles record on the air.

Later in ’63 Biondi left for KRLA in Los Angeles to become part of what many consider the greatest DJ crew of all time, alongside Bob “the Emperor” Hudson, Casey Kasem, Dave “the Hullabalooer” Hull, and Bob Eubanks. He also recorded a syndicated program in New York, Dick Biondi’s Young America, that aired on more than 125 stations. Biondi returned to Chicago in 1968 for a five-year run at WCFL, where he started revisiting rock’s early days with programs like In the Beginning and Dick Biondi and Friends. “Back in ’68 and ’69, I was doing the history of rock ‘n’ roll live at sock hops at the Kinetic Playground,” he says. “We’d go in and do from Bill Haley right up to the current charts.”

But by 1973, with Top 40 stations shifting from AM to FM and DJs losing their autonomy, Biondi had begun to fall out of favor. “Oldies” wasn’t an established format yet, just something a few shows specialized in. He left WCFL, lost his job at a Cincinnati station after a few months, and ended up at WNMB in South Carolina for a decade. He didn’t return to Chicago until 1983, after Bob Sirott featured him on one of his Where Are They Now? TV specials. After a year with WBBM, he was tapped by Infinity head Mel Karmazin to be the signature voice of WJMK, which was launching as Chicago’s first oldies station.

Although Biondi is under contract with Infinity until 2008, the company will certainly wait to see if online and HD radio catch on before extending his deal. Biondi claims he isn’t qualified to do anything else–the last nonradio job he had was in 1948, when he worked as a clerk in a men’s store.

At his table in the Harley dealership, Biondi has been chatting with a couple in their mid-50s, and as they leave, his smile falters and he sighs. “That’s part of why I love my job. It’s because I get to meet and talk to people like that,” he says. “If worst comes to worst with the radio business, I’ll go over to Target and stand at the door and say, ‘Welcome to Target, here’s today’s specials.’ I don’t mean that to sound stupid or coy. But that’s really what I live for, that interaction with people.”

Biondi won’t be putting on the red shirt anytime soon, though. “I really believe there’ll be a place out there for me,” he says. “I’m not what they call real hip, but I love what I’m doing and I think people still respond to that. So, yeah, I’d like to keep working in radio forever. I’d like to die with my earphones on.”

Clubland 3, Entropy 0

There’s good news to report on the local club scene for a change. On June 9, after much public hand-wringing about a “national retail chain” moving in, the Double Door renegotiated its lease through 2009, with an option to extend to 2014. In mid-May the Hideout finally received its public place of amusement, or PPA, license, which allows it to charge a fixed cover instead of requesting donations and should make it easier for the club to attract national acts. And a new all-ages venue has opened in Rogers Park, filling at least part of the gap left by last year’s changes at the Fireside Bowl: the Studio, in the Heartland Theater space at 7016 N. Glenwood, has been hosting pop, punk, and hardcore bands an average of four nights a week since May 18. For booking inquiries e-mail roseredbooking@comcast.net.

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