WLS is currently a talk radio station, with its programming consisting of about half local talk shows, featuring "Don Wade and Roma,""Jerry Agar," and "The Roe Conn Show," and the rest syndicated programming featuring Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and others. WLS also covers Notre Dame football and basketball.
WLS had been owned and operated by the radio division of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) since the purchase of its parent company in 1959 and the subsequent merging with WENR, a station with which WLS had shared its frequency since the 1920s. ABC-owned radio stations not affiliated with ESPN Radio or Radio Disney , including WLS, merged with Citadel Broadcasting on June 12, 2007.
The station also experimented successfully in many forms of news broadcasting, including weather and crop reports. Its most famous news broadcast was the report of the Hindenburg disaster by Herbert Morrison.
Starting in the 1930s, WLS had been an affiliate of the Blue Network of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and as such aired the popular Fibber McGee and Molly and Lum and Abner comedy programs (both produced at the studios of Chicago's NBC-owned stations, WENR and WMAQ) during their early years. When the Federal Communications Commission forced NBC to sell the Blue Network, WLS maintained its affiliation with the network under its new identity, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Under this affiliation, some programs from the network that were not commercially sponsored or which were scheduled to cross the time that WLS and WENR shifted its use of the same frequency (such as baseball or football games) were transferred to air on a third Blue Network/ABC affiliate in Chicago, WCFL. Blue/ABC network broadcasts of addresses by labor leaders were also shifted away from WLS and WENR to WCFL, which was owned at the time by the Chicago Federation of Labor.
In 1960 WLS hired star disc jockey Dick Biondi (RHOF) from WKBW in Buffalo, New York, to anchor the station's new Top 40 music radio format. Other notable disc jockeys who worked at WLS include Fred Winston, Art Roberts, Clark Weber, Ron "Ringo" Riley, Gene Taylor, Mort Crowley, Larry Lujack, Dex Card, Chuck Buell, Bob Sirott, John Records Landecker, Yvonne Daniels, Kris Erik Stevens, Steve Dahl, Garry Meier, Brant Miller, Steve King, and Tommy Edwards Some of the production directors responsible for the sound of WLS were Ray Van Steen, Hal Widsten, Jim Hampton and Bill Price. In the 1960's WLS was a major force in introducing new music and recording artists. WLS was voted by broadcasters nationally as "The Station of the Year" in 1967, 1968 & 1969. John Rook was named "Program Director of the Year" in 1968 & 1969 as WLS was estimated attracting 4.2 million listeners weekly by Pulse research.
By the mid-1970's, WLS became conservative about introducing new songs, and many record promoters referred to the station as the "World's Last Station" to add new releases for airplay, usually only after the songs had reached the top 10 on Billboard's Hot 100.(Although in 1974, the station started playing a track by a Chicago band called Styx from an older album of theirs. The track was called "Lady". This resulted in other stations around the country adding the song and it became the first national Top 40 hit for Styx.) During the 1970s WLS ran a Sunday night music interview program called Music People.
Beginning in the mid 1980s WLS cut back on mainstream Top 40 music with mostly AC leaning and oldies and had more talk from disc jockeys rather than music, including a Sunday night late night talk show called "Sex Talk" and a daily late night sports related talk show. On August 23 1989 at 7pm, WLS stopped playing occasional music on its AM station (appropriately, the last song played was a song by Chicago, "Just You 'N' Me", from their 6th album) as it became a 24/7 all talk station featuring high-rated talk talents from around the country, such as Bob Lassiter from Tampa Bay and Stacy Taylor from San Diego. After a few years, however, they dropped many of these hosts. Jay Marvin also had several stints on WLS, where he was one of the few liberal voices on its political talk shows.
On Memorial Day 2007, WLS took a cue from sister station WABC and ran a special day of musical programming, "The Big 89 Rewind," featuring live visits from Larry Lujack, Tommy Edwards, Fred Winston, Chris Shebel, Jeff Davis, John Records Landecker, Tom Kent, and other DJs, sounders, and airchecks from the Musicradio era. The broadcasts re-aired on Independence Day 2007, and there was a new Rewind the following year as well.
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