Larry Lujack - Part Two
October 23, 2007
During the golden age of Top 40, KJR/Seattle was a giant, particularly to baby DJs who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. In 1964 Larry Lujack, who'd had five jobs in six years and had been fired from four of them, got the call from Pat O'Day that brought him to Seattle. It was a dream come true, and the reason why he'd given up his plans to become a forest ranger and ignored what his folks thought about what he was doing. "My parents thought radio was stupid," Lujack told me.
Once in the Jet City, Lujack was forced to reinvent himself on the air. Why? Because his hero, Dick Curtis -- who Lujack had worshipped and copied -- was on KJR's staff. "I came to the realization," says Lujack, "that it was far easier to just be myself on the air."
Three years later Lujack got an offer from WMEX in Boston that, because of the money, he couldn't turn down. But once he got there he hated the job ... and hated the station. (Perhaps the only redeeming value of the whole trip was that in his drive from Seattle to Boston, he heard Charlie Tuna on KOMA/Oklahoma City and recommended that Tuna be hired at 'MEX, too. That's where Ron Jacobs heard about Charlie -- probably from WRKO, who wanted Tuna out of town -- and lured him to Los Angeles and KHJ.) Four months into the gig at 'MEX, Lujack got a call from Chicago with an offer to do the overnight show at WCFL. He accepted, but he didn't stay long there, either, because the phone rang again. This time is was the Top 40 across town, with an offer to do afternoons for more money. "I went to WLS when I was 27," says Lujack.
Kickin' Trash Cans
On the air Lujack stuck out like a sore thumb. He wasn't slick, wasn't polished, but most of all didn't seem to care too much. "Kicking trash cans on the air wasn't out of the question," he recalls. Scotty Brink, who'd been at KHJ and took Lujack's afternoon slot at 'LS when Lujack moved to mornings, says Larry was different. "This was the age of the 'Super Boss Jock' approach," he explains. "We were fast-paced and tightly produced, but Larry pretty much abandoned that. In a lot of ways he was sloppy and, as a result, really stood out."
"Larry's doing it the way I'd like the radio station to sound," Gene Taylor told the WLS jocks early on. "I'd like the rest of you to listen and get closer to that sound."
So, what was the sound; what was Lujack doing that put the spotlight on him? Chicago exec John Gehron, who's now GM of Harpo Productions, explained it this way. "He was cynical, creative and loose. His punch lines came out of left field and were generally something you just didn't think of." Gehron also points out that in its Top 40 heyday, WLS was a very unique station. Part of his job when he programmed WLS, he says, "was to make sure the format didn't get in the way of what the talent did best."
One of Lujack's regular features was The Crank Letter Of The Day. If you never heard the bit, this web posted remembrance (some names deleted to protect the embarrassed) will give you a sense of it.
Each day he used to read each day "the crank letter of the day." At the time he was also in the habit of quacking a rubber duck on the air, so I wrote in to welcome him to the "National Rubber Duckie Association." At the time, the late Jim Henson had a popular song out called "Rubber Duckie" ("you're the one--you make bath time lots of fun"; the rest was censored, I think). So Lujack played the song, quacked his duck, read my letter as (suitably) a real clunker, and reminisced (in very politically incorrect terms) about going duck hunting on the farms of local farmers and looking for farmers' daughters afterwards ("because, when noon comes, well, you can't hunt ducks all day").
Later Lujack would change the bit's name to The Clunk Letter of The Day, "because a lot of the letters were really stupid." Regardless, during his first stint at WLS it was a focal and vocal point that made listeners, like a young David Letterman and a DJ named Jeff Christy (whose real name was Rush) get up early just to see what Lujack would do.
It was a rainy, cloudy, dreary Sunday night in Chicago. John Rook walked to the hotel window, sighed and glanced out at the lights of the city. "God," he thought, "Here I am." Five years earlier Rook had left KQV/Pittsburgh, taken the programming reigns at WLS/Chicago, and quickly snatched the ratings back from WCFL. For the next five years WLS stayed on top of Chicago's rock and, in fact, the mountain of ratings he notched up for ABC was the impetus that threw/drew him into consulting. But, now it was 1972 and he was back in the Windy City, working for WCFL.
"Okay," Rook muttered to himself. "You better do it." He picked up the phone and booked a limo for 3 am.
Just before dawn Lujack found Rook waiting for him at the curb. "So we met for lunch that afternoon," says Rook, "and I said, 'You're too great a man to have to get up so early. I can pay you more to do afternoons."
Pay you more, indeed. Here's how Lujack described what came down.
"I had it so good at 'LS that I was a little leery about leaving, so I threw them (WCFL) what I thought, at that time, was an outrageous proposal. It was basically a five-year, no-cut deal for 100K a year." Lujack, of course, acknowledges that radio salaries have grown since the early '70s, but back then, he says, "I don't think anything like that existed."
So, in 1972 Larry Lujack returned to WCFL, where he stayed for four years. "Initially it worked out great," he explains. "We beat WLS and that had never been done." But then, for some unexplained reason, three years into his deal WCFL changed format, from Top 40 to beautiful music. Lujack wasn't worried, though. He had a no-cut contract, and he had a manager at WLS, Marty Greenberg, who thought the format change presented an opportunity to bring Lujack back to ABC.
"I called (WCFL GM) Lew Witz to ask him for permission to talk to Larry," recalls Greenberg. "And, Lew said to me, 'Marty, not only will I let you talk to him, but I'll pay for part of it." Believe it or not, a deal was structured to bring Lujack back to WLS, and for the remaining time on his contract, WCFL paid half of Lujack's WLS salary. Greenberg remembers that ABC's legal department in New York simply couldn't believe it.
Lujack came to work at three or four in the morning to prep. "He came in early because he was cheap and wanted to park on Lower Wacker," jokes John Gehron. Lujack watchers say he had a routine: He'd smoke 100 cigarettes, down a gallon of coffee, do his four hours, take a walk and then come back and listen to an aircheck of the show. "This is a guy who worked very hard at what he did," Greenberg says.
"I was on the air what I was off the air," Lujack told me. "I think listeners can sense that." Case-in-point: One day Lujack did a promo. "We'll be doing a show in Fargo, North Dakota Saturday night and if Larry Lujack can fly across the frozen tundra to go there, you clowns in Fargo better turn out to see me."
They did, of course.
Most recently Lujack teamed up with Tommy Edwards, his old WLS sidekick, on Real Oldies WRRL. Ironically, the format was shelved in September of 2006, two months before Mr. Lujack was inducted into the Illinois Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Next April, when the NAB hands him a similar honor, he plans to be in Vegas. He won't dress up for the event, but I suspect he'll have something prepared to say. And, if he does as he says he will -- "dump the phony graciousness and be truthful for a change"-- it really won't be anything new, but it may burn a few ears - which, of course, will be nothing new, either.
I, for one, can't wait to hear what he has to say.