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Wally Phillips let listeners in, too
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Staff

Wally Phillips

 

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Published: 3/28/2008 12:11 AM

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Sure, Chicagoans like to think they're tough. This, after all, is the city of the big shoulders, where the police officer is there not to create disorder, but to preserve disorder. Loving Chicago, as Nelson Algren once wrote, is like loving a woman with a broken nose.

Yet there is also something kind and tender and considerate at the heart of Chicago, something that sees the humor in any and all events. For 42 years that something was epitomized on the city's radio airwaves by Wally Phillips, a genuinely nice guy who later claimed, "I'm on that 'Luckiest Guy in the World' list someplace."

Phillips died Thursday in Naples, Fla., at the age of 82 after a five-year battle with Alzheimer's disease. Yet he left a lasting legacy from his work at WGN 720-AM. Phillips changed radio, not just in Chicago but nationally and worldwide. He opened it up to the listener. And in the process he touched Chicagoans and made them laugh and appreciate one another. He made not just the radio industry but Chicago a better place.

The Ohio native was brought to Chicago and WGN-AM from Cincinnati along with Bob Bell, who would go on to become WGN-TV Channel 9's Bozo the Clown, in 1956 by broadcast pioneer Ward Quaal. They did satirical and slapstick shows on the station, and Phillips played host to a series of other programs before settling in as morning host in 1965.

For the next 21 years, Phillips would lord over the city's airwaves. Before the arrival of the FM dial, Phillips claimed half of all listeners in the Chicago audience -- an average audience of about 1.5 million.

Yet it wasn't just that Phillips was popular, it was why he was popular that mattered. He had a playful and irrepressible wit and was famous for early prank phone calls, for instance calling a random pay phone to see who would answer, or phoning a stranger in, say, Louisville in the days before the Kentucky Derby and asking if he could stay for a few days -- and bring his wife and kids and dog, too.

"We used to be able to make such phone calls," he was quoted on the WGN-AM Web site, "and if you didn't embarrass or hurt people and you weren't vicious, it was OK. But a few started to abuse the phone and call people and make them uncomfortable. That was the end of the calls."

See, Phillips had a consideration he extended to the listener. He was one of the first to really open radio up to listener responses, and in that he could be called the father of interactive media.

"I wanted to make it more personal and intimate than it was then," he told me in an interview 10 years ago, when he was preparing to retire from WGN-AM. "Radio then was what television is now -- an authoritative box that kind of tells you what's what."

Or, as he explained elsewhere with his self-deprecating sense of humor: "I don't have to know anything. I ask about the roads driving up to Michigan. Bang. You pick up the phone and tell me. That's involving people and that's how I learn things -- the way we all learn things. It's a people operation, as I see it."

He was also attuned to other unique qualities of radio as a theater of the mind. In an era long before a producer could download a quote from any movie and deploy it at the touch of a button, he compiled a vast array of recordings and found sounds and would pepper his broadcast with such comical asides and effects.

He had an irreverent side that lampooned "the way things are supposed to be." Phillips said that when he started out it was common for publicity agents to send out recorded interviews with stars, with the questions edited out and written down and the pauses left in so the local host could ask them, as if interviewing the star in the studio.

"This is the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life," Phillips recalled. So he started scripting his own questions for the prepared answers, for instance asking Doris Day about the wild drinking parties he'd heard about on her tour bus.

"Yeah, that was the most fun of it," she seemingly responded.

"It worked out so well they stopped sending those things out," Phillips said.

He was open to all things and all people. Even in the late '60s and early '70s -- an era even more polarized politically than now -- he routinely gave air time to anti-war protesters.

"I didn't think it was fair for them to be excluded," Phillips said. "The easiest temptation in the world is to rally around the majority. That keeps you safe.

"I was trying to bring both sides together by giving equal time to people who wanted to complain about Vietnam and the '68 riots here," he added. "I wasn't trying to get people rallied. I was only trying to put a little soft voice in the middle."

That was Phillips in essence, a "little soft voice in the middle" of a vast, hard-charging metropolis, and it made him the most popular radio personality of his times. And when he stepped down in 1986, he did so diplomatically, clearing the way for Bob Collins to succeed him, while continuing to do weekend shifts on the station for the next dozen years and heading its Neediest Kids Fund, which he founded in 1969 and which has since raised $35 million for charity.

Phillips was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame at Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications in 1993 and into the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1997.

"Wally's voice was the first millions of Chicagoans heard every morning from 1965 to 1986," said WGN-AM Vice President and General Manager Tom Langmyer in responding to Phillips' death Thursday. "His kind approach and connection to his audience was well-known in Chicago and throughout the Midwest. He was one of a kind, and he was a 'broadcaster' in the truest sense."

Phillips is survived by his wife, Barbara, and daughters Holly and Jennifer, and son, Todd. Funeral arrangements are pending.