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Dahl leaves Jack-FM, but doesn't call it quits
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Steve Dahl

 

Associated Press

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Published: 12/5/2008 11:33 AM | Updated: 12/5/2008 4:09 PM

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In the end - at least for now - Steve Dahl, Chicago radio's "Disco Demolition" man, went not with a bang, but with barely more than a whimper.

At the close of a fairly low-key and routine shift Friday, Dahl announced the show would be his last on WJMK 104.3-FM, but he did not sign off his 30-year career in Chicago.

"You guys are taking me off the air," he said of CBS Radio. "I'm not retiring."

Dahl, 54, is simply the latest casualty of changes in the industry in general and, in particular, CBS Radio's companywide downsizing, which has been felt especially hard of late in Chicago. CBS' all-sports WSCR 670-AM let Mike North's contract lapse earlier this year, and last month Top 40-dance WBBM 96.3-FM removed morning hosts Ed Volkman and Joe Bohannon.

North was taken off the air abruptly just before his deal ran out, without being given an opportunity to say goodbye to listeners. By contrast, Dahl went surprisingly reasonably and without blasting CBS Radio, perhaps because his $1 million-a-year deal runs into 2011.

"Steve is a pro, and he's been doing it a lot of years, and it's what he wanted," said Rod Zimmerman, CBS Radio senior vice president and Chicago market manager. "We had faith and trust in him that he'd do the right thing, as well as do it with a sense of humor. And he's Steve Dahl."

Indeed, Dahl has been a high-profile Chicago radio personality for 30 years, even if his days as a top-rated host were long past. He first put himself in the spotlight with "Disco Demolition Night," his 1979 publicity stunt at Comiskey Park in which fans ran amok after records were exploded all over the field between games of a doubleheader, resulting in the White Sox forfeiting the nightcap. He scored hits with his song parodies "Do Ya Think I'm Disco?" and "Just Another Kid in the Crawl" (withdrawn from the air after parents of the victims of John Wayne Gacy complained), and his freestyle, no-topic's-taboo format influenced Howard Stern among many others.

"When he hit the market, he took it by storm," said Bruce DuMont, founder and president of Chicago's Museum of Broadcast Communications, "and he survived better than almost anyone of his generation. He was just an incredible talent."

Yet his successful partnership with Garry Meier dissolved in acrimony in 1993, and like many a revolutionary, he seemed to lose interest in living on the edge, with a resulting drop in the edginess of his material.

The writing had been on the wall. When CBS Radio's former WCKG 105.9-FM, Dahl's previous radio home, went to an adult-contemporary music format favoring women listeners a year ago, Dahl accepted a move to "we-play-anything" 'JMK and shifted from afternoon drive to mornings. Ratings did not follow, however, and there was widespread media speculation his days were numbered.

Dahl made it clear he intends to see CBS Radio honor its contract, but that leaves his career in limbo for now, as is that of sidekick Buzz Kilman. Zimmerman declined to comment on the contract status, except to say, "In the end, both Steve and the ownership felt it was time to move on."

"The big trees are falling in the forest," DuMont said. "Everybody knows times are tough, but when you see the icons in the business biting the dust ... it's tough to watch."

Station executives were apparently aware of Dahl's intention to make Friday his last show after extending the offer to let him finish out the calendar year. When Dahl faded out with Jimmy Webb's '70s-era "If You See Me Getting Smaller, I'm Leaving," announcer Howard Cogan, better known as the station's on-air signature voice Jack, paid Dahl tribute and sent him off with Joe Walsh's "Life's Been Good."

Zimmerman didn't rule out that CBS Radio could call on Dahl to serve out his contract on some other station or in some other form of "new media," although of course it would have to be negotiated with Dahl, who wouldn't figure to be eager to return.

"There could be opportunities down the road," Zimmerman said. "I certainly don't feel Dahl's career is over."

In fact, a quick scan of Dahl's career shows that every time he was fired, he emerged revitalized somewhere else.

"I'm sure he'll be back," DuMont said. "I imagine over the years, he and Janet (Dahl's wife) have managed to put a bit of money away. We're not having a tag day for him."

Dahl timeline

1978 - Steve Dahl comes to Chicago as a host on WDAI 94.7-FM and makes a rowdy first impression with comical, often scatological talk and song parodies. But a format change to disco at the end of the year takes him off the air.

1979 - Dahl joins WLUP 97.9-FM and teams up with Garry Meier. Records records the Rod Stewart song parody "Do Ya Think I'm Disco?" with his group, Teenage Radiation. Dahl and Meier's Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park between games of a doubleheader results in the field being trashed and the second game being forfeited by the White Sox, but gains Dahl national attention, as does a later John Wayne Gacy song parody, taken off the air when parents of the victims complain.

1981 - Dahl and Meier are fired by the Loop and move to WLS-FM. Howard Stern is later said to be a fan of their early material.

1984 - Dahl and Meier move to WLS 890-AM.

1986 - They return to the Loop.

1989 - Dahl undergoes a vasectomy - on the air.

1993 - Dahl and Meier split after Dahl insults Meier's new wife on the air. Dahl moves on to become a host on WMVP 1000-AM.

1996 - Dahl moves on to WCKG 105.9-FM, where he's united as afternoon host with Stern's syndicated morning show.

2005 - Stern leaves CBS Radio for Sirius Satellite Radio.

2007 - Another format change prompts Dahl to move to WJMK 104.3-FM as morning host as the only live show on the otherwise automated "we play anything" music station.

2008 - Dahl goes off the air with two and half years left on his contract.