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O'Dell signs off with final show from Metropolis
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Spike O'Dell

 

Spike O'Dell clicks his heels in the early days of his career.

 

Spike O'Dell meets Elizabeth Hurley, one of the perks of the radio business he never took for granted.

 

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Published: 12/12/2008 12:02 AM

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Let's just say this experiment proved to be an unqualified success.

Twenty-one years ago, Spike O'Dell joined WGN 720-AM as host of "The Spike O'Dell Radio Experiment" from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays. O'Dell filled Bob Collins' old afternoon-drive shift not quite a year after Collins had succeeded Wally Phillips as WGN-AM morning host. O'Dell struck an instant chord with listeners and thrived in afternoons.

A computer buff, he also led WGN-AM into the Internet age with the debut of "The Spike O'Dell Web Experiment" on the wgnradio.com Web site in 1996. When Collins died in a plane crash in 2000, Spike filled his shoes again, formally taking over the morning shift a month later. He maintained the No. 1 spot in ratings he inherited from Collins and Phillips for almost his entire run as morning host.

Today, determined to retire by the age of 55 and move to Nashville, Tenn., he'll leave WGN-AM after a last show broadcast live from 5 to 9 a.m. at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights.

O'Dell wasn't the groundbreaking pioneer Phillips was. Neither was he as naturally warm as Collins. As he himself once explained in a WGN-AM biography, "I am actually very shy and I don't like the spotlight." Yet he had a wide range of interests from computers and spaceflight to gourmet food and politics, and he had an everyday, good-ole-boy quality WGN-AM General Manager Dan Fabian heard in his work as a Top 40 disc jockey at KIIK-FM in Davenport, Iowa. That translated immediately to listeners, even though he had little experience in the personality-talk format when he came to Chicago in 1987. He later said he didn't know how to talk for hours straight when he first took the job.

"So I learned how to talk, and a baptism of fire I guess is what it was," he said on his 20th anniversary show in May of last year (in an interview with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, actually).

"You try to be yourself. What you hear is what you get," O'Dell said. "You try to be what you are with your neighbors, the people across the street."

Who else would talk about kissing a velvet Elvis Presley painting before each day's show for luck? Who else could have gotten a listener to put a cell phone to use by putting it in a dryer and setting it on tumble - while the call was still connected? Who else would honor Collins every year after his death with an on-air toast on his birthday, Feb. 28?

O'Dell could be serious, but most of all he was playful, polar attributes he captured in his motto: "Nothing is worth your health or happiness," he once wrote. "Life is too serious to take things too seriously."

It was O'Dell who launched the station's "Hometown Voices" series of live remote broadcasts in 2005, and so it's fitting that the series takes him to Arlington Heights for his last show today.

The East Moline native was a security officer at International Harvester when he first got into radio 31 years ago, but he never failed to appreciate the access the job gave him to people of all reaches, and of course the million-dollar-a-year salary he enjoyed the last few years.

"I don't like to take that for granted," he said. "You pinch yourself and say, 'I'm a lucky guy.'"

Yet it also gave him the opportunity to retire comfortably at a relatively early age, and he and his wife, Karen, will head off from the house they rebuilt from the ashes after a fire in Aurora three years ago to resettle in Nashville near their children. Although he finished a more than respectable second to all-news WBBM 780-AM in the campaign-dominated summer Arbitron ratings book, in all other respects Spike will be going out on top.