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O'Dell passes torch to 'future of the morning show'
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 12/12/200 2:42 PM | Updated: 12/12/2008 4:48 PM

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Wally Phillips turned WGN 720-AM into a morning powerhouse. Bob Collins sustained it. And Spike O'Dell would probably say he didn't mess it up. But he did much more than that.

Phillips was a pioneer, a radio genius. Melding sources from "Burns & Allen" to Lenny Bruce, he did a freewheeling show drawing freely on sound effects and radio theater. One of his early bits was to take prerecorded interviews from Hollywood stars and add his own questions, to make them sound more salacious - and more hilarious - than they originally were. He also, of course, connected with listeners and built a vast and loyal audience for WGN-AM.

That was Bob Collins' strength as well. There was a warmth to Collins' on-air persona. If he wasn't as daring as Phillips as an innovator, he didn't have to be. The audience was there, he simply had to retain it, and that he did.

Collins' abrupt death in a 2000 plane crash put O'Dell in a difficult position. He filled in as morning host before being formally presented the job a month later. He worshipped Collins and still does, toasting his birthday every Feb. 28, but O'Dell also brought something of himself to what he called "arguably the greatest radio shift in the country" in his farewell broadcast Friday. O'Dell might not have been as warm as Collins, but he was equally playful and perhaps even more unassuming. And in a time of continued fragmentation in the radio audience and fierce demographic competition, he kept WGN-AM No. 1 in morning drive for nearly all of his almost nine-year tenure in the slot.

Now he passes the torch to John Williams as "the future of the morning show." Williams might be a little more cerebral, a little more low-key, but he already has that same connection with loyal WGN-AM listeners. O'Dell advised him, "Just do what brought you to the dance." It's the same basic motto shared by each of the previous WGN-AM morning hosts, each in his own way.