Posts Tagged 'Radio'

The Big Broadcast of 1921 (11-11-1921)

On this date, Chicago was introduced to the latest method of instantaneous communication.  They called it radio-telephony—or just plain radio.

The city was a late starter in this particular technology.  Scientists had been transmitting sound via radio waves for years.  In the summer of 1920 the first America broadcast went out over the air from Detroit.  A few months later, Pittsburgh launched a regular radio station.

In Chicago, the impetus came from the Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of Pittsburgh’s pioneer station.  The Department of Commerce granted Westinghouse a license for a Chicago radio station with call-letters “KYW” on November 9, 1921.  Two days later, the station made a test broadcast.

Mary Garden

KYW had scheduled regular broadcasts with the Chicago Grand Opera Company.  The site of the test was the opera’s home, the Auditorium Theater.  A microphone was hung over the stage and telephone wires carried the sound to the KYW transmitter on the roof of the Commonwealth Edison building, three blocks away.

Mary Garden, director of the opera, made the opening address.  Newspaper reports said she began with the introduction, “This is station KYW, Chicago.”  But according to legend, the first words that went out over the air were her slightly-earlier adlib—“My God, it’s dark here!”

Garden’s speech was followed by an orchestra selection and an aria from “Madame Butterfly.”  That was all.  In a little over ten minutes, Chicago’s first radio broadcast was over.

An estimated 50,000 people had listed in on their primitive crystal receivers.  The transmission was received over a wide area, from upstate New York to Kansas, and from southern Kentucky to northern Minnesota. The signals were reported to be “loud and clear.”

The Tribune saw radio as an agent of democracy.  High culture was now available to everyone, everywhere.  “No longer will it be necessary to dress up in evening togs to hear grand opera,” the paper said.  “No longer will grand opera consist solely of [recordings] in towns 500 or 1,000 miles from Chicago.  All that is necessary is to acquire a radio telephone outfit.”

Today, the Chicago area hosts over 100 radio stations.  But don’t look for KYW.  Since 1934, those call letters have been assigned to a Philadelphia station.


Chicago Trivia Quiz #5—Answers

WGN radio’s Wally Phillips

1. Chicago’s first radio broadcast featured __________.

(C) an opera

2. Which of these radio personalities died after an on-air heart attack?

(C) Franklyn MacCormack

3. “WLS” stands for __________.

(B) World’s Largest Store (station was originally owned by Sears)

4. Why was Howard Miller fired in 1968?

(B) He made on-air remarks perceived as racist.

5. What was the name inside Wally Phillips’s famous “black box?”

(B) Jean Rogers (actress in 1930s “Flash Gordon” serials)

Chicago Trivia Quiz #5

WGN radio’s Wally Phillips

A quiz on Chicago radio history—

1. Chicago’s first radio broadcast featured __________.

(A) a baseball game   (B) a presidential speech  (C) an opera   (D) a game show

2. Which of these radio personalities died after an on-air heart attack?

(A) Jack Quinlan   (B) Paul Fogarty   (C) Franklyn MacCormack   (D) Fred Wolf

3. “WLS” stands for __________.

(A) We Love Shoppers

(B) World’s Largest Store

(C) Warrior’s Last Stand

(D) Wendell Louis Sherman

4. Why was Howard Miller fired in 1968?

(A) He made on-air remarks perceived as obscene.

(B) He made on-air remarks perceived as racist.

(C) He walked out of the studio during a broadcast.

(D) He refused to play Beatles music.

5. What was the name inside Wally Phillips’s famous “black box?”

(A) Lar Daly   (B) Jean Rogers   (C) Phil Rizzuto   (D) Donald Trump


Getting You Home Faster (11-24-1958)

We take it for granted.  We’re in our cars and things are moving slowly.  So we fiddle around with the radio until we find a traffic report.  Damn—should’ve gotten off at the last exit!

On this date in Chicago history, the Tribune ran a small piece headed “Cop in Copter to Help Untie Traffic Knot.”  The city would now be getting traffic reports on WGN radio, from a policeman in a helicopter.


Earlier generations relied on public transit.  Those commuters didn’t worry about traffic conditions because there wasn’t much they could do about it.  They got on the streetcar and hoped for the best.

But that was changing in the 1950s.  More people were buying cars.  The city was also building a network of expressways.  The commuter could now choose the best route to take.

The new traffic-copter service was planned as a regular part of WGN’s weekday schedule.  Reports would be broadcast beginning at 4:15 PM, and continue at 15-minute intervals until 5:45.  The focus would be on major arteries such as Lake Shore Drive, Michigan Avenue, and the Congress (Eisenhower) Expressway.

(Notice how much lighter traffic was in 1958.  The evening rush started after 4 o’clock and was over before 6.  And that same issue of the Tribune also reported on a 17-block-long traffic snarl near the Hillside tollway junction—that was so rare it was considered a news story!)

The reporter in the copter was Leonard Baldy, a 31-year-old Chicago police officer.  Baldy was already known for his work presenting traffic safety programs to civic groups and at schools.  He was also a pioneer in the use of radar speed-detection devices.

The WGN traffic copter was an immediate success.  Then, one week after its launch, a major fire broke out at Our Lady of the Angels School on the West Side.  Officer Baldy was soon in the air, and his reports helped emergency vehicles find the quickest routes to the scene.

During the next year, WGN expanded its traffic reports to include the morning rush hour.  Other stations took up the idea.  Today we can’t do without them.

Officer Leonard Baldy was killed on May 2, 1960, when his copter malfunctioned and crashed.  Chicago’s Finest, a biography by his son Tim, was published in 2006.


Chicago’s April Fools

What do Rod Blagojevich, Paul Harvey, and Jack Dempsey have in common?  They’re all on my list of Chicago’s April Fools—people who made foolish decisions, and should have known better.  Last night I was on Justin Kaufmann’s “The Download” on WGN-Radio, and talked about all of my April Fools.  Here’s the link—

Wally’s Black Box—and the Sequel

Wally Phillips was the host of the morning drive-time show on WGN-Radio from 1965 thru 1986.  He was skeptical of self-proclaimed psychics, so he decided to test them in an unusual way.

During one of his shows in 1975, Phillips announced that he was writing the name of a moderately-famous living person on a piece of paper and locking it in a black box.  The first listener to call in with the name of that person would win a cash prize.

Wally Phillips

Wally Phillips

Phillips started with a prize of $1500.  Each day he added another dollar.  This went on for over six years.  No one could correctly identify the name in the black box.  By 1982 the jackpot was nearly $4,000.

Then Phillips heard a report that his mystery person had died.  This proved to be untrue.   But the false alarm convinced him it was time to end the stunt.

On February 24, 1982 Phillips revealed the name in the black box.  It was Jean Rogers, a second-tier Hollywood actress who’d played Dale Arden in a couple of Flash Gordon serials during the 1930s.  Rogers was present  in the studio and had a nice chat with Phillips.  The money in the jackpot was given to charity.

I wrote about Wally’s Black Box in my book On This Day in Chicago History.  More recently, I discovered that Phillips later issued another challenge to the psychics of the world.  This one resonates in our own day.

Jean Rogers

Jean Rogers

In 1985 Phillips published a book titled Way To  Go.  He noted that the country would be inaugurating a new president on January 20, 1989.  He then asked those psychics to peer into the future, and name the person who would be inaugurated president on—wait for it—January 20, 2017.

Phillips said he was placing $10,000 in escrow to be awarded to the first person who came up with the correct answer.  The deadline for entries was January 20, 1989.  He said that he’d then place the entries in a time capsule that would be buried at the planned 1992 Chicago World’s Fair.  The capsule would be opened on Inauguration Day 2017, and the prize awarded.

Of course, the 1992 Chicago World’s Fair never happened.  But Phillips had an alternative site for the time capsule in mind.  He said that he would bury it in Phil Donohue’s backyard.

How famous were any of our current presidential contenders in 1989?  Would anyone have predicted the name of the person we’ll be inaugurating as our leader next January?

Wally Phillips retired from his morning show before the January 20, 1989 deadline.  He died in 2008.  I suspect that this second psychic challenge was only a gag, and that there’s no $10,000 deposited in escrow.

So whoever now owns Phil Donohue’s old home in the suburbs can put away your shovels.



Seymour Paisin’s–A Wally Phillips Memory

Seymour Paisin

I came across this 1973 picture in my files recently, and it brought back fond memories.  While I was busy taking a picture of the CTA bus, I managed to capture the Seymour Paisin store.

Seymour Paisin sold women’s clothing at 2629 West Devon Avenue.  I don’t recall ever being in the store.  But during the 1970s, when Wally Phillips held quizzes on his WGN-radio show, one of the prizes he invariably gave away was “a designer scarf from Seymour Paisin on Devon.”

Most mornings I listened to Wally while driving to work. I won prizes at least three times–and my wife wound up with at least three different Seymour Paisin scarves.  She liked them, too.

After all these years, I remember only one of the quiz questions I successfully answered.  See how you can do–and no fair using the Internet!

QUESTION–What product was advertised with the slogan, “Ask the Man Who Owns One”?

I’m sorry that I can’t offer a prize.  I don’t have a radio show.