For the third Christmas in my married life of 40 years, my worser half has been pink slipped. And so today, Steve will air his last show on WLS AM. He is a sturdy man, and a prescient one. He saw this severance coming. When he was hired, the station was preparing for Life After Rush, which meant a local, Chicago based lineup. Pieces were put into place with new hires..and then, VOILA! Rush made the Suits an offer they could not refuse, and the local curtain started closing…Johnny B, White Sox and Bulls, Bob and Marianne, and Ray Stevens…all were shed. Cumulus, via Westwood One, literally owns a stable of political talkers that hew to the big tent of the political right. Programming them across the 500 stations guarantees national ad buys (Boner pills, Fruits and Veggies, My Pillow, Debt Restructuring) with minimal effort. Local content costs more, and it is harder to sell. The radio landscape has changed with Sirius and playlists. Steve isn’t a fool, and he knew he was swimming in a kettle that would boil over and send him to the shore. His Comedy Island was incongruous with the other WLS content. He was not surprised to get the termination letter in September. Still, he is sad. Me, too.
He is a radio guy. He never finished high school, taking the GED in a deal with his dad. If he passed, he was free to spend his days as an itinerant intern and fill in host. He found his first success as The Kid in LA, married a woman he met on the hot line, and when she dropped him for a station manager, that manager manufactured a job to get him out of town…in Detroit. He packed his turquoise Subaru with a tub of granola and a $1000.00 Wells Fargo loan to pay for moving expenses, and he drove into my orbit.
I was a secondary school teacher and my commute to teach was accompanied by morning radio. Detroit was a Metal or Motown market at the time, but one day I tuned in to this wistful California import who introduced me to new sounds: The Eagles, John David Souther, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Flying Burrito Brothers, Little Feat. It was a song by Eric Carmen that made me send Doug Bienenfeld to the payphone in Bloomfield Hills Middle School to get the artist’s name so I could buy the album. A year later, I met the person connected to my morning commute through friends. In 1978, I became the second woman to marry him after a random contact with the phone lines.
Three months after that wedding, he was fired the Friday before Christmas, dressed in a Santa suit he had worn greeting listeners on the corner of Michigan and Wacker. He wore it home. THAT was a rough one, since it allowed my parents to say “I told you so” and because we literally had nothing to our name.
If you are reading this, you know most of the story – Steve persisted. He misbehaved, challenged management, co-workers and me, worked like a dog, bared his soul (and mine) and knit himself into life here in Chicago. I know he once thought his Midwest days were preparing him for a return to California or a leap of faith to NYC. His family became the spindle of his life though, and instead of working for fame and national glory, he realized that what he really craved most was roots..stability that eluded him in his childhood. So he stayed, for me, for us, for our kids – and because he had annexed a giant, throbbing auxiliary family via the airwaves.
That is why today is hard. Radio is a warm and immediate medium. He could interact, take the pulse of his community, share cool stuff, and explore new places. Every once in awhile he could help someone through a hard time, or just make someone laugh. He was never content to be a voice on the airwaves, he was a person. (or many persons, with Travis, Irma, Rex, Dick Buttkick...) He bared his soul and our lives, for better or worse. Steve announced my pregnancy with Pat before my Mom knew (Bad). Pat’s first squalls were heard on WLS-FM. Over 40 years, we were welcomed into the lives of thousands of Chicagoans.
We have always counted this earnest, sturdy city as the best part of our lives. We have been supported as Steve zig zagged from AM to FM, station to station. Drinker to Sober. Parent to Grandparent. It is magic. When Steve was sick, I would come home late at night to find encouraging messages from his listeners. I still have two plants that listeners sent us, thriving even with my black thumb. His audience is not abstract. It has a pulse, and we feel it, appreciate it.
Last summer, when I was being treated for Breast Cancer, I asked Steve not to share it until I had a firm prognosis. For the first time, he muffled his instinct to tell all. I could hear him struggle with self-censorship, and more than once he talked himself into a corner. It was a new experience for him: in the past he could seek counsel, comfort and moral support. When we finally could exhale and talk about it, the kindness we were bombarded with was profound. Thank you, my adopted brothers and sisters. I love you all.
SO today he departs the airwaves that embraced him as the Kid, and stuck with him until he was Grandpa Steve. He has had 4 creative years at WLS with cohorts he loves as family. He hates to say farewell to local radio. But he will be ok. He has new tools that he lacked when he was “gacked” in 1978: sobriety, meditation, 40 years of marital stability and maturity. Hell, 40 years later we even own our home and have savings. The podcast (subscribe at dahl.com– what kind of wife wouldn’t fold in a commercial?) will get more creative and energized with his additional time. He has grandkids to dote upon, a wife to teach to cook (save me) and a dog who will no longer spend 7 hours parked at the door waiting for him to come home.
Most of all, we have gratitude. To you, for listening and caring. To Chicago, for its big heart and loyal hearts. To cheat and steal a title: It’s a Wonderful Life you have given us. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
PS: And I’ll still be here, sharing the joys of uninterrupted contact with Steve. Who is the patron saint of retirees?