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posted: 3/9/2018 6:00 AM

Ron Onesti: Classic rock radio as important as the music itself

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  • The marquee outside Ron Onesti's Arcada Theatre in St. Charles this week bids farewell to LUP -- radio station WLUP 97.9-FM, The Loop, which is changing formats from classic rock to Christian music.

    The marquee outside Ron Onesti's Arcada Theatre in St. Charles this week bids farewell to LUP -- radio station WLUP 97.9-FM, The Loop, which is changing formats from classic rock to Christian music.
    Courtesy of Onesti Entertainment Corp.

 
 

The "classic rock" world received stunning news this week: Chicago classic rock radio station WLUP was sold to a Christian broadcasting company and will be reformatted.

This comes after 41 years of Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Stones, AC/DC and Guns 'N Roses. Forty-one years of colorful personalities, zany off-air and on-air antics, and too-gorgeous-to-be true Loop Girls. Forty-one years of a black-and-white logo that represented more than just the call letters of a radio station. It was the stamp of pure rock 'n' roll, Chicago style.

It was an unceremonious takeover. Nobody really saw it coming, even though the station was mired in financial difficulties. WLUP was woven into the musical fabric of Chicago. The Cubs, Vienna hot dogs, Italian beef sandwiches, deep dish pizza, Eli's Cheesecake … and WLUP -- all things that represent Chicago pop culture, more than just food and radio.

Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, Kevin Matthews and Jim Shorts, Jonathan Brandmeier, Wendy Snyder, Bruce Wolf and Buzz Kilman, and the Mancow cast of characters -- they were my morning wake up calls since high school. Lorelei, the original "Loop Girl," got me through puberty.

But the one constant was always the music. When we all got our driver's licenses and drove home junior year in our borrowed family cars, The Loop was blaring through our open car windows, even though it was minus four degrees outside.

And just when classic rock as a music genre was at a huge resurgence, the original No. 1 classic rock station goes away!

And that's what I don't get! Even vinyl record sales are at an incredible high! The Scorpions, Journey, Styx, Boston … all still sell out arenas.

I think it is more of an editorial on the future of commercial radio itself.

As I have been decorating my Club Arcada and Bourbon 'N Brass speak-easies, I have been coming upon vintage radios from the 1930s and 1940s. As I hold these cathedral-topped wooden boxes, with glass tubes and all, I wonder about the families that huddled around them back in the day listening to "fireside chats" from the president.

Aside from the kitchen table, the radio was one of the most important elements in a home back then. It was a device that entertained, informed and glued families together. If I was "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (no wisecracks) back then, I would have loved to be inside these radios, looking out into the households of middle-class America.

My first radio experience came from spending Sundays at my dad's tailor shop. It was a plastic, pastel green rectangle of a box, a clock with hands on the left, an image of a circle behind the cloth where the speaker was, and two dials, one with FM numbers and one with AM numbers.

We never used the FM dial, however. The AM was where the Cubs' games, big band music and Sinatra ballads lived. That was my dad's world.

Even on those occasions when my dad would take me for a doubleheader at Wrigley Field, he would still rather listen to Cubs' broadcaster Lou Boudreau on a small transistor radio in his shirt pocket with that yellowed earpiece half sticking out of his ear.

Ironically, every car we had growing up was what we used to call a "beater." As much as my dad loved listening to the radio, we never had a car with a working radio. From the black 1964 Chevy to the dark green Ford station wagon, that red arrow was fun to move back and forth on the AM dial, especially since things like seat belts didn't really exist back then to hamper our play time while on the Eisenhower Expressway.

But when I got to high school, the radio was king. I joined our Weber High School radio station, WEBR, which was really playing 45 rpm records over the school loudspeaker after classes had ended.

As a freshman, I would catch a ride home from a Weber junior who lived across the street. Riding in a navy blue Camaro, I was the coolest kid in the freshman class (at least I thought so!). Half the time we blasted the radio, half the time we listened to his cassette player. The only problem was that he only had Paul McCartney's "Wings Over America" cassette. For two years that's what we listened to every day on the way home. The day that thin tape shot out of the player, destroying the cassette, was the day I actually found God.

Classic rock radio gave me other lifelong memories, including Disco Demolition, The Super Bowls of Rock, Dahl's Teenage Radiation band and Brandmeier's Johnny & the Leisure Suits band.

Then I began producing and promoting live shows. The radio really was the only place to effectively get the word out about my concerts with the Ides of March, the Buckinghams and Styk. For years I partnered with classic rock radio, giving away tickets on the air, appearing on every talk show in Chicago myself, as well as bringing countless celebs to talk-radio studios all over the city.

So I truly wish continued success to our friends at 103.9 The Fox, 95.9 The River, 97.1 The Drive and other classic rock-formatted stations who keep OUR music on the air. Thank goodness they are still alive and well as my 12-year-old daughter isn't always around to help me find my music on Sirius, Spotify or Pandora.

And thank you to all who have been a part of The Loop radio over the past 41 years. You have given me countless hours of companionship and music to which I played my dashboard drums. And a special thanks to Lorelei, the first Loop Girl. You were more special to me than you could ever know.

• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email ron@oshows.com.

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