An oldie and a goodie - legendary Chicago DJ Dick Biondi
Getting fired when you're 73 years old usually means retirement, especially in a youth-obsessed business like radio.
So when WJMK 104.3-FM abruptly changed formats in June 2005 and kicked Dick Biondi off the air, it seemed the beloved Chicago DJ was being put out to pasture.
Despite his notorious optimism and Radio Hall of Fame credentials, Biondi admits to worrying about his career for the first time in his life.
Per the terms of his contract, he continued to do a nightly oldies show on the internet and HD radio. His audience shrunk to almost zilch.
"People did listen online," he said, his voice trailing off, "but it wasn't the same."
WJMK eventually pulled the plug on the show in July, firing Biondi after 21 years with the station -- a good chunk of his 56-year radio career.
Fans wrote angry letters and circulated petitions to get him back on the air. Biondi started praying daily to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.
Because of his age, Biondi knew his job options were limited. Radio stations want to target younger listeners, and his show was old-fashioned. The songs he wanted to play didn't always match those on the new, consultant-driven playlists.
Still, the "The Wild I-Tralian" wasn't ready to call it quits. He missed the job. Even more, he missed the people.
"If I didn't get a job, I was going to go to Target and be the person who says, 'Welcome to Target!' because I love talking to people so much," he said. "(Being a DJ) is all I ever wanted to do."
This fall, a new oldies station debuted as WZZN 94.7-FM, and offered Biondi a multiyear contract for the 9 p.m. to midnight shift. After a 17-month hiatus, Biondi enthusiastically returned to the public airwaves last month.
His time slot is short and low-profile, but Biondi doesn't mind. He's back behind the mike doing the job he loves.
"That's a great time to be on. People are done with the day ... they can actually listen to the show," he said. "Plus, there aren't any bosses around at that hour."
Biondi's not only spinning records again, he's continuing his annual charity toy drive -- which suffered last year because of his on-air absence. He'll do the 32-hour broadcast starting Friday morning from Yorktown Center in Lombard.
For the past 14 years, thousands of people have turned out for Biondi's toy drive, including a priest friend of his who always brings along oils for last rites.
"In case I don't make it," Biondi said, laughing.
Radio then and now
Radio has changed considerably since Biondi first went on the air in 1950.
Starting out as a small-town DJ in New York, he quickly moved up to the nation's top stations, arriving at Chicago in 1960 on WLS 890-AM, "The Big 89." His popular show was heard in 40 states and parts of Canada.
Biondi picked much of the rock 'n' roll music that was played and, as a result, influenced the careers of people like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. He was the first DJ in America to play a Beatles record, "Please Please Me," and introduced the Fab Four at a few huge concerts.
Besides being one of the country's top DJs, Biondi is also a local legend. In his heyday, people gathered outside the old WLS studio at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive and watched his show live. He recorded a popular novelty record, "On Top of a Pizza," and spun records at hundreds of sock hops, social gatherings and charity events across the Chicago area. He worked at WCFL-FM and WBBM-FM before arriving at WJMK-FM to help launch the oldies station in 1984.
Biondi's off-the-air work is what sets him apart from other DJs and endears him to fans. He is the king of personal appearances -- a job most radio personalities dread -- and does dozens a year. Whether it's DJ-ing at class reunions or doing live broadcasts from new businesses, Biondi happily treks out to these places and hams it up with the crowd.
"Biondi knows how to work an audience. That's the magic of Biondi," said radio consultant Jeff Schwartz, who's worked at almost every station in Chicago. "He offers that personal bond. What makes Steve Dahl successful today? He's personal. Johnny B? He's personal."
At one charity fundraiser, Biondi told the audience if they filled the box with donations, he'd switch clothing with a nun in the crowd. Ten minutes later, he was wearing a habit.
"They're fun, appearances," Biondi said. "I can't understand why celebrities wear dark sunglasses and walk around with 12 bodyguards around them. Why would you do that? I love for people to come up and say hello. Maybe that's the Italian in me."
Longtime fan Stew Salowitz remembers falling asleep listening to Biondi's show while holding his transistor radio under his pillow. That was in the 1960s in downstate Normal. Salowitz is still a fan today.
"Everybody wants to have some of their youth back. That's why they listen to oldies. It brings back memories. With Dick Biondi, there are memories spewing all over the place," Salowitz said. "He's doing the same shtick he did 40 years ago. That's what he knows. That's what he does. And that's what people love him for."
Biondi's family-friendly show has bred a new generation of fans. They're lured by his feel-good sound and unmatched enthusiasm for the oldies.
"How many times do you think he's played 'Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow' or the original 'Mony, Mony'? And he still gets fired up to do it," Salowitz said.
As the radio business has changed over the years, becoming more syndicated and generic, Biondi's had to deal with criticism that his show is outdated and corny. WJMK management sometimes dissed his song choices and programming ideas.
"One time I said, 'Hey, I can get Chubby Checker to come on and do an interview.' And they said, 'Well, OK, I guess. But keep it under five minutes.' How are you supposed to talk to Chubby Checker in less than five minutes?" he said.
That's the only complaining Biondi does about WJMK or the radio business, though. He harbors no bad feelings about his past. He much prefers to dwell on the positive: funny stories of the good ol' days and touching tales from listeners. Some of the stories prompt his eyes to well up with tears.
During a recent public appearance, an 18-year-old girl came up to him and whispered in his ear, "I was conceived while you were on the air."
It's only when Biondi uses phrases like "record hop" do you realize his age.
"Close your eyes and listen to him. Does he sound 73? Andy Rooney sounds his age. Biondi doesn't," Schwartz said. "The man is younger than most 30-year-olds. He has more energy, more enthusiasm and more passion for this industry than anyone I know."
WZZN management lets Biondi do his thing. Every night, he brings in and plays an old record from his personal collection, like "Summer Sun" by Jamestown Massacre or "Midnight Mary" by Joey Powers.
"I played 'Midnight Mary' the other night, and right away I got four calls from people who said, 'I haven't heard that in years!' " he said.
Despite the challenges of being a golden oldie in today's radio business, Biondi's not worried about his future anymore.
"George Burns said, 'There's nothing you can do about getting older, but you don't ever want to get old.' That's how I feel. If you retire, you rust," he said. "With all the DJs that come through this town, people still remember me? That's the biggest compliment you can give me."
Dick Biondi through the decades
1950 -- Gets his first job at a small radio station in Corning, N.Y.
1960 -- Moves to Chicago to work for WLS.
1961 & 1962 -- Voted the nation's most popular disc jockey.
1963 -- Hired at KRLA in Los Angeles.
1964 -- Starts a syndicated program, heard on more than 125 stations nationwide.
1967 -- Returns to Chicago to work at WCFL.
1977 -- Accepts a job at WNMB in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
1983 -- Returns to Chicago to work at WBBM-FM.
1984 -- Hired to help launch a new oldies station, WJMK.
1998 -- Inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame
2006 -- Hired at WZZN. Inducted into the Illinois Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame.
Sources: National Radio Hall of Fame, 440.com