WCFL flashback: The man who rocked Chicago radio

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For most of us who grew up here in the '60s, the choice was simple: You could listen to WLS or you could listen to WCFL.

Although WLS had a six-year head start as a Top 40 station (and continued the format well into the '80s), for a brief but magical era it faced a rival of unprecedented creative energy, excitement and imagination in WCFL.

From talent to production to promotion to news, everything came together for the long-neglected Chicago Federation of Labor radio flagship, thanks to the singular vision of one man — Ken Draper, the programming genius from Cleveland who seemed to capture the spirit of the time and the mood of the city perfectly.

“I wanted a radio station where when you heard it, you could not take it anywhere else. It was Chicago,” Draper said in a recent interview with Jim Hampton of Radio Recall.

Hampton, a onetime production manager at WLS who now runs Greenhouse Marketing Group in Los Angeles, has edited the interview with extensive archival audio into a wonderful one-hour program called The Ken Draper WCFL Story. Included are the voices of such legendary personalities as Jim Runyon, Joel Sebastian, Dick Williamson, Jim Stagg, Ron Britain, Barney Pip, Dick Biondi and Larry Lujack, along with Dick Orkin’s immortal Chickenman and those great WCFL song-like jingles. (Here is the link to the podcast.)

“When I went to 'CFL there were no impediments,” Draper told Hampton. “No one telling me how many people I could hire. They didn’t say if we had disc jockeys that went from 6 in the morning to noon we could save. Nobody doing that kind of thing to me. Or if I wanted to put a Chickenman on the air, I didn’t have to go to someone for approval. I believe that Chicago was a platform for things that had been inside of me for eight years in terms of ideas and the way I envisioned a really great radio station.”

By the time Draper arrived in 1965 to convert The Voice of Labor to Top 40, Chicago radio was dominated by the rivalry between AM giants WGN and WIND  — personified by the battle between morning stars Wally Phillips and Howard Miller — while WLS was alone in the rock arena. Draper figured he’d be happy to “just split the audience” with WLS.

“If you went in and said OK, of the categories of radio in this market, what is the least competitive, the answer is rock ‘n’ roll,” he said. “The only station doing it was WLS, but playing pop music, for want of a better word, or personality radio. . . . It would have been the natural thing for me to do.”

Draper succeeded spectacularly, transforming WCFL into a powerhouse still remembered as one of Chicago’s all-time greats. In the process, he moved up from program director to general manager before he left in 1968. Today Draper lives in Los Angeles, where he is owner and publisher of CityWatch, a multimedia website and newsletter of opinion, news and information.


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