Midnight madness: Overnights on WGN take a sharp Leff turn

At this rate, WGN-AM (720) might actually start attracting listeners again. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

On the heels of hiring veteran Chicago radio morning star Jonathon Brandmeier to replace Greg Jarrett, the Tribune Co.-owned news/talk station Monday confirmed the promotion of weekend and fill-in host Bill Leff as full-time overnight personality.

Starting next week, the versatile actor, comedian and broadcaster will succeed husband-and-wife hosts Steve King and Johnnie Putman, who are signing off Friday after a yeoman 26-year run. Leff will expand the show by 30 minutes, airing from midnight to 5:30am weekdays.

Considering the upheaval that’s rocked every other time period on WGN in recent years, overnights had been the station’s one bastion of stability. Few personalities in Chicago radio history can match King and Putman’s longevity in one time slot on the same frequency.

“Steve and Johnnie have been an integral part of WGN Radio’s rich history and trusted friends and voices to thousands of listeners over the years,” general manager Tom Langmyer said in a press release. “We’re excited that Bill Leff will be joining the station full-time to carry on Steve & Johnnie’s tradition of live and local overnight talk.”

For the 48-year-old Chicago native and Columbia College graduate, it’s the high point of a radio odyssey that included a popular partnership with Wendy Snyder at the Loop and the former Q101, as well as an afternoon stint with Roe Conn on news/talk WLS-AM (890). This week Leff is filling in as WGN morning host, keeping the seat warm for Brandmeier’s debut Friday.

“I couldn't possibly be more excited,” Leff told me Monday. “From the time I got into radio, my goal was to be here, on WGN. And now that I've achieved that goal, I'll probably slack off quite a bit.

“I have nothing but respect for Steve and Johnnie, who I’ve listened to for years, and marveled at their ability to make the audience their friend.  WGN is absolutely the place to be right now. Jonathon Brandmeier is the most gifted person I've ever heard on the radio. Garry Meier is the reason I pursued radio in the first place. And I learn from John Williams every time I hear him. Between them and the amazing news staff and sports team, I’m privileged to be a part of it. . . . At least that's what I'm telling them.”

So what does Leff have planned for his new overnight show? “It will be a unique blend of circus acts, live executions, stare contests, fondue recipes, and vacuuming,” he said. “Some of it will be in Dutch.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)