Q & A with Mitch Michaels
He was at the center of the Chicago radio scene during the “magical years” from the mid-70s to the late 80s, when stations like WKQX, WXRT and WLUP were in their heyday. Indeed, over the years, longtime radio personality Mitch Michaels has worked at virtually every rock music station in the Chicago area, from his early days at WGLD broadcasting from above an “old folks’ home” in Oak Park, to serving as the afternoon host and program director at The LOOP. At the latter, he worked with Steve Dahl and was integrally involved in the now infamous “Disco Demolition” debacle at Comiskey Park, which forced the Chicago White Sox to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader. Michaels was also instrumental in the first local stereo/video simulcast of a live rock concert (The Who), which was beamed directly to nine sold out theaters. The Hinsdale resident, who now hosts the afternoon drive weekdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m on 95.9 The River in Aurora, took a few moments to reminisce and share some other fun stories from his long and notable radio career.
Are you musically inclined or do you play an instrument? If so, did you ever play in a band and have visions of being a rock and roll star?
Mitch Michaels: I have great timing and rhythm, but am not overly musically inclined. I did take guitar lessons for three weeks in the 3rd grade, but it hurt my fingers, so I guess Eric Clapton must have filled my spot in the cosmos. I played the trombone for five years and my happiest day was the day I sold it for $50. I hated carrying that thing back and forth to school. I’ve sung with a few bands and enjoyed the minimal exposure that gave to my performing talents. But mostly I’ve enjoyed the amazing access I’ve had to so many extraordinary artists and their music, which is really all of our music.
How did you first get interested in radio?
MM: I came home from getting a very unsatisfactory result on a college midterm and almost out of the Twilight Zone, a guy comes on the radio and says, “Did you just fail a test? Do you hate what your doing?” It was an ad for a radio school and I ran with it. I went to the school in Washington, D.C. for five months and got my first job while still going to school there (WHFS in Bethesda, MD). I went back to college at Kent State and worked at the campus station WKSU and then on to bigger and better things. I always loved music, but actually wanted to be a sportscaster. Those jobs, however, were few and far between so radio personality — I always disliked the term disc jockey — seemed
a good route to follow.
How did you end up working in Chicago and what were those first years like?
MM: In the fall of 1971, I was working at WMMS in Cleveland and I knew they were unhappy with me. Unbeknownst to me, a record promotion friend, who also covered the Chicago market, gave an air check of mine to the new program director of WGLD, 102.7 in Chicago. I was fired from MMS sometime in late October and WGLD contacted me a few weeks later. They hired me over the phone and I moved my young family — my wife, a 3-year-old daughter, 9-month-old son and the dog — to Chicago. I knew virtually no one, but we managed. My first show here was on Dec. 20th, 1971. I did the 7 p.m. to midnight shift. The station was on the floor of an old folks’ home — the Oak Park Arms Hotel in Oak Park — which I always thought was an unusual place for a rock station. There was a fire escape in the program director’s office and the door out faced east. I’d go out their for smoke breaks and just look at the Chicago skyline at night knowing that’s where I really needed to be.
Over the years, you have worked at virtually every rock station in Chicago. Any favorite memories from your early career when both rock and radio were at their height of popularity?
MM: It was 6 p.m. on December 31st, 1976 on the 19th floor of the Merchandise Mart at NBC Studios, and we were about to throw the switch and put WKQX on the air. The whole staff was standing around with champagne in front of this huge machine with all our music and the jocks voice tracks on it. The first thing heard on KQX was my voice doing a little welcoming soliloquy and letting the folks know that a new era of radio was about to begin. After my little welcoming speech, the first song played was Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends.”
A few years later, in the spring of 1979, The LOOP hit the air! It had been called The LOOP before, but Heftel Broadcasting had taken over a week or so earlier and the logo was changed, the staff was all new, music had been tweaked and the marketing, well . . . hello Lorelei! The city quickly took notice! You couldn’t go anywhere without running into kids wearing that black LOOP shirt with the white lipstick logo. I would be at a stop light, turn my radio down and open my windows to hear cars all around me listening to The LOOP. In two rating books from March though August of 1979, we went from a 3.3 to 5.3 to a 7.3 and beat the number one AM rock station, WLS, straight up. It had never been done before by an FM station.
Working at The LOOP from its inception was truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced. Steve Dahl was on in the morning already stirring things up, blowing up disco records, and just being Steve. A guy named Les Tracey from the west coast was doing middays, and I was on in the afternoon. After me was the one and only Sky Daniels, a guy whose love and knowledge of music was unsurpassed and one of the best jocks I’ve ever been around. The station just hit all the right notes at the right time and the audience was hungry and ready for something special.
You have to remember this was radio in its heyday: no internet, no iPods, no cable or MTV. If you wanted to hear the new Zeppelin or Van Halen or find out who’s coming to town and when tickets were going on sale, it was us! A magical time that unfortunately we won’t see again.
Can you share a few humorous tales or unusual experiences that give us a better idea of what being a disc jockey in the 70s and 80s was really like?
MM: I think one of the most memorable moments of my time spent at ABC (WDAI) was having B.B. King in-studio for an interview. He was playing a four-night stint downstairs at the London House. This was in 74 and “The Thrill Is Gone” was a hit at that time. He was a delightful man and was and is still an incredible musician. After my show, I went down to catch one of his sets and found myself sitting with him at the bar (he’s diabetic and doesn’t drink) talking to him like we were old friends. He is a very special man.
There was another time in April of 1979. I was doing afternoons at the LOOP when a representative from Playboy came by accompanied by two bunnies. We had an interview scheduled with David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen, who were playing at The Aragon that night. As you might guess, the boys were in rare form with me and the two bunnies in the studio. All I can say is that the girls escaped safely but wiser to the ways of rock stars. It was a nutty, funny scene, some of which took place on the air!
What band members and/or musicians that you’ve met over the years did you find most interesting?
MM: Meeting celebrities and rock stars is always different and not always fun. One of the folks I enjoyed the most was Bette Midler, who was out promoting the movie “The Rose.” She was great fun and very approachable. But I think my favorite was Mel Brooks. He had an album of songs from his movies and he was on the road promoting it. The man was funny, quick, witty and very energetic. Many laughs! I also had a chance to talk to Rod Stewart early in his career and he was very cool as well. I have met many celebs, liked most and we’ll leave the “others” for my book!
You were out of radio for a few years. What’s it like to be back on the air and introducing a new generation of west suburbanites to the joys of classic rock?
MM: Radio has been my life, and yes, there were a few years I couldn’t find work in Chicago. But I decided to stay put and worked some other jobs because I was a single dad and my children needed stability. I’ve worked at some of the most high profile stations in Chicago, but I have to say I’m having as much fun as I ever had now working at The River. It’s a different atmosphere, smaller in scope, but no less exhilarating. And frankly, I think I’m still doing some of my best stuff. I feel like we’re a little more in-touch with the folks listening to us out here because we’re out here too! We live here, we work here, and I think our listeners relate to that.
How did you end up living in Hinsdale?
MM: We moved to Hinsdale in 2000 and for me, the location is perfect! Not too far from work; a good jumping off point for any number of locations for shopping and great restaurants; and an awful lot of great golf courses in a 15-20 mile radius! It’s home and comfy for me.
When I first moved to Chicago, however, I started out at Four Lakes Village in Lisle. From there I moved to Bensenville for a few years, then to Oak Park, and then 13 years in the city in Lincoln Park. There were a few more moves back to the burbs and even a stint in New Buffalo, Michigan (I still commuted downtown daily), but I’m back out here to stay!
1. Favorite bands of all time?
Beatles, Stones, Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Traveling Wilburys,
The Who, Stevie Ray, Beach Boys, Janis Joplin and many more.
2. Top 5 songs/tunes of all time?
So difficult to pick 5 songs: “Desperado” has always been one of my favorites. It just so reflective and well done. “Let It Be,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” The Kinks, “Misfits,” “End Of The Line,” Wilburys and about 2001 more.
3. Best pure vocalists or lead singers of all time?
Paul Rodgers, Robert Plant, John Lennon, Janis & Chrissie Hynde
4. Your favorite genre of music other than rock?
Definitely “The Blues”
5. Types of music you just can’t bring yourself to listen to?
Not a big Hip Hop fan.
6. Best way to listen to music: vinyl, CD or radio and why?
7. If not a disc jockey, the career you would have likely pursued?
8. If you could sit down for a meal or just a long discussion with any three people from history, past or present, who would they be?
Jack Kennedy, Hendrix and Babe Ruth
9. Four words that best describe you?
Sincere, honest, ball busting and (hopefully) funny
10. Hobbies when not working?
Love my garden in the summer (flowers over veggies), golf, living
11. Best words of advice/wisdom you received over the years and from whom?
“Find something you love and pursue it. You’ll never ‘work’ a day in your life.”Edit Module