Dick Biondi: The greatest oldie of all time

November 9, 2009

Tonight marks the start of Dick Biondi's fourth year as evening personality on WLS-FM (94.7), under terms of a new two-year contract he signed last week with the Citadel Broadcasting "True Oldies" station.

Photo by Fred Winston

Photo by Fred Winston

That may not seem like big news until you consider that Biondi is 77 years old, he's been one of America's premier disc jockeys for more than half a century, and he still commands a remarkably large and loyal audience --  more than 300,000 listeners a week, according to the latest Arbitron figures.

As Biondi's show (which airs from 7 to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday)‚ enters its fourth year, it's also worth noting that his real heyday in Chicago --  when he drew an unfathomable 60 percent of all radio listeners as "The Screamer" at seminal Top 40 WLS-AM (890) --  never lasted that long. Exactly three years to the day after he started, Biondi was fired over a dispute with a sales manager about the excessive commercial load on his show. Never mind that he'd been named the No. 1 disc jockey in the country by Billboard magazine in 1961 and 1962, and that he was the first to play a Beatles record ("Please Please Me") on the air in 1963. Or that he'd been influential in advancing the careers of Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others.

Think of it this way: young Rich Daley was just 18 years old when Dick Biondi began spinning rock 'n' roll records at night on WLS in 1960. Today, as Daley nears eclipsing his father's tenure at City Hall, it's comforting to know Biondi is still at it --  with all the energy, enthusiasm and charisma he's always shown.‚ No matter how crazy things get, as long as you can still hear "The Wild I-tralian" on the radio, you just know all is right with the world.

"Dick Biondi is the last in the original cast of American rock 'n' roll disc jockeys still working on-air full-time," observed veteran radio programmer and consultant David Martin, who also serves as Biondi's agent. Although Biondi has been enshrined in both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Radio Hall of Fame, he's never received the full measure of recognition right here that many believe he deserves.

"The only reason there's not a statue of Dick Biondi downtown, a movie of his life and books about him is because he's still in the game," longtime admirer Bob Sirott once noted. "He's still on the air every night, sounding like he always has, and so we tend to take him for granted."

Chicago has dozens of honorary streets and bridges named for broadcasting stars of the past and present, including Bob Bell, Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray, Bob Collins, Yvonne Daniels, Paul Harvey, Herb Kent, Irv Kupcinet, Valerie Landon, Ken Nordine, Wally Phillips, Pat Sajak, Sig Sakowicz, Siskel & Ebert, Studs Terkel and Frazier Thomas. A major civic event Dec. 5, to be proclaimed "Herb Kent Day" by both the city and state, will honor the iconic R&B disc jockey on his entry in the Guiness World Records book at a gala dinner.

That's all well and good. But what about Biondi?

For years I've thought a most fitting tribute would be for the city to embed a star in the pavement outside of the ABC Building at State and Lake. Biondi would see it when he enters each night to broadcast from the studios of WLS Radio. Directly across the street is the sidewalk plaque Mayor Daley dedicated for Roger Ebert under the marquee of the Chicago Theatre in 2005. Knowing Roger's affection for Biondi, I'm sure he'd approve, too.

On last Friday's show, in addition to fielding the usual calls for requests and dedications, Biondi was flooded with well wishers congratulating him on his third anniversary with the "True Oldies" station. With his typical optimism, he told them: "Let's stick around for another 35 or 40 years."

I wouldn't bet against the guy to do just that. Would you?

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