Chicago radio still tunes out women in morning-drive

March 18, 2010

When Amy Jacobson signs on Wednesday as Big John Howell's partner at Salem Communications news/talk WIND-AM (560), she'll be joining one of Chicago's most exclusive clubs: Women in morning-drive radio. And though her hiring addresses a glaring‚ gender deficiency on the air at WIND, it's hardly cause for celebration.

That's because women remain pitifully underrepresented among all top on-air jobs in radio. By my measure, they've actually lost ground in the past 25 years.


Felicia Middlebrooks

In a Sunday piece I wrote for the Sun-Times in 1985, I lamented the fact that "the sorority of female morning-drive personalities remains discouragingly small." At the time they were represented only by Terri Hemmert of WXRT-FM (93.1), Felicia Middlebrooks of WBBM-AM (780), Carolyn Van of the former WJJD, and the late Yvonne Daniels of the former WGCI-AM.‚ (Hemmert, the first female morning-drive personality in Chicago, moved to middays in 1992 and still holds forth at the adult rock station.)

Now, a quarter-century later, the number of women who get top billing in morning-drive (not counting syndicated, brokered or noncommercial shows) is down to just two: WBBM's Middlebrooks, who's anchored the all-news format's morning shift for 26 years with John Hultman, Pat Cassidy and Ken Herrera; and Lisa Dent, who has hosted mornings with Ramblin' Ray Stevens at country WUSN-FM (99.5) since 2006.

The record for female co-hosts and sidekicks isn't much better. Twenty-five years ago, I spotlighted six of them -- Catherine Johns of WLS-AM (890), Karen Hand of WBBM-FM (96.3), Beth Kaye of WKQX-FM (101.1), Chris Torres of WLUP-FM (97.9), Val Stouffer of the former WCLR, and Brooke Belson of the former WFYR. Of Johns, his spunky second banana at the time,‚ WLS "Superjock" Larry Lujack observed:

"Catherine offers a very valuable balance. She's the only one of us [Lujack, Johns, Jeff Hendrix and Les Grobstein] who's close to being normal, and when we go overboard, she says the things our female listeners would like to say if they could get at us. At times, she's even tried to reach over and strangle me in mid-sentence."

It was a pretty accurate description of the role most of the female co-stars played on the air then. Today, however, Johns is out of radio and in business with Hand, who was the voice of sanity for years at B96, most notably with Eddie Volkman and Joe Bohannon. Johns and Hand are now partners in Chicago Hypnosis Center.

But more to the point, there's still only a handful of high-profile co-hosts and sidekicks in morning-drive, including Roma Wade, half of Don Wade & Roma at WLS; Kathy Hart of Eric & Kathy at WTMX-FM (101.9); Mary Dixon with Lin Brehmer at WXRT; Mel T and Angi Taylor with Drex at WKSC-FM (103.5); Nina Chantelle with Tony Sculfield at WGCI-FM (107.5), and Perri Small with Matt McGill at WVON-AM (1690). Others I should mention? I welcome your comments below.

Virtually every one of the women I profiled in 1985 got their start on overnight or weekend shifts at smaller radio stations. Since then, consolidation, syndication and voice-tracking have eliminated hundreds of on-air jobs at local stations, resulting in even fewer opportunities for women to break into the business.

Twenty-five years from now? I shudder to think.

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