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Fan of classic Chicago radio creates a cyber ’CFL

J.R. Russ works studio WCFLchicago.com decorated with vintage Chicago radio gear. | PROVIDED PHOTO

J.R. Russ works in the studio of WCFLchicago.com, decorated with vintage Chicago radio gear. | PROVIDED PHOTO

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Updated: January 15, 2014 6:01PM



Building any rock ’n’ roll radio station is no easy task.

But J.R. Russ has spent a thousand hobby hours to create an Internet version of WCFL-AM (1000), the freewheeling Chicago rock station that during the late 1960s and 1970s was home of Larry Lujack, Jerry G. Bishop and Barney Pip, a trumpet-playing disc jockey who told listeners to “turn into peanut butter.”

Russ, 62, calls his project a “labor of love.”

The New Buffalo, Mich., launched WCFLchicago.com on Labor Day, of course. WCFL (now ESPN 1000) was named for its owner, the Chicago Federation of Labor union.

“Rather than a ‘tribute’ station, stuck in the ’60s and ’70s, I call it a ‘salute station,’ which captures the essence of the original with the jingles, original airchecks and commercials but also plays newer music,” explained Russ, who grew up in New Buffalo, Mich. “There are a lot of ‘tribute’ stations, but I couldn’t find any to WCFL, so I decided to build one. The key was getting the jingle identifiers to replicate ‘that sound.’ ”

The station picked up traction after Lujack’s death Dec. 18. Over the holidays, the station paid tribute to Lujack with hourly airchecks of Lujack introducing songs and reading commercials culled from high-quality “board” (studio) recordings. Lujack’s Chicago career began in 1967 at WCFL.

WCFL-AM and WLS-AM were hot, 50,000-watt rivals. WLS was suits and ties; WCFL was tie-dye and jeans.

“WLS had a bigger sound,” Russ said. “All their jingles were bassier. They had bigger voices. There was more brass in the jingles at ’CFL. You had all these wacky-voiced people, so a mid-range voice like me thought there was hope. You didn’t always have to sound like THIS,” Russ said as he dropped into his best lower-register Bill Kurtis.

Besides having more colorful disc jockeys, “Super ’CFL” played deeper cuts. The Nov. 23, 1967, “Sound 10 Survey” featured the hits “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix (No. 5); “Hush” by country singer Billy Joe Royal (No. 10, later covered by Deep Purple) and Joe Tex’s “Skinny Legs & All” (No. 14). And Hendrix was on the cover of the survey.

“Even Dick Biondi was more unleashed at WCFL,” Russ said. “WLS was ABC corporate, WCFL was this wild place that was a creative ethos.”

Biondi was hired at WCFL to replace Lujack on the all-night shift when Uncle Lar moved to WLS-AM. “We had a great signal east,” Biondi said. “We had freedom we didn’t get anywhere else. I interviewed people like Liberace. They let us be ‘personality jocks.’ ”

Sam Lit, the son of late pioneering Philadelphia disc jockey Hy Lit, put Russ on the road to his “salute station.” Lit buys bandwith for the vintage stations. In 2008 Russ first created his first Internet station, “Movie Ticket Radio,” which Russ describes as “hits from the movies but it’s not a soundtrack channel. We’re getting about 21,000 listener hours a month with that. We’re in the 5,000 to 10,000 range with WCFLchicago. People are still finding it.” Biondi said he has yet to hear the station.The domain names WCFL, Big 10 and SuperCFL.com were taken for non-audio tribute sites. “But no one had WCFLchicago,” he said with a happy sound.

The deal was sealed, however, when TM Studios in Dallas allowed Russ to use all the original ’CFL jingles from its archives. TM created all the jingles. “They said any original master tapes would have to physically be baked in an oven to keep the oxide from falling off the tapes,” Russ said. “Then an engineer would dub the tapes to digital.” Russ had pay for the transfers, but TM did not charge him licensing fees because his station is a historic effort.

Russ works on WCFLchicago from his home studio in Boothwyn, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. “A lot of the music is from my record collection,” which consists of 1,859 songs, he says. The station averages about 15 songs an hour.

“I got some negative feedback because it isn’t an all ’60s channel,” he said. “I’ve tried to put some newer music in. Some of them oddly sound outstanding against those 40-year-old jingles.” Russ also plans to add more personality voices from the past through high quality airchecks.

The “Chickenman” series created in 1966 by then-’CFL production director Dick Orkin has been airing on WCFLchicago. “The Batman spoof highlights Benton Harbor, a mild-mannered shoe salesman who fights crime on weekends,” Russ said.

Russ continued, “I’m not a live radio station. I needed something that would carry through the theme of the radio station. The jingles capture that. We refashioned the call letters to Where Chicago’s Favorites Lived.”

And the voice of labor lives again.

Email: Dhoekstra@suntimes.com

Twitter: @Cstdhoekstra



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