It was once said that you should never meet your heroes because they are bound to disappoint.
I never met Larry Lujack, but those who did assure us all that it was no letdown, not in the least.
His real name was Larry Blankenburg but to thousands if not millions of devoted radio fans he was the self-proclaimed "Superjock" of WLS and WCFL in Chicago (both of which beamed into southeast Wisconsin) back in the day when you got your Top 40 hits on the AM band. He was one of the disc jockeys we grew up listening to, along with WOKY's Bob Barry and WRIT's Eddie Doucette.
The others had energy, polish and a constant smile in their voice, Uncle Lar' sounded world weary and tired. He let you in on the joke: the songs he played were hits, but some of them were crap. The commercials? Don't get him started. Listeners? Mere foils for his cynicism, at least those who dared to interact on the phone or--worse--write him an angry missive. The later became "Klunk Letters Of The Day".
There was no smile in Lujack's voice, no phony enthusiasm. He was honest and real and very tired of the hype and the B-S. And, he had no problem letting the audience know it, which is why they loved him. At least, I know I did. There were but a few posters on my bedroom wall growing up: Doucette working courtside at a Bucks game was on one wall. WZUU newsguy David Haines ("burnt toast and coffee time") occupied another. And then, there was Uncle Lar'.
Yes, Virginia. I was a geeky radio kid.
If I wasn't working or in school, I was listening to Lujack holding down afternoon drive at Super CFL. As I cut my radio teeth at Sheboygan North's ten watt radio station, I dubbed myself "Superjock", though I'm still not worthy to touch the hem of his garment much less carry his headphones. When I found out he wore cowboy boots, I wore cowboy boots. Same with blue jeans. The boots are long gone--bad knees, y'know. The jeans remain.
I was in college when the unbelievable happened--CFL was switching to "beautiful music", the stuff pumped into officers and doctor's offices. Uncle Lar' would be the sole survivor of the sonic purge, bound by a juicy contract that paid him big money to talk all of four times an hour off a pre-written card. His exile ended and he was back on WLS where he wrapped up his career. Lujack would retire at a young 47, not before working with a few of my buddies who, to a person, say he was one of the nicest guys in radio despite his fame, fortune and on-air persona.
Uncle Lar' died this week at 73. The cancer that killed him was a secret as was most of his personal life. He lived out his final days in the New Mexico desert, far from the big city he despised, honored in multiple radio halls of fame.
The only thing I have in common with my late hero is that we both started our careers in radio's minor leagues--he in Idaho, me in Stevens Point and Sheboygan. It's how the business used to be, one in which you paid your dues, made little money, and left your bigger mistakes in places where few if any could hear them. You worked your way up to the Madisons and Green Bays of the world before, if you knew the right people, a bigger market beckoned.
Those minor leagues are pretty much gone now--the newsroom I once worked in at WSPT/Stevens Point once had at least four full-time radio reporters plus a news director. Every station around the state had a news department. All were staffed by live announcers, with a mere handful of "automated" operations.
That was the 1970's and early 80's. This is now, the era of big-chain ownership and low overhead, of voice-tracking, computer-run formats and national syndication. Those entry-level jobs that were jumping off points for Larry Blackenberg, Gene Mueller, Gordon Hinckley and scads of other radio announcers are far and few between, leaving this gray beard wondering where the next Lujacks and his ilk are coming from.
Times change, and so do technologies. Hits aren't played on AM any more and a dwindling number of folks under 30 listen to radio to get their Top 40. Eras come and go, but I hope there's always an on-air place for honest personalities, genuine dialog, real discussion and local coverage. The market is free and the listener ultimately decides.
Millions make Larry Lujack their choice for decades. One of them living a dream in Sheboygan, made him his idol.
RIP, Uncle Lar'.