WLUP’s long run comes to an end

Sale to the Educational Media Foundation ends 41 years of Rockin’ fun

In a stunning development, Merlin Media has sold Classic Rock WLUP-FM to the Educational Media Foundation (EMF) for $21.5 million, a company specializing in Christian music with two automated formats: K-Love and Air 1. The sale means the end of one of Chicago’s most iconic radio station brands, who attracted generations of rock fans.

The news was first reported by Radio Insight Monday evening.

The decision was a direct result of Cumulus’ Chapter 11 bankruptcy as a local marketing agreement (LMA) between the Atlanta-based corporation and Merlin fell apart after Cumulus asked to be released from several unprofitable deals, including the Merlin LMA. Cumulus decided to excise its option and buy WLUP and alternative rock WKQX-FM, but declined to do so after filing for Chapter 11, claiming they lost a total of $8.4 million on the LMA deal.

The future of WKQX is up in the air as Merlin Media is unlikely to hold on to the property. The WLUP format change is set for Saturday, but the entire on-air staff was let go on Tuesday, including morning personality Erich “Mancow” Muller, who was the last personality heard on the station. WLUP is keeping the call letters, but is receiving the “K-Love” format.

Known as “The Loop”, WLUP launched on March 14, 1977 and played Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens as its first record with Timmy O’Toole the first radio personality to sign on. In 1978, an unknown model named Lorelei Shark became the station’s first “Rock Girl”. But it was Steve Dahl – who came over from WDAI-FM in early 1979 who made an immediate impact on the station.

After being fired from WDAI in a format change (rock to disco), Dahl joined WLUP and expressed his distaste of the format. It led to one of the more infamous spectacles in Chicago history, “Disco Demolition Night” on July 12, 1979 where Dahl blew up disco records in-between games of a twi-night doubleheader at Comiskey Park between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. The act resulted in fans storming the field and forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game to Detroit. While Dahl and then-owner Bill Veeck were criticized for the promotion, it helped put The Loop on the map. Dahl was later paired with Garry Meier with successful results, but both were fired in 1981 for “assaulting community standards” (they later returned to WLUP five years later after they left WLS.)

In 1983, a little known Phoenix discjockey came into town for the morning shift. Before you know it, Jonathon Brandmeier was a WLUP success story, dominating young-adult demos through the rest of the 1980s and early 1990s, even spawning a late-night TV talk show and his own band, Johnny B. And The Leisure Suits. As the 1980s progressed, WLUP became one of the most successful album-oriented rock (AOR) stations in the country and was a must-stop for any rock act. Bands popular at WLUP through this period included Van Halen, Def Leppard, ZZ Top, Journey, and Led Zeppelin.

By the mid-1990s, WLUP became a “comedy talk/music hybrid” and a crown jewel of then-owner Evergreen Media featuring the likes of Brandmeier, former Partridge Family star Danny Bonaduce, Kevin Matthews, and others. Even execs such as Jimmy deCastro and Larry Wert became stars. A charity boxing match in 1994 featuring Bonaduce and fellow ’70s teen star Donny Osmond was widely publicized and drew plenty of national attention. But by September 1996, the bottom fell out as the station flipped to Modern AC and was sold. WLUP returned to rock a year later, but of the “classic” variety.

Recent years weren’t kind to The Loop. In 2005, Brandmeier rejoined WLUP as morning personality, but was far less successful as he exited in 2009. In 2011, the station and WKQX were sold to Merlin Media, headed by former Jacor and Tribune executive Randy Michaels and entered into an LMA with Cumulus to run WLUP/WKQX three years later. In an act of desperation, WLUP concocted a phony “contest” to install Mancow as morning personality in 2015 in a move¬†this blog criticized. The Loop even brought back April Rose (as April Rose Haydock) as the Loop Rock Girl, a position she held eight years earlier. Despite these inane moves in recent years, WLUP continued to attract decent numbers, placing a respectable fifteenth overall in a recent ratings report and finishing in the top five among males 25-54, the key selling demo for classic rock stations.

WLUP was also known for its iconic commercials – notably the “Joey Bag O’ Donuts” spots in the early 1990s:

So what is K-Love?

According to Wikipedia (really), K-Love “is a contemporary Christian music radio programming service in the United States operated by the Educational Media Foundation.” Launched on a single San Francisco-area station in 1982, the satellite-fed service operates on more than 600 radio stations in 47 states. In recent years, EMF acquired full-power stations in major markets – notably Bonneville’s well-received KSWD-FM in Los Angeles, who previously had an Adult Album Alternative – or simply, “Triple A” format (the frequency was also home to urban contemporary station KKBT-FM, “The Beat” in the 1990s.) A few years ago, Merlin sold a Philadelphia station to EMF.

K-Love also has a full-time ministry team who fields one hundred calls and one thousand prayer requests a day. EMF is a non-profit ministry and is a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability founded by pastor Billy Graham, who died two weeks ago. EMF’s licenses are non-commercial educational – similar to public radio stations, such as WBEZ. Like PBS member TV stations, EMF holds pledge drives to raise donation money instead of advertising.

In the Chicago area, K-Love has rimshot stations in Glendale Heights, Woodstock, and Wheaton. K-Love’s songs are monitored by Mediabase under the letters KLV-FM.

Steve Dahl and Lorelei Shark at Comiskey Park’s “Disco Demolition Night” on July 12, 1979. (WLUP)

End of an era

WLUP was home to many personalities who started their careers at the station or were just passing though. Among those who were a part of “The Loop” include Cara Carriveau, Patrick Capone, Sky Daniels, Bill Leff, Mark McEwen (who would later go on to CBS This Morning), Buzz Killman, Wendy Snyder, Chuck Swirsky, Eddie Webb and Mark Zander, who did an Rock of the ’80s show on the station. WLUP was also the longtime home to Dr. Demento’s Sunday night show, which ended in 2010.

WLUP perhaps, was one of the best-run stations in Chicago for its first two decades – especially during the Evergreen Media era. But to some, the decline came during “the best music on the planet” era of 1996-97, but if you ask listeners, it clearly wasn’t. WLUP has been a Classic Rock station for two decades, but was mismanaged by your typical “big media” corporations over the last fifteen years – notably by Emmis and Cumulus. Fans complained how the station was a shell of its former self – especially when it came to the repetitive music and personalities (notably the hiring of Mancow.) The discarding of one of Chicago’s most-beloved media brands is totally shameful and there is too much history to kill it without any notice.

“As I look back on my 40 years on the radio in this market, I am reminded almost daily of The Loop’s impact not only my career, but also rock and roll history in Chicago, and around the world, said Dahl. They just don’t make brave risk-taking local radio stations like that anymore, and that’s everybody’s loss. I hope the last song they play there is AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’.