Late last night we learned of the death of Larry Lujack. To those of us who have been around the industry for a few decades, that's like losing the Top 40 jock version of Paul Harvey. But there is more to the story. It's about the death of communicators in our industry.
As a teen in Indiana I was heavily influenced by Lujack's show on WLS, which blasted into our town from Chicago. He was different from the rest -- not like a regular DJ, but irreverent and funny. Very funny. I never met Larry, but I followed his career avidly in those days. It was a giant deal when "Super CFL" lured him away from WLS in the 1970s -- and an even bigger deal when WLS lured him back.
Years after I first heard his show, I was visiting Chicago on business and I happened to get up and roll tape on Lujack, as I did frequently in those days. That day, it turned out, was his return from time away after his son's death. Lujack's compelling story had me, and no doubt all of Chicago, in tears. Here was a friend who was suffering a great loss, and he was willing to talk about it to all of us, on the radio. It was that day that it dawned on me what radio is really all about.
Lujack wasn't just a local morning jock. He was a friend to everyone. A companion. Chicago lived his life with him, every step of the way. He held nothing back. He discussed his problems at home, his issues at work, his life -- and most of the time he had fun with it all. It was real.
Lujack's loss is a reminder that a generation of great communicators is moving on. More so, it's a reminder of the value of great radio communicators and the need for the relationships they have with listeners.
No, we can't live in the past. Things are different now. Debt is high, pressure is higher. And that means expensive people are being pushed out of our industry every day and being replaced by lower-cost alternatives or syndicated solutions. I recently visited a market I used to live in, tuned to my favorite station, and found that all the air personalities -- people I had a 10-year listening relationship with -- were gone.
That station no longer has any interest for me because only a part of my loyalty had to do with the music. I had grown familiar with their airstaff and had grown to love them. Yet they had all been replaced by less talented -- and presumably less expensive -- people. I was embarrassed for the station.
Larry Lujack's passing reminds me how long ago it was that I fell in love with his unique ability to communicate, and how long ago it was that I was first inspired by guys like Lujack, Fred Winston, John Records Landecker, and others from that legendary station. They inspired me to fall in love with radio and want to spend my life doing it. That was 44 years ago.
The radio industry I fell in love with was about great content. No matter how far we've come, no matter how much has changed or how tight the budgets are, it's still about great content, content that binds us to our audiences and creates deep loyalty. Yet how many times have we heard about air personalities who have been terminated after decades on the air because they "just cost too much"? Billing on a station might drop by half when a beloved talent leaves, even as management pretends one has nothing to do with the other. Larry Lujack made headlines back in 1984 with a then-unprecedented multimillion-dollar contract. If WLS was willing to spend that much to keep Lujack on its airwaves, imagine how much he was bringing in.
Friendships run deep, and radio's strength has always been the friendships between great communicators and their audiences. At a time when everyone wants a piece of radio and is trying desperately to draw listeners away, that sense of friendship could be the biggest advantage radio has. When we drive out high-profile, highly paid talent in the name of cutting costs, we may well be driving away the very thing that is responsible for our success. It's something few CFOs or people outside the radio business can grasp. Someone you've just met, however charming they might be, can never match a friend you've had for 10 or 20 or 30 years.
As more great talent are pushed out of the mega corporations, operators like Larry Wilson are going in another direction, believing an investment in great local talent can attract audience away from syndicated shows. We'll see, but Larry isn't often wrong.
As an industry, we need to be very careful about the long-established talent we shed. If I were running Pandora, I'd set up a new division featuring nothing but displaced local market stars. Everyone talks about how a music service can't take radio's audience away, but there are hundreds of much-loved and out-of-work local personalities who'd jump at the opportunity -- and their listeners might well follow them. If I were running Pandora or another streaming music service, I'd be very interested in finding out.