He was finished. As in, done. It was 2008. Talk radio was dead. The kind of talk he liked to do, anyway. The kind that had made him a Chicago broadcasting legend. The kind that turned the phrase “disco demolition” into an international rallying cry. The kind that Howard Stern copped, then took credit for. But unlike Stern, Steve Dahl didn’t have a half-billion-dollar satellite radio contract dangling in front of his face. He was getting dumped. So, yeah, OK, radio had been his life for nearly 40 years. Whatever. They didn’t want him anymore? Screw it. He would go rogue, turn his basement into a broadcast booth. Radio Free Dahl. Only it wouldn’t be free. He’d charge. Podcast subscriptions. See this? A match. See that? A bridge. See those? Flames. So long, radio. Fuck you very much.
One early afternoon last December, a familiar figure—a little older, hairline a little more receded—surges around the corner of the ninth-floor offices of WLS-AM 890. He makes a beeline for the glassed-in studio in a flash of white hair, a peninsula of gut leading the way like a ship’s prow. Already there and waiting, headphones clamped on like coconut halves, are two sidekicks: Brendan Greeley, a clean-cut straight man with a voice dredged from the bowels of Lower Wacker, and Dag Juhlin, the cadaver-pallid former member of Poi Dog Pondering who has a wit as dry as ballpark peanuts.
With precisely three seconds to spare and all in one fluid motion, the familiar figure bursts through the studio door, plops into the captain’s chair, yanks on his headphones, draws a deep breath, and leans into the mike just as a light goes on.
“Good afternoon, everybody,” Steve Dahl says, a sly smile forming filigree creases at the corners of his eyes. “Thank you for tuning in.”
Against all odds, in a leap across his own burned bridges and profane pronouncements of “Never again,” in defiance of those old CBS bosses who told him he was through, still on the mend from the heartbreak of being jilted by an industry he loved and lost, the 60-year-old is back on the air.
The next four hours are vintage Dahl, starting with a nine-minute gripe about the WLS facilities and equipment, which look as if they’ve been salvaged from a broadcast museum. “Have you ever just looked up at the ceiling?” Dahl marvels. “Look how filthy the ceiling tiles are! It’s like when the guy from Jiffy Lube walks your air filter out and says, ‘Yeeeaaah, I’d change that.’ ”
He meanders over terrain both silly and serious, from the sudden death of Illinois comptroller Judy Baar Topinka to the sex toy that rocker Dave Navarro is hawking (a guitar strap that doubles as a bondage restraint). Like the host himself, The Steve Dahl Show is funny, silly, smart, sophomoric, sardonic, vulgar, poignant, and personal, full of TMI rants laying bare the details of Dahl’s life.
But most of all, the new show is shocking—not for its content so much as the fact that it exists at all. A little over six years ago, when last we heard from Dahl on so-called terrestrial radio, his ratings were so low that CBS was willing to eat the last two years of his five-year, $5 million contract, essentially paying him to stay off the air. It was a blow to his reputation, and Dahl was less than gracious about the departure. “I was definitely like, I’m not going back. Fuck radio and all that. I don’t need the grief of having someone standing over my shoulder,” he recalls. “I was a little bitter.”
But a funny thing happened on Dahl’s slide into oblivion. The subscription podcast model he started in his basement caught the eye of Cumulus Media, which owns WLS. Last October, the company offered him a contract to expand his podcast network and return to radio. Industry observers such as Robert Feder, who has reported on the city’s media since 1980, could scarcely believe the development. “Was I shocked?” Feder says. “You bet. Except for sports-talk radio—which is still thriving—the talk format is in the toilet in Chicago.”
Indeed, listeners haven’t exactly been flocking to Dahl. In December, his first full month on the air, his show landed in 27th place (out of 60) in the afternoons, with a 1.0 percent market share and a cumulative audience (total number of listeners over the course of a week) of 179,000. That share is actually less than the 1.1 percent logged by the hosts he replaced, the duo of Roe Conn and Richard Roeper, and quantum leaps behind the double-digit shares Dahl pulled in his heyday.
No matter. Dahl relishes being back. “I missed being on the radio,” he says. “It’s fun to go downtown to 190 North [State Street]—Chicago’s Hollywood, as I like to call it—to get out of the basement, to be a part of the daily conversation. I mean, I’ve been doing it since I was 16.”
If you want to see how Dahl spent his time in radio exile, you must travel to suburban Western Springs, to a modest brick-and-shingle house half hidden down a small slope behind a stand of pines. It’s like a gingerbread house, charming and cozy and filled with knickknacks (“Holly Hobbie run amok,” as friend John Roach puts it). In other words, it’s the last place you’d expect to find the original “shock jock” (he hates the term, as does nearly everyone in radio), a once hard-drinking wild man known for his nasty, cynical wit. But this is where he and his wife, Janet, have lived for the past 30 years, where they raised their three children—Patrick, Mike, and Matt.
Janet decorated almost every inch of the place, right down to the lacy iron fireplace screen and the framed “Dahl House” needlepoint propped on a coffee table, and makes no apologies for the incongruity. In fact, she takes delight in it: This is one of the few areas where she can exert unchecked power in the relationship. “Steve strings one set of Christmas lights and acts like he’s built the Eiffel Tower,” she quips.
“There’s kind of a turf war going on now,” Dahl says as we walk down a set of narrow stairs to his basement studio, which Janet has been eyeing. “I’m planning to reclaim it and put in kiddie things,” she tells me. “He’ll never dare to return.”
Dahl gives me a quick tour of the subterranean digs—quick because it’s really just one small room, a man cave writ tiny. It’s full of relics from a different time. A painting of the Virgin Mary dressed as a Hooters Girl. A row of guitars from his old band, Teenage Radiation, which was known for its parody songs, one of which, “Do You Think I’m Disco?,” actually charted in the early ’80s. A White Sox schedule from 1979, the year his Disco Demolition Night stunt—he literally blew up records between games of a double-header—forced the Sox to forfeit a game and made him a cult antihero. The “studio” part of the basement bears the marks of a shoestring operation: a lone mike atop a desk barely better than a fold-out table, a black leather guest couch, a laundry room that doubled as a greenroom.
For six years this served as the base for Dahl’s podcast. By 2011, as he bragged to Crain’s Chicago Business, he was getting 17,000 to 20,000 downloads a day. Granted, he wasn’t charging for them because he was still under contract with CBS. Freed of that deal in August 2011, he added a handful of other podcasts, including one with his son Matt, and instituted a $9.95 monthly subscription fee—an enterprise he claims was profitable, in part because his overhead was so low. He was president, CEO, tech support, talent, and cleanup crew, but he was able to pay himself and his podcasting sidekicks a modest salary.
Still, this was Steve Dahl, ruler of Chicago’s airwaves for nearly four decades, reduced to muttering into a mike in his suburban basement, a real-life version of Wayne and Garth. “Really tough,” says Janet of those years. “Radio was all he ever really wanted to do.”
There were upsides, though. He enjoyed being home and not having to battle station managers over content or stress about the plug being pulled on him at any moment. “You just turn on the recorder, and you can pretty much do whatever you want,” he says of podcasting. “It’s pretty much whatever you want it to be.”
He made use of his time to tend to his personal life. He traveled to Florida in 2009 to see his father-in-law before congestive heart failure took his life and to California last year to be with his own dying dad. In a series of raw, moving, funny, bittersweet dispatches, he walked listeners through the final days of Roger Dahl, an alcoholic who was largely estranged from his son until the last years of his life. “Every day I’d go back to my hotel room, and I’d do the podcast from there. It was good for me to have that outlet, and I think it was compelling to people, for a lot of reasons. It was just some good broadcasting. I would never be able to do that on the radio.”
His stint in the basement provided a time for respite and healing. Though still profane and sarcastic on his podcasts, he had changed in other ways. He began meditating and embraced a truth about himself: that despite the public nature of his career, he was at heart an introvert who cherished time alone.
Eventually, however, like the retiree who fantasizes about the golf he’ll play only to find himself pining for the game he just left, Dahl started to get itchy. The freedom of the basement began to feel like a prison. “He wasn’t as stimulated,” says Janet. “He watched a lot of news, but he missed being with people and watching people and being able to talk about events in a larger context and being challenged.” For instance, she says, Robin Williams’s death “touched him, and he wanted to get comfort or give comfort or share stories, and the podcast model didn’t allow him to do that.”
For a while, occasional fill-in appearances on Roe Conn’s show—as well as Still in the Basement, the concert he staged at the Park West in 2013—provided a fix. Then last summer Cumulus executives expressed an interest in his podcast venture. “They wanted to figure out how to get into this subscription space,” Dahl says. “Somehow it progressed to the point where they said, ‘Do you want to be on the radio again?’ ”
He did, but he had reservations. The contract demanded a lot of him: Not only would Dahl be doing a four-hour WLS show five days a week, he’d also be required to produce a two-hour podcast every weekday from Cumulus’s Loop offices. “Initially, it seemed overwhelming to me,” Dahl says. “But as it turns out, it’s actually really satisfying. It’s a long day, but it’s not an unpleasant day.”
Dahl settles into an overstuffed couch in his living room, under framed portraits of family dogs from years past and the warm glow of an antique lamp, a Diet Coke in his hand. At intervals during our chat, he excuses himself to pee. “This damn medication I’m taking,” he explains.
It’s startling to sit across from Steve Dahl the grandfather, a far cry from the cocky, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing young Dahl still emblazoned in our minds. He hates getting old—who doesn’t?—but he’s not the type to rub Grecian Formula in his hair or get Botox to erase the crow’s-feet. He seems at ease with himself, accepting.
“He’s definitely mellowed,” says Janet. “It’s been 20 years since he’s had a drink, and that’s made a huge difference in his behavior and attitude. There was a tipping point, probably in the ’90s, where he wasn’t funny drunk anymore. He was hostile drunk and kind of mean and angry.”
He quit cold turkey. Even so, some of the wounds his boozing caused still haven’t healed. His 15-year on-air union with Garry Meier at WLUP-FM 97.9, then WLS, then back to the Loop—one of the medium’s most memorable and successful partnerships—famously crumbled in 1993, and their relationship remains fractured to this day. When the two were inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2013, Meier refused to appear with Dahl at the ceremony, so Dahl stayed home. “Meier got up there and didn’t even thank me,” Dahl says, shaking his head. “Just weird shit.”
While Dahl is a different man in many ways, he still loves to use the airwaves to rant. In September, he blasted rival WGN on his podcast as the “worst radio station ever,” and he continues to grouse on WLS about his home life. “Our life really is an open book,” says Janet. “Nothing happens that he would consider off-limits.”
On the December day I visit the WLS studio, Dahl smirkingly points out that the show’s “DWOI tally”—days without incident—is holding steady at 37. (When asked what qualifies as an incident, Juhlin says: “The rapid relocation of an object, usually airborne, usually executed with some type of malice, and often the result of a meltdown.”) “But we came dangerously close yesterday,” Dahl concedes.
Some responses to his return have been barbed. When Feder announced Dahl’s contract on his blog, one commenter wrote: “Stever in a tie and sober. You live long enough, you see it all.”
Another person tweeted: “Need to bring in new talent, not a 60-year-old, out-of-touch retired dude.” Dahl gleefully read that message on his show.
The Chicago Tribune’s entertainment reporter, Steve Johnson, has been more upbeat. “Grumbles about commercial radio’s tight formatting? Check,” he wrote after the first show. “Horndog comments to a female caller and his station’s traffic reporter? Check. References to Disco Demolition and Garry Meier and a phone call to wife Janet? Check, check and check. . . . Dahl was funny enough, even on day one, to at least earn WLS a place on the car-radio button lineup.”
But questions remain. Namely, can Dahl’s familiar shtick grab an audience beyond his most loyal listeners? And can he adjust to the much-changed radio landscape? In the past, he might have talked right through commercial “soft breaks,” pushing announcements into one long stretch between segments. Now he must hew to a strict outline—four segments an hour, the topics predetermined at staff meetings.
“I’m still trying to get comfortable with radio,” Dahl says, an astonishing proclamation from someone who has been in the business so long. “It’s much more fast paced now because everybody’s attention spans are much shorter.” That pace threw him during his first show: “I just remember everything happening so fast. I thought, The show is fine, it’s OK, but I can do better than this, and I need to figure out how to start making that happen. There are a lot of people under 25 who don’t even listen to the radio, which wasn’t the case back in the day. And there were only two or three stations we competed with. Now there are 10 stations and streaming music services and people talking on their phones. There’s YouTube, podcasts. You’ve really got to bring it.”
Feder has doubts that Dahl’s show is equipped to do that. “In my view, Steve Dahl is a uniquely gifted broadcaster who needs to be challenged in order to excel. He’s at his best when he’s on with someone as sharp or sharper than he is and who isn’t afraid to push back. It also helps to have a strong producer to keep him on track. I’m not at all sure he’s surrounded by the right people now.”
Dahl will have some time to try to figure it all out. His three-year deal with Cumulus is guaranteed, though likely at a salary far lower than what he had been getting from CBS. And if the radio gig doesn’t work out, well, there’s always a return to basement podcasting. Which might explain why he seems hesitant to let his wife make over the man cave. Would a couple of kiddie toys really be the worst thing in the world? He reflects for a moment, eyes glinting, as if he might relent. Nah, he finally says. Fuck that.