Three years ago, WLS AM 890 reached across the bridges burned by legendary Chicago radio jock Steve Dahl and pulled him back to terrestrial talk radio. Some industry observers scoffed—even those who were fans of the man who made Disco Demolition Night famous.
“Was I shocked?” media reporter Robert Feder said at the time. “You bet. Except for sports-talk radio—which is still thriving—the talk format is in the toilet in Chicago.”
But Dahl—known to some as Howard Stern before Howard Stern—has spent a forty-plus year career confounding expectations. And apparently he’s done it again.
This month, as reported in Feder’s blog, WLS has re-upped with Dahl, giving him a new three-year contract for an undisclosed amount. That’s good news both for Dahl’s regular followers as well as fans of funny, smart, mostly apolitical talk radio, a genre that’s become all but extinct in an era overtaken by the web, podcasts, and satellite radio. (In a 2015 profile, I wrote that “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.”)
In Dahl’s case it would be hard to argue that ratings drove the new deal. In the latest ratings for afternoon radio, WLS AM tied for 27th place with a 1.3 share. That’s only a slight uptick from when he first signed onto the show.
Back then, Dahl brushed off such numbers. “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 be a part of the daily conversation [again]. I mean, I’ve been doing it since I was 16.”
Whatever spurred WLS’s decision, the signing represents yet another triumph over doubters by Dahl. After all, having been canned in 2008 after ruling the city’s radio airwaves for nearly four decades, Dahl declared he was finished, done, full stop, with terrestrial radio and would henceforth ply his talents behind a podcasting pay wall. He moved the show to his basement and began his podcast, eventually adding other shows to form a small network.
At the time, it seemed a long fall for a man who had become legendary for on and off air antics, including 1979’s Disco Demolition, where he encouraged fans at the White Sox ballpark to burn their disco records. But the podcast model caught on and three years ago this month, Cumulus Media, which owns WLS radio, offered him a contract to expand the venture and return to the air as an afternoon talker.
Today, working with sidekicks Dag Juhlin (“the cadaver-pallid former member of Poi Dog Pondering who has a wit as dry as ballpark peanuts,” as I wrote in 2015) and Brendan Greeley, “a clean-cut straight man with a voice dredged from the bowels of Lower Wacker,” even Dahl marvels at his run.
“Life is a roller coaster and so is a career in radio,” Dahl told Feder. “I’m proud of the work Dag, Brendan, and I are doing afternoon for WLS AM 890 and gratified that they like it, too.”
4 days ago