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Spreading over Chicagoland
Written February 5, 2020


Some 50 years ago, a colleague from my college radio station wrote to tell me that she had moved on to what was reportedly “the pioneer rock-music outlet in the Chicago area.”

At the time, I knew nothing about this station's story.  Now I've researched more details online.

April 1968.  In Chicago's northwestern suburbs, Cadillac auto dealer Walter Mack spends $150,000 to purchase a three-kilowatt FM station, WNWC (for “North West Communities”).


He changes the station's call sign to WEXI (to suggest “X.I. Ting Stereo,” one presumes).  Its new format:  easy-listening music during the day, progressive rock overnight.


May 1968.  I'm named station director of WOBC-FM, a 10-watt student-operated station on the campus of Oberlin College in Ohio.  Among the many broadcasters on our staff is junior Jennifer Wagner from Skokie, Illinois.


June 1968.  WEXI's split personality didn't work out, so they've decided to switch to Top 40 music around the clock.

The gentleman at the controls, I'm told, is Larry Wayne.  And why does he have two microphones in front of him?  Because he's broadcasting in stereo, of course!

If Larry swayed from left to right, he could throw his voice from one speaker to the other, undoubtedly annoying the listeners.  Dual mics for DJs quickly went out of fashion.


February 1970.  WEXI documents its currently most-aired songs.

Notice #36 on the list, “Je t'aime... moi non plus.”  This record, written for Brigitte Bardot, was banned upon its release in most of Europe and by the BBC, because it depicts two lovers having sex.  But WEXI played it!

Mike Wolstein posted:  “I remember those days very well.  The only station in the Chicago area (that I can remember) who would play that song, and they did quite often, was WEXI, 92.7 in Arlington Heights. I think that tune was just a tad too much for most pop stations' audiences.”


July 1970.  The previously mentioned Jennifer Wagner, now 21 years old and with an Oberlin degree in hand, has returned to Skokie and enrolled in graduate courses at nearby Northwestern University.  But she needs a part-time job.  She tells me in a letter:

At the moment it looks like I'll be in the Continuity Department of WEXI-FM (anyone for typing logs?).  But I won't be sure of that until the middle of August.

August 1970.  Jenny gets the job.  WEXI's studio is about 40 minutes from her home; it's on West University Drive (though there's no university nearby) in Arlington Heights.

She's basically writing “continuity” — scripts for disc jockeys — as well as “copy” — scripts for commercials.

Continuity and copy — it's a riot.  But not interesting enough to do it forever.

University Drive is 3 blocks long and leads nowhere.  However, it is parallel to College Street.  (I think College fits the same description.)  No accounting for names....

WEXI-FM plays pop/rock.  Exclusively.  Automatedly.  Commercially.  Incredibly.

I replaced Linda Mack (yes — daughter of owner — she went back to school).  Our largest client is Mack Cadillac (yes —).  All very peculiar.

The listing in Broadcasting Yearbook should be corrected:  Walter Mack, pres;  Martin C. Burke, gen mgr & coml mgr;  Bob Norland, prog dir & prom mgr;  John Morgan, chief engr.

Except: Bob Norland is really Robert E. Gaskins.  Do they use the real name in the Yearbook? 

Also, John Morgan has worked here 12 hours longer than I have, and probably won't last too long.  He has a good voice and a First Class License, but he's only 18.  And it shows.

Love, Jenny

PS — Ask me about Community News — I don't have time or space now.  J.


Another young staffer was Joe Peyronnin, who had also earned his degree in 1970 — in his case, from Columbia College Chicago, where his classes allowed him the flexibility to work at WEXI.  “It was important that I was able to work in the industry at the same time I was studying it.”  Later, from 1989 to 1996 Peyronnin would serve as Vice President and Assistant to the President for CBS News.

Gil Peters remembered on-air personality Ray Smithers.  From The WYEN Experience:  “I believe that many of the later music-heavy contemporary radio stations came about because of Ray and WEXI, which for a suburban station with little power became a real force in FM radio.”

And then there was salesman Bill McGowan, later to become Discovery's Executive VP and GM for U.S. ad sales.  From Broadcasting+Cable:

McGowan started out at a small FM station in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Working a summer between terms in college, McGowan had been turned down by just about every other TV and radio station in the metro Chicago phone book.

WEXI(FM) was a teeny suburban station, though it also spawned the sales career of Petry Television President Tim McAuliff.  McGowan's straight-commission task was pitching a schedule of $20-$30 spots.  It was a frustrating job, cold-calling stores in suburban shopping centers.

After a long struggle, McGowan landed his first sale: a waterbed store.  Unfortunately, after WEXI aired the store's spots, the owner went Chapter 11.  The owner was apologetic and made an offer: “He wanted to pay me in waterbeds.”  The station owner rejected the offer, denying McGowan a commission on one of the few sales he made that summer.

His summer experience was enough to embolden McGowan to look for a bigger sales job when he returned to the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

McGowan called up one of the biggest stations in town and bragged that he was an experienced account executive from the Chicago market. He scored not just a job but “a major list” of existing clients. “I was probably making as much as my college professors,” McGowan said.


September 1970.  If WEXI were WKRP in Cincinnati, Jenny would be “Bailey Quarters” (right).

At dinnertime on Thursday the 17th, she writes to me, quoting our old WOBC “automated disc jockey” Igor:

Whoopeedoo!  Not only do I write commercials, but I also read them — on the air, even.  I'm tremendously excited!  Tonight is the first night it runs.  Since the same commercial will be on 3 times a week for 13 weeks, I'll probably lose some enthusiasm.  But now it's exciting.

I asked you to remind me about Community News, because that was exciting, but not definite when I wrote you.  Every week (for the last 3 weeks), I record a 5-minute cart of Community News — art fairs, church socials, and other miserably dull stuff.  It's played 4 times a day, at the most absurd hours (3:50 AM, 6:50 AM, 9:50 AM, and 10:50 PM) — missing most of our audience.  But it impresses the FCC.  After our license is renewed, it will probably come off the air altogether.  Sigh.

Also, I'm the engineer on duty from 6 AM until 10 AM.  Not really, but I sign the logs, because I am there most of the time.  Can you believe that our program director let his First Class License expire?


October 1970.  WEXI changes its format again from Top 40 to Middle-Of-the-Road, playing instrumental versions of contemporary songs.  Program director Robert E. Gaskins, aka Bob Norland, offers a couple of reasons for the switch:  to avoid suggestive lyrics in certain popular songs (like “Je t'aime,” I presume) and to gain more audience in the 24-50-year-old bracket.  The station says that from now on, it will be “Spreading Clean Air over Chicagoland.”


March 1971.  Jenny writes to update me on the format change:

WEXI changed format to MOR early in October.  It's sounding better now, I guess.

I quit working at WEXI the end of January.   Not enough money, unfriendly atmosphere, etc.


October 1972.  Community Broadcasters buys the station for $230,000 and changes its call sign to WWMM.


42 years later.  After a half dozen more transformations, 92.7's call sign becomes WCPY.

The station now airs Polish-language programs during the daytime and a Dance Hits format at night.

Jenny would never recognize it.



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