Interviews with current and former Chicago radio professionals conducted by twenty year Chicago radio veteran Rick Kaempfer
Thursday, February 02, 2012
Jim Channell was a big star in Chicago in the 1970s at WDHF and WMET. He was known on the air as Captain Whammo! He now works as the morning host and program director of Christian radio's Praise FM, in Ft. Myers Florida.
Rick: Back in your WDHF and WMET days here in Chicago you were known as Captain Whammo. What is the origin of that nickname?
Whammo: (Laughs) Wow, a tough question right out of the box. You know, I really thought I'd never tell this story again. I haven't told it in a long time, but here goes. I grew up in Chicago and went to a Christian school for eight years, "The Pillar of Fire", then went to Lake View High School. Going from that strict Christian school to Lake View High was quite a transition, as you might imagine. I thought "Man there are girls everywhere!" I had lunch with 8 different girls at one table.
My heroes in those days were the coolest, most stylish, best dressed big league baseball players; Bo Belinsky and Sandy Koufax. My buddy and I would find out what they were wearing, and we'd get the same attire to pick up chicks. For instance, Bo had black slacks, a checkered jacket, and hush puppies. So I got those too. (Photo: Bo Belinsky with Ann Margret)
So, anyway, we were dressed like Bo and Sandy one night trying to pick up girls, and we we're coming out of a pizza place in Old Town, and this guy on the street had this box and did a gyration, and said "I'm going to Hazel's house, and I'm going to get me some Whammo!"
So, me and my buddy, after we moved on to other towns would always mention this when we talked to each other. We'd call it: comparing whammo notes. It was an inside joke between the two of us. Well, one night I was on the air on WDHF in Chicago, and I said "I'm horny tonight, give me a call."
The PD hotlined me and asked: "Did you say what I thought you said?" When I told him I did, he said: "You can't say that." So I substituted the word "Whammo" instead, and he liked that. He liked that a lot. In fact, he told me to drop my real name, Jim Channell. He said: "From this day forward you are Captain Whammo!" I thought What the heck? But I didn't like the Captain part. So, for the first hour I just went by Whammo. He called me again and said: "You are Captain Whammo". He was the boss. So I did it. I knew I had to have some kind of a hook--I mean I was up against John Records Landecker on WLS!
Rick: Who was the PD?
Whammo: His real name was Ron Dennington, but he was known on the air as Robbie Knight. He looked a little bit like Mr. Magoo.
Rick: Did the Wham-O corporation ever come after you with a lawsuit?
Whammo: No. Never. I did have a few guys ask if they could use the name after I became a Christian. I said "I can't stop you, but I wish you wouldn't." And they didn't.
Rick: You weren't just a great Chicago jock, you were from here. What did it mean to you to make it as a big star in your own home town?
Whammo: It was a big thrill. That's why I went by my real name at first, I wanted people to know that Jim Channell had made it in Chicago. But I took kind of a strange route getting there.
My first love was the Cubs, and I wanted more than anything to be a ballplayer, but I realized early on that wasn't going to happen. I went to Columbia College to go into journalism. While I was there I met a guy from Racine in a radio class. He told me: "I know how to sneak into WCFL." That was my favorite radio station at the time. They had THE BEST talent on the air; Ron Britain, Jim Stagg, Dick Orkin, that was my favorite station. Ken Draper was the program director then.
So anyway, we went to the basement of Marina City, and there was one elevator that would go up. It would stop on the main floor, but my friend found out that if you stood on one side of the elevator the security guard couldn't see you when the door opened. Sure enough, it worked. We went up to the 16th floor, and that was an eye opener. Boy, all of the DJs had all these chicks hanging around, especially Barney Pipp. I thought "I gotta do this."
One day we went into the elevator and the PD Ken Draper was in there too, so I asked him a question. "What should I do to get into radio?" He said: "I don't want to underplay college, but go to a broadcast school, go to small town, and then work your way up."
I took his advice. I dropped out of Columbia and went to Midwest Broadcast School. The broadcast school had this box of index cards, and each card had an address of a radio station. We were allowed to send four tapes out. I have relatives in Ohio, so I picked out my four stations, including one in Chillicothe, Ohio. That index card mysteriously disappeared (laughs), so the only tape they got was from me, and that's how I got my first job.
Rick: How did it go?
Whammo: Got fired in one month. I made $60 a week, and worked six days a week. Even in those days that wasn't a whole lot of money. They had gift certificates for hamburger and chicken dinners that one of our personalities gave away on the air, so I grabbed a few, and forged his name on a bunch of them, and that's how I ate. What I didn't know was that the restaurant gave them back to the station for reimbursement. Well, one day the boss calls me in and says, "Jim I'm gonna have to let you go, the Dairy Queen has identified you as a forger. We have to reimburse them. If I were you, I'd get out of town."
Rick: (Laughs) Really?
Whammo: I got drafted shortly after that. I was in radio and tv in the U.S. Army and that kept me out of Vietnam.
Rick: I talked to a former colleague of yours from your WDHF/WMET days, Greg Brown, and he told me three things about you. You used to take a nap in the studio behind the cart rack before your show...DURING his show. He also said you wore shorts every day, regardless of the weather. And, that you were working on perfecting some sort of a gambling technique that would make you rich in Vegas.
Whammo: (Laughs). OK, let's take those one at a time. The naps. That's true. The station was too loud so it was hard to find a place to nap. We were on State Street at the time, so I either slept in the studio, or slept on the stairwell. I still remember that I found out Elvis had died while I was napping in the stairwell. When I got on the air, I played all the Elvis songs we had; but we only had two. I called our program director Gary Price and said: "Gary, we only have two Elvis songs, can I get some more?" He said no. So in my tribute on the air, I said "If Paul McCartney had died, at least we'd have more music to play."
Wearing shorts every day? Also true. It wasn't like I was wearing my boxers. I was at least wearing Bermudas. My goal was to be comfortable. I took my shirt off, wore my bermudas, and did the show standing up.
The gambling story is also true. I never wanted to be a 50-year-old rock and roll disc jockey, and thought "What am I going to do when this ends?" I had run a gambling operation at Lake View High School. I would pick the team I thought was going to win, and then I'd go to each class, pass out a piece of paper with my team on it, and if you thought I was wrong, you could bet against me. I was about $50, $60 bucks ahead, and I had all of my betting paraphernalia in my pocket, when they caught me. They took me down to the principal and he called my dad. Boy did I pay for that one.
Anyway, when I grew up, I started to devise a system to do it legally. For four years I worked on that system. I knew Wally Cover, the head of the ushers at Wrigley Field and Chicago Stadium, and in exchange for some radio swag, he gave me great seats to analyze the teams. At that time none of the Chicago papers published the odds. I think only The New York Daily News had the odds. So I bought the Daily News every day, and kept track of my picks. I didn't actually bet the money, I wanted to make sure it was a winning system before I bet real money. The first year of the system I got stomped on. But by the fourth year I was averaging $20,000 a year. I'm sure it would still work.
Rick: Is it true that your own siblings weren't allowed to listen to your show because you were considered a bad influence?
Whammo: Wow, you've really done your homework. Yes, that's true. My sister was in high school (Lane Tech--just after it had gone co-ed), and my dad wouldn't let her listen to the show while she was in high school. He was mad at me because I was living with a girl at the time (a bible school girl), and he didn't approve of my lifestyle. I didn't care. I was having a great time on and off the air.
Rick: Anyone that grew up in Chicago in the 1970s remembers your high energy show on WMET. You just exploded through the microphone. What are some of your favorite memories from those days?
Whammo: Everything was wrapped up with meeting girls. That's the first thing that comes to mind. I'd go to my car, and two or three of them would be waiting for me. If they called me and I got their number, I had a whole scenario I would go through. I would talk for ten or fifteen minutes on the phone with them, and decide if I wanted to see them or not. Then I'd "meet" them, and afterwards, I went home to the girl I was living with.
I loved the music too. Queen came to the station and did some liners for me. They were listening in their limo on the way to the Stadium for their concert, and invited our music director to see them in their suite. When they saw him, they were literally saying "Whammo!" They wanted to do an interview with me. That was a big thrill. I got an autographed album.
Other highlights; I had my picture taken with Ringo Starr. I spent a day with Bob Hope. One of the nicest guys. He really was a gentleman. Met Alice Cooper twice. Great guy. There are some DJs that think they are too cool for the room, but I loved every second of it.
One time I had backstage passes for a Rolling Stones concert, but they wouldn't let me go. I had to be on the air. One time I took a helicopter to and from Great America, and I had them circle Wrigley Field, before we landed at Meigs Field. That was incredible. I also was a judge at Miss Nude America twice, and both years I picked a winner.
Rick: And you were named one of the top 4 DJs in the country by Billboard Magazine during that time, too.
Whammo: That's true. I was living in Evanston at the time, and the PD called me up and asked me to do a one-hour aircheck he could send to Billboard Magazine. He said just do an hour, no editing. I stumbled on one of the intros, and I knew that wasn't going to fly. So, I went back and did the same hour again. In those days when I answered the phone, I called it the Whammo Line. There was one great caller that called all the time (I called her the midnight caller--but her name was Cathy Moyer). Well, on this particular night she made a wonderfully suggestive call and that became part of the tape that got me the Billboard Magazine award. I believe the other three jocks were Don St. James, Charlie Van Dyke, and Bob Berry from WOKY in Milwaukee.
Rick: Tell us what happened on November 5th, 1978 that changed your life forever.
Whammo: I had recently been fired from WMET by Bobby Christian (ironically). When he came to town, he changed the format of the station, and my approach didn't really fit. So, I was thinking of gambling for a living, and had gotten a job at KENO Radio in Vegas. We had just arrived in town, I hadn't even gone to the station yet, and I had won the first five bets I made. I'll never forget, I was standing on the Hoover Dam, when Bucky Dent hit the homer to beat the Red Sox in that one game playoff, and my money was on the Yankees. Anyway, I woke up the next morning and said "Let's get outta here." I didn't want to stay in Vegas.
I never called the radio station, never told them I wasn't coming, just loaded up the truck and went to Reno and Tahoe, and then headed back to Chicago. I hadn't given notice. I left the furniture and everything.
So while we were gone, my girlfriend Rhoda's parents were looking for her. Her parents knew about me, but they didn't know she was living with me. They called, and when nobody answered the phone, her mother called my mother to see if she knew where to find Rhoda. My mom spilled the beans, and that's how her parents found out we were living together without being married. Her mother called and said to Rhoda "Why don't you come to Iowa?", but she didn't say why. Rhoda went.
While her bus was pulling out of the station, I was already going down my list of phone numbers calling every girl I could. When I finally called her mother to check on her, her mother told me that she wasn't there anymore. She was in Madison, Wisconsin. When I reached Rhoda in Madison she said: "I'm leaving you and getting my life together with the Lord."
I had just paid cash for this brand new Camaro, and I told her I would drive up there and take her to church. When I pulled up to her sister's house Rhoda was wearing her hair the way I liked it, and wore the dress I liked, and I thought "You idiot, you're a fool for letting her go." I told her "I want to buy you a ring and get married." But now she was telling me it didn't feel right. I was telling her I had found the Lord, but I was misquoting Bible passages. She knew it wasn't real. I wasn't getting anywhere with her.
So, when I came back to Chicago, I looked in the mirror and realized that everything that had gone wrong was my own fault. Thanks to my time at "The Pillar of Fire" school, I believed in heaven and hell, and believed in God and the devil, and I really felt that I was going to hell when I died. I had gone to a big crusade the year before to be saved, and I went with all sincerity, but it didn't work. I thought I was beyond salvation. I thought "I'm really going to hell."
So that night, November 5, 1978, I turned off just north of Rockford, and started crying like a baby. I had everything I had always wanted: I had made it as a rock and roll disc jockey, I had money in the bank, I had all of these chicks, and yet, that wasn't the answer at all. I turned on WMBI, Moody Radio. Warren Wiersbe was on, and the show was called "Songs in the Night." I cried out "God forgive me. If I could live differently, I would. I can't change without your help. Please change me. You're going to have to do the change." I thought if I'm going to get that girl back, I had to be sincere. And I was.
Rick: Did you get the girl back?
Whammo: No, I didn't. But Hammond Indiana's Jack Hyles baptized me, and after teaching broadcasting school for awhile, I finally got a job in Christian radio in Dundee. I put my radio talent in God's hand, and he started opening doors. Soon I was at WCFL, which was Christian at the time. Now, I do a Christian Oldies show, Classic Christian Gold. It's worldwide. It's in the US, Canada, England, South Africa, the Philipines, New Zealand, Paris, Stockholm and Australia. And God has really opened the doors. We've never asked for money and we've never had a sponsor, and yet we're still going strong. Miracle after miracle after miracle.
Rick: You should really write a book.
Whammo: I'm planning on it. My wife is an excellent writer. And it will be brutally honest. We're going to put a warning in the book--in the next 85 pages we'll reveal what a rock DJ did on and off the air. If you're offended by this, move immediately to page 86. I've talked to pastors and so forth, and to a person they said, people in the Bible did some crazy things too. David committed adultery. Noah got drunk. If you don't put it in there exactly as it happened, it won't be as powerful. When they read it they'll say: "If God can save Captain Whammo, he can save anyone." My goal has always been to share my story at Moody Founders Week. I did share my story at their church once, but to share it for Moody's Founder Week would be the ultimate.
Rick: Can I ask you a favor?
Rick: Next time you talk to You Know Who, could you ask him to help out our favorite baseball team here in Chicago. We could use a little divine intervention.
Whammo: (Laughs) If the Cubs ever win the World Series, they better have the National Guard on hand just in case. It's gonna be crazy. By the way, here's a prediction: With Theo, the Cubs will the World Series within the next ten years.