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The Loop Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary

WLUP-FM/97.9 The Loop launched on the Chicago airwaves 40 years ago on this date -- March 14, 1977. For the most part, it has been rocking the Chicago market ever since. The following is a look back at The Loop's beginnings and history.

The station at 97.9 FM in Chicago began officially in the 1950s as WEHS-FM, owned by businessman Richard Hoffman. Around eight years later, the station changed call letters to WHFC-FM. By the mid-1960s, after the station was purchased by the Chess family, the call letters became WSDM-FM (for "Smack Dab in the Middle"), which stuck around until early 1977.

The jazz, rock, blues, and specialty show mixture of WSDM-FM had pretty much run its course with audiences and the Chess family wished to move the station in a more album-oriented rock (AOR) format, which was popular at that time. To do so, programmer Jay Blackburn was hired to create the new format. Blackburn oversaw the upgrading of the out-of-date studios, hired an almost all-new airstaff, hired Promotion Director Dave Logan, commissioned new jingles to be created, and put together a more female-friendly rock format that focused largely on quieter rock songs from the 1970s and late 1960s. As most rock stations purposely programmed toward young males, Blackburn wished to make his station more accessible to a wider audience.

The new station was branded "The Loop" (and the longer name of "The Loop - FM 98"), taking the well-known neighborhood name of the downtown Chicago business district. The call letters were changed to WLUP-FM so that it would better match the new branding (although the WLUP call letters were not official for a few weeks and the WSDM calls had to be used hourly for a short time).

The original logo of the station, created by Bill Lloyd, was made out of curved, metallic pipes that seemed to spell out "Loop" with one bent, looping tube. Bumper stickers with the new blue and white logo began showing up on cars, toll booths, and various locations all across Chicagoland.

The initial airstaff were largely unknowns to the Chicago radio listening audience. The on-air lineup consisted of Tom O'Toole in mornings*, Captain Billy Martin in middays, Les Tracy in afternoons, and Bob Shannon in evenings. (*O'Toole is still working in Chicago as a weekend/fill-in host on WLS-FM.) Other early Loop DJs in nights, overnights and weekends included Ford Colley, Glory-June Greaif, Greg Budell, and Don Davis, a holdover from WSDM-FM. Russ "Albums" James, another from the WSDM-FM days, remained as the station's imaging voice.

The audio clip embedded below is the initial sign-on from March 14, 1977 of the then-new rock station called The Loop. First heard on the clip are Blackburn, O'Toole, and three other staffers removing all of the WSDM-FM items out of the studio. Once cleared out, Blackburn says "Tell Howard the engineer to throw the switch." That then begins a prerecorded sign on piece by WLUP-FM Promotion Director Logan, who says "Chicago radio needed to be Looped..." Following the prerecorded announcement, O'Toole personally selected and played WLUP-FM's first-ever song, "Morning Has Broken" by Cat Stevens. This is how that incredible launch sounded on that first Monday morning in March 1977:

In the year and a half that followed, Blackburn also hired now-legendary talents Patti Haze, Garry Meier, Bill Evans, and Carla Leonardo. Also brought on to help promote the station was The Loop's first-ever spokesmodel Lorelei Shark.

Blackburn's team's efforts turned WLUP-FM into Chicago's #1 rock radio station in just a matter of months, beating out four other more established rock station rivals.

After Blackburn turned the station around, less than two years later, the Chess family (aka L & P Broadcasting) was able to sell WLUP-FM for $5 million to Cecil Heftel and Heftel Broadcasting. At that time in 1979, it was a record-high sales price.

Heftel replaced Blackburn with Jesse Builit as the Program Director, and especially with Lee Abrams as programming consultant. Abrams, known as one of the fathers of classic rock radio, boosted the station's image and popularity even higher. The rock music was programmed harder, faster, and more current.

Bill Lloyd, the same person who designed the original Loop logo in 1977, was hired to create a new logo in 1979. This new logo, with the white brush stroke-like lettering over a black background quickly became extremely popular and is still used to this day. Lloyd, Abrams, and the WLUP-FM promotions team created the successful campaign to get that new logo seen on billboards, car bumpers, television commercials, and especially on t-shirts all over the Chicago market.

Steve Dahl was hired as the new morning show host in 1979 and soon after was a key part of the most famous/infamous radio promotion of all time, WLUP-FM's Disco Demolition night at Comiskey Park. Chicago radio legends Mitch Michaels, Sky Daniels, Matt Bisbee, and Buzz Kilman all joined the station in 1979, as well. Superstar sales manager/radio executive Jeff "Spaceball" Schwartz was also hired for WLUP-FM by Heftel in 1979.

Except for a few years in the early 1990s when the station was comedic talk during the daytime and rock music overnight, and a handful of months in 1996 and 1997 when the station was more of a Hot AC format, WLUP-FM has been rocking the Chicago airwaves for four decades.

Some of the biggest names in Chicago, and even national radio have been a part of WLUP-FM's staff and history. Some of those famous names (not already mentioned above) include Jonathon Brandmeier, Bob Stroud, Eddie Webb, Mark McEwen, Kevin Matthews, Danny Bonaduce, Steve Downes, "Chicago Ed" Eddie Schwartz, Chet Coppock, Cara Carriveau, Bobby Skafish, Chuck Swirsky, Bruce Wolf, Pete McMurray, Wendy Snyder, Byrd, Zander, Seaver, Seka (yes, the 1970s porn queen), Liz Wilde, Scott Loftus, Laura Steele, Tony Fitzpatrick, Bill Leff, Patrick Capone, Dave Fogel, Stan Lawrence, Erich "Mancow" Muller, and Tim Virgin. (The last two names are still with the station today.) Even radio's living legend Dick Biondi worked for WLUP-FM, if only for a very short time.

The station has gone through its fair share of ownership changes, as well. After Hoffman, Chess, and Heftel came Evergreen Media, Chancellor Media, Bonneville International, Emmis Communications, and since the summer of 2011, Merlin Media.

While still officially owned by Merlin Media, WLUP-FM has been operated by Cumulus Media via a local marketing agreement (LMA) since the start of 2014. Cumulus' deal with Merlin for WLUP-FM (and Chicago sister-station WKQX-FM) is a lease-to-own situation, which will allow Cumulus to purchase the stations outright later this year, using its three years' worth of lease payments as a down payment. If Cumulus exercises the option of purchasing the two Chicago stations before October 4, 2017, the price will be $70 million. If after October 4, 2017, but before October 14, 2017, the price increases slightly to $71 million. If the stations are not purchased by Cumulus by mid-October, Merlin can create a new LMA for Cumulus, create an LMA for another company to take over the stations, sell the stations outright to another company, or retake full operational control of them.

As part of the station's 40th anniversary celebration, Cumulus Media Chicago has set up a subsection of WLUP.com that is all about the station's history. This section includes new podcasts interviews, past audio clips, past videos, a look at all of the "Loop Rock Girls," and more.

WLUP-FM has been struggling in the ratings in recent years and is not even where it wishes to be in its target demographic of Men 25-54, but it is still one of the most famous rock and roll radio stations in the country, still playing rock music for Chicago radio listeners, and still going strong after 40 years. Even more impressive is that the station continues rocking the airwaves after many ownership changes, countless on-air staff changes, listener musical taste changes, major changes in how the public receives its audio entertainment (online/streaming, satellite, MP3s, podcasts, etc.), and drastic changes within the radio industry.

Here's looking forward to WLUP-FM's 50th anniversary in March 2027.

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