I’ve always been a huge fan of radio. Growing up, it was a way to transport my imagination beyond my small town. Whether it was to Top 40 music, listening to the national news or just hanging on late at night during a snowfall to see if school was cancelled, radio was my constant companion.
In addition to listening to the radio, I also liked to call in to radio contests. Even as a kid, I loved trivia, which made it possible to be an occasional winner when I had an answer that nobody else could guess. Now, this was way before we got Google for brains, so at the time, knowing trivia was more than well….trivial.
The local AM radio station was WIOU (1350 on your AM dial). At the time, there wasn’t much on FM radio except for the local country station (WWKI) and a few automated stations with no live DJ’s, and the Chicago AM station reception was a hit or miss. So, I’d keep my transistor radio nearby, tuned to 1350, waiting for something interesting, whether it was a hit song, the musings Paul Harvey and Earl Nightingale….or the occasional contest.
I got very good at anticipating contests, coming up with answers, and dialing in, and won the occasional pair of movie tickets or car wash coupons – even if I wasn’t old enough to drive, my parents were grateful. If there wasn’t a trivia question, WIOU would ask for a specific caller number….which made getting through on a rotary phone very difficult.
Things got better when we switched over to a modern Touch-Tone™ telephone. With its sleek receiver and push buttons, I got much faster at punching in the magic number for WIOU (which is still, amazingly enough, 435-1212, even if the area code has changed). When they asked for ‘Caller Number Six’, I tried to time my dialing to perfection. Most times, however, I heard, “WIOU, you’re caller number Five”…(click). I’d frantically try to dial again, but I’d usually get a busy signal.
Occasionally, WIOU would do a prize contest for someone willing to do something silly. In 1974, there was a hit song called “Clap for the Wolfman” featuring DJ Wolfman Jack. One evening, the DJ offered a pair of movie tickets for someone who could imitate the Wolfman’s voice. Despite having no talent, I immediately picked up the phone, dialed the number, and when the DJ answered, did my best 13-year old’s squeaky impression of Wolfman Jack. Despite the DJ calling it “The worst impression he ever heard”, I still got the tix.
During one November, WIOU had a listener call-in turkey calling contest. I couldn’d pull it off, but my brother Jim was sure he could win the top prize of $100, which we agreed to split if he won. I’d be in charge of the dialing, and on cue, Jim would do his best turkey call.
We listened to the radio every day, and heard some of the contestants…Jim was confident that his turkey call would clearly be the winner. We tried to be the lucky caller, but would miss the magic number by one or two spaces. Still, we were determined to get through. $100 was a powerful motivator to two teenagers.
On the final day of the contest, we were resigned to missing out, but while I heard the radio in the background, Jim yelled – “DIAL THE NUMBER! DIAL THE NUMBER!” I grabbed the phone, and clumsily dialed 453-1212. Busy. Dialed again. Busy. Dialed the 3rd time…it rang through to a wrong number. I was expecting failure…when on the 4th attempt, it rang through.
“WIOU, 1350-AM….Can you give your best turkey call?”
I shouted – “YES! Hold on a sec!” I looked over at Jim, who was preparing to give his turkey call…by drinking a glass of water and gargling into the phone. The DJ said, “We’re waiting……”
I handed the phone to Jim, who grabbed the phone, downed the glass of water, tilted his head back, and made the most realistic turkey call you ever heard.
By this time, I could hear Jim on the radio in the other room, and I knew he had nailed it. The DJ said, “That’s impressive! What’s your name?” Our plan had been for Jim to hand the phone back to me, but in his excitement, he forgot….and also forgot that he had a mouth full of water. He started to say his name…then spit water all over the kitchen floor as he coughed and hacked on half-swallowing a full glass of water.
I grabbed the phone, game my name, and the DJ said, “That’s pretty good, we’ll announce the winner at 5 o’clock today!” He took my name, address and phone number. Jim and I sat and waited…while Jim got a towel to wipe up the mess. It almost became a disaster, but we were confident of the outcome.
At 5PM, we turned on the radio, and had to sit through the national news, local news, weather forecast….and a bunch of commercials for dry cleaning, tires and fried chicken. The DJ came back on the are at 5:08PM, and we waited for the announcement. He announced 3rd prize…which was (yet another) pair of movie tickets. After listening to the caller, we were sure that Jim would be better.
The DJ said, “It was really tough to pick a winner…and we had one of our youngest contestants ever…” We took this as a sign that Jim HAD to be the winner. The DJ kept dragging out the details of the contest….and right before announcing the winner….went to ANOTHER commercial. We were beside ourselves in anticipation. Literally. Jim and I were sitting right next to each other.
The DJ came back from a commercial for the contest sponsor….and said, “We’re excited to announce….the winner of the WIOU turkey calling contest is….” We waited to hear Jim’s name…..and the DJ annouced some name that wasn’t his….Somebody ELSE won the $100. Then the DJ came on, and said, “Second place….goes to our youngest contestant ever,” and announced Jim as the 2nd place winner. Instead of $100, Jim won…..and electric skillet. Just the thing a 14-year old boy needed.
Still, we were proud of our accomplishment, and Mom was glad to have the appliance. I think Jim even used it a time or two. Over time, my interest in radio contests faded. I still like trivia, and still love listening to the radio, but between podcasts, satellite and internet radio, the landscape has changed quite a bit, and I really don’t have much interest in winning tickets to the latest pop-music sensation concert. I bet, however, that I can still WIOU’s phone number with my eyes closed.
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