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John Kiesewetter on the world of local and national TV

Senior Entertainment Reporter John Kiesewetter has been covering TV and media issues for 20 years. After joining the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1975 as a summer intern, he worked as a county government and suburban reporter; assistant city editor and suburban editor; and features editor supervising the Life section. He has a B.S. in journalism from Ohio University.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Former Cincinnati DJ Wally Phillips Dies

Wally Phillips, the popular Chicago radio personality who got his start in Cincinnati, has died in Naples, Fla. He was 82.

Born in Portsmouth in 1925, Phillips moved with his family to Cincinnati at age 6, when his father died. He dropped out of high school here to enter the Army Air Forces for World War II, the Chicago Tribune said.

After the war, he worked for a DJ in Grand Rapids, Mich., for about a year before coming home to work for old WCPO-AM (1230) and WLW-AM (700). He went to Chicago’s WGN in 1956, where he was the No. 1 morning personality for 18 years (1968-86). He retired from WGN in 1998 after 42 years.

Phillips also did a WLWT-TV show with announcer Bob Bell and producer-director Don Sandburg. All three went together to WGN, where Bell became "Bozo the Clown" on WGN-TV, Myers says.

"He came to WLW radio after a stint at WCPO radio, probably in 1953," recalls Bill Myers, a former WLW-AM/WLWT-TV employee. "He did an evening disk jockey program. One of his calling cards was to have the engineer insert recorded one-liners during Phillips' chatter. Then he'd make some appropriate rejoinder. I.e., "When did he change his name to James Drake?" "There are no strings attached to this, and there never have been." "Didn't you know he was big bootlegger?" "You figure out a way; you know all the angles." These things were all individual cuts on a 16" transcription - disks that the engineers would make by taking a sentence here and there from the station's daily soap operas, which still were plentiful at the time. It was hilarious.

"On at least one occasion, Richard King (WLW afternoon DJ) worked out something with Phillips (then on WGN) wherein the two of them chatted - their programs were on the air at the same time. It was a classic half hour between two of radio’s sharpest wits. Wish I knew if there was a recording.

"Once in a while, there were atmospheric conditions which caused the WLW helicopter's communications frequency to "skip" into Chicago - and vice versa. Thus, Wally Phillips' traffic 'copter reporter, Sgt. Baldy, could be heard here. So the producers had to be careful to coordinate between Baldy and WLW's Lt. Art Mehring when it was time for their respective traffic reports. So King decided it would be fun to have the two 'copter guys heard on both stations at once. So Mehring was giving Ft. Washington Way and I-75 info, and Baldy was giving Eisenhower and Edens Expressway info. More hilarity!!!"

Former WSAI-AM newsman Joe Gillespie, now at a Lexington station, reminds me that Wally Phillips called WCPO-TV in 1980 and spoke to gunman James Hoskins, who had taken nine employees hostage. Here’s his email:

"Thanks for the piece and link to Wally Phillips. I learned about Wally first hand, programming against him in Chicago. Didn't hear the magic until the day the guy took the hostages at WCPO. Wally called the gunman and talked to him, urged him not hurt anyone and offered to fly to Cincinnati to talk with him in person.

Most major broadcasting companies, including mine (then Group W), had very specific rules about calling into a hostage situation, it was against the rules, but the way Wally did it, he managed to pull it off. After the conversation ended and after the situation ended Wally's newsman said "You know, if you'd only had a little more time, I think maybe...", Wally answered "You know, people helping people, that's what we're all about." It doesn't read well, but when I heard it I understood why he owned the mornings in Chicago."

Here is the Chicago Tribune story, which has a great story about Phillips Cincinnati native Doris Day:,0,4894919.story


at 3/27/2008 5:26 PM Anonymous Mike M said...

Wally (or Walter when he worked in Cincinnati) was a genuinely nice guy, who did a lot of things in the community. He was a ratings powerhouse both here in Cincinnati and in Chicago. I'm surprised the Tribune failed to mention his charitable work...he had a chairty going in Chicago that was much akin to Ruth Lyons' Children's Fund. It raised millions over the years. He also wrote two pretty funny books. When you listen to Cunningham/Dennison do the stooge report and have those sound-bites dropped in at random, know that Phillips was the one who invented that routine.

at 3/27/2008 10:01 PM Blogger Toddy-O said...

Today was the first time I've heard of the Bob Bell connection to WLW. (So, in WLW's history, it's truly had two Bozo's working for the Nation's Station).

Ironic that Wally Phillips died in Naples. Isn't Naples where Rich King died?

I know many of the engineers and musicians of WLW-T have would be nice to have them recorded before they go from a memory to "I wish we had this on tape".

Also...the referral to Cunningham "Stooge Report", rewind 30 years to Bob Shreve and Past Prime Playhouse, where the Phillips' method of sounders and snippets from commercials or John Wayne made the PPP what it is today, legendary.

The Avco corner in heaven just gained a heavyweight.

-Todd Osborne

at 3/28/2008 5:19 PM Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wally. Great talent, and he thrived back when radio was really radio, and not the crap we have around here passing for radio!

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