Friday, December 10, 2010

Chicago Radio Memories Told with Wit and Wisdom -- Fast Read, Must-Have

The history of Chicago popular radio hasn't really been completely described unless you include Art Hellyer's book "The Hellyer Say." As witty as the title leads you to believe, Art Hellyer's one-to-one interesting, intelligent writing style, combined with his dead-on wit, will have you laughing out loud and drawing stares from people around you.

To list `all' the radio stations where Art worked would exceed the length of a review. Suffice it to say that he worked on `all' of them, literally at one time. He came to shine among luminaries in Chicago radio with the assistance of two wonderful people in his life, the first being his late wife, always described as "the lovely Elaine" and his brilliant radio engineer, the late Leonard Kratoska (Lenny Kaye), the faithful Dr. K-TT as nicknamed by Hellyer, who did more things with sound effects, dropped appropriately and timely that any recordings of broadcasts would be played repeatedly for sheer entertainment value.

The book - at first blush - begins as a love story about Art and Elaine's early years together, building a life while Hellyer looked convention in the face and worked literally 24/6.5 to stay in the radio business. The charm with which he describes their courtship and the regard in which he holds her is enough of a reason to fall for the book, lock, stock and barrel. And yet, there's plenty of radio biz history, sterling stories and insider gossip to make it a must-read if you love Chicago radio, or radio in general.

Of appeal beyond Chicago, though, is that for those whippersnappers who think that radio shock jocks didn't show up until the 90s, Hellyer was likely the first in line to throw audiences for a loop.

In fact, his spoofs, pranks, and failure to follow station protocol was the vexation of virtually every program director he worked for, and the love of every listener who tuned in, faithfully, to hear what Art and Dr. K-TT would do next.

Irreverence, done properly, is brilliant radio, and Art Hellyer was the first master of disaster when it came to torturing the sanctity of "you can't do that on radio" but with a specifically gentlemanly and G-rated approach. Among the things that found him at odds with the brass upstairs: he decided to rag on sponsors of his show for problems with their products. A specific story regarding Hellyer's commentary on a certain Cadillac auto sponsor had the station's top dogs near cardiac arrest, but quick thinking and some fast talking found the Cadillac folks one of Hellyer's biggest fans.

Forever to the dismay of his bosses (and there were many), every time one of the top cats would send Hellyer a crisply typed, sternly worded memo along the lines of "you can't say that" or "you can't do that", Hellyer's classic response was to read the memo on-air, get the listeners stirred up sufficiently to call in and wreck the phone lines and occasionally throw the phone system into total havoc to the point of having the phone company call and tell Hellyer's bosses to stop whatever he was doing. Their systems couldn't handle Hellyer, or his pranks. But the audiences, faithful, sure, and forever growing in number, couldn't get enough.

Wherever Art Hellyer was on-air, listeners followed. There's sufficient stories of great stars starting out. Hellyer's sheer delight at the opportunities afforded to meet and greet them are entertaining as well. Patti Page, Perry Como, and more - considered the landed gentry of 60s entertainment - about which Hellyer provides undiscovered insight into the gems and jewels of superb singers who personally introduced their first records.

Truly a chronicle of the good old days of music radio, talk radio, and radio in general, this is a must-have book among all the others in your library. Hellyer's wit is as keen as ever, and the handbook for hilarity in the best of megawatt broadcasting is Chicago's finest gift to national audiences.

Even if you've never heard of him before now, Art Hellyer's "The Hellyer Say" will have you hooked, the way Steve King and Johnnie Putman were when he was their guest on WGN Radio along with Top Rock Girly Jock, Connie Szerszen, one overnight morning when I was fortunate enough to tune in. Read the book, and give one to someone who loves radio as much as you do. "The Hellyer Say" is a must-read.

This review also appeared in Keep Rockin' Magazine, December, 2010 issue, page 45 and shared on

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