CHICAGO – Larry Lujack, an immensely popular Chicago radio personality whose sarcasm, grumpiness and sense of humor was unlike anything listeners had heard and who influenced some of today’s best-known broadcasters, has died. He was 73.
Lujack’s wife, Judith Lujack, said Thursday that he died of esophageal cancer at their Santa Fe, N.M., home Wednesday evening. She said he was diagnosed last January and his health started to deteriorate dramatically in September.
Though Lujack’s name may not be familiar today, a quarter-century after his 20-year run at WLS-AM and the former WCFL-AM, it would be tough to understate just how big he once was – the star of a massive radio station with listeners all over the state and beyond.
Lujack joked, bellyached and criticized his way through shows in a manner that has become ubiquitous among today’s radio personalities.
“The point is that with all the top-40 disk jockeys, these high-energy guys with their fake effervescence, cheerfulness, he was the first one to be real,” said Robert Feder, a longtime Chicago media writer who now has a blog. “He paved the way for new style of radio that followed and everyone who became a real personality owes it in some way to Larry Lujack.”
Among those personalities is Rush Limbaugh, wrote Paul D. Colford in his 1993 book, “The Rush Limbaugh Story: Talent on Loan from God.”
“He said that Lujack was the only person he ever copied,” wrote Colford, who is currently the director of media relations for the Associated Press but who penned the book while working as a media columnist for Newsday.
Limbaugh’s dramatic on-air pauses and his tendency to refer to himself in the third-person are things that Lujack did years before he did, according to the book.
While David Letterman was a college student in Indiana, he would “get out of bed early enough to tune into Lujack and partner Tommy Edwards’s popular `animal stories,'” Colford wrote, concluding that he had no doubt the radio segment influenced Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks.”
Feder, who wrote about and interviewed Lujack a number of times when he was covered the media as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote in his blog that “Ol’ Uncle Lar,” as he was affectionately called, was an immediate sensation when he came to Chicago after he had held several radio jobs around the country.
Staples of his show, both alone and working with Edwards, such as “Animal Stories,” “Klunk Letter of the Day,” and “Cheap, Trashy, Showbiz Reports” gained him legions of fans, including a woman who listened to him religiously before she ever met him.
“I’d be driving to modeling jobs and listening to Larry the whole time laughing my head off,” said his widow, who met him when she was a model and was picked to do something on his show.
Lujack was so popular over the years that, according to Feder, in 1984 he was given what was then an unprecedented 12-year, $6 million contract to prevent him from jumping to another station.
After moving to afternoons in 1986, Lujack’s ratings dropped and he left WLS the next year when the parent company ABC bought out his contract.
There were a couple of comebacks in Chicago – broadcasting from his Santa Fe home – but he never achieved the kind of popularity he’d had earlier.
Lujack has received numerous awards and honors, including induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Survivors include a son, Tony; a daughter, Linda Shirley; two grandsons and Judith Lujack’s son, Taber Seguin.