John Williams, 62, hosts a daily talk show on WGN-AM 720 and has presided over “The Mincing Rascals” weekly podcast since 2014. This autobiographical sketch is based on edited excerpts of interviews with him in June, 2022.
My father was an Air Force intelligence officer so we lived all over when I was a kid. I was born in Chicago, but I spent my preschool years in West Germany. Then we lived in Taiwan when I was in first grade; second through fifth grades we were living on Oahu.
Then my father retired, and we moved to Edwardsville, Illinois, just northeast of St. Louis for a year while my dad was getting his master’s degree at Southern Illinois University.
Then we moved to Joliet when my dad got a job as a counselor at Stateville Correctional Center.
I’m the second of four children. My sister Jean is a year and a half older than I am (she’s now a resource officer at the Will County Courthouse), my brother, Mark, is 4 years younger (he’s now a retired Caterpillar, Inc. executive), and my sister Mary is 5 years younger (she’s now a Will County assistant state’s attorney).
When we finally put down roots in a rather isolated but nice subdivision called “Camelot,” I was pretty envious of all of the kids who had known each other for many years and had histories with one another. I felt like I was on the outside looking in on those relationships.
But sports helped open doors for me socially. It was a small high school — about 600 students — so I was able to play on the football team, the basketball team and the track team.
I played all three my first year at Joliet Junior College and then played basketball and ran track my second year.
In track, I was a quarter-miler, half-miler and long jumper. I jumped 20 feet once. Every now and then, I’ll get a tape measure out and show my kids how long that is. My best quarter mile time was a little under 51 seconds. (At Minooka, my name is still on the high school track record board in the 2-mile relay. A former teammate pointed that out to me recently, and I was amazed. Then he said, “John, they stopped running the 2-mile relay after we left. It’s the 3,200-meter relay now, so we’ll always have that record.”)
In high school, I thought I would be a writer. I was a good English student, so it seemed natural to want to follow that path. I’d go work for a newspaper. Write a book. What did I know?
So when I went from Joliet Junior College to SIU, I thought, well, what the hell, I’ll try to be a broadcast major. After my first semester, I took all the broadcasting classes I could.
Carbondale is a great place to learn the craft. There’s a commercial college station, a public station and some local stations, all of which use SIU students to fill in here and there.
My junior year I was offered a Friday 10 p.m. until 1 a.m. shift playing classical music on WSIU-FM, the local NPR station. I had no idea what to do, but that was the shift that was open so I agreed to do it. I learned to say names like “Seiji Ozawa” and then hit a button so the tape would roll. But I was on the radio!
And I was nervous as hell. I couldn’t even hold a piece of paper and read from it without the paper rattling, so I had to lay it on the console in front of me to read the weather and sports.
I’d found that broadcasting was a good outlet for my interest in writing. One of the gigs I had at WSIU was a paid, 20-hour-a-week position as community affairs director, which meant turning in a scripted, 30-minute show once a week. This not only allowed me to write but also let me read my writing on the air. That felt pretty intoxicating at the time.
The summer between my junior and senior years, I got an internship at WGN-AM, which at the time was sharing studio space with WGN-TV on the Northwest Side near Lane Technical High School. So I got to work around Wally Phillips, Bob Collins and Roy Leonard as well as Tom Skilling, Phil Donahue, the Bozo’s Circus people and other TV folks.
I was never on the air. I opened the mail, communicated with the traffic reporters, ran the stopwatch for floor directors and things like that.
When I graduated the following spring I wasn’t really qualified to do much, but I wanted to try. So I sent out somewhere around 100 tapes and resumes to radio stations all across the Midwest and got six or seven replies. All of the stations who replied had open positions paying minimum wage. Or less. The one that was closest to home for me was WSPY in Plano just southwest of Aurora.
It wasn’t an on-air job. For most of the day the station was automated and ran syndicated programs, so I would mostly just queue up tapes and cut commercials. Every so often I’d drop in and say something like, “It’s 72 degrees in the Fox River Valley, and now more music on FM 107.”
At the time I was dating Brenda, the woman I would later marry. We met in college through some mutual friends. She was a psychology major and went on to get a business degree at Illinois State University. She was living in her hometown of Pekin, a little more than two hours away, and our meeting place was often a little cafe about halfway between us in the town of Ottawa — the same town we ended up moving to many years later.
We got married in November of 1982. Our honeymoon night was at the Holiday Inn in East Peoria because I had to work at the station the next day.
I got my first big break at WSPY. The only part of their broadcast day that was locally produced was the morning show, and shortly after I arrived, management had hired a new morning host. The guy had a terrific audition tape — fun, funny, smooth. But when he got there it turned out he was not nearly as good as his tape. At first management thought he was just nervous, but they quickly realized he simply wasn’t a good live performer, so they let him go and turned to me. “Listen,” they said, “until we find a morning guy we need you to do the show.”
I did it well enough that they kept me on. And after about nine months I was ready to move on. So once again, I sent out dozens of tapes and resumes — now mostly based on my work at WSPY — to radio stations all around the Midwest.
The best offer I got was from WMBD, Newsradio 1470 — it was the WGN-AM of Peoria, a full-service station with a little bit of music, a lot of talk, and some sports. They hired me to do the midnight to 5 a.m. talk show.
So it’s 1983, I’m 22 years old, making $10,000 a year and I’m the only person in the station overnight. No producer. No engineer. Just me.
I was using my real last name — Fillipich — when I got there, but management thought it sounded too ethnic. I suggested “Phillips,” but they said no, there was already a Bob Phillips at the station doing news and they didn’t want two guys named Phillips. So I said how about “Williams,” since my middle name is William? They said OK.
So years later, when I came to WGN-AM with this made-up, vanilla name, management suggested I use my real name because Chicago is an ethnic town.
“Why don’t you be you?” they said.
But by then, I’d grown accustomed to my air name and I appreciated the anonymity it gave my kids, so I kept “Williams.” But I was really struck by the irony a few years ago when I was hosting a Saturday show on WGN and working with Violeta Podrumedic, Domiti Pongo, Sam Panayotovich and my son Griffin Fillipich — all these complicated ethnic names.
Anyway, back in Peoria, management had assured me that the overnight shift was fine for a conventional talk show to take calls and engage the listeners because the Caterpillar factory in town ran non-stop so shift workers were up and coming and going at all hours.
But shortly after I started, Caterpillar workers went on strike for what turned out to be 206 days. So the only people I had calling in were a handful of insomniacs. The rest of the time, I had to fill myself, talking and pitching. It was really hard, but it ended up giving me confidence.
I moved up the ladder at WMBD. They gave me the 7 to 11 p.m. talk show then afternoons and finally morning drive. It was a real ensemble show, with a sports guy. a meteorologist, and an agriculture reporter named Colleen Callahan, the whole thing. I did that for seven or eight years, and it’s where I learned the craft.
I really liked the job, but Peoria was the 115th market in the country, and to get the money and prestige you have to move up in market size. So every few months, I would send out my tape, resume and ratings reports to stations in bigger markets in the midwest, where I thought I belonged. But I kept getting turned down by every station in Milwaukee, every station in Dayton, every station in Columbus, every station in St Louis, every station in Madison, every station in the Twin Cities and of course by the talk stations in Chicago, including WGN-AM and WIND-AM.
I thought I belonged in the Chicago market. I listened to WGN-AM and I thought what I was doing in Peoria was often every bit as good as what they were doing.
But I also thought about giving up on radio altogether. One of the people I used to interview on my evening talk show was a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers, and one day he said to me, “You’re a good talker and you’re smart enough, you should consider joining us. You can make more money. But you’ll have to take a pay cut that first year.”
They’d pay $24,000 a year to start, he said, and at the time I was making about $16,000. Yes, I said, I can take that pay cut.
After I went through the whole interview process they told me that I’d have to quit my radio job and study for the Series 7 exam — the General Securities Representative Qualification Examination — and if I failed the first time they wouldn’t hire me. As I was stewing over that, the station decided to part ways with the husband and wife team that were doing the morning show. They offered the slot to me.
I decided I wanted to do radio. I was still young and I would now get to do morning drive in one of the larger cities in Illinois, even though it was a six-day week grind with lots of additional public appearances, and even though I had two little boys at home (Grant, born 1988 and Griffin, born 1992.
In some ways, WGN’s morning drive host Wally Phillips was a role model — the pace, the banter, the non-confrontational style. And Wally shared the ball. Everyone got to talk. WMBD listeners came to us for information and fun, and I had a good team of people around me. We put on a fun show.
I kept submitting tapes to WGN and they kept writing back encouraging but non-committal notes like “Hey, John, we got your stuff, it sounds great keep it up!” But they never seemed to have anything for me until one day in the early 1990s, the program director, Lorna Gladstone, said she wanted to meet with me. I bought a new shirt for the occasion and we spoke for about an hour at a restaurant in Peoria.
She offered me the chance to come up to Chicago to host a few shows on the weekends. It was an incredible opportunity to get my start in the big time, and all I had to do was get my station in Peoria to allow it. But they said no, there was a non-compete clause in my contract.
So I had to pass on Gladstone’s offer. But about a year later when I got a similar offer for a tryout shift at WCCO in Minneapolis, I just went up and did it without asking my bosses in Peoria.
The program director and general manager up there offered me a full-time job as the midday host on the CBS owned and operated station in what was then the 18th market in the country. But then that fell through when the general manager quit the next day the program director got fired shortly after that. I was right back where I started again.
But an office assistant at WCCO remembered me, and when the new management team went looking to fill an opening not long thereafter, she suggested me. This time it stuck.
So in 1993, I got the 1-3 p.m. shift in Minneapolis, working just five days a week with my own producer. It felt like I had hit the big time.
But all four years I was there, I kept looking for other jobs, and finally, in 1997 WGN-AM’s program director Mary June Rose offered me the mid-day shift between the noon farm report and afternoon drive with Spike O’Dell.
Spike took over the morning show in 2000 when Bob Collins died. He left in December, 2008 after Sam Zell and his crazy consultants — Randy Michaels, Kevin Metheny and Lee Abrams — began running Tribune Company, which owned us, and thought they could reinvent the station.
They tapped me to replace Spike so I was back in morning drive again. But I was miserable. My producer, Jim Wiser, and I had different visions for the show. We fought often.It’s the rare time I would say I didn’t sound like myself on the radio. The final insult — and my salvation — came in a phone call when I was leading a group of about 75 listeners on a cruise in Alaska. It was May of 2009, and I was literally standing on a rock on the Alaskan coastline when my phone rang. The bosses told me they were taking me off mornings and replacing me with a news guy from San Francisco, Greg Jarrett (not the Fox News commentator).
They didn’t fire me, though. They gave me 9 a.m. to noon, which had been occupied for 20 years by Kathy O’Malley and Judy Markey, a tough act to follow. Brenda said “Oh, no, you don’t want to do that. You don’t want to take Kathy and Judy’s show. That’s crazy!” But what options did I have?
Jarrett was a folksy, feel-good guy but he only lasted 2 ½ years until the crazy guys decided to try putting rock-talk-jock Jonathon Brandmeier in the morning. In less than two years Brandmeier was online only and Steve Cochran had the morning shift.
I did mid-mornings for a couple of years, then they told me they weren’t going to renew my contract when it was up in six months.
So I called my old station in Minneapolis and they agreed to take me back since their afternoon host was retiring. Then WGN had a change of heart and told me they wanted to renew my contract after all. That was how unmoored the management was. I’d already started the moving process and told them, “Look, I’m going back to a great company in Minneapolis that really wants me and is giving me a great deal. I’m not going to give that up.” So we worked it out that I would do both jobs — a three-hour mid-morning show here followed immediately by a three hour early afternoon show in Minneapolis every day of the week.
Eventually it just got to be too much and so we cut back to just a two-hour show on Saturdays
Then in the fall of 2016, the station manager, Jimmy de Castro, and his program director, Todd Manley, flew up to Minneapolis and asked me to come back.
I’ve been in mid-day slots at WGN ever since.
We were all very nervous when Tribune Broadcasting sold the station to Nexstar Media Group, and some very good people lost their jobs. But Nexstar’s vision for the station — focus on local issues, not national partisan controversies, and meet listeners where they live with talk about, say, red light cameras, high prices, health and useful information — is a lot like the old vision for WGN, and it’s been very good for revenue and ratings. There turned out to be a real hole in the market for just that.
In March of 2020, in the first throes of the pandemic, someone said that it was national joke day. And I said I know some jokes. In my Peoria days I would tell a joke a day, and at the end of the year we would publish the best 100 in a little WMBD keepsake joke book.
So I rattled off about 10, very quickly. And we were all smiling, all laughing. I did it the next day. And the next day. It’s a staple of my program now, at 10:38 each morning, to do “Speed Jokes.” And with very few exceptions, it has been a salve to the slings and arrows of the last 2 ½ years.
It also required a lot of work. You find 10-12 different jokes a day that you like. What’s made the bit work is that listeners started to send them in. Most of my email now is jokes sent in from all around. In fact, to kick off 2022, I said Let’s see if we can get 50 jokes from 50 states in 50 days and on the 50th day, after having heard from 49 states, we read a final joke that someone from Delaware had sent in. It was a nice reminder that we are all in this together – struggling and learning and trying to keep our collective chins up.
I’m also known for my live, two-man stage shows with Clay Jenkinson. Every fall, usually a Saturday close to election day, Jenkinson and I walk onto an area stage. He will be attired as either Thomas Jefferson or Teddy Roosevelt. I’ll interview TJ or TR for about 45 minutes and then we take questions from the crowd for about 45 minutes. Jenkinson is one of America’s premier scholars on this half of Mt Rushmore. (Watch any Ken Burns documentary on them or our national parks and he will be one of the featured interviews).
I met Jenkinson in Minneapolis. I had him on my show and had him take calls from listeners as Jefferson. The phone lines lit up. I was amazed. People asked about the 1st and 2nd amendments, about the Declaration of Independence, about the separation of church and state and about how he could write that all men are created equal even as he owned hundreds of them.
Months later I had him on again. And again. We did a show at the Minnesota State Fair and I realized that this could be a regular in-person sort of thing. I had now moved on to WGN in Chicago but the idea stuck with me. Our first show — under a tent in a restaurant parking lot– sold out. Two hundred people in the audience. The next year we went to a larger venue and sold out 400 tickets. Then 800.
The people still come and ask fun, heartfelt and clever questions. It always renews my faith in our civic engagement. At a time when people are polarized or checked out, these crowds are engaged, challenging and good humored. It is really one of the most important things I’ve done.
A typical day for me: Up at 5:30 a.m., exercise until 6. Get to the station around 7. Prep from 7-10. Prep means head down, reading and typing notes, pulling audio and editing it and typing up the jokes. My producer is just as busy. From 9:10 to 9:20 I go on the air with our morning host, Bob Sirott to promote my show, then I cut a promo at 9:30. My show starts at 10 a.m. with the news and traffic and so on. I monologue from 10:10 to 10:28 on something current, light and relatable and fun. After the break, at the bottom of the hour, I quickly touch on another topic, then do “Speed Jokes” and hit the A1 topic of the day at 10:45 a.m., hopefully with a good guest interview. We go with a little less structure, then until 2 p.m.. After the show I cut a promo for the next day, look for jokes, write advertising copy (I’m rather involved with the sales team in the crafting of ads that appear on my show as ‘endorsements.’) and figure out what the News Click poll will be for the day. I try to be out of there before 6 p.m.
I hope to keep doing this until I’m 68 or more, (so I can maximize my Social Security benefits!) Besides, the station is doing really well right now and I feel like my work has never been more needed, more fun, more natural..But this is a line of work where you often don’t get to decide when you retire.
I’ve been very lucky. In 43 years in radio I’ve never missed a paycheck. Very few people can say that.