Chuck Schaden still bringing luster to Golden Age of Radio

Chuck Schaden

On a lazy Sunday afternoon when he should be at home relaxing, Chuck Schaden is working the room at the Morton Grove Civic Center with the energy and enthusiasm of a man half his age.

As he recognizes the dozens of well-wishers who’ve turned out for him, Schaden, 84, instantly remembers when and how he met each one, recalling names, dates and places long forgotten by most.

Turning back time has been Schaden’s specialty for 50 years. As Chicago’s preeminent radio historian — and the only fan ever inducted in the Radio Hall of Fame — he’s spent his adult life sharing a passion for the programs of his youth with generations of listeners.

Never mind that most of his fans were born after the heyday of “Fibber McGee & Molly,” “The Lone Ranger,” “The Shadow” and the other old-time radio shows he kept alive on “Those Were the Days” and similar broadcasts over the years.

Chuck Schaden’s Radio Days (Illustration: Jim Engel)

The reason for this particular gathering is to celebrate the publication of Chuck Schaden’s Radio Days: Adding Decades to the Golden Age of Radio. The official release by Hall Closet Press is June 29 — Schaden’s 85th birthday. (Here is the link to order.)

“Today this room is filled with people who have helped me to one extent or another either on the broadcast or behind the scenes,” he tells the crowd. “I’ve enjoyed writing this book and I’ve enjoyed thinking about you — all of you — who have done so much to help.”

Schaden, who’d dabbled in radio as a young man, was working as editor of a community newspaper group on Chicago’s Northwest Side and as a marketing executive for a savings and loan when he turned a hobby of collecting old radio shows into his vocation in 1970. That’s when he began buying air time on a small station in Evanston.

In 2009 Schaden retired after 39 years as host and producer of “Those Were the Days,” placing it in the capable hands of Steve Darnall, who continues to present the classics on College of DuPage’s WDCB 90.9-FM from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

That same year the village of Morton Grove proclaimed “Chuck Schaden Day” and named the street in front of his house honorary “Chuck Schaden Lane.”

Since then Schaden has launched a website, “Speaking of Radio: An Oral History of Radio’s Golden Age,” a social media community on Facebook and a monthly podcast, “Chuck Schaden’s Memory Lane.” He also found time to complete his fifth and latest book.

It’s filled with photos and memories of his early fascination with radio, his meetings with the stars of his youth, and his struggles to keep his show going as stations changed ownership and formats. Schaden calls it “a personal memoir and a broadcast diary as well as a scrapbook of my life in radio.”

On the eve of its publication, the revered guru of old-time radio shared a few thoughts with me:

Q. When you officially retired 10 years ago, did you imagine that you’d still be as busy as you are?

A. No. In fact, I had no retirement plans at all. I just wanted to take it easy. That lasted for a couple of months. Then I started thinking about a website that would include my interviews and perhaps a few other features. That grew into not only an archive for my recorded conversations, but a place to share my past “TWTD” (“Those Were the Days”) programs, video coverage of my various guest appearances, etc. etc. Then came the podcast and a Facebook group and . . . and . . . yikes! The site is still growing.

Q. What prompted you to write your memoir now?

A. About 18 months ago I started to jot down some notes on my career as a little project for my family, especially for my daughters, so they would know more about what Dad was up to for all those years.  As I got into it, poring over scrapbooks, old program guides, broadcast cue sheets and Nostalgia Digests and digging up memories, I thought perhaps others who knew of my programs might also be interested.

Q. In going through all that did you learn anything surprising about yourself?

A. Well, I had not previously thought about the role my father played in steering me in the right direction so many times. And how much I depended upon Ellen (his wife of 62 years) for her encouragement, support and actual help over all the years. And, even though I had occasionally patted myself on the back for all I had accomplished, I realized it was with the help of so many others who aided my broadcast career. I was absolutely not a one-man show!

Q. How would you describe your all-time favorite, Jack Benny, to someone who never heard him?

A. I’d say that Mr. Benny was a radio comedy genius and if one listens to a couple of his radio shows from the 1940s and ’50s, they probably would agree.

Q. Do you still consider 1945 to be the greatest year in the history of radio?

A. Yes . . . and for all the same reasons.

Q. What’s been the most rewarding part of the last 50 years in the nostalgia business?

A. I never considered it to be a business, yet I was able to support my family and have a nice life. The reward was in the great satisfaction of doing what I truly enjoyed with and for people who expressed their enjoyment of what I was doing. Furthermore, I am thrilled that the “TWTD” program has continued after my retirement, with essentially the same format, and will hit the 50-year milestone in 2020. Thanks to Steve Darnall.

Q. I remember you telling me: “The past is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” Do you still feel that way?

A. I do, but these days — with the country and the world in such turmoil — I think I would want to visit the past more often and stay there a little longer each time.

Q. One more question: Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

A. “The Shadow,” of course, and he’d have his hands full these days.

Wednesday’s comment of the day: Mark Edwards Edelstein: I’ve lost my sense of surprise when I read about another round of layoffs at one of the big radio station groups because layoffs at those companies are happening all the time. They’ve just learned how to spread them out to stay under the radar and not show up in places like this. There was a time when everyone working in radio knew they had to keep their resume sharp because they could get whacked at any moment but they had some confidence that they’d find another gig soon enough. Now its more like they could be the one to take the step that breaks the observation ledge off the (it will always be) Sears Tower. As you say “over and OUT” with few other radio jobs available. Sending good thoughts to those downsized and those to be RIF’ed in the future.