In recent years, we've seen perhaps hundreds of TV progams showing a person trying for his/her "big break", or at least getting his/her so-called "15 minutes of fame".
It's been done before. And I don't just mean all the TV talent shows of the 1950's and '60's, or "Star Search" in the 1980's and '90's.
Before Ted Mack, Ed McMahon or Ryan Secrest (or Simon Cowell), there was Art Roberts.
In the 1960's. Roberts was a radio personality on WLS; not just the biggest radio station in Chicago, but one of the biggest in the country. His Saturday night program featured a "Guest Teen DJ" segment, where a teenager from the listening area could be on the air for an hour or two by writing Roberts a letter stating why he or she would make a good teen disc jockey. Roberts didn't create the program; it was, in fact, done by another personality before he left the station, but Roberts carried it on through the '60's.
Roberts received lots of letters. WLS had a signal coming out of Chicago which could reach both the western and eastern United States, and, on some nights, might even be heard on the coasts themselves. On the station's 75th anniversary special in 1999 (repeated in 2009), he said one letter came to him from a teen in Canada. When told the station had to turn him down because it couldn't pay his way, the teen said he would pay for the trip to Chicago himself. Another, who later went into station management, wrote an estimated two dozen times before he had his chance.
Roberts would have the lucky listener come in a couple of hours before airtime, just to familarize himself with the station. But he would ask them a question: "How many people do you think will be listening to you?" Most would respond with numbers in the millions, but Roberts would respond, "No. There's only one. Here's one lady in her kitchen, she's cooking. There's one guy in a gas station, he's pumping gas. There's one person in his car, driving. Just one." It was a philosophy many famed broadcasters, notably the legendary Arthur Godfrey, lived by throughout their careers.
Most of the youngsters heard on the broadcast were never heard from again, but quite a few went on to broadcasting careers, and you've heard of some, including a Chicago teenager named Pat Sajak. And they had a ready-made audition tape: a recording of their brief time on the air on WLS.
Roberts died in 2002, leaving behind a legacy as a Chicago radio legend. But he also is remembered as a broadcaster who, intentionally, or not, gave back to the business in terms of the people who started out having their "moment in the sun" in terms of getting into broadcasting themselves.
In the heyday of "Top 40" radio, personalities were known, in part, by the songs they played that became hits. Roberts is also known for making stars.
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