If the gravelly Chicago voice on the far right end of your AM radio dial suddenly sounds a lot louder, it's only because the station's signal just got stronger. Joe Gentile's delivery, which ranges from a near whisper to not quite a scream, hasn't changed, but on April 2, WJJG 1530 doubled its power from 760 watts to approximately 1,500. Four days later, the host of the Joe Gentile Morning Show and the owner of the station (the call letters are his initials) has done his usual: spun a little Frank Sinatra, called Dan Rather "a bit pink" (and, worse, bald), and asked for calls on the topics of hazing and education: "Are you pleased with the way your kids are being taught?"
The burning question today, though, is volume. And Paul is on the line. "Hi, Paul! Do you notice an improvement? We're supposed to be up in power, can you see and feel the difference?" Paul says he can hear the station loud and clear. Then Gentile asks, "Are you a consistent listener to the program?"
"Every day." Paul likes some of the other programs on the station, too, he says. He regularly listens to the Sunday morning German music program, Voice of the Homeland, for instance, and occasionally tunes in to the east Indian Desi Junction right after. To this bit of news, Gentile's 35-year-old sidekick, Dane Neal, and his 23-year-old producer, Matt Dyrkacz, react simultaneously. "No way!" says Dyrkacz. "Why?" asks Neal.
Gentile is just happy to hear from a regular. "Isn't that magnificent!" he says.
The 80-year-old retired car dealer, nicknamed "the Baron of Barrington," didn't have radio stardom in mind when he bought the former WKDC in 1994. "I think, OK, let me buy it and we'll see if we can sell more cars," he says. Neal, who started working with Gentile two and a half years ago, adds, "Joe figured if radio commercials to sell cars was good, an entire station with all-day commercials would be even better."
Gentile turned out to be a natural host. "I was good right away because I was a salesman," he explains. "I sold cars all my life."
He hired Neal to play the voice of reason to his outspoken curmudgeon. Before Neal signed on, the Joe Gentile Morning Show consisted of a 20-minute rant followed by an hour and a half of Sinatra. Neal says, "Now it's more of a talk show." Gentile is the star. He reads commercials, talks to callers, rants, and banters with Neal and Dyrkacz. WJJG starts broadcasting at sunrise every day and signs off at sundown, after which the signal from a Cincinnati station usually takes over its place on the dial. Gentile's on from 7 to 9 AM. The rest of WJJG's programming is a mix. There are infomercials, syndicated talk-show hosts such as Dennis Prager and Michael Medved, and ethnic shows. There's also a bunch of local talkers: conservative host John Cox, near-west-side historian John Insalata, former city building inspector and restoration specialist Joe Pucci, and atheist activist Rob Sherman--dedicated amateurs and articulate experts in their fields. Though Gentile gets mad when another host on his station criticizes the president, politics don't play a part in who gets on. The one thing he won't put up with on WJJG is sex. "We don't allow any vulgarity on the station," he says. "We don't have any innuendos. I just don't allow it, that's all."
He retired from auto sales a few months ago, but is very much at home in the studio. That may be because "Chicago's hometown station" is run out of apartment 208 in Villa Gentile, a two-story apartment building in west suburban Berkeley. Most weekdays Gentile and his wife, Carol, live just a few steps down the breezeway in apartment 205, which is marked in front by a statue of Gentry, the Gentiles' Doberman, who died some four years ago. (They also own a house in Westmont and a condo in Boca Raton.)
The studio and apartment share a decorative theme: every available wall space in each is filled with photographs, certificates, and other memorabilia from Gentile's 52 years in the auto business, as well as his decade in radio. In the studio are photos of Gentile with Jackie Mason, with Frank Thomas, at a dinner table with Ray Meyer. On various walls around his apartment and studio he has photos of himself with Sinatra.
Having made a fortune selling cars, Gentile has become something of a dignitary himself. He spreads his name and wealth around. He gives freely to his alma maters, Saint Ignatius College Prep and Loyola University--he donated millions to build Loyola's gymnasium, the Joseph J. Gentile Center, and hosts Joe Gentile Day at Wrigley Field, which benefits Saint Ignatius. He's raised money for the World War II memorial in Washington and has a VFW post named after him. He says the display of photographs in his apartment and at the station is just the tip of the iceberg. He's given the rest to Loyola. "There's a thousand pictures at the Gentile Center," he says. "I take care of them pretty good."
On and off the air Gentile promotes Loyola ceaselessly, as he would a friend or family member. But he's also not afraid to criticize the school--and its outgoing basketball coach, Larry Farmer, in particular. He insists he had no say in Farmer's firing. On the air he says, "Everybody thinks I made the decision. I certainly did not. I can give them my opinion; they don't have to take it."
Gentile graduated from Loyola with a degree in psychology, taught there for a few semesters, and had an epiphany in 1952 when he sold a car while on a lunch break at a friend's dealership. He quit teaching to work for Ford, but found big-time success as a Buick salesman. "I was the number one Buick salesman in the United States for ten years," he says. "It's unprecedented!"
His success as a car dealer has assured his independence in radio. "Market forces don't apply to Joe," says Neal, who doubles as station manager. "Joe's independently wealthy, so he doesn't have to say, 'We're losing money, argh!' He doesn't care. So if he likes something, we'll do it, even if it's all Sinatra or if it's bad."
While a sports report runs on the air, Dyrkacz runs down the lineup of callers for the rest of Gentile's show: "We've got Quinn on sports, then the angry white guy"--a regular caller who acts angry, and may or may not be white, or a guy, for that matter--"and then it's you, the star of the show." Quinn was a regular listener who called in a week ago to complain that the show didn't do enough sports. "We said, hey, you do it," Neal says. "This is only the fourth time he's done this."
"We just signed him up," Gentile adds. "What's the kid's name?"
"Joe Quinn, baby!" Dyrkacz says.
The first time he was on the air, Quinn went on for eight minutes, too long in radio time. He's managed to shorten his bit, but he's still going as Gentile, off mike, gloats, "Boy, did I rip Dan Rather today, that communistic mothah."
"That's his real hair, Joe," Neal says.
"He's a cue ball! I'll bet you a thousand dollars!" says Gentile. Before they can close the bet, Dyrkacz signals that Quinn has hung up and Gentile says into the microphone, "Congratulations, Joe Quinn, you're doing a fabulous job."
Gentile is still looking for callers to tell him how far he's throwing his voice. Neal says the station is getting to Valparaiso and Milwaukee. One caller tells them, "I'm in the city right now, and you're very clear." Neal and Dyrkacz cheer.
"We got a half a million listeners," Gentile says, "but a lot of people are timid to call."
"We're not exactly sure how many listeners," Neal hastens to correct him. WJJG doesn't subscribe to Arbitron, so they have no way of getting precise numbers.
But calls are coming in from around Illinois. A caller from Monee says he hears the show "clear as a bell." "Gotta have a farm report now, Joe," Neal comments. Gentile tells Steve from Aurora: "We should get a lot more clarity, a lot more forceful voicing, and you're gonna notice a big difference when you drive the car today. . . . We're getting a lot of new people that never heard us before." He adds this warning for the newbies: "We're not always this friendly. If we dislike you, you're in trouble, I'll tell you right now."
After a chat with Dino Tiberi, a Harry Caray impersonator and frequent contributor to the show ("It's coming in crystal clear out here in Aurora," he says), Gentile is ready to wrap. He's doing the show through Good Friday, and then he's off to the condo in Boca for ten days. Tiberi will take his place on Monday for the Cubs' opening day, then an assortment of guest hosts will fill his seat until his return.
"Bye, Harry Caray, God love you," he says into the microphone. "And if you look out the window you'll see the Lord sent us kind of a beautiful sunshiny spring day for my daffodils to grow. If you got any daffodils, bring 'em to the station, because I love those yellow daffodils." Before he goes to the health club to take a steam, Gentile has one more piece of business. "We want you to know that we have a couple of beautiful apartments available at Joe Gentile's, at the Villa..."
"Part of our 'Live Like Joe' promotion," Neal cuts in.
Gentile cuts right back, louder than ever. "This is no joke," he insists. "1-708-493-1530. If you want a delightful apartment, we have them." But you'd better not complain about noise from the station. Off the air Gentile says, "I own the building. If they don't like it, they can leave."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.