Encyclopedia o f Chicago
Entries : Radio Orchestras
Radio Orchestras

Radio Orchestras

As local radio matured during the 1920s, amateur entertainers were replaced by versatile, professional staff orchestras.

Eventually, stations owned and operated by major networks, including WMAQ (NBC), WBBM (CBS), and WLS (ABC), contracted with the Chicago Federation of Musicians to have their own 45-piece orchestras. Working in various combinations as needed, staffers might perform a symphonic work one moment, then play on the National Barn Dance program the next. Enjoying stability and variety, many instrumentalists spent 30 or more years in radio.

A 1949 survey stated that musicians were the highest-paid station employees. Within a few years, those same figures imperiled most radio orchestras. The networks either let the union agreements lapse or bought their way out of them.

Only WGN (Mutual), under the same ownership as the Chicago Tribune, was financially able to maintain a band into the early 1960s—but by then it was only a quartet.

Linton, Bruce A. “A History of Chicago Radio Station Programming, 1921–1931: With Emphasis on Stations WMAQ and WGN.” Ph.D. thesis, Northwestern University. 1953.