Sober 19 years, married 36 and a Chicago radio fixture for nearly four decades, Steve Dahl is calmer and more enlightened than he once was. There are, of course, exceptions — like this recent tirade against his now-competitor WGN-AM 720. Having returned in early November to the station — WLS-AM 890 — where with erstwhile on-air partner and Disco Demolition cohort Garry Meier (they acrimoniously split in 1993 and, save for a brief 2006 broadcast reunion at Oak Street Beach, have been estranged since) he made waves more than a quarter-century ago at a different location, Dahl is striving to re-establish himself in a medium (terrestrial radio) he has repeatedly blasted and from which he was long absent. After being dropped in late 2008 from WJMK-FM (104.3) with more than two years left on a reported seven-figure contract, he started a podcast. The subscription-based venture was formerly produced from his suburban basement and is presently recorded at 190 N. State, down the hall from Dahl’s cave-like new radio digs. They’re the same digs where his immediate predecessors, Roe Conn and Richard Roeper, manned the afternoon microphones starting in 2010 until one day this fall they didn’t. Dahl says he knew from the start of his negotiations with WLS that he’d be taking over that ratings-challenged slot if he chose to return. Conn and Dahl have yet to speak about what went down. Dahl, though, is focused on the future. “I guess I wanted to come back to radio,” he says, “and maybe go out on my own terms.”
Originally, Roe and I talked about maybe trying to do something together, but the economics of that didn’t really work out for Roe — or for me, I guess. [Conn remarks, “I think it was a little more complicated than that, but I wish him the best.”]
I was under the impression that he knew what was happening [at WLS]. But then after it happened, I sort of got the feeling — from what he was saying, anyway — that he didn’t know what was happening. So I’m not really sure where we’re at, but I’m sure we’ll be fine.
When I first started [at WLS], I hadn’t been out of my basement in six years. And so I’m having meetings with these guys and they’re holding me in high regard and I’m like, “Oh, yeah.” I kind of forgot that people felt that way about me.
I think if I didn’t have a podcast, the radio would bug me a little bit, ’cause it’s pretty formatted just in terms of times and stuff.
[Radio] is a different energy. You have to just go and you can’t really stop. Whatever it is, you just have to keep pushing it forward.
Really, the only thing that’s going to make radio work is being responsive to what’s happening here [in Chicago] and having people that understand how to coalesce all that stuff.
I don’t think [Garry] liked me drinking and what not. But I think the biggest issue was that it wasn’t a 50-50 partnership [financially]. At the time, I just didn’t want to do that.
When he got married, I knew something bad was going to happen [between us] and I think, subconsciously, I kind of sped it up a little bit. Because it was gonna happen no matter what. You could tell that there was discontent there, and it wasn’t going away; it was only getting worse.
It was more family stuff that made me get sober. Pat [one of Dahl’s sons] was going to high school and he was 14, and I was like [to himself], “Dude, you gotta break this cycle.” Because my parents were drunks. So it was more of a personal thing.
It just made everything easier. Life is way easier for me.
I’m fairly shy and fairly introverted, and I got into radio because you could hide in a room and entertain people and you never had to see anybody. And then I got to be successful and I had to go out. I wasn’t comfortable being out if I wasn’t drunk.
I just got high. Then I’m the idiot everyone wanted me to be.
I don’t like being in public now, but I’m more comfortable with it. And I’ve been around so long that people have enough of a history with me that it’s kind of OK. So I don’t feel the pressure to be that way so much anymore.
[Years ago], people said they liked stuff, and I’m like, “Why do you even like that?” I guess I like myself more and I’ve learned to take pride in what I do.
I meditate now every day. I do 20 minutes or a half hour a day.
I don’t think I would have done this [WLS] deal, and I don’t think I would be able to comprehend doing both shows if I hadn’t spent almost a year meditating every day. Because it settles my brain down. When I start meditating, my head is f—– up. And every time I start, I go, “There’s no way this is gonna f—–’ straighten me out today.” And then by the end it’s like, “F—. It worked.”
I guess I’ve learned to try to enjoy what’s happening. That was always my problem: I couldn’t enjoy what was happening. I was trying to figure out why I was there or what I was going to do next.
I’m mostly worried about what’s going to happen next. If I go to a hockey game, the whole time I’m thinking about when I should leave.
I have not seen her since I started [at WLS], but I spent the last three or four years going every week to see [a therapist]. I tried it off and on before but never really consistently.
It worked out to be a really good thing for me, and helpful.
[My wife, Janet, and I] have a lot of respect for each other and love each other. It’s not always easy, but we’ve never, ever thought about — at least I haven’t, and I don’t think she has — throwing in the towel. It was always worth trying to save it. We’re both pretty open to listening to what the other person has to say and trying to modify our behavior. Me, especially, because I’m kind of the monumental f—up.
She’s always been a really big supporter of me and never second-guessed me or my career choices and stuff, so that goes a long way. That’s never an issue.
We had very defined roles: breadwinner, mom. Kind of an old-school relationship in that sense.
My family was that way pretty much. Things got a little loose there toward the end [laughs] of my teenage years. But it was fairly traditional.
My dad had started being an announcer, but he ended up being a manufacturer’s rep. He had the gift of gab, for sure, and I realized in later years that I got a lot of that from him.
He was proud of me but always like, “Well, how come Howard Stern is this or that?” Or, “How come Johnny B is this or that?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, Dad. I really don’t know. I’m doing the best I can here.”
It’s like he was proud of you but he also wanted you to be more successful. I still don’t completely understand it. There was some jealousy, I think. It was an odd triangulation of things.
I had opportunities. I squandered some of them and some just didn’t pan out, but I don’t really care anymore.
As long as I feel like I did a good job, I’m OK with it. So whatever happens is gonna happen.