Spike O’Dell’s self-made fairy tale begins a new chapter Saturday. We doubt that it’s over. Spike made a career being an absolutely unpretentious goofball and it’s unlikely he can stop now.
That is Spike’s talent. We can’t call it an act because his folksy WGN schtik for Chicagoans isn’t that far from the goofy teen who broadcast from WEMO AM for East Moliners decades ago. Spike says what’s on his whimsical mind, which remains wonderfully unjaded after all these years.
His ascent, like his show, defies logic. This former Short Hills Country Club bus boy was the localest of yokels, banking on a security guard job at IH Farmall to secure a living while dabbling in radio — hardly an advisable Q-C career path in the early 1980s.
Today, he retires from a medium — AM radio — he dismissed in 1984: “I don’t think AM radio can compete with FM anymore,” he told the Quad-City Times when switching from KSTT AM to KIIK FM.
He walked away from his first big break. A Charlotte, N.C., AM station wooed him south in 1981, but Spike returned to the Quad-Cities in less than a year, turning down big money and the golf climate for familiar Midwest surroundings.
His return to KIIK-FM pushed the station to the top of the charts. By 1987, his final year in the Q-C, Spike was earning in excess of $100,000 annually in a contract that included a car and a Crow Creek Valley country club membership.
In less than a year after he left, KIIK-FM was pushed out of the top ratings spot.
Throughout his WGN tenure, Spike put our Quad-Cities on Chicagoans’ maps. He extolled Happy Joes and Whitey’s Ice Cream. He gushed at Rock Island’s redevelopment plans for his cherished Farmall plant site.
Today, we share excerpts of some favorite Spike moments from our newspaper. And we’ll join Q-Cers waiting for the next chapter.
Spike in the Times
Former Times reporters Jim Renkes and John Willard conducted many interviews with the Q-C’s rising radio star. Here are some excerpts.
‘My heart is in radio’ - Oct. 15, 1978
“I don’t think of either job as more important than the other,” says the 25-year-old East Moline native. “My job at Harvester is the gravy check. I bought a house and paid my bills. But my heart is in radio.”
After leaving the air at 10 a.m., O’Dell spends an hour or so recording commercials and then goes home for lunch. By 2:30 p.m., he’s traded his Levis and polo shirt for the uniform and badge of a Farmall plant protection man. He gets off his Farmall job at
11 p.m. At 4:45 a.m. the next day, he wakes up and heads for the studio on “Twinkie Boulevard.”
“I’m playing records for the welder at J.I. Case, not a stockbroker on Wall Street.”
Spike leaves for Charlotte, N.C. - May 27, 1981
“It’s the toughest decision I’ve ever made in my life,” the 28-year-old East Moline native said today.
He said the station first approached him more than a year ago with an offer, but he turned it down. “But the money got better and better the more we talked,” Spike said.
Spike’s group cluck - May 17, 1984
It’s a little before 7 a.m. and the phone lines at KIIK-FM are blinking like crazy as dozens of otherwise normal citizens are waiting to get in on Spike O’Dells Group Cluck.
A psychologist could spend years analyzing why these people call in with their fowl language.
“I just do it ’cause it’s so darn funny,” said O’Dell as he wipes tears of laughter from his eyes.
The move to KIIK - Aug. 30, 1984
The new pact also puts an end to a six-month bidding war between KIIK and KSTT, which hoped to get O’Dell back to a morning simulcast on KSTT-WXLP.
“They (KSTT) made me a nice, long-term offer that would have given me a lot of security. I looked at it pretty hard, but the truth is, I didn’t necessarily want to leave here.”
“I also wasn’t sure that the thing at KSTT would work. I don’t think AM radio can compete with FM anymore.”
‘A real nerd’ - Sept. 27, 1986
Spike’s record, “Wham! Bam! Traffic Jam!” is certainly a hit with the folks out at the Annie Wittenmyer Youth Center, which is reaping the benefits.
“I’d done the song (a rap tune about being caught in traffic on the way to work) earlier here at the station and Bill Fry (a Monmouth, Ill., record producer ) called me up and said I should make a record out of it,” O’Dell recalls.
“It’s really pretty amazing, O’Dell laughs. “They can take a real nerd like me and make him sound halfway decent.”
Bigger than KIIK - March 22, 1987
“Spike O’Dell is bigger than KIIK,” says Steve Bridges of KFMH-FM, Muscatine. “He’s what really gave that station its identity.”
Off to WGN - July 10, 1987
As he settles into a chair at the station’s main broadcast studio, it’s easy to see that Spike is still dazzled by his new environment. The room is about six times the size of any facility in the Quad-Cities and the control panel looks like something borrowed from NASA.
“This place is like a broadcasting hall of fame,” he says. “There are people here who are legends and I’m working with them. I still can’t believe it.”