Bob Sanders brought neighborly charm to midday radio

Bob Sanders

Bob Sanders

Long before Bob and Marianne, Steve and Johnnie, or Don and Roma, there was Bob and Betty Sanders — Chicago radio's quintessential husband-and-wife team. And listeners loved them.

"Bob and Betty were the epitome of comfort radio," said veteran broadcaster Steve Dale, who was their producer in the 1980s. "The influence that they had was undeniable. They were at the top for a reason."

A trusted and admired voice on WBBM AM 780 for decades, Bob Sanders died Sunday near Lake Geneva, Wis., after a long illness. He was 89.

The couple met at a station in St. Louis where Bob was a staff announcer and Betty was an actress working in commercials. In 1956, Bob joined WBBM and was the last disc jockey on the air before the station switched first to talk and later to all-news. After 18 years of marriage, the couple finally cajoled management to let them go on the air together in April 1972. Ads billed them as "the only husband and wife news radio team."

Their midday show, which blended news and interviews with folksy repartee and fluffy features, was enormously successful in the ratings and highly profitable for CBS. "They were smooth and sunny, the very embodiment of the mythical, ever-pleasant talkative neighbors on 1950s sitcoms," Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote. "They were very fond of administering trivia quizzes, and all you really need to know about how sweet it was is that listeners who called in and played along won the same prizes whether or not they got the answers right."

Patricia Wexler, who began as an intern for them at WBBM and later became their producer, recalled some of the world's biggest celebrities coming through their studio. "But it was never about their own celebrity or stardom," she said. "They were always very down-to-earth, very good-hearted, very professional. They related to their audience and always had a lot of fun — but never at each other's expense."

Although nothing Bob and Betty did could ever be regarded as remotely controversial, their abrupt firing in November 1982 made front-page headlines. WBBM management decided the couple's chatty style was no longer compatible with the station's straightforward, hard news format. Their greatest regret was not being allowed to say goodbye to their listeners.

"We are personalities as opposed to straight news people," Bob told me at the time. "If there's something in the news that I feel like making a comment on, sometimes humorously, it's very difficult for me to keep from doing that.

"We always thought of ourselves — if this is an all-news station that can be compared with a newspaper — that we were the feature page. We did not horse around with the news at all. But in between time, we had features, we had interviews and we had fun. And there was never any doubt in anyone's mind who listened to us closely where the news left off and the personality business came in. Contrary to what a lot of the critics have said about us — that we take a lighthearted approach to the news — we did not. We never did."

Barely two months after their dismissal, they were back on the air — up the dial on WCFL AM 1000 — and right back in their familiar 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. time slot.

Dale, who worked with them at WCFL, said they were as comfortable on the air as off, recalling them as unfailingly gracious and polite. "They wrote a thank-you note to every guest who came in the studio," he said. "It was the kind of class that I've not seen since."

The sale of WCFL in 1984 forced Bob and Betty off Chicago radio for good. After a stint as goodwill ambassadors for the Salvation Army, they worked for WMCA in New York and WISN in Milwaukee. When that ended, they retired to Lake Geneva, where Bob wrote a weekly newspaper column for several years.

In addition to Betty, survivors include the couple's two children and three grandchildren. Visitation will be Thursday at Derrick Funeral Home, 800 Park Drive, Lake Geneva. Funeral will be Friday at Linn Presbyterian Church, W3335 Willow Road, Lake Geneva. Memorials are requested in Bob’s name to the Salvation Army.