Family focuses on Les Grobstein’s life and fans as listeners donate to help with radio personality’s funeral

·5 min read

Scott Grobstein remembers calling in to his father’s radio show.

The Illinois high school English teacher grew up with a dad, Les Grobstein, who had a famous voice and a career that ended with a place in Chicago sports radio history. Grobstein died Sunday at age 69.

Scott Grobstein was at times a regular caller to his dad’s radio show, sometimes as a prank and announcing himself as “Lou from Buffalo Grove.” He shared other moments Tuesday, such as joining his dad on the radio — never nervous, “it was always a natural thing” — and getting skewered by him when he mispronounced a player’s name.

“I always knew what he did for a living,” Scott Grobstein said. “I always knew as a child that that meant kind of getting to meet some fun people, going to some fun places.”

His friends would be in awe of some of the sporting events Grobstein attended. “I never tried to take any of that for granted,” he said.

A fundraiser set up for his family called for assistance with expenses and support “in processing the sudden and tragic loss of Les.” They were planning a private funeral, though with plans to share a Zoom link for the public.

Some raised questions on social media about Grobstein’s long career and the radio business in general, including whether it fairly treats those who rise even to Grobstein’s celebrated level.

Scott Grobstein said his father’s death was unexpected, and he had only good things to say about his dad’s radio home, WSCR-AM 670.

“You have an unexpected event like this, you try to sometimes look for help when needed,” Grobstein said of the request for financial help. As of Tuesday, the fundraising had surpassed its goal.

But to be sure, the radio industry has faced challenges in recent years. Employees have faced cutbacks and stagnant salaries, and have called out problematic culture.

Radio has long been an industry where a few high-profile air personalities make a lot of money, and most toil away for relatively modest wages. Even in major markets such as Chicago, industry observers said, many radio personalities may be making far less than listeners would imagine.

“There’s always been a great disparity between the upper echelon that make a lot of money in the radio business … and the rank-and-file workers who are in the trenches, where it’s a hard living,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, a radio trade publication.

The broader challenges of the radio industry, which has lost ground to digital competition while a few large, debt-ridden companies control the vast number of stations, have precipitated numerous job and salary cutbacks in recent years, Harrison said.

Three times as many commercial radio news departments cut staff as added staff in 2020, according to the most recent data published by the Radio Television Digital News Association.

“Fewer stations have found it economically feasible to have the large, robust sports reporting and sports anchor … positions that they have had in the past,” said Dan Shelley, executive director and chief operating officer of RTDNA.

Still, Les Grobstein spent more than half a century covering the Chicago sports scene, including recent years as an overnight host for WSCR-AM 670.

“Today is a sad day at 670 The Score, but we celebrate Les’ life and career and the impact he had on our community and our station. We extend our deepest condolences to Les’ family and friends, including his son Scott and partner Kathy,” 670 The Score and Audacy said in a statement.

Radio has endured tough years, accelerated by the pandemic. In Chicago, year-over-year radio revenue fell 24% to $325 million in 2020, according to according to media research firm BIA Advisory Services. The Score, which ranked fifth in revenue among Chicago stations, struggled with a dearth of live sports programming and fell 26% to $15 million in 2020, according to BIA.

Grobstein weathered all storms, however, and still found himself in press boxes in his final days, according to the Chicago Tribune’s obituary by Paul Sullivan.

His profanity-filled interview with former Chicago Cubs manager Lee Elia was famous in local sports legend.

“If it was a Chicago sports fact and Grobstein confirmed it, you didn’t have to go to the internet to fact-check,” Sullivan wrote. “He was that good.”

He also had a gift for opening the phone lines for lengthy discussions with fans who wanted to vent.

Scott Grobstein said, “He was a very, and I mean this in an all-good way, he was a very simple man. He was never about recognition, he was never about celebrity status, he was never about ‘I’m bigger than the job.’ He just loved to talk about who the Bears were going to hire.”

There was little but love for Grobstein and his work in tributes that poured in. Colleagues from the station published personal remembrances on The Score’s website.

“Les cherished his audience, whether you were a caller at 4 a.m. or a colleague in the press box,” reporter Chris Emma wrote. “The beauty behind him was he never changed once the red light went off.”

Reporter Bruce Levine recounted meeting Grobstein four decades ago at Wrigley Field, and traveling together throughout their careers.

Levine described his colleague as “brilliant in his own particular way” and “truly a kind person” who made his mark on the Chicago sports industry.

“Your mission was accomplished on this planet,” Levine wrote in a section addressed to Grobstein.

Chicago Tribune’s Robert Channick contributed.

abowen@chicagotribune.com

oolander@chicagotribune.com

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