Photo by Andrew Nelles (BA ’08)
“After a while, if you have your own ideas and your own thoughts, you need to go on your own.”
By Ann C. Logue
Fans of pioneering country DJ “Uncle Len” Ellis might be surprised to learn that he originally wanted to become a lawyer. After spending three years in the army in post-World War II Japan, Ellis returned to Chicago in 1949, enrolling at John Marshall Law School via the GI Bill.
“I was there for half an hour,” Ellis says, long enough to realize he wasn’t cut out to practice law. While in Japan, Ellis had coordinated entertainment for fellow troops, and that experience spurred him toward a career in show business. He found Columbia College Chicago in the phone book and, intrigued by the radio program, immediately enrolled.
One of his instructors was Clyde Caswell, a veteran program manager and on-air announcer, who referred Ellis to his first radio job as an announcer in Alma, Michigan—which paid a hefty $50 per week. But when Ellis and his wife, Bee, went on a cross-country honeymoon road trip in 1950, he learned that local radio station WVMI in Biloxi, Mississippi, needed an announcer. Ellis auditioned and got the job. The owner charged the 21-year-old with overseeing a format change from big band and jazz to country, which was just evolving from backwoods music into a commercially viable genre.
Ellis returned to Chicago, resuming Columbia classes while adopting the DJ name “Uncle Len” and DJing part-time at the country station in Hammond, Indiana, WJOB. After earning his degree in 1952, Ellis stayed in Hammond. He became known for his devotion to country music, carefully preparing for each artist interview, promoting live shows, and broadcasting significant moments in the genre’s history. When Hank Williams died, Ellis says, “We cried on the air. We were part of things happening.”
In 1958, Ellis helped start the Country Music Association to promote the genre’s growth. By the early 1960s, he decided that the best way to be his own boss—and to ensure that country music would stay on the air—was to start his own company, Porter County Broadcasting, and build a radio station. In 1964, he and Bee established WAKE-AM in Valparaiso, Indiana. “After a while, if you have your own ideas and your own thoughts, you need to go on your own,” Ellis says. And he was happy to keep his operations in Indiana: “It cost too much to park in Chicago,” he jokes.
In addition to being member number one of the Country Music Association, Ellis was named Mr. Dee Jay USA in 1963 and the Country Music Association’s Small Market Disc Jockey of the Year in 1978. He was elected to the Country Broadcasters Association DJ Hall of Fame in 1983.
Ellis’ Porter County Broadcasting, now called Radio One Communications, holds four stations in Northwest Indiana: 1500 WAKE-AM (oldies), 103.9 WXRD-FM (classic rock), 107.1 WZVNFM (modern adult contemporary), and 105.5 WLJE-FM (country). WLJE is the highest-rated and longest-running country station in Chicago, and the other stations boast high ratings and a long string of awards from the Indiana Broadcasters Association. Ellis is the longest-running country broadcaster in the Chicago media market.
Says Ellis: “People say to me, ‘You’ve been to school, you grew up in a big city—how come you love country?’ I tell them L-O-V-E.” It’s safe to say the country and broadcasting worlds love “Uncle Len” right back.