Rewind-Fast Forward: Disco Demolition, Stadium Security

By Rob Hart and Jennifer Keiper

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Forty years ago it was a disaster, but the simple radio station promotion known as Disco Demolition has a legacy that’s considerably more complicated.

It’s the story of a fading baseball team that was in search of attention. It’s also the story of a radio station and a style of broadcasting that touched a nerve with a new generation of listeners. 

The concept was easy enough. Fans would get a discount to a double header between the White Sox and Tigers at Comiskey Park if they brought a disco to the ballpark. The disco records were collected and then carted to center field, where they would be symbolically blown up by fireworks while the teams prepared for game two.

It was another attempt by White Sox owner Bill Veeck to draw additional fans to see a team that was 40-47 and headed toward another losing season. The 70’s weren’t kind to the White Sox.  The team started the decade with a franchise worst record of 56-106. A new General Manager retooled Sox into a contender by 1972, but the team fell back into mediocrity in 1973. Things were so bad that the American League considered relocating the White Sox to Seattle in order to settle a lawsuit that was filed after the Pilots moved to Milwaukee in 1970. That ended when Veeck emerged from retirement to buy the Sox in late 1975. 

Dahl was 24-years old. He had attained major market stardom in Detroit, and that was enough to attract the attention of WDAI-FM in Chicago. WDAI was owned by ABC and was the FM companion to WLS, then an AM Top 40 powerhouse. Despite those advantages, WDAI’s rock format was an also-ran in the ratings, and Dahl’s “Rude Awakening” wasn’t enough to turn around the station’s sagging fortunes. WDAI switched formats from album rock to all-disco on January 1, 1979. Dahl was out of a job. 

Media reports at the time compared Dahl and Meier’s show to another comedy phenomenon: “Saturday Night Live.” And like SNL, Steve and Garry attracted an entirely new generation of listeners with a style of radio that was not available anywhere else. 

The rock audience that listened to The Loop despised the disco music that drove the soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever” to the top of the pop music charts.  Disco dominated the culture in 1977 and 1978. Rock and roll stalwarts like Kiss, The Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones recorded songs with a disco beat. By 1979, disco was losing steam. The disco backlash was starting to catch fire, and Dahl was more than happy to fan the flames.

“I thought it was playable and I thought that people would behave and would stay off the field and there would be no further incidents. They didn’t agree with me and said the field was unplayable. I do not agree with that either. I would suggest that everyone go out and look at the field and decide for themselves whether it was unplayable or not,” Veeck said.

White Sox head groundskeeper Roger Bossard disagreed.

There were four Major League Baseball forfeits in the 70’s. Three involved a lack of security and promotions gone wrong. Experts say stadium security has evolved over the decades. The Oklahoma City Bombing, 9/11, and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security led to standard security measures across professional sports.

“One of the first areas in which Homeland Security was concerned about was stadiums. They were considered soft targets,” said Lou Marciani, Director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security at the University of Mississippi. “That process tightened this all up so that there’s a management system in place now, and an assurance that the stadiums are maintaining certain security processes.”

Now, he said, all promotions are vetted by stadium security.

“I think that’s a very good decision, and I think the White Sox will be leaders in the industry to ensure the safety of the fan and security. I concur with that decision,” Marciani said.