VALPARAISO — Len "Uncle Len" Ellis, country music pioneer and founder of Radio One Communications, died Sunday at the age of 89.
Ellis was the former owner/operator of four radio stations serving Northwest Indiana. The company began under the name Porter County Broadcasting in the 1960s. Indiana 105, WLJE-FM, remains the longest-running country station in the Chicagoland radio market.
He was the holder of card member No. 1 as a charter member of the Country Music Association, on the CMA's first board of directors and one of 15 people in 1957 who co-founded the CMA.
In 1983, he became a member of the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame; named one of 10 "Legends of Country Radio" in 1994 by the national radio and recording industry trade journal R&R; named Mr. Dee Jay USA in 1963 by the Grand Ole Opry; the CMA’s Small Market Disc Jockey of the Year in 1978; and was elected to the Country Broadcasters Association DJ Hall of Fame in 1983.
The Radio One Communications' cluster of oldies stations — 1500 WAKE-AM, classic rock 103.9 WXRD-FM, adult contemporary 107.1 WZVN-FM and country 105.5 WLJE-FM — was sold in 2014 to Adams Radio Group of Lakeville, Minnesota.
Ellis was born Feb. 28, 1928, to Nikola and Riketa (Cerenich) Elezovich. Both parents were born and raised on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast and emigrated to Chicago before 1920. Ellis was a lifelong member of the Croatian Fraternal Union.
In October 1949, after a stint in the U.S. Army, Ellis got his first radio job as a morning disc jockey at WFYC-AM in Alma, Michigan, a station that aired country music in the morning. Less than a year later he started working at an AM station in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Ellis moved back to Chicago in the early 1950s to complete his education at Columbia College, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1952.
He took a job at WJOB-AM in Hammond, where the "Uncle Len" moniker was born.
Ellis began playing country music on the air as a way to appeal to the NWI residents who had moved from the southern United States to the Region to work in the steel mills.
Ellis later worked for radio stations in Gary and Chicago before applying for a license. He founded the company that would be known later as Radio One Communications with his wife, Bee, going on the air in November 1964 with WAYK AM-1500 — changed to WAKE-AM — from a small concrete-block building built on unincorporated farmland about a mile south of U.S. 30.
In 1968, the first full-time FM stereo station in Chicagoland, WAKE-FM 105.5, went on the air. WAKE-FM changed its call letters to WLJE-FM in 1974 with the letters LJE representing Ellis' initials.
Ellis also worked as a concert promoter for 12 years.
He continued his morning radio program as Uncle Len on WLJE through the 1970s and '80s and then returned again in 2006 with "Uncle Len's Legends," his reminiscences about classic country music and musicians he had known and loved. He retired in the late-1980s and his son Leigh Ellis ran the company until its sale in 2014.
In 2001, Radio One Communications began operating WXRD-FM and WZVN-FM, acquiring and becoming owner/operator of both in 2004.
Ellis was named an Alumnus of the Year for 2013 by Columbia College Chicago.
Ellis was on an episode of "Hee Haw" in the early 1970s.
Visitation will be held from 2 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Aberdeen Banquet Center, 216 Ballantrae St., in Valparaiso. Funeral services are 11 a.m. Friday at Aberdeen Chapel.