R.I.P., WXRT News

Thursday, December 19, 2019
I’ve said many times that my decade (1979-89) with the news department at Chicago radio station WXRT-FM sprinkled fairy dust over all the rest of my career.

The four letters WXRT sparked conversation and opened doors around the world. I owe that station and the people who brought me onboard more than I can say.

Word that WXRT’s latest owner, Entercom Communications, has eliminated the job of morning newscaster Mary Dixon—the station’s last standing journalist—puts an end to a tradition of award-winning reporting, presented over the years by a staff that at its peak numbered three.

July 1985 WXRT Featured Artists card
Here are some reflections from my fellow WXRT News alumni—to be updated as others react.

How did WXRT News begin?

Linda Brill, WXRT’s first news director, 1975-77: It began as a tug-of-war between news and music programming. Few believed that news could drive listeners the way music could. But when I started WXRT News in 1975, I was determined to make news a separate department—free of any influences other than pure, professional journalism.

C.D. (Charles) Jaco, 1976-79 and Brill’s successor as news director: People like owner Dan Lee, General Manager Seth Mason, Program Director John Platt, and … Linda Brill … supported long-form, in-depth newscasts, investigative pieces and documentaries. In just three years, stories like Brill’s exposé of college-paper-writing-for-profit scams, my documentary on Chicago’s American Nazi Party, and my trip to Cuba to track down Chicago airline hijackers engaged the audience and snagged ’XRT repeated awards as the best FM news operation in the country.

Marj Halperin, 1978-84: I knocked on ’XRT’s door, along with most other news shops in town, searching for a break in the Chicago market. Crusty C.D. Jaco agreed to an informational interview, though he had no openings. Within a few days of our meeting, or so it seems in my memory, he fired an errant employee and hired me! I came from out of state and had no idea how lucky I was, didn’t know anything about ’XRT. Was gifted with training and support for top-quality (and, ahem, award-winning) news, a stepping stone to a fun and varied career, as well as an introduction to lifelong friends.

Why was it important?

Brill: I hired the brilliant Charles Jaco and we took off running. We produced two five-minute newscasts a day, filled with hand-spliced natural sound and focused on local issues. We won national awards for FM radio news. And so “Chicago’s Fine Rock” also delivered fine journalism, on par with public radio broadcasts.

Jaco: It showed that listeners to a station that intelligently programmed music are also interested in intelligent news.

Neil Parker (the news director who hired me), 1976-95: Our listeners truly cared about the news and, thank goodness, they grew to trust WXRT News. I feel we earned that trust through our local reporting and relatable delivery.

Halperin: It’s hard to picture, today, a market in which we and other FM stations produced serious newscasts, independent reporting and breaking stories. But we did, and it was a critical part of the mix for an audience that valued more than just the hits of the day.

Michelle Damico, 1984-93: WXRT’s previous owner and managers … were committed to the community. They believed in serving listeners. And listeners had a great appetite for news. They trusted ’XRT—to be the music and culture tastemakers for generations, and for delivering to them the news that mattered locally and nationally.

What did it mean for you?

Parker: Getting my foot in the door as a young reporter (Linda Brill called to offer me a part-time gig on my 22nd birthday) and eventually becoming news director was incredible. Being part of what became a legendary team in the greatest news town in America was a dream, Among other things, the ’XRT experience even helped launch the next chapters of my career (media relations and executive training at both a global firm and at my own consultancy). And how many people can say they’re still good friends with so many pals from so long ago? I’m forever grateful.

Halperin: As a general assignment reporter based at City Hall, I had a front-row seat to the parade of mayors and mayhem that ruled the city in the 1980s. At one point, Mayor Jane Byrne tried to push us “regulars” out of the press room, complaining we were treating her unfairly—a familiar refrain from another politician these days, right? I came to work, only to find John Kass assigned my desk. (He worked part-time for a small, Southeast Side paper at the time.) For a few weeks, we worked elbow-to-elbow, till he kinda faded away. along with the whole controversy.

I learned how the city works, from the inside out. I covered every major development in city government, but also focused on communities; often, City News and I were the only reporters on the scene for neighborhood stories about housing, violence and the impact of a struggling economy. All of that prepped me for future jobs working “on the dark side” for government agencies, starting my own consulting business, and my current political commentary and activism—where I also focus on the needs of Chicago’s diverse communities.

Damico: I believed I was providing a public service, covering stories throughout Chicago as a street reporter and then being assigned to write and announce newscasts throughout the day. It meant that, as a radio station, we stood out as a rare breed. Our owners cared about the news and that was a source of pride. There was a time when ’XRT had the largest FM news team, when other stations were dropping their news teams thanks to Ronald Reagan’s media deregulation. We believed in the value of an informed public. But more importantly, our listeners expected the news throughout the day to be told by familiar and trusting voices.

Kathy Voltmer, 1995-98: I feel blessed to have been even a small part of ’XRT’s storied news legacy. Our dear friendships and our memories will endure.

What is WXRT without news?

Parker: Not quite the same. But all these years later, not much is.

Voltmer: I mourn the loss of the station’s once-mighty news department. And I mourn the decline of the radio news business, which I love dearly.

Brill: In this era of “fake news,” truth is even more precious. I share the outrage that Chicago listeners will be denied access to the honest, in-depth journalism of WXRT.

Damico: It’s further eroding its own identity. The news team made ’XRT special. Without the news, it will be just another radio station, located in Anyplace USA. It makes me sad.

Jaco: ’XRT without news is still an excellent radio station, but with an amputated limb. It’s also now apparently run by corporate weasels.

Halperin: The last bastion is no more a home for honest news coverage. It was a slow, but steady march from an initial three-person team with regular newscasts throughout morning and afternoon drive, plus 10-minute casts at noon a 6 p.m. But ’XRT did support news through a long and valiant struggle with various changes in ownership. I am full of praise and gratitude for that commitment and those responsible for it, even at the end of the road. Now: Can we talk about the further loss of women on-air? Another disappointing element of this story.

The Inside WXRT newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 3, March 1988.

'Star Trek' creator Gene Roddenberry in 1974 and 1976

Thursday, November 7, 2019
You’d think if you’d met the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, in the flesh you’d remember it.

Especially if he told you the real reason he made Mr. Spock look a little … devilish (about 32:17 in).

Well, I did meet him, and he told me that—and I confess that I forgot all about it.

Only when a longtime friend and neighbor lent me a vintage reel-to-reel tape player and I opened a long-filed-away box labeled “Gene Roddenberry” did I recall that I was actually in a studio with Roddenberry at college radio station WPGU in 1974—a half-decade after the original TV show had been canceled and a half-decade before the first Star Trek movie was to debut in theaters. (Photo: Roddenberry in 1974 by Nolan Hester for The Daily Illini.)

Not only that, but I got him to autograph a book, which sat on my shelf forgotten and unloved for years.

Here’s how it sounded, Nov. 7, 1974: A long-unheard interview with the visionary Gene Roddenberry, hosted by Phil Robinson with help from Jim Gassel, Bill Taylor, a so-young-and-nerdy-you-could-plotz 19-year-old Charlie Meyerson and a bunch of call-in fans.


Bonus 1: Keep listening past the end of that show and you’ll hear my second Roddenberry encounter—raw audio of a phone interview followed by the finished feature that resulted: An episode of WPGU’s mini-documentary series, Probe.

Bonus 2: For completists, here’s the aircheck of the full 1974 hour—including ads and a newscast by WPGU anchor Maggi Pratt.

Related listening: My interviews with science fiction writers Ray Bradbury in 1999, Cory Doctorow in 2019, Greg Bear in 1994 and 1996, William Gibson in 1993 and Douglas Adams in 1997 and 1992.

Check out even more of my conversations with thought-leaders through the years on this website, in Apple Music, on Spotify, via your favorite podcast player, and at Chicago Public Square.


And thanks to Dave Mausner for lending me that tape player.

Excelsior.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019
It’s an honor to see my name listed among those of so many actually talented people in the acknowledgments for A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee, a biography from Danny Fingeroth coming to bookstores Nov. 5.

Publishers Weekly calls it “a fittingly ebullient tribute to a man who never failed to add one more exclamation mark.”

My contribution? Sharing audio of my encounters with Lee over the decades—here, here and here.

You can hear more of my conversations with thought leaders on this website, in Apple Music, on Spotify, via your favorite podcast player and at Chicago Public Square.

Help wanted: Legal affairs writer

Friday, October 11, 2019
As I do from time to time, I'm sharing word of an interesting job opening—this one again with the American Bar Association, which I’ve been honored to consult on matters of audience engagement.

If you are, or know someone who is, a legal affairs writer, check it out here.

And tell ’em Charlie sent ya.