‘A world designed for people trained here’

Saturday, October 16, 2004
[A speech delivered to Illini Media Co. students and alumni in Champaign, Ill., Oct. 16, 2004, celebrating groundbreaking for the company’s new synergistic home; posted here Nov. 6, 2014.]

I owe a great deal to this place.

By “this place,” I don’t mean right here, or along Green Street, where the new building will go up. Or farther down, where the present WPGU studios lie, although they’re all fine places.

I mean the dank basement of Weston Hall, where I fell in love with radio.

And that itself was something of a fluke, because I arrived on campus with plans to become a print journalist. I didn’t even know about WPGU until I saw the signup table on Quad Day.

I liked the T-shirts.

So I put my name on a list. As a matter of fact, I put my name on lots of lists that day—including the Daily Illini signup sheet.

But WPGU called me first. By the time the DI tried to recruit me, I was waist-deep in magnetic tape and newscast copy. And my fate was sealed—although I often wondered what would’ve happened if I hadn’t had to choose. (It took a couple of decades, but I’m finally finding out.)

The joke for years has been that students paid U. of I. tuition to work at WPGU, or the Daily Illini. The academic opportunities were merely fringe benefits.

To say that’s true would be to ignore the surprising ways in which those classes in nuclear engineering (for dummies) and computer science have paid off over the course of my career. But there’s no denying my time at WPGU gave me a chance to try on several wonderful hats: DJ, reporter, newscaster, recording engineer. Over the course of four years, I—as many of you before and after me—concluded radio would be a fun way to earn a living.

But you don’t have to have wound up working in the media to have benefitted from time at these great institutions. Who among us alumni hasn’t gotten a little thrill out of casually mentioning, years later, “Oh, yeah, I was a rock DJ”? Or “I was a sports columnist”?

Breaking a big story, writing an inflammatory column, or being among the first to spin what we now refer to as (sigh) rock classics—or having to fill “dead air” when a record sticks or a cart jams or a computer crashes—has given a lot of us the intestinal fortitude to thrive in a variety of other workplace environments. It becomes a secret identity we carry through life—something that gives us extra strength when we need to ad lib a speech or grind out a piece of writing on short notice. Kinda like what I’m serving up here here.

And our time at Illini Media brought other, more intangible benefits—which are proving invaluable in these interactive, multitasking, multimedia times. Over the last few months, as I’ve become acquainted with more Illini Media Alumni of all generations, some common themes have emerged about what happened to us back here:

* We learned to argue—sometimes heatedly—about how to reach and keep an audience. This is something people in broadcast media have studied for years; it’s something newspapers, whose competitors on the Web are now just a click away, are only beginning to learn. And at a time in which virtually every business needs a Web site—and every Web site is competing on some level with every other Web site—it’s all the more essential.

The same kinds of arguments that kept us going into the night in the basement of Weston Hall—when to lead with local or national news, or how often to repeat programming; which words are best for starting a newscast—happen almost every hour among the staff at chicagotribune.com. And the Web site is stronger for it.

* We learned not to fear technology. To kick it or pound it, sometimes. But not to fear it. And always, for those occasions when it fails completely, to have a Pink Floyd cut ready.

* And this one applies particularly to radio: We learned the joys of a job with no dress code. This also is a promise delivered upon by the Internet age. Thanks to the marvels of a remote connection at home, I have often overseen the Chicago Tribune Internet Edition while wearing only ... um, let’s say, pajamas.

A man who may be the Illini Media Company’s most famous graduate, and who’s the definition of the modern multimedia journalist—Roger Ebert—wrote in Yahoo Internet Life magazine a couple of years ago about how the computer and the Internet have changed the nature of journalism. It’s true now more than ever:

“This is the same monitor upon which I surf the Web, read and answer e-mail, watch DVDs, and keep my daily calendar,” he wrote. He called it “the arena of my cyberworld.”

“Because the monitor serves so many purposes,” Ebert said, “it seems to me like a public space.” Typing on an old typewriter, he said, “was a solitary act. This is more like a performance.”

This is a world designed for people trained ... here.

And by here, now, I mean the new multimedia center we celebrate this weekend.

It probably won’t be dark enough or dank enough to spark nostalgia among those of us who graduated with honors from Weston Hall.

But, in an age when anyone with a passion for writing, for photography, for music, for the spoken word can (and, I’d say, should) just get out there and do it, and publish it on the Web—in an age when radio, TV and newspaper compete against one another on the Internet, when radio people need to know how to spell and newspaper people need to know how to talk (and I’m still learning to do both)—I hope the new Illini Media World Headquarters will be a place where future generations of students won’t have to choose between working in print, or on the air (or on the Web), but can try it all—in the same building, on the same shift—mixing and matching until they find the combination that makes them fall in love.