From dorm broadcasting to the digital frontier: A journalist’s journey

Thursday, August 24, 2023
I can trace the origin of my broadcasting career back to Aug. 24, 1973—early in my first year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, when a tradition known as Quad Day gave campus student organizations a chance to introduce themselves.

In particular, I got to know student radio station WPGU—a story I shared in some detail with a speech to the University of Illinois Library team on the occasion of Homecoming weekend, Oct. 14, 2022.

To mark the 50th anniversary of that life-changing encounter, here’s video and a rough transcript of those remarks.

I wouldn’t be here talking to you today if I didn’t save everything.
And I wouldn’t be here talking to you today if the University of Illinois in its wisdom hadn’t decided that my old, let’s say, stuff from my era in Illinois was worth keeping…

… which has been great and welcome news for my relatives—my wife and sons—who’ve been begging me for years to find a home or a trash bin for some of that … stuff.

And before we go further back in history—like, wow, half a century, which means I’m about to give short shrift to almost everything that I’m going to tell you—I want to take you back to June 7, 2017, when Laura Haber at Unit One—a pioneering project in the Allen Hall dorm where students devised their own courses and taught one another from their own skill sets—posted a fateful message to the “Ghosts of Allen Hall Past” group on Facebook:

“The alumni association’s working on a history display for the Alice Campbell Welcome Center. They’d like to have some photos or 3D artifacts from Unit One.”

I wasn’t ready at that point to part with actual 3D artifacts, but I had been digging through some old audio from my student days at the U. of I.—including my freshman [correction: sophomore] year, when I created my first radio documentary for student station WPGU about—in what I might now consider a significant conflict of interest—my dorm, Allen Hall and Unit One:

[Young Meyerson: When the student unrest that shook the campus in the late 1960s finally reached the administrative hierarchy of the University of Illinois, the chancellor’s office formed CRUEL—that’s the Commission to Reform Undergraduate Education and Living, which is currently on ice and inactive. Created in 1970 to humanize the often-criticized computer-run campus, CRUEL’s first and some say only major achievement was the creation of Unit One, billed since its beginning in 1971 as a ‘living-learning experiment.’” (audio fades)]

So I shared that with the group, and with Laura, and that was fun. But then, in September of last year, Laura ratcheted things up with a call for “stories, memories, artifacts, photos, posters, recordings, letters, diaries, electronic media and anything else that might help document the history of Unit One.” And then we were off to the races, because … I saved it all.

This, for instance—from my fictional concoction for a “Science Fiction as Social Forecasting” class at Unit One. And if you can read my scrawls in this mockup of a newspaper clipping, you might see some things that evoke more recent global history.

The call for Unit One memorabilia connected me to U. of I. Archivist for Student Life and Culture Ellen Swain, who, to my surprise and again my family’s delight, has at least pretended to be interested in virtually everything I never threw away from my college years and even other stuff that I have hoarded through almost half a century in journalism—a career that began in earnest right here at the U. of I., the former College of Communications and WPGU.

My journalistic destiny was probably set in stone long before I came here. Both my parents were newspaper people, and so I developed an early interest in the news, and it’s no surprise that I worked on the student newspaper in high school and freelanced for the Orland Park paper in high school and through summers in college. (This is a column I wrote about riding my bike from Champaign back to Orland Park. It was frightening. Route 45 all the way.)

And I also, as many of my generation did, had a passion for science and space. And once it became clear to me that I really didn’t have the right stuff to be an astronaut, I figured the closest I could come to the space program would be as a journalist. And more on that later.

So that combo—science, journalism, technology—was a common thread as I applied to college. And I applied to a bunch. I was accepted at Northwestern, the Universities of Michigan and Chicago, and Princeton‚ whose spelling left something to be desired.

But, you know, Einstein wound up there, I thought, so, you know: Worth considering. And they sent me what may have been the only telegram I ever received.

And Illinois took me in.

When I consulted my dad about where to go—my mom had died three years earlier—his answer was, “I think we can afford Illinois, Charlie.” So, Illinois it was. (I know it still kind of stings, but stay tuned. It worked out.)

In the years that followed, my two wonderful sisters made the same choice.

Back in 1973, when I took the U. of I. up on its acceptance offer, you couldn’t major in journalism until you had enough credits to qualify as a junior. So I had to pick another major. And I somehow managed to persuade the Chemistry Department to take me in—with a scholarship.

And I really regret depriving someone genuinely interested in chemistry of that cash that I took—especially since it became clear quickly that I really wasn’t cut out for chemistry; I got the first D of my college career in a chem class, despite my elaborate note-taking.
Amazingly, in retrospect, I got a B for both courses, both semesters. But those notes are pretty, aren’t they?

Meanwhile, outside the classroom, things moved more quickly. On Quad Day of my freshman year, I checked in with both WPGU and the Daily Illini. WPGU called me first, and had me on board within a few days, doing newscasts via the Dorm Broadcasting System, which was a way at the time of smuggling beginners’ radio shows to the dormitories via the buildings’ electrical currents. Your radio could pick up a signal, but your radio had to be within, I don’t know, 10 or 12 feet of electrical wiring in the building. You couldn’t get on the over-the-air FM station until you proved you were good enough for the big time.

By the time the Daily Illini got back to me and offered me a chance to work with the paper, I was waist-deep in magnetic tape and newscast copy. And although I was game to do both, you couldn’t do that because, at the time, in that era of Watergate, so many people aspired to be journalists that one person was not allowed to work in both places—because that would deprive someone else of an opportunity. And everybody wanted one of those opportunities.

Even though I aspired to be a print journalist, WPGU gave me the chance to explore both being a radio reporter—anchoring the news—and being a DJ:

[Young Meyerson: About a minute after 7 o’clock in the morning, right here at The Best Rock Around, WPGU, Urbana … The Urbana-Champaign Senate’s 50 student seats are up for election Wednesday and Thursday. About 150 candidates are vying for those spots …]

And I loved both those roles. So, sadly, I turned the DI down.

Fortunately for the Chemistry Department, my Advanced Placement and College Level Examination Program (or CLEP) tests gave me enough credits after just one year to escape chemistry and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences to join the print journalism program at the then-College of Communications, which accepted me—despite my snotty acceptance letter.

My journalism education got off to a rocky start—another D.

Ah, well, uh …
That second year brought lots of new fun, including a photography course in which I demonstrated proficiency just slightly more impressive than my efforts in chemistry (another B) but that yielded a bunch of photos—
—that’s my Allen Hall desk by the way—that now reside in the University Archives.

Meanwhile, at WPGU, I began to carve out a role as a kind of consumer advocate in the mini-documentary series known as Probe, many installments of which are among the audio tapes that I’m now entrusting to the U. of I. Media Preservation and Digital Reformatting Project, which is doing amazingly detailed restoration work …

[Young Meyerson: I’m Charles Meyerson. This is Probe, the show that answers your questions, solves your problems, and checks into things you want to know more about. This week. For instance, we got a call from a listener named Mark, who lives in Champaign.
[Mark: Yeah, I’ve been collecting my Daily Illinis for the last semester and a half, and I got all these newspapers hanging around and I’ve been waiting and looking in the paper for, you know, a recycling place or you know, paper drive. I don’t see it.
[Young Meyerson: An appropriate question, we think for what has been called …]

…although, in retrospect, a lot of the consumers for whom I was supposed to be advocating suspiciously shared my passion for science and science fiction. But that led to some memorable interviews with people like Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who explained what was holding up the first Star Trek movie.

[Young Meyerson: At the behest of the local Star Trek Federation, Probe called Roddenberry’s Hollywood office last Tuesday to find out what the delay is. And he said:
[Roddenberry: Our attitude is, we don’t want to rush into a hurried script. That is not really what we want. We feel, and we think the fans probably agree with us, it’s better to come out a month later and wait and get exactly the script you’re looking for …]

The joke for years—maybe even still—has been that students paid U. of I. tuition so they could work at WPGU or the Daily Illini, and the academic opportunities were just fringe benefits. To believe that would be to ignore the surprising ways, in my case, at least, in which those requirements for journalism majors—that they take a lot of classes in a lot of different subjects—paid off over the course of my career. In 1979, working at my first pro job at WMRO and WAUR in Aurora, I brought to bear some of what I learned in a course I derided as “nuclear engineering for dummies.”

And as I was looking for a job in Chicago in the months after that year’s Three Mile Island nuclear plant partial meltdown in Pennsylvania, that reporting and my U. of I. education helped me sound a little smarter than maybe some other radio reporters.

[Young Meyerson: A couple of good things about fusion. Number one, it doesn’t leave much in the way of radioactive waste, disposal of which is a big headache. Number two, it uses hydrogen, which is available in a practically limitless quantity in seawater. Fusion involves pressing …. ]

… and that reporting was part of what helped me land the job that, as I’ve said many times in many places, sprinkled fairy dust over all the rest of my career: Reporter and news anchor at WXRT-FM in Chicago, which was at that point a young rock station that mixed news and music in surprising and rewarding ways.

’XRT gave me a chance to scratch that itch for science and space reporting. It gave me a platform in 1985 from which to submit one of 1,700 applications for NASA’s “Journalist in Space” program. But before NASA could name a winning applicant, disaster happened in January 1986, giving me the sad responsibility of telling listeners that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded.

[Young Meyerson: The problem seems to have developed with either the main liquid fuel cylinder, the big one in the middle, or one of the two solid rocket boosters to either side of the shuttle. … Whatever happened happened with no notice—happened so quickly that a ground controller continued to treat things routinely, droning off numbers and statistics even after the videotape clearly showed the explosion. So NASA’s instruments may not reflect whatever the problem was. With no notice, they never had a chance.]

NASA named 40 finalists for the Journalist in Space program that May, just a few months later. I was not on the list. It was kind of a relief at the time; we were expecting our firstborn son. But NASA never named a winner.

Next year brought one of my most memorable interviews: A sit-down with legendary astronaut Jim Lovell, who gave us all that Apollo 13 quote—and this, by the way, is what he really said—“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

[Lovell: During all the flights, things usually go wrong. Certainly, in three outta four of my flights, we had failures along the way. We tend to become complacent with space flight because we had so many successes. I think the Challenger accident has maybe given us a better perspective of the risk involved in space flight than we had before.]

There at WXRT, at the dawn of the consumer computer age, my computer science course at the U. of I. helped me be a little more comfy than some other radio types when it was time to move from typewriters to computers. That comfort came even more in handy as I moved to my next job—as news director at WNUA, which was an innovative smooth jazz station—just as radio transitioned to digital audio editing, which made radio news and audio editing more fun than ever. And it gave me a chance to talk about the digital frontier with people including science fiction visionary William Gibson, who coined the phrase cyberspace—but who in 1993 didn’t have and didn’t want an email address.

[Gibson: Well, there are a number of reasons. One, I’ve developed a sort of cyber-agoraphobia at the very thought of it. Another reason is that my working day consists of sitting in front of a Macintosh computer from 9 to 5 writing. And when I’m done writing, the last thing I wanna do is sit in front of the same Macintosh computer while I open and read my email.]

I also had a chance to talk to Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry, who in 1996 made affectionate fun of technology.

[Meyerson: Why does anyone need personal computers?
[Barry: To me, the beauty of it is that you can now, in the privacy of your home, sit there and have a machine that is, you know, able to do billions and billions of complex calculations in a second. And you can sit there and use that thing to play a game like Solitaire. To me, that’s a wonderful thing.]

Uh, the Barry interview might have been a mistake—especially the part where I introduced him to the boss.

[Boss: Nice to meet you, Dave. I’ve heard a lot about you from Charlie.
[Barry: Same, Ralph. You should fire Charlie. He doesn’t prepare …
[Meyerson: Could you wait another 15 minutes until the show’s over?]

That joke— and it was a joke at the time—proved prophetic, because the Telecommunications Act of 1996 cleared the way for fewer and larger corporations to acquire more and more radio stations, and spelled the end of an era for radio news. In 1998, my employer, a precursor to the radio behemoth Clear Channel—later, now, iHeart Media—eliminated WNUA’s news department, which by then was just me.

Or, as the Chicago Tribune put it in writing about my layoff a few weeks later, “The sound of news is fading out on many FM stations.”

But in 1998, the internet was beckoning. The Tribune, it turns out, was ramping up staffing to provide breaking news on its emerging website—a tip I got from the Trib’s Steve Rynkiewicz, who happened to be married to Brenda Russell, who happened to be a contemporary of mine at the University of Illinois. (She was president of the Society of Professional Journalists campus chapter.)

The Trib, whose staff at that point was conditioned mainly to think of meeting just one or two, maybe three, deadlines a day, suddenly needed people used to thinking in terms of hourly or half-hourly or minutely deadlines. And a radio news guy seemed like a good fit. Or so I thought, and—fortunately for me—so at least a few people at the Tribune agreed. And, thanks to my U. of I. degree in journalism, I— unlike a lot of broadcasters—knew how to spell and punctuate and I owned an AP Style Book. And thanks to that computer science course, I was comfy around computers.

So in November 1998, I turned down another job in radio news that had been offered to me, instead to join the Tribune to work on this weird new thing—my friends in radio were puzzled why I would do this—internet news, including overseeing the launch of the Trib’s pioneering email newsletter program. I spent 11 years there—most of them, as first guy in the morning to decide what would go on the front page of the website, and then composing a daily email news briefing, Daywatch, that went out at 10 o’clock each morning, along with news alerts when big news broke …

… which, sadly, it did—not long after we launched that program.

In those early text-centric days of the Trib on the web, I filed what may have been the first audio interview for the Tribune’s website: A talk with science fiction and fantasy author—and Illinois native (from Waukegan)—Ray Bradbury, who, to my surprise, didn’t think much about cyberspace.

[Bradbury: I don’t have a computer. I don’t believe in the internet. It’s a step backward. It’s a game show and it’s idiotic.]

I’m gonna compress what followed to get to the main lessons of my journey from dorm broadcasting to the digital frontier.

In my time at the Trib, I moved from the fourth floor of Tribune Tower, the internet team’s space, down to the first floor, the home of the Tribune’s sibling WGN Radio; and then back up to the fourth floor of Tribune Tower, as we moved the radio news operation into the middle of the Tribune newspaper newsroom—in what once, in fact, had been the newspaper editor’s office.

It was a pioneering move, coincidentally paralleled around that time by the merging of WPGU and the Daily Illini here on campus—something that sadly didn’t last much longer than my relatively brief two years at WGN. (That’s a whole other lecture.)

After that, a series of adventures at the intersection of journalism, tech and technology:

A year at an innovative and award-winning experiment in all-news on the FM dial, FM News Chicago; and nine years [now 10] and counting—I’m still there as the nagger-in-chief, the founding head of news—at Rivet, a startup that set out to reinvent radio news for the smartphone era and won a bunch of awards along the way …

—and that now is primarily a producer of podcasts. And with which, along the way, I was awarded—who saw this coming?—a U.S. patent.

And my other current baby, Chicago Public Square, which is—stop me if you’ve heard this—an email news briefing that arrives in people’s mailboxes at that old familiar time, 10 o’clock, and that is supported with completely voluntary cash from readers who don’t want me to quit.

(Supporter No. 1, by the way: A U. of I. contemporary and Daily Illini alumnus, Mark Wukas—wonderful guy.)

One of the joys of email in this present media landscape is this:

Chicago Public Square has been a platform for virtually anything and everything that I’ve learned to do over the last half-century, including podcasting—interviews, on stage and off:

[Meyerson: Peter Sagal is the host of NPR’s incredibly successful show Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me. But …
[Sagal: I hate the title of my radio show. I have always hated the title of my radio show.
Meyerson: You know what else? He hates the place where he works.
Sagal: Navy goddamned Pier.
Meyerson: It’s beautiful! It’s lovely! It’s on the lake—
Sagal: Navy f*cking Pier.
Meyerson: I’m Charlie Meyerson. Those are just two of the revelations that emerged when Peter Sagal and I met on stage as part of the Wednesday Journal newspaper …]

And even an award-winning newscast series has briefly found a home at Chicago Public Square …

[Meyerson in newscast: Over the objections of one of the more raucous crowds in recent Chicago City Council history, the City Council’s approved a plan for a $95 million police and fire academy in West Garfield Park. This is the Chicago Public Square newscast, and I’m Charlie Meyerson. The vote followed …]

All of this work has paid off in a number of ways since 2017—with more honors and recognition. And it’s become one of the most rewarding chapters in my now very loooooong career.

So, how has my time at Illinois shaped my journey to the digital frontier? Well, a few ways—some of which I noted when I was honored to be inducted into the Illini Media Alumni Hall of Fame in the ancient past: 2008 [correction] I spoke to students and alumni in 2004:

“If there’s a recurring thread in my career, this certainly has been one of them: A continual quest to build a professional environment that matches what we had on campus here at the Illini Media organizations—a place where anyone could critique anyone else, because we all shared the mission of getting better and doing better work, and where we were encouraged always to try new things all the time. I’ve been surprised to learn how rare that is in the real world.

“Also at WPGU, 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, have a Pink Floyd track ready to go.”

Now, this one applies particularly to radio: “We learned the joys of a job with almost no dress code.” Needless to say, this is a promise delivered upon in spades by the pandemic. I was ready.

Let me return, though, to the reason that I attended the U. of I. in the first place: Remember, I wound up here because, in my dad’s words, we could afford it. In retrospect, the cost of not attending the U. of I. would’ve been for me unimaginably high.

And here’s why:

That first professional job in Aurora? I got it because my WPGU news director and classmate, the late Allan Loudell—who just this year sadly and posthumously joined me in the Alumni Hall of Fame, a man that Joe Biden has been quoted as calling “the smartest person I know”—was looking for work at the same time I was.

And he passed on that job in Aurora. But he put a good word in for me, and I got it. I was hired. Had I attended one of those other joints—Princeton, Northwestern, Michigan, Chicago—I would not have met Allan. Allan wouldn’t have recommended me for that job, and I wouldn’t have been in a great position to apply for jobs in Chicago—especially that big dream job at WXRT.

And even more important, I would not have been driving home from Aurora to Orland Park on the afternoon of July 27, 1978, when I was, oh, let’s say engaged in a traffic accident. (No tickets issued, no one hurt. Why does everyone want to know whose fault it was? Why is that always the first question? It’s not important. I assure you it makes no difference whatsoever.)

Had I not been in that accident, I would not have met the other driver, Pam McLean, who five years later would become my wife and eventually mother to our three wonderful sons and grandmother to our two wonderful grandsons [Update, August 2023: and a granddaughter, with another grandson on the way] … and who often notes that my insurance company paid in that accident.

So you can see, I hope, that I owe my entire, wonderful adult life—a life I would not trade for anything—to this institution.

And that is why I am loyal to you, Illinois. And why I’m giving a lot more of my, let’s say, stuff—including much of what you’ve seen and heard today—to the library.

Thank you so much.

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