Welcome to Chicago: My must-see list for radio visitors

October 4, 2010

As every good host knows, when you're throwing a really big party, it's never too early to start planning for it. 

Just around this time next year, Chicago will become the center of the radio universe when the National Association of Broadcasters and the Radio Advertising Bureau bring their combined 2011 Fall Radio Show to Chicago.‚  "Chicago's a town with a vibrant radio community, lots of heritage, and plenty of hotels and attractions for visitors," noted Tom Taylor, executive news editor of Radio-Info.com, who broke the news last week of the city's selection as site for the convention.

Michael Bilandic was mayor of Chicago when the NAB held its first national gathering focused on radio (then called the NAB Radio Programming Conference) here in 1978. At this point, we don't know who'll be the mayor when they return.

I'm sure the folks at the NAB and RAB will do their usual fine job of lining up lots of programs and panels for the three-day event next fall. But if anyone is thinking of arranging a "radio tour" of Chicago for the conventioneers and other radio geeks who'll be in town with them, here are a few locations they might consider:

  • Tribune Tower, where Col. Robert R. McCormick launched WGN Radio 86 years ago with a pledge to make it "the outstanding station of America" --  and where the frat boys running it today have turned it into their own personal playground. (On a panel at last week's NAB/RAB Radio Show in Washington, WGN program director Kevin Metheny spoke of the "inertial momentum" of the station he inherited and the necessity to change the product "respectfully." Later he was quoted as saying: "We often shoot ourselves in our own feet . . . you can't do this job without having a certain confidence level that can be annoying to other people.") The era between them --  when WGN Radio was Chicago --  was personified by a gracious gentleman named Ward Quaal, who died the other day at 91. (Roy Leonard pays tribute on his blog.)
  • Clear Channel Communications' state-of-the-art studios at Illinois Center, where six radio stations in the nation's third largest market are operated side-by-side with smoke and mirrors --  and lots of‚ voice-tracking. (Here's a joke overheard at last week's Radio Show: "Q: What's the difference between a Clear Channel station and the drive-thru at McDonald's? A: The kid at the drive-thru is live and local.")
  • The Merchandise Mart, longtime home of WMAQ Radio, historic studios of "Amos "Ëœn' Andy," "Fibber McGee and Molly" and other classics of radio's golden age, and the Chicago flagship of the NBC Radio network dating back to 1931. It all came to an inglorious end in 2000 when subsequent owner CBS Radio dropped WMAQ's call letters and turned 670 AM into sports/talk WSCR. (Radio emanating from the Mart today comes courtesy of Emmis Communications' Loop and Q101 --  at least until the troubled company‚ finds a buyer to take the stations off its hands.
  • The Museum of Broadcast Communications (and home of the National Radio Hall of Fame), which might be, could be, possibly will be open by the time the convention comes to town.
  • Harpo Studios --  home of Oprah Radio, heard on Sirius XM Radio, Westwood One and AOL Radio. Oprah won't be here anymore to throw her big arms around the conventioneers, but if they're lucky, they might run into Gayle King, Dr. Mehmet Oz or Dr. Laura Berman. It's a cinch it'll be easier to get inside next year than it is now.
  • Honorary Chicago streets named for such radio luminaries as Dick Biondi, Jack Brickhouse, Harry Caray, Bob Collins, Yvonne Daniels, Paul Harvey, Herb Kent, Valerie Landon, Ken Nordine, Wally Phillips, Sig Sakowicz, Orion Samuelson and Studs Terkel. Let those out-of-towners see how a great city pays tribute to some of its legendary voices.
  • The Blackstone Hotel, where Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of broadcast journalism, uttered his most prophetic warning before a similar gathering, the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) convention, in 1958. Although some remember his speech only for its dire prediction of television (fearing it might become "merely wires and lights in a box"), few recall that Murrow took radio equally to task that night:
"So far as radio -- that most satisfying and rewarding instrument -- is concerned, the diagnosis of its difficulties is rather easy. And obviously I speak only of news and information. In order to progress, it need only go backward. To the time . . . when radio was rather proud, alert and fast. . . . If radio news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, then I don't care what you call it -- I say it isn't news."
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