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Chicago Public Media's Founding CEO Passes

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Dear Staff, Directors, and Community Advisory Council Members,

It is my sad obligation to inform you that WBEZ’s founding CEO, Carole Nolan, passed this morning.

Carole had just turned 80. She had been suffering from muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s and had been in hospice for just a few weeks.

In the late 1980s, along with a small contingent of advisory council members, Carole set up a new non-profit, our Chicago Public Media, Incorporated, then called The WBEZ Alliance, Incorporated.

Using her position as Chicago Board of Education’s (now CPS) General Manger of the School Board’s radio station, WBEZ, she spearheaded negotiations with the School Board that resulted in the Alliance’s purchase of WBEZ’s license from them.

The School Board had built the station in 1943. They sold it to Carole’s Alliance for one million dollars.

Carole was a science teacher with the Chicago school system. She became General Manager of the school system’s radio station in 1971. It made sense then, I imagine. Radio is technology. Technology is a science. And Carole was very interested in the job. More interested, it turned out, than the School Board could ever imagine.

Carole was a remarkable person. She was warm, thoughtful, generous, with a great sense of humor. She was immediately disarming and listened intently to you, always with concern, always with eye contact.

And she was unbelievably brilliant—and shrewd. Her motherly appearance notwithstanding, she was an incisive business professional who let no obstacle, no matter how formidable, stop her.

Think about this:

When the Chicago School Board announced the WBEZ was for sale in 1989, even as Carole was negotiating with them, Bill Kling of Minnesota Public Radio proposed a handsome cash offer. Bill McCarter, the CEO of Channel 11, with enthusiastic prompting from his board members Mike Koldyke and John McCarter, was even more generous and aggressive in his approach to buy WBEZ’s license. Carole convinced the School Board to sell, not to these cash buyers, but to her brand-new non-profit for less money, with a payment plan over a 10 year term. When the superintendent asked why Carole needed to pay over time as this handicapped her offer against ash buyers, with that warm disarming smile she said, “We don’t have the money right now, but you know we’re good for it.”

She immediately convinced the MacArthur Foundation to provide a $500,000 challenge grant for WBEZ’s first fund-drive as soon as the license was transferred to the independent entity in September, 1990. Carole leveraged another $500,000 in inaugural memberships from the audience, insuring that the station could generate sufficient funds to make up the School Board’s $1 million annual subsidy. This ensured WBEZ’s first year of operations as an independent licensee. And, it provided a little more than that, a nice down payment to the School Board for the license purchase.

The station suddenly had no home when the sale closed (not that the School Board provided a lavish facility that would be sorely missed). With help from her brand new Alliance Board of Directors, which included Kay McCurdy, Esther Saks, and Ken Lehman among others, Carole convinced the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority to allow WBEZ to build a facility—at the Alliance’s expense—on top of the new Riva restaurant.

Achievement enough, you say? There’s more. She then convinced them to not charge us any cash rent, only on-air announcements in trade, for 99 years.

But that was the easy part. She and the WBEZ Alliance Board managed to convince LaSalle Bank to provide a letter of credit to underwrite a tax-exempt bond issue with the State of Illinois for $7.6 million. That enabled WBEZ to get the cash build our Navy Pier facility.

Just to be clear, our non-profit had no assets at that time besides the license (which we owed money on) and lots of 30 -40 year old audio equipment worth more for its metal content than its utility.

Carole was “good for it.” She and a board committee raised most of the money needed to start paying our loans back, successfully completing a $4.5 million capital campaign against our debt.

I recall Carl Matthusen, the long-time manager of KJZZ in Phoenix and a good friend of Carole’s for many years, saying that her manner, kind and warm, was actually a weapon worthy of the CIA. “Carole looks every inch a science teacher. She doesn’t sell as a media professional at all. So when folks meet her they think that as far as broadcasting is concerned she wouldn’t have the sense to stay out of the rain.” He went on, “But when the downpour begins, you find out she’s the one with all the umbrellas.”

I didn’t work with Carole very long. I met her in late 1993 when she hired me as Vice President of Programming. Three years later, Carole retired.

Being the replacement of a founder is a classic B- School business challenge and having lived through it, I understand why. It’s even harder when the replacement knows, as I did, that s/he can’t hold a candle to the founder.

The last time I saw Carole was in 2009 when we finished the 2006-2008 addition to our facilities here. I invited Carole to see what we had done to her original design. I was a little nervous. I hoped she would be pleased.

I was delighted to see that being here brought that old gleam back to her. It was clear that she was enthralled and very happy with her WBEZ, her media child, her legacy, now off on its own.


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