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Former long-time WBEZ general manager, Carole Nolan, dies

The former long-time General Manager of WBEZ has died. Carole Nolan ran the station for 25 years beginning in the 1970s. Nolan was a former teacher, who came to WBEZ when it was still operated by the Chicago Board of Education.

SHARE Former long-time WBEZ general manager, Carole Nolan, dies
Former long-time WBEZ general manager, Carole Nolan, dies

Nolan, right, pictured with Garrison Keillor.


The former long-time General Manager and founding CEO of WBEZ has died.

Carole Nolan ran the station for 25 years beginning in the 1970s.

Nolan was a former teacher, who came to WBEZ when it was still operated by the Chicago Board of Education.

Here she is in 2007 talking with Richard Steele about her decision to buy WBEZ from the Board of Ed for $1 million.

“It was a risky business, but when I looked ahead, I thought, ‘If we stay with the Board of Education, we won’t be able to really achieve our mission.’ And so we had to bite the bullet and say, ‘We have to be on our own,’” she said.

Nolan expanded programming to 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

WBEZ’s former program director Ken Davis calls her WBEZ’s “founding mother.” He said Nolan also helped get NPR off the ground by carrying Morning Edition and All Things Considered early on.

NBC Chicago news anchor Phil Rogers said, “if it had not been for Carole Nolan and WBEZ, I very likely would have been out of the business. This kind, gracious woman took a big chance on me, and I have never forgotten.”

Annoying Music Show host Jim Nayder recalled one Christmas when the Board of Education wasn’t able to issue paychecks and Nolan paid him from her own pocket.

Nolan had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s. She was 80.

At the time of her death, Nolan was working on a book about her experiences in public radio. Here is the rough draft of her first three chapters.

WMAQ-TV’s Phil Rogers had this to say about Nolan:

“We all remember someone in our career, or in our lives, for that matter, who literally provided a turning point. For me, that person was Carole Nolan. I arrived in Chicago from Oklahoma in 1978, unemployed, with no prospects, and every commercial outlet slammed their collective doors in my face.

WBEZ was putting together a news department and they gave me a job. In those first few weeks, I played witness from that rudimentary cubbyhole at the Banker’s Building, to the discovery of bodies at John Gacy’s house, the Blizzard of ’79, and the election of Jane Byrne as mayor. But through a comical series of events I got crossways with the program director and he fired me.

Unemployed again, I wrote Ms. Nolan a letter, offering my thanks for the job, and a few thoughts on what the news operation could be. She called me, and asked me to come see her. In less than an hour, she rehired me, as news director. She assured me she would give me her full backing and she meant it. She called in Joe DiFranco and told him to get me whatever we needed, and together Joe and I built WBEZ’s first newsroom. We started actually covering news, and putting real live news makers on the air! They were great times.

A few months later, I was offered a job at WBBM. When I went in to tell Ms. Nolan, she was unbelievably gracious. Her only question was, if I knew anyone who might be interested in the job. I didn’t hesitate: Ken Davis. Ken got the job, and the rest, as they say, was radio history.

True story.

WBEZ is a giant in the public radio firmament and is so vital to Chicago. And look at what Ms. Nolan did to save it. What a legacy she leaves!

But for me personally, that turning point back in the seventies changed my life. I was at WBBM for 14 years. I have been at Channel 5 for 20 more. If it had not been for Carole Nolan and WBEZ, I very likely would have been out of the business. This kind, gracious woman took a big chance on me, and I have never forgotten.”

Annoying Music Show host Jim Nayder had this to say about Nolan:

“Carole Nolan hired me 1977 (despite then PD Tony Christopher saying “I don’t want that kid”) --and gave me so many radio opportunities--I could list for hours.

She let us all wear so many hats--hosting/producing whatever it took--and held the door open for everyone from Scott Simon to Ira Glass & so many more.

When Jane Byrne’s Board of Ed couldn’t issue paychecks one Xmas season, she pulled out her checkbook-and loaned me money on the spot (my wife worked for CPS at the time, so we were without two paychecks!)

We both lived in the Marquette Park (71st) neighborhood, and I was fortunate to spend many hours at her home planning radio adventures. If she loved an idea she would never say “no!” -and then find the people & $$ resources to get it done.

What a teacher, mentor & friend.

Thank you Carole for all of the opportunities. I love you & already miss you.”

Bruce DuMont:

We didn’t have any air conditioning. There were no TV lights or exposure.

There wasn’t 50,000 watts of power. Some times we had no callers. Guests complained about the last flight of stairs. There wasn’t much money--and checks at times were delayed...and advertising and promotion were unheard of.

But there was Carole Nolan --- and her go ahead in 1980 to my idea for a 13 week experiment with a new type of talk show -- one for and by political junkies changed my life.

That was 32 years ago.

Personally, my time at WBEZ has been the highlight of my professional life. The most fun times and the most rewarding in so many ways.

What Carole launched in 1980 was the turning point in my career and for others as well. Remember those days Scott Simon?

The team of talent she brought to WBEZ was indeed a family. Not a phoney promotional family --but a real group of talented and dedicated people who loved radio and who were nurtured and inspired by Carole’s quiet, never ending encouragement and twinkle of her smile.

Her vision was clear, her mission was focused and her legacy is fixed with all those who passed her way.

Karl Wright, former WBEZ reporter:

It’s a sad day full of wonderful memories for me.

I owe Carole a huge debt of gratitude for meeting with me when I got out of college and hiring me as a “cub reporter” even though I only met with her because my mother said, “just see what she has to say, there may be something there for you.” My plan was to come out to Hollywood and struggle and sleep on any friend’s floor to try and “make it” at a time when there really weren’t that many opportunities for blacks in Hollywood unless you were Eddie Murphy.

Instead I found a home at WBEZ and stayed for almost 12 years, growing from every challenge Carole and Ken threw at me; becoming the youngest co-host on the air working with my buddy Shel Lustig on “The Question Show” & “Airplay;" hosting “Morning Edition” (even though I am NOT a morning person); creating my OWN show “Backstage Pass” to celebrate Chicago’s arts and entertainment scene and eventually trusting me to be “the voice of the station” doing all the on-air funding announcements. I will never forget one of those “Ask the Management” sessions during the fundraiser when Carole defended her decision to put me on in the morning against some listeners who thought I couldn’t hack it. She never wavered, instead she agreed with one caller who said I was, “the best thing in the morning since Coca-cola.” She was always my champion and for that I will always be grateful.

Now as I sit in my home office in SoCal recording auditions for VO gigs, I realize that it is thanks to Carole that I can do this with confidence.

Carole Nolan was the perfect person to “mother” WBEZ thru it’s growing years because she was a teacher at heart and she knew how to nuture talent. She brought together an amazing team of people over the years who all worked together as a family to make something very special out of the little station that could. I am so honored and proud to tell people that I worked at WBEZ with Carole Nolan and all of you.

Love you Carole!

NPR Reporter Allison Keyes:

There are no words for what Carole meant to my life and career. She took a chance on a wet behind the ears city news bureau/skokie life reporter and put me on the radio!

My life would not have been the great adventure that is has without her faith in me -- and so many others whom she helped and supported. She will be missed - and my gratitude to her is eternal.

Thank you Carole ... for everything.

WGN anchor/ reporter Micah Materre:

Like Karl, I met Carole when I went looking for a job in broadcasting after college. It was also my mother who set up that meeting.

Little did I know that the interview would lead to the beginning of my career in broadcast journalism. I am and will forever be eternally grateful to Carole for hiring me, first as an intern with “The Question Show”, and eventually putting me on the payroll to produce a show with Bob Greenberg and CPS teachers. After that she gambled again and gave me my very first job as an actual reporter, producing features for “The Question Show” later renamed “Airplay”.

Where would I be without Carole taking a chance on a naïve, inexperienced college grad who’d never put together a piece before in her life!!!!

I thank her for that, I think she had a knack for recognizing talent, or at least someone who thought they had talent. J I owe her a great deal of gratitude for believing in me and in so many others with whom she gave a chance.

She will be greatly missed! Rest well dear Carole.


Bob Edwards

I’m so sorry to hear about Carole. She was a fine leader and always nice to me.

She was indeed an unlikely person to become a public radio station manager---but there were others like her who came from other cultures and found themselves players in something way beyond their local responsibilities. I’m sure that Carole felt dealing with the Chicago School Board and the Daley Machine was quite enough for any one person----and then along comes NPR, a little network trying to explode itself overnight into a national institution. To do that, NPR needed strong leadership from the stations in all major markets and looked to Carole to be a forceful voice for NPR from Chicago. She delivered---yet I’m not sure how many people at NPR in Washington knew what she was up against. I saw it first-hand when I worked out of WBEZ for a week in October of 1976. I was producing and hosting a week of political news and features for All Things Considered in advance of the Presidential election that year. WBEZ was populated by a lot of ladies who had worked for Chicago schools for a very long time. They were fond of ending their day at 3:00 in the afternoon because that’s when school teachers went home. Getting the station through evening drive time did not interest them---and here I was trying to feed thirty minutes of live programming to Washington at 4:30pm Central time. With Carole’s intervention, it got done.

Obviously the current sleek and fabulous Chicago Public Radio on the Navy Pier bears no resemblance to the school board’s WBEZ in an ancient building on Wacker Drive. (At least I think it was on Wacker). But today’s public radio franchise in Chicago was not built on nothing.

I DID have a hotel problem in Chicago, but I was not kicked out of a Holiday Inn. NPR was so penurious in those days that it booked me the very cheapest room it could find in the whole city----without bothering to check out what the place might be like. Thankfully I’ve forgotten the name of this place, but it was a flophouse where men routinely urinated in the hallways. It’s not my favorite memory of Chicago---or NPR.

All the best,

Bob Edwards

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