Ward Quaal, a giant of American broadcasting and the man who turned the call letters WGN into a nationally recognized and respected brand, died Friday in a north suburban nursing home. He was 91.
As an announcer for WGN Radio on Dec. 7, 1941, Quaal broadcast one of the first bulletins of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched the United States into World War II. Shortly after he became vice president and general manager of WGN in 1956, Quaal was credited with hiring both Wally Phillips and Bob Bell from WLW and WLWT-TV in Cincinnati, among other prescient moves.‚ He eventually moved up to president of parent company WGN Continental Broadcasting (now Tribune Broadcasting Co.).
Later as a consultant and lobbyist (as well as a longtime friend of President Ronald Reagan) Quaal became an influential figure in broadcast regulatory matters. In 2008, the Broadcasters Foundation renamed its annual Pioneer Award the Ward L. Quaal Broadcast Pioneer Award, citing him for elevating WGN to "iconoclastic status in the broadcasting industry."
The Museum of Broadcast Communications' Encyclopedia of Radio credits Quaal with leading WGN Radio to national prominence and developing WGN-TV into "the model for the modern independent television station."
He remained a visionary to the end, opposing the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that paved the way for rampant consolidation of radio companies. "They've wrecked radio," he was quoted as saying. "How can you own more than one hundred stations and keep track of their local programming?"
In a statement released Monday, Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, said:
"Free and local broadcasting was built by a handful of visionary giants, but few stood taller than Ward Quaal. During his long and storied career, Ward Quaal built WGN into an institution whose impact extended far beyond Chicago, and he counted as friends even those who occupied the Oval Office. NAB extends our sympathy to the Quaal family and we mourn the passing of this broadcast pioneer."
Update: Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Wm. H. Scott Funeral Home, 1100 Greenleaf Ave., Wilmette. Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at the same location.