Like countless others, I've been struck by the loss -- and impact - of legendary Chicago broadcast journalist John Callaway. He was among the greatest interviewers of our time -- and a role model for me and so many others in our field.
(photo by Jason Reblando
Listen to Steve interviewing Callaway on June 23, 1999:
Callaway graced Chicago's airwaves for some 5 decades, most prominently as the host and moderator of the acclaimed Chicago Tonight broadcasts on WTTW Channel 11. But my first exposure to him didn't come until the early 1990's when I was visiting Chicago for the first time as a soon-to-be-college graduate.
That night, I happened upon a debate Callaway was moderating with the candidates running for Illinois' U.S. Senate seat. And I was completely mesmerized.
What struck me weren't the candidates or the issues so much as the incomparable skills and sheer magnetism of the moderator, John Callaway. Here's a guy who in most markets, on most days, and in most years, would have no business being on television. In a purely superficial sense, Callaway was the antithesis of the classic "TV look". He wasn't tanned or blow dried. He didn't have a perpetual grin or a quarterback's jaw or a matinee idol's good looks. He was big and portly, all jowls and furrowed eyebrows. And yet, he was utterly and compellingly telegenic. In fact, I'd argue he's among the most compelling TV presences in the history of the medium.
What made him so compelling was that he approached his craft with uncanny curiosity, unrivaled preparation, a brilliant mind, and a performer's instinct. Unlike so many television talking heads, Callaway knew the magic of television doesn't come from static beauty, but from dynamic energy. And he had it in spades.
In the old format, he'd sit behind a long narrow table facing four guests, like a bartender behind the bar serving up rounds of questions and follow ups. During those days, Callaway seemed to be almost on top of the desk, leaning forward, spilling over it, gesturing wildly, and always, always listening intently.
That was the key, he said: listening. Callaway often talked about it in terms of "being in the moment", perhaps the toughest of all such places to be when you're in the middle of a live broadcast with limited time, unlimited questions, controversial topics and an audience of thousands. By "being in the moment" Callaway meant pushing aside all of those other concerns and simply focusing the conversation at hand. He was a master at it.
Preparation was another key. He commanded the viewer's attention (and that of his guests) by being relentlessly prepared. He frequently knew as much or more about the subject at hand than anyone else at the table. In an article in Chicago Magazine he once likened his approach to that of a prosecutor preparing for a cross-examination: the goal is to know every possible answer before the witness ever opens his mouth.
Preparation, plus performance combined to make Callaway a nightly tour de force. He was the rare breed of host who had the confidence and credibility to not just think it but to actually say "You've gotta be kidding me. Do you really believe that?!" to presidents, prime-ministers, and yes, even Chicago mayors.
The end result was far more than just mesmerizing television. It was a deeply engaged and informed Chicago citizenry. In a diverse city of millions, Callaway's Chicago Tonight became not just a nightly press conference, as he once termed it, but a public square for the entire region. In doing so, he held the powerful accountable, he made vexing problems understandable, and he gave us all vital information we need to be truly effective citizens. In the end, that's what great journalism is all about.
To John Callaway: Thank you. And good night.