Feder flashback: When WGN Radio turned 60

(Photo: Aaron Altounian)

(Photo: Aaron Altounian)

The formal dedication of the WGN Radio Walk of Fame Friday will coincide with the 90th anniversary celebration of Tribune Broadcasting news/talk flagship WGN AM 720.

Honored with plaques embedded in the pavement outside Tribune Tower will be the inaugural group of station legends: Quin Ryan, Jack Brickhouse, Wally Phillips, Orion Samuelson, Roy Leonard, Milt Rosenberg, Bob Collins, Kathy O’Malley, Judy Markey and Spike O’Dell.

The live broadcast of the public induction ceremony from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. will be followed by a retrospective special, “90 Years in 90 Minutes,” from 1 to 2:30 p.m.

Thirty years ago — when some of today’s “legends” were still mid-career broadcasters — WGN looked back on its first six decades with a little less fanfare but just as much reverence for its heritage. Here is my Sun-Times column of June 17, 1984. (Posted with permission.)

WGN to celebrate 60 years on the air

After 60 years on the air, the folks at WGN AM 720 still prefer to think of themselves not as big-time broadcasters or successful moneymakers but as “guests in our listeners’ homes.”

Perhaps more than anything else, that quaint philosophy is what keeps the station preeminent in one of the country’s most competitive radio markets.

At a time when program consultants, research experts, bottom-line accountants and far-away executives have sapped the lifeblood of local broadcasting, WGN remains Chicago’s greatest radio phenomenon — a collection of distinct, likable personalities who are given the freedom and the resources to inform, entertain and reach their listeners.

All this week, WGN will celebrate its 60th anniversary with a look back on its illustrious history, featuring highlights of past programs and performers interspersed throughout the day and night. And what a history the station has had.

Col. Robert R. McCormick

Col. Robert R. McCormick

“I have written to arrange to have an operator come to your room with a radio set and give you an exhibition,” Robert R. McCormick, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, wrote to his mother in 1923. “I don’t think you will want to keep one, but you cannot help being thrilled at the little box that picks sounds from the air . . .”

WGN archives don’t reveal his mother’s reaction to the little box, but McCormick clearly was smitten by the new medium.

In March, 1924, his newspaper leased time from WJAZ, the Zenith-Edgewater Beach Hotel station, renaming it WGN (for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”) and airing a 14-hour inaugural program that included an experimental broadcast carried across the Pacific to Australia.

By June 1 of that year, McCormick had bought WDAP at the Drake Hotel, turning it into the new WGN — “a soundproof sanctum of heavy carpets, canopies and drapes.”

Listeners that summer and fall heard the full proceedings of the Democratic and Republican conventions, play-by-play of the baseball city series between the Cubs and White Sox, and the sentencing of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb for the murder of Bobby Franks.

The event that “really made a name for WGN throughout the country,” according to radio historian Chuck Schaden, was its exclusive, live coverage of the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The nation was captivated by the legal battle of a young high school teacher, John Thomas Scopes, who had been indicted for teaching the theory of evolution.

By 1927, WGN was assigned its present, clear-channel frequency at 720 kilocycles, broadcasting a steady diet of concerts, remote dance-band music and sports coverage.

Chicago’s earliest soap operas, including “Painted Dreams” (written by and starring Irna Phillips), came to WGN in the 1930s, as did the WGN Concert Orchestra.

After brief associations with both NBC and CBS, WGN in 1934 became a founding affiliate of the Mutual Broadcasting System — in part, according to Schaden, in order to carry “The Lone Ranger.”

Franklyn MacCormack

Franklyn MacCormack

In the decade after World War II ended, television rose to power and WGN was in the forefront of redefining radio as a medium of personalities rather than programs.

Veteran announcers such as Franklyn MacCormack and Pierre Andre made the transition to program hosts, while the station maintained its high profile in sports with the likes of Bob Elson, Jack Brickhouse and Vince Lloyd.

Today, WGN remains the most popular — and probably the most profitable — radio station in Chicago, best known as the home of the Cubs and of morning kingpin Wally Phillips.

Together with its other stars, including talk hosts Roy Leonard, Bob Collins and Ed Schwartz, WGN now faces the task of attracting a new generation of listeners to its spot on the little box that picks sounds from the air.