Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Flashback: Radio Daze Starts with a Little Station in Evanston…Moves to WBEZ and WLS-AM.

[Fifty years of politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

A friend of mine, Bruce DuMont, a former Republican candidate for the state Senate from Chicago, started an interview program in the early 1970s in Evanston on WFLD, a tiny station which beamed out onto Lake Michigan. In fact if you were in a rowboat a mile or two out in the lake you could hear it perfectly. He asked me to participate with him and after that I went out there many times. Then he moved to Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ, and set up a show he called “Inside Politics” which ran every Thursday night from 8 p.m. It was a vastly different show than others in that it didn’t have journalists but had real life political participants. It was a call-in. The mechanics were so crude that the producer had to take the calls and relay them to Bruce via the head set (no screen monitor) and no seven-second delay.

The show happened to take off and become a kind of cult-fest. I was the only conservative, the only proponent of an election of Ronald Reagan. Others came and went. The regulars were Alderman Cliff Kelley, the African-American lawyer and skilled parliamentarian who was an arch-enemy of Mayor Byrne…Alderman Dick Mell who even then was a multi-millionaire and who see-sawed somewhere between a conservative Republican on national issues to a foresquare Democratic ward committeeman on local ones…there was Marilyn D. Clancy, a bright, witty Oak Park suburban liberal and Phil Krone, a real genius of sorts: a former Republican now turned Democrat with a brilliant sense of humor. Alderman Ed Smith, then Alderman Bobby Rush, then university student Jesse Jackson, Jr., J. B. Pritzker, the State Sen. Judy Baar Topinka were frequent guests. One hot show occurred when I asked U. S. Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.), a Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar, when he was going to begin payment on his federal student loan, inducing a rejoinder and counter-rejoinder which almost broke up the furniture in the studio. Another tense program came when I confronted Rev.Jesse Jackson on his “Hymietown” slur of New York city.

Others came and went. Carol Mosley Braun who was then Recorder of Deeds. Mike Royko (who was on once and who because of his Pulitzer Prize rather cowed us). Grace Kaminkowitz, a feisty Jewish lady who was probably the most liberal human being I had ever met and probably was to the left of Ramsey Clark. Occasionally Bruce would have some national guests: I remember former California governor Jerry Brown, a man who later would become Democratic National Chairman but who was to die in a plane crash, Ron Brown. Congressman Harold Washington was on several times. Once U. S. Sen. Al Gore. U. S. Rep. It was the only show existent where Ed Vrdolyak appeared with Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. It was a kaleidoscope of Chicago, Illinois and some national political talent.

I have always been grateful to Bruce for the opportunity because as an officer of Quaker Oats in charge of political liaison I would probably never had widened my acquaintanceship with Chicago politics as I did without the show. After the show we usually went out and had dinner. The dinners were a continuation of irreverence that the shows had. The “Inside Politics” show was…for good or bad…the debut of Rahm Emanuel who was then an ex-ballet dancer Democratic fund-raiser—who now is a former political director for Bill Clinton, a multi-millionaire made rich through his Clinton contacts…a Congressman…member of Ways and Means…former chairman of the House Democratic Caucus…and Democratic Whip.

Bruce signed up as a producer with NBC Channel 5 and produced the Lee Phillip TV show, “Noonbreak.” He had me on a number of times which was my introduction to television. Then he moved to WTTW-TV channel ll where he was the executive producer of “Chicago Tonight” with John Callaway. Callaway and Bruce’s inclination was to have a lot of politics and economics on. I was often designated as the token conservative—later others filled the bill including Joe Morris who performed far more articulately than did I. Bruce also had for a short time a talk radio program on WFYR where I was a continual guest—on Sunday nights.

Then he started a program series on WLS-AM, ABC in Chicago which imitated the WBEZ program and I was with him there for several years. It was during that time that Ed Vrydolyak launched his very successful program with Ty Wansley on WLS, from 2 p.m. to 6, drive-time. I was a guest there for quite a few times. One day to my surprise, Ed told me that he was going on strike. The show originally was on both AM and FM and was now going to be just on AM. This discomfited Ed because his friends in the Loop had difficulty hearing the show on just AM. So he invented a sore throat and left the show saying he would be back when the sore throat cleared. It was a signal to the station’s manager that the show had to be returned to FM or he would not come back. He believed management would yield, so he asked if I would replace him with Wansley until he got back.

I did but management would not yield and Vrolyak never came back. I did the show for many months but it was too restrictive—from 2 to 6 interfered with my work. Then I got on a list to substitute for Don Wade and Roma when they went on vacation which necessitated getting up at 3:45 a.m. so as to be in the studio preparing at 5 a.m. for a 6 a.m.-9 a.m. program. That almost cost me my wife so I begged off after a week.

I asked management if they would give me my own show at a different time—preferably on the weekend. This they did; I had a show on Saturday mornings from 8 to Noon—then after a few years, to my disappointment with management, they exiled me to Sunday night, one hour, from 8 to 9. Nevertheless I took it and still have it now.

Along with the radio and TV broadcasts, I initiated a series of Op Ed columns, starting off with the Chicago Sun-Times…then with the Tribune…then back to the Sun-Times…back to the Tribune…then to the Sun-Times for a denouement.

At the same time, I was teaching my variant of “Influencing the System” at a number of colleges—Northwestern, Loyola, DePaul, the U of I. Twice I went to Oxford as a Fellow of St. John’s College and once I participated in a debate at the Oxford Union with the resolution: “Resolved—Britain Should Move Immediately to Reclaim its American Colonies.” I made a few return trips to Harvard to sub for some other Kennedy Fellows and picked up a Woodrow Wilson International Fellowship at Princeton, New Jersey—which did not involve teaching at Princeton at all but which financed my going to smaller, well-endowed and generally magnificent smaller private colleges. The best one was Southwestern Texas where I stayed for a week (using my vacation time).

The three photos I am displaying are interesting. One showing me at a radio microphone was taken in the 1980s when we were on WBEZ. A much older photo shows me standing with one of the great influences on my life, former Congressman Walter H. Judd (R-Minnesota) who typified the doctrine that you don’t have to sell out to be influential in politics. Had he agreed to run for Nixon in 1960 both would have been elected. Judd was a former medical missionary to China, a distinguished Mayo Clinic surgeon, so skilled that Charles Mayo, Sr. almost wept when he learned that Judd was going overseas as a missionary since he was in line to be chief of surgery. A third shows me teaching the course at Loyola about a decade ago.

With a wonderful wife and four kids, I thought that life would continue to be unblemished for me and my company—but that was not to be. More later.


  1. I miss the old Saturday morning show on WLS-- "Political Shootout" was the last hour only, as I recall...the first two hours were often devoted to single topics each. Much as we may disagree politically, Tom, I really wish you had at least two hours on Sunday night...there's more than enough news to chew on.
    By the way former Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown -- Royko called him "Governor Moonbeam" is still very much alive. And Barack Obama's mother is deceased. Please mark your scorecards.

  2. Reading the same sentence, I found that the reference to the man who died meant Ron Brown, who served in Clinton's cabinet, not Jerry Brown.

    Official scoring: no error by Roeser.