The Sound of Silence

It’s been nearly four years since the radio industry began feeding on itself, but it really didn’t hit home until just this month.
As a child, it seemed that WMAQ Radio (AM 670) was always on in my mother’s kitchen. The station had been around almost since radio broadcasting was born. WMAQ took to the air in Chicago in April of 1922. With 50,000 watts of power, WMAQ easily boomed through to southern Wisconsin, where I grew up.
WMAQ is probably best known for its firsts – it was the first station to broadcast a live transatlantic conversation; the first to do play-by-play of professional baseball games; it hosted the first educational radio program (FM radio broadcasting was still more than two decades away from reality).
It was also NBC Radio’s flagship station in Chicago, giving it additional prestige as a jewel in the preeminent radio network during the Golden Days of Radio.
Accordingly, WMAQ was the home for many of the biggest shows and personalities of that era – people and shows like like Amos ‘n Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Great Gildersleeve, and the Ameche Brothers all broadcast their from the WMAQ studios and entertained early radio listeners nationwide. Ask your grandparents; they’ll remember.
The station had a hand in shaping some of the century’s most notable broadcast journalists. People like Mike Wallace, Hugh Downs, and many others worked in the WMAQ newsroom at one time.
It was no surprise, then, that when I was in college and made the decision to become a radio journalist, I listened to WMAQ quite often. They had developed offbeat, irreverent, storytelling way of doing radio news – a complete departure from the “traditional”-sounding all-news station in Chicago – WBBM (AM 780).
It fit with what I hoped to do, one day, in my own career. You could even say my dream job would have been to work there.
Sure, WBBM may have had the all-news format longer than WMAQ, and did better in the ratings, but WMAQ was the first on the air. To a broadcasting nut like me, that means a lot. There’s almost the entire history of radio wrapped up in one station.
That is, there was, until the Ides of August: WMAQ Radio ceased to exist this month, at the age of 78. You can thank the bottom line for killing the oldest station in Chicago.
Anatomy of the Kill
Here’s how the death of WMAQ-AM happened: Thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, large broadcast corporations were allowed to gobble up to as many as eight stations in one market. A radio station buying frenzy ensued; as the number of stations under singular corporate control bloated, a significant merger of two radio giants occurred.
On New Year’s Eve 1996, CBS bought Infinity Broadcasting for $4.7 billion. In doing so, the company ended up owning and operating more than 100 radio stations nationwide, including the maximum of eight radio stations in Chicago – which included both all-news outlets, WMAQ and WBBM.
All of the CBS/Infinity-owned stations combined capture more than a quarter of Chicago’s radio listeners every day. But since it now literally ‘owned’ the radio news niche in the market, there was no sense in having two of its stations competing with each other…
Meanwhile, another other mega-player in Chicago, ABC/Disney (who owns four stations), was kicking CBS/Infinity’s butt in the sports broadcasting arena. ABC/Disney had the advantage of owning ESPN; plus, their Chicago spots station (WMVP, AM 1000) had a better signal to cover the market.
CBS/Infinity executives decided to move its own sports station, WSCR, over to WMAQ’s frequency. 670 AM in Chicago now belongs to “The Score,” and WMAQ radio officially no longer exists. The official changeover took place at 6:00 AM August 1, 2000.
Now WSCR will better compete with WMVP for the sports radio listenership in Chicago and the Midwest – the 50,000 watts of 670 goes a long, long way.
The stockholders of CBS/Infinity, I’m sure, will be happy. But now the five million people that live in Chicago metropolitan area have only one all-news radio station to turn to. Who needs perspective when you’ve got profits?
Profits be damned: on a very personal level, the industry I planned to devote my professional life to has taken away my touchstone. It is not easy to swallow.
However, it’s reinforced my beliefs about media activism. I forced myself to listen to the last day of WMAQ. It was rough – on both me and the people on the air. But the sentiments you are about to hear were definitely shared among us all.
Saying Goodbye to WMAQ
The last few hours of live programming on WMAQ were hosted by long-time award-winning Chicago news gurus Bill Cameron and Larry Langford. Combined, they’ve got more than a half-century of experience covering the city that makes them invaluable storytellers for the common good.
So it was appropriate that they spent the time fondly reminiscing about their years on the station – and discussing the reasons for going off the air.
Cameron & Langford had quite a few guests on their show. The following were some of the more poignant moments during WMAQ’s final hours.
Simply click on each link to listen for yourself. Real Audio required.
Studs Terkel
This longtime Chicago broadcasting icon and preeminent chronicler of history was one of the city’s first radio stars. His radio career is almost as long as the existence of the business.
Mayor Richard M. Daley
Hizzoner‘s been in office since 1989, and is the son of former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, one of the notable big-city “bosses” of the mid-20th century. Sometimes he can be straight with the media; his last appearance on WMAQ shows there can be a small grain of truth in the answer of a politician.
Mike Wallace
The 60 Minutes star “grew up professionally” on WMAQ radio. But this bulldog’s too chicken to come out and take on his boss for decision to kill the station.
Roe Conn
The afternoon-drive talk show host on WLS-AM (owned by ABC/Disney) got his professional start at WMAQ. He called the station on its last day and demanded to be put through to Cameron & Langford while they were on the air. As a result, this conversation was simulcast on two major Chicago stations – making for 100,000 watts of power behind this clip.
Bob Roberts
I’ve met Bob before while covering stories. Bob’s the model radio journalist – tenacious, yet passionate about his craft. He loved his job, and he loved WMAQ. He immersed itself in its history during his years at the station, and Cameron & Langford let him give the final words about its demise. Less than 60 seconds after Bob said this, WMAQ’s live microphones were turned off – for the last time.