70 Years of WGN Archived


Thanks to a gift from Nexstar Media Group, Inc., parent company of WGN Radio, a 70- year swath of the radio station’s audio archive now resides at Northwestern University  Libraries in the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections and  University Archives.

The archive, with materials covering 1941 to 2011, includes more than 15,000 items,  primarily magnetic media (open reel tapes, compact cassettes, continuous-loop “carts,”  U-matic videocassettes and VHS tapes) as well as other media such as grooved discs,  CDs and minidiscs. The bulk of the audio dates to the 1980s and 1990s, a period of  innovation and surging popularity for the station.

The archive contains thousands of hours of audio that will need to be cataloged and,  where necessary, digitally preserved before they can be made publicly available, said  Scott Krafft, curator of Special Collections at Northwestern.

“It’s a remarkable collection that represents a significant sampling of Chicago history,  including local and national news,” he said. “In addition, the voices of WGN Radio’s  most popular programs are represented here, making this an important archive for the  history of the entire field of radio broadcasting.”

“Given the long and storied connection between WGN Radio and Northwestern  University, it is most fitting that this audio collection, drawn out of 70 years of our  broadcast history, will be under their care,” said Mary Sandberg Boyle, vice president  and general manager of WGN Radio. “While digitizing it will be a substantial  undertaking for the Northwestern Libraries, ultimately, this will be a permanent and  invaluable repository and resource for years to come. We trust their expertise and are  proud they are the caretakers in this endeavor.”

Preserving an audio archive, to say nothing of just listening to it, poses a particular  challenge to a cultural heritage institution, Krafft said. For example, magnetic media like  audio tape is notoriously unstable. Tapes relay information by storing patterns of  magnetic particles on an acetate or polyester base; over time such materials can break  down on their own, even in the ideal climate-controlled storage libraries can provide.

In addition, the archive contains other fragile media like glass “transcription discs,” a  radio recording solution common during World War II. The lacquer coating on such  discs can separate from the glass over time, a process called “delamination,” after  which the recording is lost. Couple these issues with the obsolescence and precarity of  aging playback equipment, and even listening to analog audio can be a challenge.

“Navigating the preservation of this archive will take time,” Krafft said. “But in the end, it  will be worth it to preserve the cultural record represented by WGN Radio.”

Founded in 1922 as WDAP, the station was purchased in 1924 by Chicago Tribune publisher Col. Robert McCormick, who changed its call letters to WGN, an acronym of  the Tribune’s slogan, “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” WGN Radio continues to  broadcast talk shows, news, sports coverage and traffic updates through its transmitting  tower in Elk Grove Village — one of the tallest structures in the Chicago area. It is  currently the radio home of Chicago Blackhawks hockey games and Northwestern  University football and men’s basketball.

The litany of hosts represented in the archive include well-remembered Chicago  mainstays such as Wally Phillips, a quick-witted mischief-maker who bantered with  callers during a top-ranked morning show that ran from 1965 to 1986; the folksy, funny  Bob “Uncle Bobby” Collins, who succeeded Phillips in the morning slot and extended  WGN Radio’s reign as Chicago’s top-rated morning station until Collins’ death in 2000;  Roy Leonard, who interviewed nationally revered musicians, actors and writers for 30  years in a popular midday show; Milt Rosenberg, the 40-year host of the long-form  interview program “Extension 720” that brought in notable newsmakers from Jimmy  Carter to Carl Sagan; and Kathy O’Malley and Judy Markey, whose riotous midday talk  show debuted in 1989, providing a then-rare showcase for women’s voices in radio.

“When WGN first approached us 10 years ago about taking on this collection, I knew  the longitudinal coverage of such an archive would be just astounding,” said Sarah  Pritchard, dean of Northwestern Libraries. “Our role as a library at a research institution  is to collect and preserve culturally important materials like this. The WGN Radio  archive will provide a laboratory for future researchers looking at 20th century media as  it intersected with Chicago’s cultural and political history.”

The arrival of this rich journalism archive is a natural fit at Northwestern because of the  University’s own entwined history with the one of the founders of the Tribune, said Charles Whitaker ’80, ’81 MS, dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media,  Integrated Marketing Communications.

“In 1921, family members connected with the Chicago Tribune provided funding to  establish the journalism school at Northwestern, which was named in honor of their  grandfather, Joseph Medill. We have proudly built on that gift for more than a century to  make Medill the best school of its kind in the world,” Whitaker said. “This new gift of the  WGN Radio archives enhances this longstanding relationship and allows scholars  studying journalism or other topics to access critical interviews and reports. It’s often  said journalists record the first draft of history, and this archive is an important capture  of that draft.”


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