Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
For one of Chicago’s oldest and most important radio stations, it’s been quite a year. As part of Tribune Media, WGN (720) has been on the market, almost got sold to Sinclair, and just this week became part of a newly-announced deal that will see Tribune and ts TV stations change hands to Nexstar, which is expected to put this lone Tribune radio station back on the market.
And because of Tribune Media’s separation from its former newspaper operation, 2018 saw WGN move out of the landmark Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue for the second time in its life. (You want history? You bet – WGN moved from the Drake Hotel into the Tribune Tower complex in the mid-thirties, left in 1961 when the new WGN-TV building on W. Bradley Place was built, then returned to the Tower in 1986. We’ll see its two most recent Tribune Tower homes in next week’s Site of the Week.)
When WGN had to leave the Tower for the last time, it had only a few months to make its move. Its new space isn’t far away – just a short walk south across to the south bank of the Chicago River, into an office building at 303 E. Wacker Drive where Tribune already had leased several floors of space. WGN made its big move in June (right around the time, as we showed you two weeks ago, when Hubbard Radio’s WDRV made its own big move – and when the Tribune newspaper operation also left the Tower for its new home downstairs from Hubbard at the Prudential Plaza complex a few blocks from here.)
At the heart of the new facility is a long hallway lined on one side by a big glassed-in tech center and on the other by a big open newsroom along the outer wall of the building. Yes, that’s the live hourly newscast emanating from right there in the middle of the newsroom, though it could also come from any of the desks around it, or the booths on the side. (And if there’s a little live newsroom noise in the background? It’s a live newscast, after all!)
At each end of the long hallway, there’s a studio and control room complex anchoring each corner of the building. These Wheatstone consoles moved over from WGN’s previous facility (which we’ll show you later in this column); up here, they have perhaps the best view WGN has ever had, with a spectacular vista over the Chicago River and out to Lake Michigan just a few blocks away in one direction, and back toward downtown and their old home in the other.
(One of the windows in this corner studio has a camera tucked in a corner to provide beauty shots out over the lakefront for sister station WGN-TV, which of course has no view at all from its main studio building a few miles to the northwest in a mostly residential city neighborhood!)
These new studios had relatively low ceilings compared to their predecessors, so some accommodations had to be made – look closely at the edges of the studios and you can see where the new dropped ceilings slope upward to make room for a shelf (another holdover from the old studios) that holds video monitors and the all-important studio clock.
One thing that was new with the 2018 incarnation of WGN’s studio is a performance studio and control room – yes, even for a standalone AM with a full-service talk format, it makes sense to have a space where live musicians and other performers can come in and do their thing. And in 2018, you want to have cameras and a video switcher, too, so those performances can be streamed (or sent by fiber up to WGN-TV, which also maintains a small room here with a green screen and lights so it can interview guests who don’t want to leave the Loop for the haul up to the main TV studio.)
When chief engineer Bill Murdoch graciously showed me around over the summer, WGN was just getting settled in up here, and we’re looking forward to a return visit to see the new studios fully dressed up with sponsor branding and all the other accoutrements of a modern radio facility.
As we started putting these pictures up, we realized something: while we’d visited WGN at its 1986-vintage Tribune Tower home in 2008, and then again after it moved upstairs in the Tower in 2012, we never posted either set of photos here on Site of the Week. We’ll fix that next week – so join us on Friday, Dec. 14 for a special archival edition!
Thanks to WGN’s Bill Murdoch for the tours!
We are officially into the new year and out of the holiday season. If you didn’t get a calendar as a gift, now is the time to buy one for yourself.
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Next week: WGN at the Tribune Tower, 1986-2018