Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Chicago, August 2018. Crowds of tourists and office workers stream up and down the sidewalks on Michigan Avenue’s “Miracle Mile.”
But one of them stops for a moment amidst the construction outside Tribune Tower, peers into the empty room on the other side of the double glass, and pauses for a moment, saddened by memories of what once was here and now is gone.
This empty space, destined probably for some expensive retail use, was WGN radio’s “Showcase Studio” for more than two decades, putting talk radio front and central in the heart of one of the most exciting downtown areas in the country.
In last week’s installment, we showed you WGN’s new home a few blocks to the south and east, the result of the corporate changes that removed Tribune Corp. and the Tribune newspaper from their home here of more than 80 years.
This week, we look back at the spaces in the Tribune Tower that WGN called home over the last three decades, ever since it moved back downtown in 1986.
The Showcase Studio wasn’t, as I recall, part of the original 1986 WGN buildout here, when the radio station split from WGN-TV’s studios up on the North Side and returned home to the Tower. That may explain why there was a long hallway connecting the main radio offices and studios at the back of the building to the studio up front, where there was also a small booth off to the side for traffic reports and a control room that linked back to the main radio tech center toward the rear of the building.
When we visited this version of WGN in 2008, the tech center was still pristine 22 years after it opened, with a layer of digital automation technology laid over the original analog plant.
A fairly spacious newsroom was right off the tech center – and even as far back as this version of WGN, the anchors and reporters could go live from their desks, just as they can in the current iteration. A corner of the newsroom was devoted to farm director Orion Samuelson and his morning farm reports, a longtime WGN staple.
But the highlight here, by far, was right in the middle of the complex, about halfway down the long south wall of the Tower, where an enormous talk studio was home to Wally Phillips’ morning show and other WGN programming that required a big cast of characters.
You stepped down into this room, as I recall, and while it had windows looking out to the south toward the river, it wasn’t really a room you looked into from street level. And check out that furniture! I think I counted 11 mic positions, and that big PR&E console controlling it all from the central position – wow.
(I’m told this entire room was donated to Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications, and it would be amazing to see it reassembled somewhere someday.)
After 26 years on the ground floor, 2012 brought an abrupt change for WGN. The Showcase Studio stayed (and gained a naming sponsor, becoming the Allstate Showcase Studio with new blue walls) – but the rest of that ground-floor space in the Tower became more valuable to Tribune’s new management as rental space. With a new restaurant eager to move in quickly, WGN had only a few months to plan out a new home upstairs on the seventh floor in space that had been offices for Tribune’s McCormick Foundation. (The history up here included the big McCormack Auditorium, which was the very first studio for WGN-TV back in 1948.)
This new space, designated “Suite 720” (of course!), extended into three different parts of the floor. At the north end, there were sales and executive offices, plus one production studio/control room that was used more for recording than for live broadcasting.
At the south end, with a lovely view out over Lake Michigan, another one of the “pods” of this space was home to the new tech center inside the building and a big newsroom space at the front, with a million-dollar view of the Miracle Mile down below.
As with the previous space downstairs, this newsroom had mics and control boards at each desk, now with video cameras, too, so that the news anchor on duty could see the talk host in the studio and vice versa.
The third “pod” of this facility also faced west toward Michigan Avenue, and this is where most of the studio space was located. One of the studios, shown above, could be configured either for combo use, with the host controlling her own board, or with control coming from the control room across the glass.
The other big talk studio was laid out for a separate host/control room. Both studios ended up getting a lot of simultaneous use when WGN began branching out heavily into streaming. For a little while, WGN ran a separate program stream with younger-skewing talk as “WGNFM.com,” then transformed it into a sports station, “The Game,” leasing the “Franken-FM” on 87.7 as WGWG-LP. (That ended in 2014, and 87.7 soon found a very successful next life as “MeTV-FM,” WRME, away from the WGN empire.)
Even as these new studios went in, there was a sense, I think, that they wouldn’t be there very long. The Tribune empire was already breaking apart, with the Chicago Tribune itself being spun into the separate newspaper company with the unfortunate “Tronc” moniker and the building rumored to be up for sale.
And then it all happened – which is why by early 2018, WGN was beginning its exit from the Tower along with the rest of the remnants of the once-mighty Tribune Corp. (Click here to see our tour of WGN’s new home across the river!)
Thanks to WGN’s Tom Langmyer and the late Jim Carollo for the tours!
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Next week: Philadelphia, summer 2018