Don’t be afraid, it’s just public radio

Sun-Times, WBEZ merger a reason to hope.

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A microphone in the WBEZ-FM (91.5) studios at Navy Pier, photographed in 2014.

The local public radio station, WBEZ, is acquiring the Chicago Sun-Times, which will become a nonprofit operation. Keep calm and carry on.

Sun-Times file

When the idea of merging the Sun-Times with WBEZ — OK, we’re being given to them, but allow us a fig leaf of pride — was initially bandied about, my first impulse was to write something mocking the station, perhaps a parody of their membership pledge drives, a regular cup rattle that can send the most passionate National Public Radio listener lunging for the dial.

But I never got beyond contemplation. Talk about an easy target; what I call a “duck in a bucket.” Imagine: the mallard placidly floating in the pail at your feet, quacking softly as you raise the shotgun. Where’s the challenge in that?

With readers asking for my take, I remember how for decades I’ve fought my way to the WBEZ studios through the dense crowds packing Navy Pier — trying not to have an eye put out by a tourist’s churro, reflecting glumly every time at how before the pier was renovated, I scoffed that anybody would go all the way out there. It became the most popular tourist attraction in Illinois. A prophet I am not.

Opinion bug

Opinion

The folks at WBEZ always seem earnest, professional, young. True, they look at me like some mud-caked rhinoceros lumbering unexpectedly into the Botanic Garden’s annual orchid show. But that could be my own unease.

Yes, I read the Tribune editorial, snapping open their lorgnette and examining the merger, umm, acquisition, tutting about election endorsements being scuttled by our non-profit status. Having spent five years on the editorial board, let me tell you, endorsements are a nightmare to produce, like running a geography bee over six counties. So now suburbanites will have to pay attention to their own local politics and come to their own conclusions. Or use the Democratic cheat sheet. Not the end of the world.

Readers worry: Will I be muzzled? Will I start solemnly intoning about global warming, instead of my usual chirpy, trivial, out-of-the-blue, oh-my-God-I-can’t-stop-talking blabbery?

I’m not concerned. The fear seems to be that nonprofits must be neutral. But consider how that plays out in reality. WBEZ is not some generic radio news ticker spewing anodyne information. Listen for 15 minutes and certain political shadings are easily detected. There is a particular worldview, a perspective, despite their non-profit status. WIND it is not.

Choosing this subject and not that one is bias. Picking this word and not that one is bias, and what newspapers strive for, on the whole, is a rough balance. You’ve got me, desperately shoring up the pillars of American democracy from the left side of the edifice. And S.E. Cupp, frantically slapping on plaster from the right.

It pays to trust people, until they prove otherwise. I was heartened to notice that someone from the MacArthur Foundation is now on our board. Let me tell you my favorite MacArthur Foundation story.

I was once the paper’s charities foundations and private social services reporter, and as such had to write an annual story about doling out MacArthur fellowships — the so-called “genius” grants. After shepherding the various obscure academics and dance theorists and batik artists, hit with this big avalanche of money, blinking into the light, it occurred to me: I bet those grants wreck people’s lives. I bet these poor glass blowers and Icelandic throat singers win them, experience breakdowns, get divorced, never do another creative thing. I gathered a few examples, then contacted MacArthur.

Now, 99% of organizations would curl into a defensive ball at that call. But the director of the fellowships got into the spirit of my endeavor, replying, in essence, “Oh yeah, we worry about that all the time!” and providing a few more examples of people whose lives they had ruined. I was astounded by their candor.

Yes, that was over 30 years ago, and organizations do seem to grow more risk-averse by the moment. But the memory gives me confidence. Put it this way: The Sun-Times used to have a reporter covering medicine and science. It used to have a drama critic and a jazz critic. And don’t forget that long vacant charities, foundations and private social services position. We’ve covered so much for so long with so little, the thought that the cavalry might be charging over the hill, bugles blowing saddlebags full of energy, ideas and resources, well, the Tribune can moan doom all they like. I prefer to err on the side of hope, for now.

Chicago Sun-Times newspaper boxes, photographed Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 29, 2021.

The Chicago Sun-Times has had several owners, and several looks, over the years.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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