Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bruce DuMont

Bruce DuMont is the founder/CEO/and President of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. He also has had a distinguished broadcasting career himself (in radio and television), and currently hosts the nationally syndicated "Beyond the Beltway" radio show.

Rick: The board of the Museum of Broadcast Communications voted to sell the half finished building on Kinzie, and I read your statement on the website about it. The bottom line on that story...Governor Blagojevich promised the money ($6 million), and then didn’t come up with it. Is that right?

Bruce: Right. The initial promise was $8 million, then down to $6 million, but it did not come. While we were waiting for that to materialize, we had raised an additional $11 million, and then the economic downtown hit, which was really the final nail in the coffin. The requirements during the economic downturn changed, the banks changed their loaning rules, and we saw the writing on the wall. We’re in the process of selling the building now, and we’re looking for an owner that will still house the museum on the 2nd & 3rd floors. (It’s 4 floors). We’re not sure at this point how it will all shake out.

Rick: Is it possible that the funds will come from the new stimulus bill? I keep hearing the term “shovel-ready”? Isn’t this a project that could meet all those requirements?

That’s definitely a possibility. We could get up and going again in as little as 3 weeks, and it’s something that somebody can cut a ribbon on in ten months. It’s a project that can employ people during the building, and after it’s completed, and it could be an attraction that draws people and revenue.

Rick: I often recommend that people check out the website ( It’s a really well done site. I would have killed to have this available when I was still producing a show. Is your goal to eventually have all of the material in your archives up on the site?

Bruce: Honestly, that’s several years away because you have to go from the raw material in analog format, and you have encode and digitize it, and put it online. That’s an extremely costly and time consuming process. We have about 7200 assets now on-line, but that’s just a small fraction of what we have. We have more than 50,000 other assets.

Rick: I really don’t think that a lot of the current members of the media realize that Chicago was the center of the media universe in the early days of network radio, and even in the early days of television. Talk about some of the big-time shows that originated from here.

Bruce: You’re so right about that. A number of the radio dramas originated here, and some of the most famous "Fibber McGee and Molly," and of course "Amos & Andy," which is controversial now, but in the 1930s it was the be-all and end-all.

Chicago was also the home to "Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club." (Photo: Don McNeill 1948) What people now know as the Tonight show format was created by Don McNeill. Everything from the orchestra, to the guests, to entire concept of the show. You have to remember that radio was used much differently in those days, it was essentially a prime-time medium. He had to prove in 1935 that people would listen to radio in the morning. He created the concept of morning radio, and in so doing created the concept of the variety-type show that lives on in that Tonight Show format.

As you mentioned, Chicago also pioneered some of the early television as well—the wrestling explosion started in Chicago (when it aired on the DuMont network). We also had "Super Circus," "Kukla, Fran & Ollie," "Mr. Wizard," the introduction of animals in television, and we had Dave Garroway. "Garroway at Large" evolved into the Today show. There’s a lot that has come out of Chicago.

And we’re still a powerhouse today. Chicago also has Paul Harvey. He is the most listened to man in radio history. And we have Oprah too. She is obviously one of the most legendary television personalities of all-time, and arguably television’s biggest star. These two legends broadcast only three miles away from each other. Trumpeting Chicago’s place in media history isn’t just hometown boosterism.

Rick: Every year when the Radio Hall of Fame announcements are made, I hear the usual grumbling about who was or wasn’t nominated. I don’t think people realize that they can nominate people to the Hall of Fame themselves...

Bruce: Anyone who wants to make a recommendation can do it. All they need to do is send the steering committee a letter along with some background information on the individual. Once we receive that, we go back to the state broadcasting association that is most closely associated with the person in question, and ask them if they want to second it, and when they do, those names go onto the roster for the steering committee to discuss.

Once you’re on the roster you can be discussed year in and year out. Four names are selected from the recommended roster in each category, and those names are moved to the nominated list. Those names go on-line, and anybody can vote. Again, that’s another way for people to become directly involved. Out of that process comes four winners, and they become the inductees.

In addition to the inductees that go through that process, the steering committee picks someone who is not an on-air performer and that person becomes the fifth inductee each year.

Rick: What happens to those that don’t make it?

Bruce: They go back in the pile and can be nominated again (up to 5 times).

Rick: And the induction ceremony is broadcast nationwide, isn’t it?

Bruce: Yes. This year the broadcast is November 7th, and the Premiere radio network is doing the show. Westwood did it last year. We rotate it every year.

Rick: You were also the chairman of the Peabody awards for awhile. I see Stephen Colbert holding his Peabody up for the camera nearly every night.

Bruce: (laughs) You’re right. The proudest winner of that award has to be Stephen Colbert! I found the deliberation process the most enjoyable thing I’ve done in my entire career. It’s not publicly controversial like the Radio Hall of Fame, but there is plenty of controversy behind the scenes. Getting a Peabody award really is a big deal. If people knew the process, they’d appreciate it even more. The winner must be unanimous. The vigor of the debate is brutal. When you get one, you’ve really earned it.

Rick: I’d like to talk a little bit about your background in the business. You worked with some of the biggest names in Chicago radio and television, who for some reason or another, are not really discussed much anymore: Howard Miller, who was a very controversial radio host, and Lee Phillips, who was the queen of Chicago television. Why do you think they aren’t top of mind these days considering the considerable influence both of them have had?

Bruce: People grow old, move on, and the new generation that comes along does not take the time to see who walked before them. That’s happened in every generation. David Letterman to Steve Allen to Ernie Kovacs to radio before that.

I was on WIND the other night talking about Eddie Schwartz, and he’s another example. Eddie, Bob Sirott, Pat Sajack, and I were all at Columbia College together, and Eddie was the first one of us who broke into the business. It was a big deal when he got that job at WLS. Now that he’s been off the air for awhile, people simply forget how much of an impact he had.

Howard Miller is an even better example of a radio giant who is overlooked as time marches on. He was #1 in Chicago for 21 years. #1! He was the top music disc jockey in America. He could make or break records because he had such a huge audience. When he left WIND in the morning because of something he said in 1968 (he was technically suspended), in the very next book—all of Howard’s audience vowed not to listen to WIND ever again, and they didn’t. They defected en masse to WGN. It happened in one book. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. Howard’s audience simply went to WGN and Wally Phillips.

I produced Howard in 1970 when he had moved to WGN drive time (after his hiatus), and what he was doing in 1970-1972 is very reminiscent of what Rush Limbaugh is doing now. Miller was the preeminent conservative talk show host in America—when no one talked politics, and certainly no one was talking conservative politics. He also did a one hour TV show every night. Howard Miller should be in the Radio Hall of Fame someday, but unfortunately, in every market in the US, there is someone similar to Howard. We have to be sensitive to that.

By the way, just as a side-note, that one ratings book I was talking about happened at the same time WBBM went all news (May 4, 1968), WIND launched a talk show, and WGN created extension 720.

Rick: Was Milt the first host?

No. Extension 720 initially had five different hosts and five different producers. It was not too long after the College of Coaches the Chicago Cubs tried, and for several months, WGN tried it too. They soon decided to have one host, and one producer, and I became the producer. The first full-time host was Dan Price who had been fired at WBBM. One of his frequent guests was Milt Rosenberg.

Rick: You were also the original producer of Chicago Tonight with John Callaway. Tell us a few things we don’t already know about John Callaway.

Bruce: Oh boy, let’s see. He’s a voracious reader, and an obsessive prepper, but I’m sure everyone already knows that. I’ll tell you one thing. He’s very funny. Very very funny. We had editorial meetings every day, and the humor going back and forth made it so much fun. Those meetings were rollicking.

He was also gracious about sharing the spotlight and sharing the microphone. When he approached me I was working on a documentary series with Harry Porterfield at Channel 2 in 1982. He approached me at a luncheon, and said he had been following my work and asked me if I would be willing to come over to Channel 11. I told him that my goal was to do on-air work, and he was very gracious about making that happen. I made the move based on that promise, and he delivered.

Rick: And this was before Chicago Tonight existed, right?

Bruce: Right. In December 1982 I left WBBM and went to Channel 11, not knowing what the show was yet, and what timing! Along came the legendary 1983 Mayoral campaign (Harold Washington, Jane Byrne, Richie Daley), and the first thing I did was negotiate the mayoral debate. I also did some on-air work on the race to city hall. We later produced a show called “Callaway” in 1983, and then in December 1983, they told me they were launching Chicago Tonight. It premiered in the spring of 1984. (4/24/84)

Rick: Let’s talk about your radio show, Beyond the Beltway, which is a nationally syndicated Sunday night show. (It airs here in Chicago on WLS). That show also airs on television (Sunday WYCC, Channel 20, and on the Comcast cable system.) When you’re doing it, do you think of it more as a radio show or a television show?

Bruce: It’s a radio show that happens to be filmed. It’s evolving a little the other way, but in my heart, philosophically, it’s a radio show. We’re on about 45 stations around the country, plus XM and Sirius. The fact that I’m sitting in the XM studio on the West Side of Chicago and I hit a button and I’m talking to someone in Fresno, or Massachusetts, or Atlanta—that’s still magical to me. It’s still fun. It’s what I always wanted to do.

Since I was 10 years old, I wanted to work in television and radio. On my 10th birthday I had a chance to have a special relative-tour of the DuMont studios (my uncle was the founder of the network) in New York. I met all the stars of the DuMont network. I was a little surprised all the sets were made out of cardboard, but it was still magical to me.

After that, in those days of large refrigerators and ranges, I’d ride around the alleys looking for old boxes and pull them out of the garbage. I’d makes sets out of them and pretend I was on television. My whole world of imagination—from 10-16 was all about that magical world of television. Then at night I would put a transistor radio under my pillow and listen to the ball games (I heard Harvey Haddix’s perfect game). One thing I’ve discovered meeting all of these inductees to the Hall of Fame is that this kind of childhood experience is a real common denominator among everyone in this business.

Rick: The show has been on the air now for more than twenty years. Do you have a general philosophy of what “Beyond the Beltway” is trying to achieve?

Bruce: Yes, the name of the show is the philosophy of the show. We don’t have the usual professional-type pundits from Washington; we’re hearing the opinions “Beyond the Beltway.” The idea emerged out of the Inside Politics program I started in 1980 on WBEZ. That was the year of Reagan, and Ted Kennedy facing off against Jimmy Carter, and I said I would like to do a show for and by political junkies. I told them that people only casually interested in politics, wouldn’t enjoy it. There wasn’t anything on the air for us political junkies, and I wanted to change that.

Rick: Which is funny, because what was considered radical in 1980 is now commonplace—hard core politics is probably the number one subject of many talk shows.

Bruce: True—on TV and Radio. Not so in 1980, believe me. By 1991 that had changed. That’s when we first offered the show nationally. It was initially on about seven or eight public stations. Then, in another piece of good timing, about 3 weeks later, the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings started.

Rick: Is that when you renamed the show?

Bruce: No, not yet. In that first national show I used the term “Beyond the Beltway,” but I didn’t rename the show for awhile. It wasn’t until the Republicans took control in 1994, that I decided it was the time to do it. In Jan ’95 it became “Beyond the Beltway.”

Rick: How do you feel about the way politics on radio/TV has evolved?

Bruce: In some cases I’m happy about what it’s become, mainly because it’s become so popular, but in some ways I’m not. The passion was real when we started—the arguments were robust and spirited, but now it seems like people are faking it. It’s become somewhat of a mockery. Some of these characters are saying outrageous things on purpose. It’s moved from theater to circus.

Rick: I take it your show wasn’t a part of Governor Blagojevich’s latest media blitz.

(laughs) Ahhh, no. Rod has never been on the show. His father-in-law Dick Mell was a regular for many years though, and so was Rahm Emmanuel.