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Talk radio in Chicago came to a graceful, sad demise on WBBM Saturday night. It was a good wake, everyone agreed; not as much fun as Finnegan's, but better than Howard Miller's.
There was still a day to go before the local CBS outlet began its all-news format. But for all purposes talk radio ended here at 10:55pm Saturday when Jerry Williams signed off.
It had been a noble experiment and a successful one. When the word came down from the CBS moguls in New York that talk would be replaced with news, WBBM was getting good ratings and Williams had the largest nighttime adult audience in Chicago. The daytime ratings with the Morning People, Mal Belairs, Don Cannon and outdoor editor Art (Laddie) Mercier, were strong.
But New York decided Chicago should go all-news, and Chicago never has any voice in these things. The hundreds of thousands of talk radio listeners didn't have a voice either, although they flooded the station with Ietters. When Daily News columnist Mike Royko suggested, jokingly, that the listeners buy Williams a radio station, some even sent in dollars.
Williams forwarded the money to Martin Luther King's SCLC, a typical gesture. Civil rights and the Vietnam War were two of the frequent topics on the program. When WGN begins its nighttime talk format on Monday, these topics will presumably be avoided; WGN's format has been announced as "non-controversial."
And that will be the real loss, because WBBMs talkers sought and encouraged controversy. The phone-in format permitted the citizens of the city to talk to each other publicly, and in a time of racial tension and a breakdown in communication between the leaders and the led, that was good.
Only a week before its end, the WBBM format once again proved its worth. When the police attacked the peace marchers on April 27, Chicago news media didn't adequately report the story. But dozens of WBBM callers gave eyewitness testimony on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and by Tuesday the police behavior was a public scandal.
That sort of direct access to the mass media will be gone now. On his last program Saturday night, Williams was optimistic (he has many job offers) but his callers were not. Some wept over the telephone. Some joked. A few were old regulars, calling in to say goodbye. Sidney Lens, the radical peace worker, called in. So did Paul Powell, the Secretary of State. So did Sam Braverman, whose corned beef sandwiches Williams often extolled, On its last night, as its first, the program attracted all kinds of people.
What the WBBM format offered, and what WGN's "non-controversial" approach apparently will not, was a direct line to the joy and grief, and dreams and anger of the city. The callers were not always articulate. Indeed, according to a statement by William C. O'Donnell, WBBM general manager, they were often confused, they repeated themselves, and they "wasted time." The all-news format, he said, will be more direct.