Carole Nolan, led WBEZ’s bid for independence

By Dru Sefton

Carole Nolan, who founded WBEZ-FM in Chicago at a time when few women held top management jobs in public broadcasting, died July 5 of complications from muscular sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. She was 80.

In 1971, as director of telecommunications and broadcasting for the Chicago Public Schools, Nolan asked to take over management of the Chicago Board of Education’s radio station. “She began a complete overhaul that reinvented WBEZ,” said former WBEZ spokesperson Merillee Clark Redmond in the Chicago Tribune. “She took great risks and was creative as she hired staff who would develop new programming and yet not neglect the Board of Education’s desire for educational programs.”

Nolan secured $100,000 for a new transmitter and antenna, and aid from CPB. In 1972, WBEZ became a member of NPR. By 1975, WBEZ had received a CPB award for excellence in children’s programming. Nolan organized the station’s first on-air fund-drive in 1978 and raised $25,000, using four telephones for pledge lines.

“Her most dramatic decision,” Redmond said, “was to purchase the license from the Chicago Board of Education, to move to independent studios designed to make WBEZ totally independent and member-operated, financed by listener contributions.”

Torey Malatia, WBEZ president, described that deal in a July 5 memo to staffers, noting that the Chicago school board had received generous bids on the station from leaders of Minnesota Public Radio and Chicago’s PBS station, WTTW, both of whom were ready to pay cash.

“Carole convinced the school board to sell, not to these cash buyers, but to her brand-new nonprofit for less money with a payment plan over a 10-year term,” Malatia wrote. When the superintendent of schools asked Nolan why she handicapped her offer by proposing to pay over an extended time period, she responded with her “warm, disarming smile,” saying “‘We don’t have the money right now, but you know we’re good for it.’”

Nolan quickly convinced the MacArthur Foundation to provide a $500,000 challenge grant for WBEZ’s first fund drive, which launched “as soon as the license was transferred to the independent entity in September 1990,” Malatia wrote. “Carole leveraged another $500,000 in inaugural memberships from the audience, insuring that the station could generate sufficient funds to make up the School Board’s $1 million annual subsidy.”

Soon after, Nolan spearheaded a $7 million capital campaign that enabled the station to move all operations to Navy Pier in 1995.
Through the years, Nolan recruited staff who went on to become big stars in pubradio, including NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon, This American Life’s Ira Glass, NPR’s Chicago correspondent Cheryl Corley — and Malatia, whom she hired in 1993 as vice president of programming.

She was born Jan. 28, 1932, to Martin Nolan and Caroline Alton Nolan in Chicago, grew up on the city’s South Side and graduated from DePaul University in 1954. Nolan also received a teaching degree from the Chicago Musical College, where she trained as a classical pianist.

International travel was a favorite pastime. Nolan visited every continent and was a member of the Circumnavigators Club of Chicago, whose members have circled the globe.

She is survived by seven cousins and three godchildren.

Redmond said that at her death, Nolan “was in the company of her dear friend of 50 years, Jane Smith. Her miniature poodle, Millie, was at her side.”

Plans for memorial services were pending at Current’s deadline. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Muscular Dystrophy Association (520 W. Erie St. #200, Chicago, IL 60654) or the National Parkinson Foundation (1501 N.W. 9th Ave./Bob Hope Road, Miami, FL 33136-1494).

Please send obituary notices to sefton@current.org

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