Chicago celebrates 10 years of C2N with Callaway
Investing in his nightly roundtable makes WTTW a media force in city
The mayor, the governor and perhaps 300 other former guests of Chicago Tonight with John Callaway were in the audience last week for the 10th anniversary broadcast of the four-nights-a-week program on WTTW.
They were there not only to pay tribute to the highly regarded interviewer and his program but also to see what would be said on the night's hot topic: the growing likelihood that the city will soon have gambling casinos docked in the Chicago River.
At the rate of one topic a night, C2N, as staffers call it, brings a steady stream of guests representing every faction of the city to WTTW's door, making the station a more important journalistic institution in its hometown than most public TV stations could dream of being.
WTTW President Bill McCarter thinks this and other local productions are an important part of the mix that gives the station its top rank in audience among public TV stations.
To offer C2N, the station invests about $2 million a year, or about 40 percent of its local production budget, says production Vice President Elizabeth Richter. Underwriting covers $300,000 of the cost, and the station's general revenues cover the rest. Callaway observes that unnamed other stations won't air a program unless it directly raises grants that cover its costs and overhead as well.
The budget pays about a dozen salaries, including staff correspondents Phil Ponce and Elizabeth Brackett and freelancers Royal Kennedy and Rich Samuels, who do the opening field reports on the night's issue. (Ponce also hosts the show on Tuesdays.)
After the pretaped intro, Callaway leans forward, peers over his bifocals and sets off a contest among his guests arrayed around a big table--a competition to get their ideas across within the half-hour. They lean forward, too, not only for a quick start, but also because the producers put them on stools that keep their heads in the key lights.
"He has a unique way of trying to bring his guests to the issue so that something new will come out," says Richter. "He wants No. 1 to understand No. 2 so that No. 1's position will move to a new level."
In a NAFTA debate, Callaway cajoles guests to drop their rhetoric: "Wouldn't your argument be more effective...?" he asks, or, "Why don't you acknowledge...?"
In a quickly arranged program on the great Loop flood of 1992, Callaway and Chitra Ragavan, then at WTTW, intently question engineers and officials on details of the recovery effort, and his panel becomes an eager team of can-do Chicago guys.
And in a 1988 panel, he gently draws out the profoundly lawless views of a city alderman who personally removed a painting that offended him from a student exhibition.
Though Callaway qualifies for the Chicago newsman stereotype--he paid his dues at the City News Bureau wire service and didn't officially graduate from college--he's a constant reader who wants to understand things--everything, from Bosnia to Madonna, says Richter.
"He always reads the book," she says. "Well, maybe not always."
C2N's anniversary comes at a time when Callaway would be in the news anyway. His book of essays The Thing of It Is, was recently published. And in June he'll be inducted into the Silver Circle of distinguished Chicago broadcasters by the local chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
This month, the Sun-Times profiled him as a zesty guy who "Devours News, Delights in Life," especially golf and nonfat yogurt.
Other media people are among his biggest fans. "He's one of the best interviewers there is," says Patricia Dean, broadcast journalism chairman at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "He methodically takes you through a situation, and his questions build on each other." As a result, viewers get to catch up on a complex story, and guests get to clarify their positions if they feel they've been wronged elsewhere in the press.
Salim Muwakkil, senior editor of the left-wing Chicago-based national magazine In These Times, says Callaway and his crew bring more substance and a wider political range to issues than any other program in Chicago broadcasting. "As far as I'm concerned," Muwakkil volunteers, "he's one of the heros of journalism."
Viewing rises after Mac/Lehrer
McCarter hired Callaway from CBS-owned WBBM in 1974 to start WTTW's nightly Public News Center, covering three or four stories a night (WGBH's now-gone Ten O'Clock News was the program they wanted to become, Callaway says). The young Scott Simon was his first hire for the show.
Public News Center didn't do well with viewers, and after three years WTTW moved the host to a national John Callaway Interviews for a couple of seasons.
In 1983, Callaway recalls, he asked McCarter to give him a local show at midnight to cover the political upheaval that put Harold Washington in city hall.
The only problem, the boss said, is that it will succeed and we'll have to move it out of midnight.
It did and they did. Ten years ago, Chicago Tonight came to 10:30, then 6:30 and finally 7 p.m. in 1986. Now the rating typically rises a point when MacNeil/Lehrer leads into C2N, according to Callaway. Ratings usually range around 3 or 3.5 and the share is 5 or 6--higher when the talk is about crime and lower when it's about reforming the central city's schools (the suburbs tune out).
Carol Moseley Braun and Joe Morris, former C2N commentators, are now respectively a Democratic senator from Illinois and a conservative candidate for county board. "We don't design the program to launch candidacies," says Callaway, "but it's an unintended consequence of the program's power and visibility."
Both may increase as the WTTW remote truck increasingly takes the program "on the road" -- usually for hour-long shows with audiences, like last week's broadcast from the newly restored Cultural Center downtown. Richter hopes to do that about once a month, and McCarter says the show will go to Washington, D.C., for a week next fall.
Callaway sounds as if he's lobbying his boss to go to an hour more often. He says he's getting complaints about the program that go like this: "You've got this great panel, got the great story! Don't insult us and close the deal in 28 minutes!"
Yeah, but what if we go to an hour and it's a success?
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