Feder The Snowman

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Posted by Hey Buddy on February 03, 2011 at 02:26:11:

It’s too early to tell whether any careers were made or legends were born by the snowballs-to-the-wall news coverage of The Blizzard That Conquered Lake Shore Drive.

What’s known for sure is that Tuesday night and Wednesday morning were giddy marathons for Chicago’s electronic media, with television alternately trying to inform, amuse and distract the snowbound masses watching at home, and radio rising to the challenge for those stuck in cars or on public transit for hour after hour.

For newspapers, the biggest challenge wasn’t gathering the news but getting the product in the hands of readers. With home deliveries stalled and commuters’ routines disrupted, it proved a daunting if not impossible task.

What’s also known for sure is who the biggest loser was: WTTW-Channel 11, which declared Wednesday a snow day and shut down its entire news operation. Viewers who tuned in to Chicago Tonight expecting an analysis of the city’s response to the crisis or an examination of the blizzard’s political and economic impact were stunned to see a rerun of the public television station’s forum with mayoral candidates from Jan. 17. Equally disappointing was the cancellation Wednesday of Eight Forty-Eight, the morning newsmagazine on Chicago Public Radio WBEZ-FM (91.5). In both cases, public broadcasting failed the public.

As part of the coverage on most other stations, there were the inevitable flashbacks to Chicago’s worst blizzard ever — the monster that dumped 23 inches of snow on the city and suburbs in January 1967. But few in or out of the media knew how that event altered the course of Chicago radio for the next 40 years.

Wally Phillips (pictured left), who’d been morning personality at WGN-AM (720) for only two years and was still trailing the legendary Howard Miller on WIND-AM (560) in the ratings, happened to be at his station attending an after-hours function for advertisers when the snowfall began. As a result, Phillips was still there when most other radio stations were without their top on-air talent the next morning.

“It was the only story that mattered to almost everyone, and Wally owned it,” recalled Dan Fabian, who was with Phillips at the time and went on to become program director and general manager of the Tribune Co.-owned news/talk station. “The impromptu but impeccable logistics were amazing to watch and obviously fun to be a very small part of.”

Practically on the spot, Fabian said, Phillips “invented the format with listener and cohort phoners full of appropriately breathless reports, peppered with just enough ‘Wow, how about this . . . history!’ and comedy shtick to make a lasting impression. Once the crisis part of the crisis started to wane, his wit kicked in big time.” At one point, a spot-on impersonator of Mayor Richard J. Daley called in to offer such advice as: “Don’t be lickin’ street signages.”

By the following year, Phillips blew past Miller in the ratings and began WGN’s four-decade reign of morning drive supremacy. “Those 23.3 inches locked him in as inevitable heir apparent and then some,” Fabian said.

Hailed as “the biggest, most successful, most influential local radio broadcaster in Chicago history,” Phillips died in 2008 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 82.

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