More journalistic light must be shed upon the persuasive and vivid history of activism aimed at the democratic reform of public broadcasting in Chicago. 

Public broadcasting's funding has always been inadequate and politicized.  Chicagoans have struggled repeatedly against public broadcasting's undemocratic structures and selling schemes. 


We've turned up ten local citizen organizations that have worked toward the democratic reform of Chicago's public TV and radio outlets. Nine various legal and regulatory actions have centered upon the corporate parent of WTTW-TV and WFMT-FM. That same corporate parent, now known as Window to the World, Incorporated, filed two counter actions: one against an accountability group; and one against its own workers as they organized for union representation. 

The public's fight has not been easy. Chicago has historically been at the forefront of anti-commercialization and democratic reform efforts aimed at public broadcasting - "Ground zero" as the Chicago Tribune called it in 1997. Concerted community action ultimately will bring marked structural and funding improvements to public broadcasting. 

A work in progress, we consider this unique history required study for anyone concerned about media and democracy. 


WBEZ 91.5 FM begins broadcasting instructional programming under the control of the nonprofit Chicago Board of    Education.


WFMT 98.7 FM begins broadcasting as a for-profit commercial fine arts station under the control of Bernard and Rita  Jacobs.


An open letter to Channel 11’s founder Edward L. Ryerson and its response are published locally. The complaint centers upon  delays in getting the station on the air. The complainer is well-known author and WFMT program host Louis “Studs” Terkel.


WTTW-TV Channel 11 begins broadcasting educational programming under the control of the nonprofit Chicago        Educational Television Association (CETA). 


Newton Minow, FCC chair and key Chicago and national public broadcasting figure makes his famous “television…a vast wasteland” speech.


CETA’s WXXW-TV Channel 20 begins instructional broadcasting.


The Carnegie Commission issues its report “Public Television: A Program for Action”. The report calls for the creation of a national public broadcasting structure with adequate, independent and accountable funding.


The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 is signed into law, creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) - without any provision for a comprehensive trust funding mechanism. Public broadcasting’s finance remains inadequate, subject to politics and unaccountable.


Due to illness, Bernard Jacobs sells WFMT-FM’s assets to the Tribune Company-controlled WGN Continental Broadcasting Company. Jacobs turns down a comparable offer from a more public interest-oriented concern lead by Encyclopedia Britannica heir Charles Benton.


The Citizens Committee to Save WFMT (organized by Charles Benton) forms to oppose the station’s sale to the Tribune Company at the FCC and in the Circuit Court on grounds of concentration of control in media.


WGN donates the assets of the for-profit WFMT to the not-for-profit Chicago Educational Television Association, overseer of WTTW. No other public broadcasting association is the parent corporation of a for-profit commercial licensee. 


The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) - public broadcasting’s main distribution arm - is founded. Like the CPB, its meeting minutes and budgetary details remain twin mysteries.


The inaugural program transmission of National Public Radio (NPR) occurs.


Channel 11 censors parts of the innovative PBS series “Great American Dream Machine”. In one instance, the station manager removes a skit about an unmarried couple in bed discussing their fading affair. WTTW replaces the segment with…a station pledge drive!


President Nixon requests, “that all funds for public broadcasting be cut immediately.”


The Chicago Board of Education's WBEZ-FM joins NPR. 

Critics call for among other things, a member-elected board at CETA.


CETA’s instructional channel 20 WXXW-TV leaves the air.


Key WFMT figures Ray Nordstrand and Norm Pellegrini, along with Charles Benton form Concert Radio, Inc. The concern - a private for-profit company - becomes involved in a license challenge to acquire the rights to the New York City classical station WNCN-FM a few years later. Had Concert Radio, Inc. succeeded in acquiring WNCN-FM, it planned to attempt to use the purchase to leverage WFMT-FM away from CETA.


The Carnegie Commission on the Future of Public Broadcasting (Carnegie II) issues its report. The politicians ignore its well-intentioned but flawed calls for a public broadcasting trust and fees on commercial broadcasters’ use of the public’s airwaves. Limited provisions for accountability, EEO rules and a few of the report’s other recommendations find their way into the Public Broadcasting Act of 1978 and remain a part of public broadcasting law.


The Chicago Metropolitan Education Council - headed by Channel 44 President Oscar Shabat - buys channel 20 and  changes its name to WCME-TV. Documentation discovered so far indicates that channel 20 remained “dark” from 1974 to 1983.


The Citizens’ Committee on Media (CCOM) forms and addresses censorship in Chicago’s telecommunications media. CCOM helps to open CETA board meetings to public attendance and makes a few programming gains. At the same time, local independent producers organize and create the still-running weekly half hour series “Image Union”. CETA’s minutes and complete budgets remain unavailable.


Up to 1982, individual corporate funder acknowledgements broadcast on public TV were limited to five-second slides with the company’s name printed in white letters on a black background with no logograms and no sound or music.  Mentions were not placed adjacent to programming to which the source contributed. Public radio funders were identified very discreetly as well. (Though it has been substantially weakened, the Communications Act of 1934 today still forbids noncommercial stations from accepting compensation for broadcasting messages that “promote any service, facility or product offered by any person who is engaged in such offering for profit.”)


The Temporary Commission on Alternative Financing of Public Television (TCAF) is formed. TCAF - composed of members of Congress and FCC Commissioners - urges stations to use “experimental ways” of financing their operations. Ten stations, including WTTW, are authorized to air “forms of advertising similar to commercial TV” during an 18-month test period. CETA nets $1.7 million and ever since, WTTW’s cash register hasn’t stopped ringing. The bell on CETA’s cash register first sounded earlier though - when it assumed control of the commercial station WFMT and its Chicago magazine.


Under Ronald Reagan, a cut  in federal funding for public broadcasting of nearly 40% becomes law.


After a mismanagement debacle hits NPR, the radio agency gets a life-saving $9.1 million loan from CPB and some enhanced autonomy from the funding organization.

Robert Johnston, a public-interest attorney, files a complaint with Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan asking that WFMT make the same financial disclosures made by public broadcasting stations. CETA’s WFMT, Inc. Committee Chair Robert Wilcox, in a written response to Hartigan, tells nothing of WFMT’s financial performance and denies accountability to the public, saying only “for competitive reasons, we do not publish (financial statements) or distribute them more widely.” AG Hartigan deigns involvement except as a mediator.

The control of WCME Channel 20 (formerly CETA’s WXXW) is transferred to the City College Board of Chicago. The channel is renamed WYCC-TV and after nine years, returns to the air. Today, Channel 20 is one of the very last offering instructional courses for college credit. WYCC today remains without a studio (though one is planned) and generates little programming of local origination. The budgets and board minutes relating to WYCC are available for public inspection.


The Mark Fowler-chaired FCC substantially relaxes the noncommercial policy to allow public broadcasters to expand or “enhance” the scope of donor and underwriter “acknowledgements” to include such things as “value neutral descriptions of a product line or service,” and corporate logos or slogans which “identify and do not promote” (emphasis in original).


WFMT management ups the original limit of four commercial minutes an hour to six.

The Friends of WFMT is created. The group includes lawyer and former 5th ward Alderman Leon Despres, lawyer Thomas Geoghegan and public relations executives Connie Zonka and Herb Kraus. At its peak the group claims 4,000-5,000 members and publishes a regular newsletter.


In a public notice, the FCC explains that “enhanced underwriting” would offer “significant potential benefits to public broadcasting in terms of attracting additional business support.”

CETA sells Chicago magazine (which grew from WFMT’s program guide) to the Detroit-based Metropolitan Communications, Inc. for $17 million and establishes a $9 million endowment fund from the sale. Of what happened to the money from the sale, little has been disclosed.


The Friends of WFMT threaten and then file suit in the Cook County Circuit Court against WFMT’s corporate parent CETA. The points of contention include: whether or not WFMT was illegally deprived of money from the sale of Chicago magazine; whether there should be restrictions upon CETA’s ability to sell the station; whether WFMT should be declared a charitable trust and therefore subject to limits on its sale or programming changes; and concerns about imprudent management. The group also seeks a bar upon pre-recorded commercials and commercial jingles. CETA’s only response at the time was to deny it has any plans to sell the station.

The NAACP files a petition with the FCC to deny renewal of WFMT's broadcasting license along with the licenses of thirteen other Illinois radio stations. It's challenge cites, “no more than token employment of blacks and other minorities.” 

The Friends of WFMT files a petition with the FCC to deny renewal of the station’s license. The petition repeats accusations contained in the pending Cook County Circuit Court lawsuit against CETA (see above). The suit mentions WTTW - “It was, and still is, regarded as one of the mediocre public TV stations in the country.”

Channel 11 viewers get pledge nights, VIPs get party night.


CETA fires numerous key WFMT engineering, sales and production employees. The action comes as WFMT employees attempt to organize for union representation. The move also heightens continuing suspicions that the station is being prepped for sale.

The lawsuit filed in Circuit Court by the Friends of WFMT is dismissed. The presiding judge rules that the Friends of WFMT has no legal right to file the court challenge. This suit aimed to stop any format change or station sale.

CETA announces it is dropping the near-forty year ban on “canned” or prerecorded commercials on WFMT.

The non-profit WBEZ Alliance, Inc. assumes control of WBEZ-FM from the Chicago Board of Education. The Alliance Board grew in part from the station’s Community Advisory Board. The Chicago Board of Education’s half-million dollar direct subsidy to the station ceases. Some cutbacks and layoffs occur. Unlike the Chicago Board of Education, the Alliance considers its minutes and detailed budgetary information private.

CETA files a trademark infringement suit against the Friends of WFMT. The corporate parent of WTTW and WFMT states it will “suffer irreparable harm” and seeks unspecified damages from the citizen group. Thomas Geoghegan, an attorney for the Friends of WFMT called the suit “ridiculous”.

In a settlement, the board that oversees WFMT is to be expanded and is to include the current president of the Friends of WFMT. The appeal to the circuit court decision and the FCC license challenge by the Friends of WFMT are dropped, as is the trademark infringement suit filed in federal court by CETA. Studs Terkel maintains that the station was “robbed of millions” in the sale of Chicago magazine.


Public broadcasting funding comes up for a vote and Senators Dole, McCain and Helms decry that public broadcasting has a “liberal bias”.

The Independent Television Service (ITVS) is created by Congress to facilitate the creation and distribution of independent film and video representing underserved minority voices for airing on public television stations.


Employees at WFMT vote 19-18 to unionize.

The National Labor Relations Board rules there is insufficient evidence to overturn the results of the WFMT vote to unionize. CETA appeals through the court.


WFMT management announces the amount of “canned” or prerecorded commercials aired on the station will be reduced.


The Coalition for Democracy in Public Television - known as CDPTV and later as Democracy in Public Broadcasting - is formed. The group addresses the censorial effects commercialism and closed, undemocratic structures and processes have upon WTTW and public broadcasting. The coalition comprises citizens and 34 community groups and coalitions. CDPTV was organized by Scott Sanders and Melissa Sterne as an outgrowth of the foundation they laid for the creation of Chicago Media Watch. Local filmmakers Gordon Quinn and Allan Siegel are also cofounders of CDPTV

CDPTV organizes a meeting between WTTW management and representatives of thirteen local coalitions and nonprofit groups including the executive directors of Operation PUSH and the 100 group Coalition for New Priorities. Only limited programming and democratic gains result. These include spotty airings of the labor series “We Do the Work” and selected episodes of the peace series “America’s Defense Monitor” under the occasional series rubric “Viewpoint”, as well as early morning airings of “Rights and Wrongs”, the human rights series hosted by Charlayne Hunter-Gault. The station refuses to schedule the Academy Award-winning feature documentaries “Panama Deception and “Deadly Deception”. The latter documentary spotlighted the national boycott against WTTW’s top corporate funder, GE.

A three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit requires WFMT-FM management to enter into contract talks with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). The judges allude to possible electioneering by station employee Studs Terkel. 

WBEZ attempts to cancel weekend folk and eclectic music shows in favor of increased news and public affairs programming. A small group of upset listeners complain at a joint Alliance Board and Community Advisory Board meeting. The changes are reversed.


A citizens group calling itself The BEZ Hive is formed to press for reforms at Chicago public radio station WBEZ-FM. Organization cofounder Marian Neudel publishes a regular newsletter also called The BEZ Hive.

The CDPTV files a complaint with the FCC alleging fundraising violations at CETA with regard to the forty hours worth of home shopping programs known as the Chicago Holiday Gift Exchange broadcast by WTTW. The coalition receives legal representation on the complaint from the Georgetown University Public Law Center and the DC-based Media Access Project.


 The first order of business of the Gingrich-lead new Republican House majority is to de-fund or “zero-out” all federal support and “privatize” public broadcasting because “Government intervention is no longer necessary”. The unprecedented negative public response to the proposal is chastening  

The FCC issues a mild reprimand to WTTW's trustees regarding the CDPTV home shopping complaint but warns them to be careful in the future.

CETA changes its name to Window to the World Communications, Incorporated (WWCI).


In an action made possible by the CDPTV complaint and aided by the history of public broadcasting reform activism in Chicago, the William Kennard-chaired FCC calls for an unprecedented $5,000 fine against the WWCI Trustees. The unsourced complaint holds that four commercial advertisements aired on Channel 11 a combined total of 181 times are illegal. WTTW disputes FCC ad complaint.


The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers representing thirteen fired Channel 11 engineers and technicians accuses the public TV outlet of making its employees pay for management’s mistakes. The station cites a decline in outside production business at WWCI’s Chicago Production Center for the firings.


The “Network Chicago” re-branding, re-organization and programming effort is unveiled at Window to the World Communications, Inc. "Network Chicago" launches a  weekly (later reduced to bi-weekly) publication and program guide called City Talk.

The FCC grants the nonprofit WBEZ Alliance a translator station at 90.3 FM in Michigan City, Indiana to extend their signal. WBEZ drops host Aaron Freeman and makes cuts in city hall reporting and in other areas.

The nationally based Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (CIPB) forms to democratize public TV and radio programming at the local and national levels. Centrally, CIPB’s mission includes a call for the creation of an independent and accountable national public broadcasting trust (PBT). The trust is to be capitalized at triple current levels by taxes on commercial broadcasters’ heretofore rent-free use of the public’s airwaves.


The FCC reduces its fine against Window to the World Communications, Inc. trustees to $2,000, judging one of the original four ads to be illegal. One of the ads dropped aired in a PBS feed but the FCC leaves the door open for future action in this area. The adjusted fine remains a crucial precedent and a warning.

An independent part of the CIPB national organization, Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting Chicago (CIPB Chicago) forms to repair the structural, process and commercial defects in Chicago public broadcasting and demand the creation of the national public broadcasting trust fund (PBT). Its focus begins with WBEZ-FM.

The public loses its right to uncensored candidate airtime on public broadcasting stations as a result of the mis-titled “Public Broadcasting Integrity Act”. Sponsored by Senator Jeffords (I-VT), this act removes the traditional mandate upon all public broadcasting stations to offer candidates free airtime on a non-discriminatory basis during the 90 day period before elections.


A former Hill & Knowlton executive is discovered on WBEZ-FM’s board by CIPB Chicago. CIA-linked Hill & Knowlton’s $11 million contract with an “independent” group representing Kuwait was designed to sell the 1990-91 war against Iraq to the American public. CIPB Chicago calls for the resignation of the former Hill & Knowlton executive - the current Chicago Tribune pr chief - from the WBEZ Alliance board of directors.

CIPB Chicago requests that WBEZ-FM provide public access to its board and community advisory council minutes and other documents and provide candidate-produced airtime during the ninety days preceding elections.

2002 Chicago Media Action (CMA) forms as a result of a public dispute and audience walkout over the unannounced inclusion of a representative of Israel's extremist AIPAC lobby in a local media group's program. CMA decides at its first meeting that FCC ownership rules and the reform of WTTW will be its first major areas of concentration.
2003 The We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming Coalition (with the impressively long acronym WIYRSPC) forms under the aegis of Chicago Media Action to request monthly live documentary discussion forums, with the first to be on the then impending attack on Iraq. The Coalition also asked the station to continue and expand its support for the Bill Moyers public affairs series "Now!" This first Coalition meeting brought together thirty-one representatives from twenty-six local peace and justice groups in a studio at WTTW with three station executives: #2 Randy King, Chicago Tonight producer Mike Liederman, and programmer Dan Soles. A second, smaller meeting takes place a month later with two program executives. It is explained to WTTW that the occasional forums would preempt Chicago Tonight and redirect those resources and therefore represent little or no net drain on the station's shaky finances. Continuing live film forum requests by CMA and community groups have to date been ignored by WTTW. 
2003 Business journalist Jim Kirk writes a powerful investigative cover story for the Chicago Tribune Magazine revealing  around $10 million in blunderous misappropriations since WTTW station manager Dan Schmidt took over the reigns in 1999. 



This history is periodically updated and expanded. 

CMA thanks  the Chicago Historical Society for its research assistance.