As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we’re looking back with a series of stories on the history and the memories.
CHICAGO — WGN-TV’s live broadcast day starts at 4 a.m. and runs until 11 p.m. – by far the most locally produced programming in the Chicago market.
“We’re on the air live for 14 hours every weekday,” WGN’s news director Dominick Stasi said.
It all starts with the top-rated WGN Morning News, which has become a Chicago staple, giving the city a sense of what’s happening, with a sense of humor.
“I think my role is to bring some comedic relief,” morning meteorologist Paul Konrad said.
Konrad noted the extraordinary longevity and chemistry between anchors Larry Potash, Robin Baumgarten and sports anchor Pat Tomasulo.
As the morning show is produced in the studio, a team of assignment editors led by Chris Neale is calling sources, researching ideas, and preparing an outline of the day’s events in the newsroom.
Meantime, digital anchor Chip Brewster will present a news conference to the streaming audience on the station’s web site, wgntv.com
As the morning show signs off, lifestyle talk show “Daytime Chicago” signs on.
“We are that bridge between the morning show and the midday show where you just get to escape the news,” said host Tonya Francisco.
Then it’s “WGN Midday News” with anchors Dina Bair and Patrick Elwood. Director Steve Novak is calling the shots in the control room during the two-hour broadcast which includes live guests and cooking segments.
“It’s sort of like being a band conductor,” Novak said.
Potash also hosts the acclaimed history series “Backstory.” He’s working with producer Mike D’Angelo to tweak an upcoming episode.
A team of 200 people works in the news department. Nearly half of them are reporters and photographers.
Photojournalist Erik Arendt loads his gear into a news van. He’ll be working with reporter Courtney Spinelli. Their assignment: reporting on a fatal hit-and-run accident. At the scene of the accident Arendt searches for different perspectives.
“You want to move the camera around, get low, get different angles of what we’re doing,” he said.
Once they conduct and record interviews and gather other elements – like the police report and surveillance video from nearby businesses – it’s back to the news van where Spinelli starts writing the story and Arendt establishes the live signal which beams microwaves from the news van to receivers atop the John Hancock and Willis Towers. Those signals are sent back to WGN’s studios, and then sent out over the airwaves to the viewing audience.
“This is the way it was done,” Arendt said. “It’s still tried and true – a microwave signal.”
He’s on the phone with Mike Zale, an engineer inside of “News Center,” which is really the nerve center of WGN News. It’s where remote video feeds from the Chicago area, the nation and the world are coordinated and collected via satellite, microwave, cellular, and digital transmissions.
“There are moments with – I would even say boredom – to very tense moments where you have to make decisions, where you have to take action very quickly to make sure you make a deadline,” Zale said.
Spinelli will report live from the location of the accident in the 4 p.m. newscast, with Ben Bradley and Lourdes Duarte.
Evening anchor Ray Cortopassi arrives at WGN midafternoon. He’ll edit news scripts while preparing for a live interview.
“You get well versed on a subject as quickly as you can,” Cortopassi said.
Anchor Micah Materre is taping an episode of the public affairs program “People to People,” ahead of her duties anchoring the evening and nighttime newscasts.
“We’re the anchors, we hold down the fort,” Materre said. “That’s’ why we’re anchors, we hold it down. But there’s so many people involved in putting that one story together.”
Meantime in the newsroom, video editors, producers, and news writers are busy creating the elements of a newscast.
“There’s always something to write,” writer Bill Kissinger said.
Once a week, political analyst Paul Lisnek tapes the WGN-TV Political Report – a public affairs show focused on governmental and political issues.
“I view the role of any program host or anchor as one who can attempt to teach the community what’s going on,” Lisnek said.
There are some complicated stories that require graphics, and art director Kristi Stone is busy designing them. Topical producer Scott Bennett is creating promotions.
“I’m in charge of the spots you see that say ‘tonight at nine’ and tell you what’s going to be on the news,” Bennett said.
WGN also produces several special events – like a recent 2023 mayoral debate. The moderators are political reporter and weekend anchor Tahman Bradley and Duarte.
Political producer Jordan Muck oversees the production.
“I’ll be in the control room telling our anchors where to go, telling them what question is next. I’m watching our timing,” she said.
In a nod to WGN’s history, the bell to notify candidates’ that their time has expired is sounded by a button fashioned to look like Bozo the Clown’s nose.
Watching it all is the news department’s top executive – news director Stasi.
“I’m just keeping the train on the tracks,” he said.
The WGN Sports department is keeping an eye on a wall of TV screens showing the Cubs and White Sox spring training games, and the NCAA basketball tournament.
“We’ve got as many as six games going at once,” sports anchor Josh Frydman said.
They’re also working to produce the half hour sports show called ‘GN sports,’ which closes out the live broadcast day at 11 p.m., when the new first shift of the morning news team starts arriving, to prepare the next day’s broadcast.
In each of its 75 years, Channel 9 has grown and evolved.
It’s much different from the station that signed on the air in 1948, but its core mission remains the same: to live up to the responsibility of being “Chicago’s Very Own” television station.
“It’s a big responsibility because we owe that to the viewers of Chicago to deliver all the big stories, and do it as complete and balanced as possible – and that’s what we do every day.” Stasi said.