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As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we’re looking back with a series of stories on the history and the memories.

CHICAGO — From 1948, until the present day, it didn’t matter where the news was happening, WGN had Chicago covered.

“It really delivers Chicago to Chicago,” Rick Morris, associate dean and professor at Northwestern University’s School of Communication said. “When there’s something happening in Chicago, WGN has quite a few news crews on the streets.“ 

“The Chicagoland Newsreel” was the city’s first TV newscast, debuting on Channel 9’s second day on air. And the program documented daily life on film.

“We had 35-to-40-pound film cameras,” Richard “Ike” Isaac, a cameraman at WGN for more than 40 years said. “It had these like Mickey Mouse things, you might have seen it in the old news reels.” 

The film was in short supply, and crews had to be judicious about using film. 

“As the reporter, you had to guess when the soundbite was coming,” longtime WGN reporter and anchor Bob Jordan said. “So you’d listen and listen, look at the cameraman, give him the that (finger making roll gesture), and he’d turn on the camera and start rolling.” 

Spencer Allen was WGN’s first news director. He set the standards still in place today and insisted that each fact in a news report must have two sources before it could be reported on air.

On June 6th 1960, WGN aired the first locally produced half hour newscast in the nation. It was called the “Tenth Hour News” with anchorman Jim Conway.

These were the days before live coverage on microwave or satellite signals, so film had to be developed: 

“It would take hours sometimes to develop the film for the nightly news,” Morris said. 

Once the film was developed it had to be physically brought to the WGN studios to be edited and broadcast.

“I would hop on the back of a motorcycle with the courier and the film,” Jordan said. “The cameraman had given him film – and we’d race off to the lab.”   

The newsreel evolved into “Nightbeat”, a 30-minute overnight newscast hosted by various WGN anchors including Carl Greyson and Marty McNeely.  

“Nightbeat which was the late-night newscast oddly enough used to get a really great rating,” Steve Novack, a director who started at WGN in the 1970s, said. “Even though it was on at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. in the morning.” 

Jordan’s first day at WGN was in 1973, and he ended up spending more than four decades at the station.

“I came in the newsroom, and I’ll never forget, I heard all of these typewriters clacking as I was walking down the hall,” he said. “Next to every typewriter was an ash tray. And I walked in the newsroom and there was this cloud of smoke and the brown ceilings from all the nicotine stains.” 

WGN’s reporters often went from working in the smoke-filled newsroom to covering the smoke-filled backrooms of Chicago politics.

“Chicago’s a political town, and the newscast has always been on top of Chicago politics,” Morris said.  

But WGN’s reporters have always covered all of Chicago and the suburbs. By the 1970s, the city was evolving, and technology was changing, too. 

“Eventually the electronic camera was born in the late ‘70s,” Morris said.  “With that camera came some very large video tapes that were very heavy to carry and the news crews where usually two, three, four people to go on a news shoot.” 

The new technology also brought new immediacy to news broadcasts.  

“It transformed journalism from something that was still tethered to some sort of studio. Yes you could originate things around Chicago, but now, once satellite came, you could cover anything anywhere,” Morris said.  

Decades ago, reporters had much greater access to inform the public, for instance at public meetings, crime scenes, even hospitals.  “

You could go right into a hospital and sit there, and I’ve done many bedside interviews with patients, which you can’t do today,” Jordan said.  

In 1980, WGN-TV premiered the Midwest’s first hour-long newscast in prime time by moving the 10 p.m. newscast to 9 p.m. and expanding it to a full hour.  It was rechristened as “The 9 O’Clock News.”  

And in the mid-1980s, WGN experimented with a new morning newscast anchored by Steve Sanders and Orion Samuelson called “Chicago’s First Report.” And at noon, WGN premiered the city’s only midday broadcast, known then as “Newscope.”  

WGN’s esteemed weather department has been a large part of the station’s identity, with venerated meteorologists like Harry Volkman, and Tom Skilling.

Sports coverage has also been a large part of WGN’s newscasts, and the list of award-winning sports anchors runs from Jack Brickhouse to Dan Roan.

Retired reporter Muriel Clair spent more than three decades at WGN, and approached each story with a simple goal. “I’d try to find something that you at home would be interested in,” she said.

Clair had her own interests, too: criminal justice reporting. Her investigative skills helped free Lathierial Boyd who was wrongfully convicted of murder and served 23 years in prison. In 2001, Clair began her own investigation and interviewed seven of the nine eyewitnesses in the case.

“We talked to a lot of people, and we ran into a young woman who said, ‘They’ve got the wrong person,’” Clair said. “Of course, my question was ‘How do you know?’ And she said, ‘I was there.”  And, she said, ‘The man they have locked up is not the man who did it. He did not kill anybody.’”

The news department has been a leader in political coverage. During WGN’s first year on air, in 1948, the news team counted votes in an election night special broadcast from the Chicago Tribune newsroom. Over the years, the Channel 9 team has reported from presidential conventions, produced gubernatorial debates and broadcast the area’s most-watched election night coverage.   

Corruption and crime often dominate the news in this city of nearly 3 million people, but one of the most horrific stories unfolded  90 miles north.

Jordan, who had covered the John Wayne Gacy saga, was one of the first reporters on the scene at serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment and was granted exclusive access to the floor where Dahmer lived.

“A neighbor said said, ‘Come on, I’ll take you up,’” he said. “We went in, upstairs, she lived right across the hall from Dahmer. They opened the door, you got the smell coming out of his apartment.  You could smell it on that whole floor.”

TV news wasn’t around for the Great Fire of 1871, but it was there to document the Great Flood of 1992.

“That was an amazing story,” Jordan said. “Because there was a hole — all of those tunnels we never knew that there were so many tunnels running underneath the city.” 

WGN’s coverage has focused time and again on events at Grant Park, from the Democratic National Convention protests in 1968, to Pope John Paul’s visit to Chicago in 1979, for which WGN provide the pool coverage for all other outlets, to the historic presidential victory speech of Barack Obama in 2008.

“Barack Obama becoming president,” Jordan said. “Huge crowds in Grant Park and people crying out of pride. And these were times when you were proud to be a Chicagoan. When people all over the world were focused on our city.” 

In 1994, WGN news premiered a weekday morning one hour newscast, which is now a six-hour show that doubles as Chicago’s breakfast table and routinely rules the ratings. WGN now produces more than 70 hours of news per week.

On its worst days, and its best, for 75 years Chicago has counted on WGN News to hold up a mirror to the city and tell the stories that make each viewer one of “Chicago’s Very Own.”