As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we’re looking back with a series of stories on the history and the memories.
CHICAGO — Sometimes the best ideas are so simple, they can fit on the back of a napkin. Chicago advertising legend Mike Waterkotte has the proof.
“I remember sitting at a bar with a napkin,” Waterkotte said. “It was after work, and I was with a buddy of mine, Rino Libertore.”
It was 1984 and the two were working for Eisaman, Johns, and Laws, an advertising agency in Chicago and had just landed a new account: WGN-TV.
While sipping a margarita at Su Casa Mexican Restaurant at 49 East Ontario Street in the Loop, Waterkotte jotted down four ideas for a new Channel 9 slogan.
- “Only the best.”
- “Here, there, everywhere.
- “Chicago’s Own.”
- “Chicago’s Very Own.”
WGN-TV’s staff announcers had referred to Channel 9 as ‘Chicago’s Own’ during legal station ID announcements for some time. Pete Marino, who was the WGN creative services director planted the seed.
“He was looking back in the archives, and he said there was something here called Chicago’s Own,” Waterkotte said. “He said, ‘That’s kind of interesting. Has a ring to it.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it sounds a little cold, or sounds like a slogan.’”
On that napkin, Waterkotte added one important word: “Very.”
“I was like, ‘That’s it,’” Liberatore said. “When you say something is your very own, it’s special.”
Liberatore, who was one of the agency’s creative directors said the four-letter adverb intensified the idea of ownership – emphasizing that WGN belongs to Chicago, and no place else.
“Something that’s your own is kind of, you know, a little bit ordinary,” Liberatore said. “But something that’s your very own is something that you hold close to you. It’s special, and that – it seems like such a subtle little thing – but that turned the notch.”
The team was off and running, thanks in part, to the margaritas.
“I’m not proposing that people go to a bar to come up with ideas, but it was after work, and it was time to go get a beer or a cocktail and low and behold the juice at Su Casa worked,” Waterkotte said.
Chicago’s Very Own was born.
In 1984, Waterkotte – then the creative director of Eisaman, Johns, and Laws – was working on couple of other memorable projects, including Michael Jordan’s first ever TV commercial for the Chevy Blazer, and the “Black and Blues Brothers” promotional poster featuring the Chicago Bears offensive line, also for Chevrolet.
“The Black and Blues Brothers poster we did October of 1984, and we still claim credit for them winning the Super Bowl (in the 1985 season),” Waterkotte said. “If it wasn’t for that poster, I don’t know where they’d have been.”
But it was the idea on that napkin that became the most successful image campaign in the history of local television.
Prior to the campaign, the station’s slogan for news was “WGN, oh what a good friend” and for children’s programs like Bozo, it had been, “Hold that smile.”
WGN wanted something more memorable that could be used across all station programming – from entertainment to news and sports.
Waterkotte was 32-years-old and had come from Pittsburgh with a sense of humor, and the memory of successful image campaign for KDKA Radio, “Pittsburgh, someplace special.”
Holding a poster of the ‘”someplace special” campaign, Waterkotte said, “This might have been the impetus of Chicago’s Very Own. It was a way to show pride in the city. And it kind of informed me 20 years later that that worked. There seemed to be something that got to your gut. Pride in your city, or the station took pride in your city.”
“Chicago’s Very Own” had that same kind of feel but needed a little more soul – especially for the on-air jingle.
“We talked, and he said, ‘It would really be good if we could get like a Lou Rawls sound alike?’” Waterkotte said. “Rino said, ‘Well, why don’t we get Lou Rawls?’”
The Chicago-born soul singer with a velvet baritone and three Grammy Awards agreed to record the new WGN theme song, for $25,000 and travel expenses.
“They paid him for that, which at the time, I thought was ‘wow!” Waterkotte said. “At that time, he was doing Budweiser — big name stuff.”
They recorded the “Chicago’s Very Own” song in just 15 minutes in a Gold Coast recording studio.
For WGN employees, it became a responsibility and a mission statement.
“So, it worked internally, and it worked externally.” Waterkotte said. “So, the audience felt like, ‘Yeah, that’s where we can go if we really want to find out what’s going on in town.’”
The audience knew it was true. WGN had covered sports and news, and produced beloved children’s and family programs for decades.
“The slogan, I think certainly fits,” said Jack Brickhouse, the voice of the Cubs, Sox, and Bulls on WGN-TV for parts of five decades. “Because, after all, we are locally owned. We don’t take orders from New York or L.A., and we’re a 50,000-watt clear channel station. And we have always, always emphasized public service.”
“It really epitomizes what the station is – it is Chicago’s Very Own,” longtime director Steve Novak said. “It is Chicago’s Very Own. You think of the other stations in the market, and yes, they’re good television stations, but when you think of Chicago, you think of Channel 9.”