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An End to TV Station's Independent Streak?

In Chicago, WCIU's survival as a family-owned station could be threatened by FCC rule changes.

May 29, 2003|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — It was 1965, and Chicago's WCIU-TV Channel 26 was teetering on the edge of extinction.

The independent station couldn't pay its bills. Employees had to plug a nickel into a pay phone to make a call. Because the station had no money for programming, all viewers could watch was a test pattern and, later, a live shot of a bird in a slowly revolving cage.

That year, entrepreneur Howard Shapiro assumed control of the fledgling station. He would eventually employ a time-tested business strategy -- location, location, location -- by catering to Chicago's underserved ethnic groups, from Lithuanians and Filipinos to the burgeoning African American community. Along the way, the station established groundbreaking shows, including livestock market reports, "A Black's View of the News" and the afternoon dance show "Soul Train."

Now, all these years later, WCIU's survival as a family-owned independent station is threatened once again -- just as it is becoming a player in the local ratings wars.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Former Chicago Bear -- A May 29 article about Chicago's WCIU-TV station in the Business section misspelled the first name of former Chicago Bear running back Gale Sayers as Gayle.

The Federal Communications Commission on Monday is expected to vote on a proposal to relax ownership rules for broadcasters, allowing companies to own up to three TV stations in large markets such as Chicago and Los Angeles. Media companies have been pushing for the changes because they say they need to own more stations to thrive in the cluttered, competitive 300-channel TV universe.

If the rules are changed, as expected, WCIU could find itself a takeover target of a media conglomerate, such as Viacom Inc., Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. or Chicago-based Tribune Co., which publishes the Los Angeles Times.

Critics say that any loosening of the rules will doom the already endangered species of independents, which operate without the benefit of network affiliation. They contend that powerful corporate parents will install managers more interested in serving up profits with cookie-cutter programming than in serving the community.

For now, WCIU's Shapiro downplays such speculation. The 77-year-old Chicago native, who wears his oversized plastic-rimmed glasses on his furrowed forehead, says he's been turning down offers since 1969.

"This is our home," Shapiro says. "Some of the people who are working here have been here since we started. It's like family, and we've had lots of interesting adventures over the years." He adds, "We've never regretted keeping it.... But there's no guarantee that we won't sell."

WCIU nearly failed at the start.

Although the station's founder, John Weigel, received the FCC license for the UHF station and put together a group of investors, he didn't have the resources to last a year. Enter Shapiro.

The turning point for the station came in 1967, when Shapiro, who bought out the other investors, decided to capitalize on WCIU's perch in the towering Chicago Board of Trade Building. Because the station was operating on a shoestring, he ordered a camera wheeled to the trading floor. They began broadcasting "The Stock Market Observer," with live business news five days a week, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"It was a way to fill up a lot of time and get some revenue," Shapiro says.

Within a few years, "The Stock Market Observer" had a near-cult following. And with commercial spots going for $60 for 30 seconds, the show helped the station erase its deficit, and, Shapiro said, it hasn't incurred any debt since.

While other network stations aired "Peyton Place," "Petticoat Junction" and "Laugh-In," in color, WCIU turned to the neighborhoods of Chicago for its programming. Still broadcasting in black and white, the station reached out to African American, Greek, Italian, Latino, Lithuanian and Polish audiences, with everything from dramas to consumer advice. There also was "Polka Party," "Hellenic Theater," chinchilla races and bullfights from Mexico.

Dean Richards fondly remembers how every Sunday, his grandmother would turn on Bobby Pappadimas' Greek show.

"He was this little man who would play 45s on the air, scratchy recordings, and sometimes if he didn't have any guests, he would just show pictures of Greece -- the Pantheon, the Acropolis, the Pantheon again," recalled Richards, 49, who worked for two summers as a cameraman at WCIU during the 1970s.

"The shows were incredibly cheesy. They were literally slapped together with Scotch tape," said Richards, now the entertainment critic for Tribune's WGN radio and WGN television station in Chicago. "But in so many ways, the station was the heartbeat of Chicago, reflecting its ethnic makeup."

By the late 1960s, WCIU was producing its own shows, including "A Black's View of the News," "Black's Pre-School Fun" and "Black History Playoffs," a quiz show with Chicago high school students as contestants. Legendary Chicago Bears halfback Gayle Sayers hosted a local variety show when his pro-football career ended.

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