For 100 years, WGN Radio has been a source of conversational programming that has connected Chicagoland — and far beyond, thanks to the station’s impressive 50,000-watt 720 AM broadcast reach. Its lineup of memorable hosts, long-running cultural programming and passionate local sports coverage have enshrined WGN Radio as a cherished companion for generations of listeners in cars and kitchens.
Thanks to a donation from Nexstar Media Group, Inc., parent company of WGN Radio, a 70-year-old tape of the radio station’s archival audio now resides at the Northwestern University Libraries in the Charles Deering McCormick Collections Library. specials and university archives.
Chicago History and WGN’s Most Popular Voices
The archive, with material spanning 1941 to 2011, includes more than 15,000 items, primarily magnetic media (open reel tapes, compact cassettes, continuous loop “carts”, U-matic videocassettes and VHS tapes) as well as other media such as discs, CDs and minidiscs. Most of the audio dates from the 1980s and 1990s, a period of innovation and growing popularity for the station.
The archive contains thousands of hours of audio that will need to be cataloged and, if necessary, digitally preserved before it can be made public, said Scott Krafft, curator of special collections at Northwestern.
“It’s a remarkable collection that represents a significant cross-section of Chicago history, including local and national news,” he said. “In addition, the voices of WGN Radio’s most popular programs are represented here, making it an important archive for the history of the entire field of broadcasting.”
“Given the long and storied relationship between WGN Radio and Northwestern University, it is only fitting that this audio collection, drawn from 70 years of our broadcast history, be in their care,” said Mary Sandberg Boyle, Vice – President and General Manager. from WGN Radio. “While digitization is an important undertaking for libraries in the North West, it will ultimately be a permanent and invaluable repository and resource for years to come. We trust their expertise and are proud that they are stewards of this business.
“The WGN Radio Archive will provide a laboratory for future scholars studying 20th century media at the intersection of Chicago’s cultural and political history. — Sarah Pritchard, Dean of Northwest Libraries
Preserving an audio archive, let alone just listening to it, poses a particular challenge for a cultural heritage institution, Krafft said. For example, magnetic media such as audio tapes are notoriously unstable. The tapes relay information by storing patterns of magnetic particles on an acetate or polyester base; over time, these materials can break down on their own, even in ideal temperature-controlled storage libraries.
Additionally, the archives contain other fragile media like glass “transcription discs”, a common radio recording solution during World War II. The lacquer coating on these discs can separate from the glass over time, a process called “delamination”, after which the recording is lost. Add to these problems the obsolescence and precariousness of aging playback equipment, and even listening to analog audio can be a challenge.
“Navigating the preservation of these archives will take time,” Krafft said. “But in the end, it will be worth preserving the cultural record represented by WGN Radio.”