Having a conservative radio station in Evanston makes sense – only if that station promotes intelligent discussion of current social, political, scientific and cultural issues and is respectful of opposing opinions.
General manager Chuck Duncan explained that the station formerly known as WOMX and now called WCGO-AM 1590, has been on the air since the late 1950s, at home at 2100 Lee St., in a quiet corner of west Evanston. The station was not always politically affiliated. A Hungarian immigrant, Frank Kovas, an inventor with a fascination for radio, founded the station to give immigrants a voice on the airwaves. It continues to fulfill that promise while building another listenership.
Mr. Kovas made a fortune from distributing Turtle Wax. Once he had the means to pursue his true passion, radio, he purchased and equipped several stations around the country. Mr. Kovas ultimately consolidated his local facilities into WCGO, whose control towers at Oakton Street and McCormick Boulevard send the station’s daytime signal north to Racine, Wis., and south to Hammond, Ind.
Mr. Kovas passed away in 2005 in his office at the radio station he created. His stepson, Joe Walburn, assumed ownership, along with the Kovas Family trust. WCGO was granted 10,000 watts, and Mr. Walburn sought input on expansion ideas. Enter Chuck Duncan. Involved in traditional broadcasting for 39 years, Mr. Duncan had been a successful syndicated sports radio host. He also owned several stations out of state. Weary of commuting and in need of hip and knee surgery, he decided it was time to retire. He quit the microphone, sold the stations and decided to reinvent himself.
Looking for an opportunity to coax ideas from young minds, Mr. Duncan applied to become a substitute teacher. He learned at his interview, however, that the only available position was that of school bus driver. When his initial shock wore off, he decided to accept. He believed he could have an impact from the driver’s seat and, in fact, did steer several students in a more positive direction during his year of driving.
Around this time a mutual acquaintance introduced Mr. Duncan and Mr. Walburn, who was vice president of Kovas Communications. The two had an immediate connection. It was not long before Mr. Duncan’s interest in WCGO’s growth and trajectory was ignited. He joined Mr. Walburn’s mission to exploit the station’s 10,000 watts in a broader and more useful way. They upgraded equipment, then focused attention on programming. Until then, only small clusters of ethnic audiences had known the station existed. With the addition of a couple of pros who had produced big names such as Mancow Muller and Jonathan Brandmeier, Mr. Duncan’s “Sports Talk” format was parlayed into “Smart Talk.”
WCGO’s airtime had always been “brokered,” with time slots underwritten by a funding source. Mr. Duncan approached a longtime supporter asking for a slight increase in funds. The man, a major financial donor to the conservative arm of the Republican Party, was inspired by the “Smart Talk” concept. He offered generous support, hoping for a Conservative Republican arena for the intelligent exchange of ideas.
Though recently disenchanted, Mr. Duncan was a liberal Obama supporter. Mr. Walburn did not find this an impediment to collaboration; he thought Mr. Duncan could turn his curiosity and open-mindedness into an asset for the station. They shared a desire to promote intellectualism and shed the “yelling and finger-pointing” on display on so many conservative talk shows.
“It’s all in the presentation.” Mr. Duncan said. He was looking for a diverse population of listeners and envisioned that WCGO would offer compelling contemporary commentary on myriad issues, in the vein of NPR – a polite, conservative venue for exploring scientific, religious, socially and politically relevant topics.
Their financial windfall was due in part to their luring the legendary Milt Rosenberg to host a daily show. The venerated Chicago AM radio personality and decorated academic came to WCGO this year after many years at WGN. He invites a wide spectrum of learned guests into the studio for his live broadcasts, taking calls from listeners as they come in. Now in his 90s, Mr. Rosenberg remains energetic and offers esoteric perspectives on a range of subjects.
“We don’t apologize for having brains,” says Mr. Duncan of the team’s quest to raise the bar on discussion. “We don’t want to contribute to the ‘dumbing down’ of America. We are going for wholesome radio, designed to make people think, wonder, be inspired – and be inspired to participate. We may be speaking from a conservative platform, but this is to be first and foremost an idea forum.”
“The art of radio is the theater of the mind.” Mr. Duncan says. “Milt can paint pictures on his show,” he says, speaking reverently of Mr. Rosenberg. As for the profession he himself walked away from and returned to, Mr. Duncan feels a huge responsibility. “We are guardians of the public airwaves. We cannot allow ourselves to be part of the lowest common denominator.”
Last year WCGO had no audience beyond certain ethnic populations – Assyrian and Korean in particular. Currently, the station’s numbers compete with larger Chicago AM stations, its listeners 35-64 years old, educated, homeowners, travelers, investors, and, Mr. Duncan notes, a growing number of “millennials.” He says Democratic listeners are crossing over, listening “with a jaded ear.” Soon moving away from brokered airtime, they will begin selling ads as listenership and costs increase. Though they will continue serving ethnic audiences, those slots will likely diminish.
The small but dedicated staff of WCGO-AM 1590 are interested in taking on interns, particularly at the college level. At a workplace where everyone does a little of everything, they will offer a variety of hands-on opportunities. Of particular interest to students looking to develop editing skills will be the digitizing of 40 years’ worth of Mr. Rosenberg’s audiotapes.