Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Media: October 2014

| October 1, 2014
Rick O'Dell at WPGUWPGU’s Rick O’Dell, circa 1980


I have a confession to make. I’m an Illini.

It happened many years ago, and I don’t often speak of it in public, but it’s true. And I’m not alone.

We’re all around you. There are dozens of us working in Chicago media today.

You know their names. You know their faces. But until now, you probably didn’t know that without a certain radio station in Champaign-Urbana (WPGU), these fellow Illini probably wouldn’t have made it in the cutthroat media world.

The man in the photo is radio personality Rick O’Dell. You’ve heard him on the radio in Chicago for the past thirty years spinning smooth jazz, but have you ever seen him in his pre-smooth days? Working at WPGU radio was more than just an opportunity to sport the very cool Budweiser “Gilligan” hat. “The chance to hone our skills working at a commercial station,” he says now, “along with the friendships that came out of those long days in the basement of Weston Hall (the one-time location of the station), was the foundation for everything that came after in my career.”

WGN-TV morning anchor Robin Baumgarten came along more than ten years later, but gives an even stronger recommendation. ““I don’t think I’d be in the business at all if WPGU had not been located in the basement of my dorm – Weston Hall. I had to walk by the call letters every day, and eventually got the nerve to walk in. For some unknown reason, I was given an opportunity to read and write the news, and spin records on the weekends. Since they quickly realized I didn’t know Bob Dylan from Bobby Vinton….news it was! The rest, is history. “

The radio station has been airing on 107.1FM in Urbana-Champaign since the late ’60s, and has spawned the careers of disc jockeys, newscasters, sportscasters, and executives across the country, but especially in Chicago. You can’t turn on the radio without running into an alum.

The Game’s 87.7FM midday co-host Alex Quigley worked at WPGU in the 90s. “The reason our era did so well in the ‘real world’ after graduation is that as far as we knew, we were already there.”
Just down the dial at 93 WXRT, Wendy Rice “studied” there. “I studied the entire music library. I took notes on the albums and artists I wasn’t familiar with and learned more about ‘progressive rock’ than about my academic subjects.”

One of her colleagues at WXRT was Charlie Meyerson. Charlie credits WPGU with more than just a career. “I owe WPGU the wonderful life I have. If my ‘PGU comrade Allan Loudell hadn’t tipped me off to a job he’d chosen to pass on — the news directorship at WMRO/WAUR in Aurora — I’d not, on the way home from Aurora one day in July 1978, have had a Naperville traffic accident in which I met the woman who’d five years later become my wife. And I might not’ve been in the Chicago area to seek and accept the job of morning news guy at WXRT-FM — a 10-year run that sprinkled fairy dust over all the rest of my career.”

Turn on the Drive (97.1FM), and you’ll hear WPGU veterans all day and night, like morning news anchor Kathy Voltmer. “The moment I walked into the basement of Weston Hall and sat behind a microphone, I felt like I was home. At WPGU, I discovered a passion for radio and ‘rock radio news’ that’s undiminished to this day.”

WDRV evening host Phil Manicki is another: “Getting my start in radio at WPGU gave me the experience and the confidence I needed to get my first job in radio and got me started on this wonderful journey.” His drive colleague Greg Easterling worked there too, as did weekend jock Marc Vernon: “I really felt that I had a leg up on the competition when I graduated and WPGU was the reason.”

Keep going down the dial, and you’ll run into more. Brian “Whip” Paruch from Eric & Kathy’s show (WTMX) got his start there too: “Thinking back on it, everything I have done in my actual career, I FIRST did at ‘PGU. I was a music jock (including one truly notable moment: announcing Kurt Cobain’s death), I anchored some news, I anchored and reported sports, even got on stage and introduced a couple of concerts (Dead Milkmen, anyone?). I’ve used every one of those skills in real life…in fact, they’ve BEEN my professional life.”

The station still exists, and it still trains a new generation of broadcasters. Those broadcasters can even land on the AM dial, like Adam Harris. “I now anchor updates along with my full time producing job here at The Score, thanks to the experience I had with WPGU.” And Andrea Darlas: “My position at WPGU led to an internship my junior year (working with Steve Grzanich and Melissa Foreman) and now I’m a news anchor, reporter and show host at WGN… And I wouldn’t be here today without everything I learned from my first job in radio…WPGU.”

Melissa Forman is now on WCIU-TV, co-hosting their morning show in Chicago, but she also got her start at WPGU. “I did production voices for a while. It was the greatest “dungeon” ever!!” Emmy-award winning television news reporter(Fox 32) Dane Placko worked in the dungeon too.” “WPGU gave me the ‘real world’ broadcast experience that helped me land a job almost immediately after leaving college. Journalism classes were important, but much of the curriculum in those days was driven by textbooks and theory. WPGU was a place where you could go and hammer away at your writing, delivery, reporting and story-telling and simply learn to get comfortable in front of a live microphone.”

DNAinfo Chicago Radio News director Jon Hansen agrees wholeheartedly: “That’s where I got the chance to throw a bunch at the wall and see what stuck.” Lise Dominique is another one: “The day I wandered downstairs into the bowels (basement) of Weston Hall into WPGU, is the day I discovered my new major and my mentors. Charlie Meyerson gave me input on news while Gene Honda encouraged me to pursue the personality side of radio and commercial VO.”

Yes, that’s right. Chicago Blackhawks and White Sox public address announcer Gene Honda is also a PGUer.

We’re everywhere. Including this monthly column in the Illinois Entertainer.

-Rick Kaempfer

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  1. Harvey Wittenberg says:

    I go back to the days when WPGU was strictly aired in the Illinois dorms in one
    of the “temp” buildings behind Clark & Barton halls.
    Happy to say thanks to WPGU- I’m now in my
    56th year in radio- currently my 14th at
    WDRV- to go along with 41 seasons as the PA
    announcer at the Blackhawk games before Gene!