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Media: May 2019

| April 30, 2019

Jim O’Donnell has been off and on the media beat for Chicago area newspapers for four decades. As of a few months ago, he’s back on, and he’s landed at a familiar place, The Daily Herald.

“That’s where my career started,” he says, “and now I’m doing a sports and media column thanks to a quartet of superb professionals beginning with publisher Doug Ray, editor-in-chief John Lampinen, managing editor Jim Baumann, and Mike Smith, who has been sports editor since last fall. The full run began at The Daily Herald in 1981 when I nailed an improbable home run with a breakaway about Harry Caray getting set to leave the White Sox for the Cubs. I wound up doing seven years of media column for The Herald, moved to Frank Deford’s National Sports Daily in 1990 and came back to the game thanks to Bill Adee at The Chicago Sun-Times in 1997. There was a short-lived redux at The Sun-Times in 2009-2010, but the paper was falling apart financially and at the supervisory level…”

Anyone who reads O’Donnell’s work and has been around a while shouldn’t be too surprised to discover that former Sun-Times writer Gary Deeb was one of his idols.

“Deeb, in his newspaper years (1973-83), was a staggering force of innovation,” O’Donnell asserts. “A 28-year-old kid from Buffalo came to Chicago in 1973 and completely invented a new school of how media could be covered. He was bold, funny and remarkably well-resourced. He also did national and local media, which no one since has ever matched. During one of my frequent fall-outs with Steve Dahl, Dahl once said on the air, ‘Oh, is O’Donnell out there trying to write like Gary Deeb again?’ To me, that was like saying, ‘Oh, is O’Donnell out there trying to play basketball like Michael Jordan again?’ In both cases, I was clearly not worthy.”

Like Deeb before him, O’Donnell ruffled a few feathers in his day. I wondered if he had any regrets.

“My biggest regrets have always been brutally professional, like when I didn’t take an extra look at a word, phrase or sentence to make a line payoff with greater zing. Some great editors have told me I’m way too hard on myself. As far as being an outright nitwit, I took a roundhouse at Oprah just as she was on the threshold of being syndicated that was plumb dumb. Years later, she and Jeff Jacobs did me an enormous favor that reeked of overwhelming graciousness.”

The Daily Herald now has two people covering the media beat–renowned longtime media writer Robert Feder also writes for the suburban newspaper. That’s a pretty high-powered media-writing duo. Do their paths ever cross?

“Rob and I have known each other since 1981,” O’Donnell says, by way of explanation. “We didn’t have much interface at The Sun-Times when we were both columning there, and we don’t at The Daily Herald. He sticks to local media material and is very much a “just-the-facts-ma’am” sort of writer. I stretch out a bit more and try to mine some fun and irony out of both sports and sports media. I’d say he’s Joe Friday to my Jim Rockford.”

As a keen observer of Chicago radio and television over the past four decades, does O’Donnell have any favorites he has covered?

“On TV, Tim Weigel and Johnny Morris were transcendent talents and competitors. No one has managed his career better than Mark Giangreco. Jack Brickhouse’s versatility was amazing. The two best play-by-play teams have been Jim Durham and Johnny Kerr with the Bulls, and Jimmy Piersall and Harry Caray with Bill Veeck’s White Sox. Currently, Jeff Joniak and Tom Thayer are excellent. Of current sports talkers, Tom Waddle (ESPN-AM 1000) is insightful and refreshingly restrained. I love the way Jim Rose has evolved as a professional. As far as radio reporters, I guess I’m a classicist because my winning trifecta would be Cheryl Raye-Stout (WBEZ), George Ofman (WBBM) and David Schuster (WSCR). Also, every sports talker should have an encyclopedic nerd like Les Grobstein (WSCR). And, without question, the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter century has been Jay Mariotti. We were slow to warm to each other at The Sun-Times, but his devotion to his craft was staggering. He refused to settle, was unbelievably competitive and sold a lot of newspapers. I love working with guys who ‘get it’ and make me try to reach even higher.”

In the early ‘80s two of the guys he worked with were Steve Dahl & Garry Meier. O’Donnell appeared regularly as the host of their “Celebrity Jeopardy” segment when they were on WLS-AM 890.

“Let me just say the classic Dahl-Meier “Celebrity Jeopardy!” years (1981-83) were magical. They were the hottest and hippest young radio personalities in America, and they trusted some kookie suburban night owl to come down every few weeks and work unrehearsed alongside people like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Ozzy Osbourne, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas and even the great Art Fleming himself. Jeopardy! was dead and buried as a TV franchise when we started that bit in September 1981, and three years later, the grand run of Alex Trebek’s Jeopardy!’ began. We saved Jeopardy!

Here’s to hoping he also saves media writing. A few of us have a vested interest in the subject.

-Rick Kaempfer

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Category: Columns, Media, Monthly

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