Lovers Lane
In The Flesh

Media: December 2021 • Never Forget

| November 30, 2021

Jim Tilmon


At the end of every year, we like to take a moment to acknowledge the media giants in Illinois we lost during the year. This year the list includes television and radio icons, familiar faces and voices, and people behind the scenes.

One of the most consequential names you might not know is former WGN-TV executive Paul Davis. He passed away in April. Davis was awarded the Silver Circle Award in 2009 by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, cementing his place in history. One of the things that Davis was known for was his mentoring a who’s who of Chicago journalists. Among those was Alison Payne, who lost her life this year as well. She was only fifty-seven when she passed away in September.

Payne was a multiple-Emmy award-winning journalist, known chiefly for her years as an anchor at WGN-TV alongside co-anchors like Steve Sanders and Mark Suppelsa.

Rich King, the former sports anchor at WGN-TV, worked with Alison for years. I contacted King at his home in Arizona and asked him to share his memories of her.

“So much talent, so much energy, so much beauty,” Rich said. “How can such a forceful life end at such an early age? She was a huge star, but there was not a trace of arrogance in her. Chatting in the makeup room, laughing together at station events, sharing those long hours on the air with her after a Chicago team won a championship are all cherished memories. She always seemed so full of life, but apparently, she was battling some demons, as we all do in the course of life. I missed her greatly when she had to retire; I still miss her. Wherever she is now, I hope she finds the peace she sought in the living years.”

In January, we lost another Chicago TV icon, the incomparable Jim Tilmon. A constant presence on Chicago television for nearly 40 years, the meteorologist doubled as a news reporter whenever the subject was aviation. Tilmon had been a pilot for American Airlines for many years and was beloved by his colleagues. Current WCPT-AM talk show host Joan Esposito worked with him at Channel 5 for many years. I asked her to share a few words about her old friend.

“Jim Tilmon was the gentlest of men,” Joan said. “He rose to the pinnacle of two industries as a Captain for American Airlines and as a top local broadcaster yet never displayed the ego associated with either of those positions. Tilmon broke racial glass ceilings with a kindness hammer. He sometimes told the story of an air traveler who mistook him for a skycap. Rather than correcting them, he helped them find their bags. That was Jim Tilmon. The public loved him, and so did everyone who worked with him. Including me.”

One of the biggest radio stars in America also passed away in 2021, Rush Limbaugh. He was considered a national figure, but Chicago played a crucial role in his career. I asked the former program director of WLS, Kipper McGee, to explain Rush’s impact.

“Some loved him. Others didn’t. But this is certain: Rush Limbaugh was a true radio innovator,” Kipper said. “When the FCC dropped the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, hosts like Rush were given the freedom to discuss topics offering a real point of view. Rush was conservative. Others were not. Secondly, Rush proved that a network radio show could not only work on top radio stations but that he could succeed in the vaunted midday hours. As it turns out, WLS-AM was the very first major market station to carry Rush.”

Tom Tradup, now at Salem Radio Network, was president and general manager when WLS turned all-talk in 1989. Tradup recalls, “His syndicated show was less than a year old and heard in mostly smaller radio markets. I’d worked with Rush in Kansas City in the early ’80s and knew how talented he was. So, we added him on WLS — his first Top 10 market at that time.”

Success was not immediate, partially because Chicago was known for a long line of great local radio talent. But as Tradup recalls, “once he kicked in, Rush rocketed WLS to No. 1 in his daypart among talk stations and never looked back.”

Kipper adds: “Ironically, the terms ‘Excellence in Broadcasting,’ ‘Talent on Loan from God’ and other Limbaugh benchmarks like his ‘Updates’ were coined when Rush was practicing Top 40 radio in Pittsburgh in the early 1970s as Jeff Christie.”

Rush was 70 when he passed away in February.

Another Chicago favorite was also 70 when he passed away in March.

Channel 7 director of editorials and consumer affairs, Bill Campbell, was a visible presence on ABC 7 for more than 30 years, mainly on Sunday mornings when he hosted “Chicagoings,” which earned him multiple Emmy Awards. He hadn’t been on the air in years because of a stroke suffered in 2017, but he was an important figure in Chicago television journalism history.

In some ways, the influence of local television and radio professionals has waned in the last few years. Fewer people are listening to the radio. Fewer people are watching local newscasts. But these people we lost in 2021 forged their paths during the heyday of the industry.

They will be missed, but their contributions will not be forgotten.

– Rick Kaempfer


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