Farewell to the Public Radio Mines

In fifty-one years, it boils down to a common thread in my work experience. A trend in my relationship with the pursuit of cash to pay for rent and such.

When I started teaching in the public school system in my younger, fresh-out-of-college days, I was hired by a maverick principal who was looking for someone who was unconventional and creative. Someone risky. Someone slightly too stupid to know better.

She hired me.

And for seven years, I ran an unconventional music program for seventh and eighth graders. Not everything I came up with worked but I was always experimenting and finding things that were both challenging for myself and the students. Seventh graders spending nine weeks building instruments that functioned that I had not seen before making the classroom look like a wood shop. Eighth graders writing and performing original 20-minute operas.

Then she left for other things and the new principal was an autocrat. He liked things by the book. Predictable. Easy to control and understand. We did not get along. After two years of battling with his need for rigid conformity, I simply quit the teaching profession and started a theatre company.

The trend was set. Get hired by a rule-bender looking for creative risk. New boss wants control rather than creativity. Fight the Machine for a bit. Get outta Dodge.

Under Torey Malatia, WBEZ was bold and risky... and often broke as shit. Some of the biggest and most influential NPR shows in history came from Torey's house. But the failures were equally as massive. I still find great inspiration in Torey's approach—public radio in service of all rather than the folks wealthy enough to support it. Service to all, however, rarely pays the bills. Risk can't be safe or it isn't risk, and risk is scary when you're writing the checks.

When I was hired by another rule-bending maverick, Daniel Ash (first as the House Manager of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! and months later as the first events person in the station's history), the mandate was noble but not a breadwinner: Don't focus on making money with events, focus on the audience's experience. Create interesting opportunities for WBEZ members to see each other in the real world and learn something. Like the radio but in person.

I'd like to think that for the bulk of my ten years, I did just that. Built up a program of events that were exactly the kind of things the WBEZ audience wanted to come to. In 2007, there was no Events Department, just Daniel, Breeze Richardson and I, and for the first two years, we produced ten events per year. When Breeze moved on and then Torey was booted out and Daniel split for the Chicago Community Trust, it was Vanessa Harris and I, and we produced between 80 and 130 events per year with a staff of three and a budget so small, most people couldn't believe it.

And then, with a new CEO, the culture changed. Less a band of scrappy artist/journalists and more a highly structured media corporation, the response to the digital assault on all media became more regimented and data centered. There is an argument that states that a more structured and corporate agenda is the only way public media can survive. While I disagree, the argument still holds merit.

It really was just a matter of time. With the new approach, the position I held was less welcome. My opinions were increasingly ignored because I was that guy. A holdout against the encroaching scramble for the buck. I still did the job, as I loved the job and I'm good at it. There were still events, and pretty cool ones, but the day-to-day battle over ticket prices and catering to major donors and focusing on the profitability of events became isolating.

Six months ago, WBEZ hired a new person to be my boss (my fifth in ten years) and suddenly, she was the Director of Events even though I retained the title. It was weird but typical of standard corporate behavior.

When people asked how things were going, I'd respond that they were still paying me, hadn't stolen my red Swingline stapler, nor moved my desk to the basement so I had no reason to burn the place down. Gallows humor. Those with a knowledge of Office Space understood.

And, after six months of this, it was finally time to go.

In parting ways, I can say that my decade working for WBEZ, Vocalo, and especially NPR's Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! was thrilling, challenging, inspiring and worth every moment. I got to watch Obama's first speech as president on multiple televisions in a bona fide newsroom. I got to meet Michael Moore, Denis Leary, speak to Bill Clinton and hang out with Tom Hanks. I produced events for as many as 5,000 people (as well as had a hand in producing a record-breaking performance of WWDTM at Millennium Park for 17,000 people). I produced events at the House of Blues, Victory Gardens, Adler Planetarium, Metro Chicago, City Winery, Chicago History Museum, Chopin Theater and hundreds of other excellent venues.

I was there to assist in orchestrating the 10th Anniversary of WWDTM at Adler Planetarium. I was there for Carl Kassell's final show in D.C. I directed Ira Glass, Scott Simon and Peter Sagal in a gala performance. I have been privileged to work with Bill Kurtis. I got to throw Richard Steele and Claude Cunningham their retirement parties. Winter Block Parties with YCA, New Year's Eve Parties with The Moth, Pi Day, the brilliant town hall meetings for the Race Out Loud series. Jim and Greg of Sound Opinions with Frankie Knuckles on the MCA stage. Drive-In movies in West Chicago. 5K Runs with Peter Sagal. Running front of house for WWDTM with Kate Kinser by my side almost every single night. Laughing and planning things with the amazing Vanessa Harris.

The list of amazing experiences and incredible people is a bit mind-boggling in hindsight. And Good Christ, the Pledge Drives... 

I'm plainly very proud of the work I did for the members of WBEZ and the people I routinely worked with and for. I have nothing negative to say about this true blue Chicago institution—the work they do is essential on multiple levels and the talent and drive is unlike any place I've ever been. Kind of like the Cirque Du Soleil of public media.

And now I am freelance.

Commonly attributed to Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) in Ivanhoe (1820) to describe a "medieval mercenary warrior" or "free-lance" (indicating that the lance is not sworn to any lord's services, not that the lance is available free of charge), the term now applies to me. I am a mercenary. A ronin. A soldier of fortune.

I've been here before and, quite frankly, I'm looking forward to it. Yes, the stability of a steady paycheck has a host of benefits but the stagnation of cubicle life starts to wear thin. Frankly, I'm happy I made it a full decade. I mean, I'm always a bit shocked that any corporation would put up with me for too long.

In my 20s I was a public school teacher.
In my 30s I was a theatrical producer/director/actor.
In my 40s I was a public radio events director/NPR show house manager/Moth host

I think my 50s will be a freelancing adventurer. An Artistic Mercenary. An Events Consultant. A Pirate King. With some random other hyphenates to add-on.

Starting here.
donhallchicago.com