Jul 5, 2012

WBEZ founder and pioneering woman pubcaster Carole Nolan dies at 80

Carole Nolan, founder of WBEZ-FM in Chicago at a time when few women led pubcasting stations, died Thursday (July 5) of complications from muscular sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. She was 80.

In 1971, as director of telecommunications and broadcasting for the Chicago Public Schools, Nolan was asked to take over management of the Chicago Board of Education’s radio station. “She began a complete overhaul that reinvented WBEZ,” former WBEZ public relations director Merillee Clark Redmond told the Chicago Tribune. “She took great risks and was creative as she hired staff who would develop new programming and yet not neglect the Board of Education’s desire for educational programs.”

Nolan secured $100,000 for a new transmitter and antenna, and CPB programming funding. In 1972, WBEZ became a member of NPR. By 1975, WBEZ had received a CPB award for excellence in Children’s Programming. In 1978 Nolan devised station’s first on-air fund drive, and raised $25,000 using four telephones for pledge lines.

“Her most dramatic decision,” Redmond said, “was to purchase the license from the Chicago Board of Education, to move to independent studios designed to make WBEZ totally independent and member-operated, financed by listener contributions.”

Torey Malatia, WBEZ president, described that deal in a July 5 memo to staffers: “When the Chicago School Board announced the WBEZ was for sale in 1989, even as Carole was negotiating with them, Bill Kling of Minnesota Public Radio proposed a handsome cash offer,” Malatia wrote. WTTW “was even more generous and aggressive in his approach to buy WBEZ’s license” — with cash in hand.

“Carole convinced the school board to sell, not to these cash buyers, but to her brand-new nonprofit for less money,” Malatia noted, “with a payment plan over a 10-year term. When the superintendent asked why Carole needed to pay over time as this handicapped her offer against cash buyers, with that warm, disarming smile she said, ‘We don't have the money right now, but you know we're good for it.’”

“She immediately convinced the MacArthur Foundation to provide a $500,000 challenge grant for WBEZ’s first fund drive as soon as the license was transferred to the independent entity in September 1990,” Malatia wrote. “Carole leveraged another $500,000 in inaugural memberships from the audience, insuring that the station could generate sufficient funds to make up the School Board’s $1 million annual subsidy.”

Soon after, Nolan spearheaded a $7 million capital campaign and was able to move all operations to Navy Pier in 1995.

Through the years, Nolan hired staffers who went on to become big names in pubradio, including NPR Weekend Edition host Scott Simon, This American Life’s Ira Glass, NPR’s Chicago Correspondent Cheryl Corley — and Malatia, whom she hired in 1993 as vice president of programming.

She was born Jan. 28, 1932, to Martin Nolan and Caroline Alton Nolan in Chicago. She grew up on the city’s South Side and graduated from DePaul University in 1954. She also received a teaching degree from the Chicago Musical College, where she was trained as a classical pianist.

Nolan loved to travel. She had visited all of the continents and was a member of the Circumnavigator Club of Chicago, whose members have all circled the globe.

She is survived by seven cousins and three godchildren.

Redmond said that at her death, Nolan “was in the company of her dear friend of 50 years, Jane Smith. Her miniature poodle, Millie, was at her side.”

Services are pending. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Muscular Dystrophy Association (520 W. Erie St. No. 200, Chicago, Ill., 60654) or the National Parkinson Foundation (1501 N.W. Ninth Ave./Bob Hope Road, Miami, Fla. 33136-1494). (Photo: Don Parrish, Chicago Circumnavigators.)


Dru said...

This is a courtesy posting for Rick Lewis, who is "in a small Andean village in Ecuador at the moment, and high-tech options are limited." But he wanted to leave this comment:

Carole Nolan was an indisputable heroine of public radio’s formative years. She was a creature of a big, hidebound metropolitan school district who became one of the great pioneers in moving major-market stations, which ironically were long among the weakest performers, to independent community status. She accomplished it with quiet genius which to many of us seemed to come out of nowhere. Chicago and the nation are still enjoying the dividends of the marvels she achieved.

Rick Lewis, Miami, FL

David Gotaas said...

Carole is greatly missed by us members of the Circumnavigators Club of Chicago. Her gracious manner was reserved, but her heart was steadfast to make our world a better place.
Dave Gotaas
Northbrook, IL