Robert Feder: The exit interview
Chicago's legendary media columnist reflects on his storied career
7-7-2022 (issue No. 43)
Eric Zorn is a former veteran news columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Find a longer bio and contact information here. This issue exceeds in size the maximum length for a standard email. To read the entire issue in your browser, click on the headline link above.
Robert Feder and I began writing columns for major Chicago newspapers on the same day 40 years ago last March. I was a feature writer in the Tribune’s Tempo section, and the editors had tapped me to write a weekly column on the radio industry. Robert was a reporting assistant to Sun-Times media columnist Gary Deeb, and when word of the Tribune’s plans leaked out, the Sun-Times editors moved quickly to create a radio column of their own, naming Robert to write it.
He and I competed for several years until I had to give up the radio beat after getting engaged to a producer from WBEZ-FM, but by that time our rivalry, such as it was, was quite friendly. In fact, Robert recommended the jeweler who made Johanna’s engagement ring.
We’ve remained good pals over the years, so it was no surprise when he wrote in mid-June suggesting lunch on July 5 with me and his former Sun-Times colleague Neil Steinberg, another former rival of mine who has become a friend.
Then, last Friday morning, I was stunned along with nearly everyone else in Chicago media to read his blog post, “My childhood dream became the honor of a lifetime.”
After 42 years of reporting on Chicago media, I’m stepping away from the beat. My website at RobertFeder.com will continue online, but effective today, I’m concluding the run of my daily column and wrapping up my tenure with the Daily Herald.
Feder brought a relentlessness and integrity to covering his beat that made his daily dispatches essential reading not just for those in the business but also for regular consumers of news and information in this region. He followed personalities, trends and behind-the-scenes developments at stations, papers and websites.
Retired Daily Herald Editor John Lampinen put it well in a note to subscribers:
(Feder) shared insights. He had opinions. But the bread and butter of what he has done has been to report.
With accuracy, fairness and understanding. And I should add, with hustle, tenacity and humility.
He became a personality too. But it has been the amazing breadth of his reporting that made him that, not any swagger. If you wanted to know what was happening in Chicago media, you had to read Feder. He usually had it first.
He never played the pundit game — yakking on news-talk programs — and seldom gave interviews, in part, he once told me, because he didn’t want to appear to owe any media outlet anything. He considered guest appearances inherently compromising for a person in his position.
But now? I proposed that he allow Neil and me to conduct an exit interview with him over lunch, with the journalistically unusual stipulation that he could speak freely and then edit the transcript of his remarks.
As we sat down, he told me the timing of our lunch was no accident and reminded me that it was almost exactly a year ago that the three of us had met in the same restaurant to debrief me after I’d decided to accept a buyout offer and leave the Tribune after 41 years.
We didn’t think to record that conversation, which may be for the best. But here, without further ado, is Robert Feder …
ON THE TIMING OF HIS DECISION TO STEP DOWN
Everything came together at once. Within the last six years, I lost both my parents and my wife. That started me thinking about how short life is and understanding what happens when the last day comes and there is no tomorrow.
I had two big career goals: One was to make it 40 years on the beat, and the other was to keep working until age 65 so I could go on Medicare. I exceeded both. I wrote about the media for 42 years, and I'm now 66.
When you’re covering a beat year after year, decade after decade, it’s not easy to stay motivated every day. You’re always on such a short leash. You’re on call 24/7. If something happens, it doesn't matter what else you may have planned, you have to stop what you’re doing and cover the story because you’ve made that commitment.
And in order to do it well, you have to be curious, you have to want to keep up. And I wasn't as curious as I used to be. My beat didn't really interest me the way it used to, and I know that the impact of what I was covering has clearly diminished too.
All the businesses I was covering are in decline. The business models are broken for television, radio and newspapers. Everything is changing. And unless I really wanted to redouble my efforts to learn about what’s coming next -- to learn all the new players and where things are going -- I felt it would be a disservice to continue.
So it just all seemed like it was time.
My Daily Herald bosses couldn’t have been nicer or more understanding. They suggested other alternatives -- maybe going part time or taking an extended break – but it came down to the fact that the beat really didn’t excite me anymore. So much of what I was reporting seemed like I had done it over and over again.
ON HOW DEVELOPMENTS IN HIS PERSONAL LIFE INFLUENCED HIS DECISION TO STEP DOWN.
I’m also in a very good place personally now, and that was a huge factor in my decision, too. My daughter is doing great on her own, living with her boyfriend in West Town and working in information technology. I’m back together with my first wife — we were childhood sweethearts, married briefly right out of college, and reunited some 40 years later after my second wife died — and I want to travel and enjoy life with her. That’s not easy when you have to write a column every night and get up before 6 a.m. every day to post it.
ON A LIFE COVERING MEDIA
Everything starts with Walter. I formed the Walter Cronkite Fan Club when I was a 14-year-old freshman at Niles East High School in Skokie. I wrote him a letter after I started it, and he wrote back: “Dear Mr. Feder: I am humble in the face of, but grateful for, your kindnesses toward me as members of the Walter Cronkite Fan Club. I personally am appreciative of your loyalty, given the assumption that you in reality are paying tribute to the efforts of all of us at CBS News to deliver the news fairly and impartially without fear or favor. Please extend my very best wishes to all the members of the Club. Sincerely yours, Walter Cronkite.”
Looking back, I realize I was essentially channeling [Sun-Times columnist] Irv Kupcinet in that newsletter, but my universe at that time started and ended with Walter Cronkite. The newsletter would cover his activities for CBS News, a broad range of references to him in the media, and reprint drawings of him in Mad magazine or political cartoons. Even his secretaries would feed me information for the newsletter, like telling me when Walter went to see “My Fair Lady” on Broadway or where he was going on vacation.
In many ways it was the template for what turned into “Robservations,” the concise, boldfaced items in my blog.
The newsletter was purely analog of course. I would pound it out on my little typewriter and take it to the printer where they would make 200 or 300 copies, then I would fold them, address each envelope and mail them out.
When I was a freshman at Medill, Walter came to the Evanston campus to speak one night, and I was one of three students chosen to be on a panel to question him. When I greeted him backstage, I noticed that he was wearing the tie that I’d sent him for his birthday just a few weeks earlier. I couldn’t believe he’d taken the time to remember that.
After the event, Walter took me aside privately and said, “Now that you've begun your studies in college, it’s a good time to focus on your career instead of mine.” He suggested I should wind down the newsletter, so I did. But he remained a role model, a mentor and a friend for the rest of his life.
After I graduated from Medill in 1978, I moved up to full-time reporter at the Lerner Newspapers, where I’d worked since high school. A short time later, I was named managing editor of the Lincoln-Belmont Booster, one of the Lerner weeklies on the North Side.
One of the people who subscribed to the Walter Cronkite Fan Club newsletter and was familiar with my work was Gary Deeb, then the nationally syndicated TV critic of the Tribune. When Gary crossed the street to the Sun-Times in 1980, he called me when he was looking to hire a legman. My first words to him were: “When do we start?”
My first day working for Sun-Times and covering TV and radio full time as a reporter was May 19, 1980 — two weeks before the launch of CNN and the beginning of the cable news revolution.
In early 1982, the Sun-Times got wind that the Tribune was planning a weekly column devoted to covering the radio beat, so they assigned me to write a radio column on Mondays — the only weekday when Deeb didn’t write. It debuted on March 22, 1982, the same day the Tribune started your radio column, Eric.
Deeb left the Sun-Times in 1983 to become the media critic for ABC 7, and I took over covering the business of local media while a succession of TV critics – starting with P.J. Bednarski and Daniel Ruth – wrote more about programming, the national scene, Hollywood and so on.
I consciously chose not to emulate Deeb’s aggressive personal style. My apprenticeship with him was invaluable — from learning how to read a ratings book to developing sources. But I like to say that I learned as much from Gary about what not to do as what to do. And I said to myself then that if I were ever in that position, I would definitely choose to do the job differently.
Deeb was famous for his take-no-prisoners style. And it was enormously entertaining to read if he wasn’t writing about you. But every time you burn a bridge, you lose the opportunity for that person or that organization to trust you.
So you have to decide: Is it better to write something that makes you the center of attention? Or is it better to focus on the story? I never wanted to make it about me. I just wanted to get the goods and have the people trust me.
In that way, Kupcinet was much more my role model. It was never as important where Kup got his information as was the fact that it was coming from him. When Kup said something was happening, you believed it because you knew that he knew everybody. And I think taking that approach had a lot to do with the longevity of my career.
I took a buyout offer from the Sun-Times after 28 years in 2008 and assumed I was just going to fade away and others would take over the beat. Right then, the economy collapsed and any thought of doing something else dried up because no one was hiring anywhere.
Meanwhile, people kept calling me with story tips long after I’d left the paper. That’s when I started thinking that maybe I could continue covering the beat without an association with a newspaper. It all came together when Torey Malatia, the general manager of WBEZ, reached out and asked me to write a blog for the website of their new Vocalo initiative. So 10 months after I left, I was back, this time covering not just TV and radio but also print and digital media.
I then went to Time Out Chicago (2011-2013), the Tribune (2013-2016) and, finally, in 2017, I joined the Daily Herald.
And since you asked about readership, at its peak in March, 2021, my blog had nearly 1.4 million page views in a month.
ON THE RECENT ARRANGEMENT THAT SAW EXCERPTS FROM HIS BLOG PUBLISHED IN CRAIN’S CHICAGO BUSINESS
It feels like the pinnacle of my career because I can now say my column has been published by the Sun-Times, the Tribune, Chicago Public Media (WBEZ/Vocalo), the Daily Herald and Crain’s. For me, there were no other mountains to climb.
ON THE DEMANDS OF COVERING THE MEDIA BEAT
The part of covering my beat that I don't think anybody really fully can appreciate unless they’ve done it is how much time I had to spend on things that had no direct benefit to the column. Readers and subscribers reached out constantly with questions, and they expected answers: “Why did WFMT go off the air for 10 minutes last night?” “When is that weekend weather person going to be back?” “Why did that radio station play the same song twice last night?” Believe me, I don’t carry all that information around in my head — and the answer was probably never going to be a news item for me — but trying to be helpful to individual readers was a big part of the responsibility that I felt.
ON HIS FEUD WITH FORMER CHICAGO RADIO STAR STEVE DAHL
Steve could be really nasty about me on the air, and I know I took a lot of shots at him in print. But those early conflicts turned out to be great promotion for me. There are people who’ve told me they’d never read me until they heard Dahl go after me. But all that’s way in the past. Steve and I have come through the fires together. We’re survivors. You reach a point where the fact that we're still here and doing what we want, that creates a bond that overcomes any past slights or insults. We have a lot of respect for each other now, I believe.
ON WHAT THE LOCAL MEDIA BEAT COVERAGE SHOULD LOOK LIKE GOING FORWARD
I would hope that anyone who comes after me would have the same enthusiasm and commitment about today’s media environment that I did starting out.
I can't imagine they would focus on radio as much as I did. Radio has a declining role in the market. My daughter doesn’t even listen to radio. I’m sure your kids don’t, either. You could probably say the same about TV news and print newspapers. I would think the coverage in the future would be more about digital, about nonprofit newsrooms, about streaming, about new financial models, about all these new platforms that matter now.
ON WHAT’S NEXT FOR HIM
I want to be open to discovering things I can get excited about. I want to collaborate on interesting projects with friends. As far as I’m concerned, nothing is off the table.
I’m also looking forward to reflecting on what I know and what I've done and what I've written. Without having to worry about writing tomorrow’s column, I can think about everything with a broader perspective.
ON FEELING RETIREMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME
Monday was the first time in 42 years that a big local media story was unfolding and I wasn’t on the clock, I knew I wasn’t going to have to write the next day. The shooting in Highland Park happened just down the street where I lived for 20 years. I would have written about the scene, the unfolding live coverage, the commercials that were blown out all day and night, the deployment of anchors, reporters and producers on a holiday, and how the B-team had to give way to the A-team in all of these news shops.
Instead, I found myself watching it all as a civilian for the first time in my adult life. It was a unique experience.
I have to say I didn't miss it. In all honesty, I felt fortunate and relieved not to have to cover another tragedy.
(Neil Steinberg’s column about our lunch is here)
Last week’s winning tweet
There was also a winner in the political-tweet division (see last week’s issue for a list of entries in both contests):
Scroll down to read this week’s nominees or go here to vote in the new poll.
Mass shootings seem to be the cost of 'freedom.' Guns in civilian hands should not be able to fire this fast, yet here we are.
(a version of a post from Tuesday’s paid-subscriber edition)
I count 41 shots fired in 17 seconds — which includes about 8 seconds during which the shooter evidently reloaded — in the video below from Monday’s horrifying slaughter at north suburban Highland Park’s Independence Day parade:
Law enforcement officials say suspect Robert Crimo III fired off some 70 shots using an AR-15-style firearm. Gun enthusiasts have scolded me for referring to such semi-automatic rifles as “weapons of war” since, despite their cosmetic similarity to military-grade automatic rifles, they are not literally used in armed combat.
My temptation is to offer an argument that there is such limited legitimate citizen utility for guns that can fire that fast and strike with such lethality that we should severely restrict private ownership (as we do with automatic rifles, commonly called “machine guns”). Such limits almost certainly wouldn’t put a significant dent in the number of gun murders in this country, but it would mark a salutary change in our nation’s grisly relationship to guns.
But why waste the pixels? If the massacres of children at Sandy Hook and Uvalde didn’t prompt such a change, Monday’s dreadful executions in Highland Park certainly won’t.
News & Views
News: The collegiate athletic conference still confoundingly named the Big Ten brought its number of schools to 16 last week with the addition of UCLA and USC.
View: Nerds will appreciate this. As my former editor Owen Youngman quipped on social media, “If you think in hexadecimal, it makes mathematical sense.”
The Swollen Sixteen’s athletic directors will appreciate it as well. Their institutions stand to profit greatly from this alliance, at least when it comes to football.
But it’s hard to see how student athletes will benefit from all the extra travel time. As USA Today reported:
Before Penn State joined the league, the farthest distance between any two Big Ten teams (Minnesota and Ohio State) was 726 miles. In 2021, this distance was the 1,286 miles between Nebraska and Rutgers.
In 2024, reportedly the earliest date these additions could jump ship, the 2,797 miles between UCLA and Rutgers — a 41-hour drive, per Google Maps! — would now be a regular trip for conference games.
The change has shattered the notion of conferences as formed by geography. The Big Ten will become a national alliance solely for the purposes of TV contracts. With only nine regular season conference football games, each team will skip seven conference schools on their schedules every year, further clouding the idea of regular season championships.
News: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that he is planning to prosecute corporations that cover travel expenses for employees going to other states to obtain abortions and that he would defend a law banning gay sexual activity if the Supreme Court reconsiders its 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas.
View: Well, I guess those of us on the left are getting the last laugh on those who said we were being unduly alarmist when we predicted the worst impulses of conservatives would rear up after the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow states to enact their own abortion laws.
Here, in the form of a campaign commercial for Arizona Republican candidate Jerone Davison, is more proof that crazies are loose in our political system. This fellow thinks he needs an AR-15 to do battle with “angry Democrats in Klan hoods.”
(Note, the original commercial was removed from YouTube due to a “copyright claim.” So here is a news report that features it:
Land of Linkin’
The wry, delightful Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri checks in/returns from maternity leave with a delightful essay, “What I’ve been up to the last four months,” that will ring true to most new parents:“I have read that it would help the baby develop if I hugged her often. I have hugged her often. ‘This is to help your development,’ I have informed her. I have wondered whether informing her that I am hugging her to help with her development is undercutting the impact of the hugs. Sometimes, I simply hug her without delineating why.”
Jacob Sullum at Reason explores “the inescapable challenges of distinguishing between harmless oddballs and future mass murderers” in “Why Didn't a 'Red Flag' Law Prevent the Illinois Mass Shooting, and Would New Federal Rules Have Mattered?”
In “The Republican War on Sex,” New York Times Editorial Board member Mara Gay writes, “A radical minority of Americans wants to make an example of women who have sex outside marriage, women who compete with men in the workplace, women who are independent and who cannot be controlled. That’s part of why birth control is likely their next target. That’s why the same movement that claims to care about babies is so uninterested in the health and lives of the people who bring them into this world, and so hostile to the policies that would support those children and their families after they are born.”
If you like sweet fiddle tunes, “Third of July,” which Ben and I recorded on our front porch on Sunday to mark the date, will be just the sort of thing you’ll like. It’s also called “The Cornshuckers Frolic” and was originally recorded in the key of G by the Red Brush Rowdies in the 1930’s. We learned it from Chirps Smith, who plays it in F.
The Picayune Sentinel on the air: On Thursdays at 4:30 p.m., WCPT-AM 820 host Joan Esposito and I chat about ideas raised in the new issue. The listen-live link is here.
The Picayune Sentinel preview: Mondays at 11:30 a.m. I talk with WGN-AM 720 host John Williams about what’s making news and likely to be grist for the PS mill. The WGN listen-live link is here.
A small panel this week — just host John Williams, Austin Berg and me — but “The Mincing Rascals” podcast did a deep dive into issues raised by Monday’s mass murder in Highland Park and hit a couple of lighter topics in the news as well.
Subscribe to the Rascals wherever you get your podcasts. Or bookmark this page. If you’re not a podcast listener, you can now hear an edited version of the show at 8 p.m. most Saturday evenings on WGN-AM 720. Check out Meet the Mincing Rascals.
The new nominees for Tweet of the Week:
I told my girlfriend I'd like to try new things in bed. So she showed me how to change the sheets. — source uncertain
Whenever someone knocks on the door of a bathroom I’m in, I like to yell back at them to come back with a warrant. — @eirasmus
Angel on my shoulder: Doing that would be morally wrong, against everything you stand for, and sure to result in disaster. Devil on my shoulder: You know you want to. Me: How can I decide when you both make such good arguments? — @JohnLyonTweets
The pottery scene from “Ghost,” but it's me behind you adding more mayo while you're making me a sandwich. — @sweetmomissa
Shacks, ranked: 6. Radio 5. Shake 4. Ror- 3. Hor- 2. O’neal 1. Love —@rebrafsim
People who sleep on the floor in a tent, build fires, poop in a hole and fight off bears...there is another way. — @ThisOneSayz
I was told there would be a handbasket. — @lizzard1278
Of course babies cry on planes. As far as they know, they’re about to be eaten. — @roastmalone_
When I say something occurred under mysterious circumstances it means I forgot the circumstances. — @JimmerThatisAll
The boy from “The Giving Tree” is the most evil character in the history of literature. — @OhNoSheTwitnt
As something of an antidote to the country gospel tunes of the last two weeks, here is a song that deftly skewers the popular religious notion that the afterlife will be a place of bliss. It contains the lyrical observation by the brilliant David Byrne that the common idea of heaven — a place of utter perfection — contains a massive internal contradiction. As the often repeated refrain reminds us, perfection is banal:
Heaven is a place A place where nothing Nothing ever happens
He softens the observation with this:
It's hard to imagine that Nothing at all Could be so exciting Could be this much fun
But in fact it’s impossible to imagine that a place where there is no chance of failure, no disappointment and no obstacles to overcome could be “exciting” in the least.
It requires contrast to experience bliss. Winning is no fun without the possibility of losing. Success without struggle is insipid. When things happen, they change, and change — good, bad, mysterious — is what makes life interesting. Yet what could possibly change in heaven? Sure, maybe you’re gathered unto your ancestors, but after the obligatory catch-up, what would there be to talk about?
Put another way, if Byrne is wrong, then what does happen in heaven?
British music columnist Dave Bell called “Heaven” “one of the most vital songs of all time — pop as Samuel Beckett might write it: tedious, beautiful and desperate.”
An individual experiencing (Byrne’s) disquieting, slightly schizophrenic response to something so perfect it’s mind-numbingly boring will be familiar to readers of dystopian fiction.
As an aside, the Broadway production of “American Utopia” starring David Byrne was the single best concert experience of my life.
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