John Callaway dies

A day after TV legend Ed McMahon died, another media legend – this time locally – has passed on.

John Callaway – a figure in Chicago media for the last four to five decades, died Tuesday night after suffering a heart attack in Racine, Wis.

Callaway was known for his tough interviews with local and national politicians and other figures, and the mastermind behind the all-news format at WBBM-AM and Chicago Tonight, the nightly public-affairs program airing in prime-time over WTTW-TV for 25 years.

He won over 100 awards for his work, including numerous Emmys and a peabody.

Callaway was born in West Virgnia in 1936, and got his start in the business at the City News Bureau in 1956. He later moved to CBS where he was instrumential in launching the all-news format at WBBM-AM in 1968. CBS executives were so impressed, he was promoted to vice president of CBS Radio in New York. But he returned to Chicago in 1973 to become a reporter for WBBM-TV and a year later became WTTW’s news director.

In 1984, he launched Chicago Tonight on WTTW, which went on to become one of the most successful public-affairs program on any public TV station in the country. The program went deeper into news headlines than the local nightly news did. Callaway retired from the show on June 23, 1999, but returned to host Chicago Stories (later renamed The Friday Night Show), a weekly program featuring a Callaway interview.

Callaway’s interview subjects included Jimmy Carter, Mayors Harold Washington and Richard M. Daley, Oprah Winfrey, Tavis Smiley, Phil Donahue, Mike Ditka, and Billy Williams.

Chicago Tonight also wasn’t afraid to tackle the issues facing journalism itself – particuarly increasing competition from bloggers and other alternative news sources.

In recent years, Chicago Tonight has become a signature show for WTTW, whose ratings at 7 p.m. often beat the fare on CW and My Network TV in the same hour.

Callaway also was a asute storyteller – and an insider in the business of journalism. In Feburary, he was a panelist at the Chicago Journalism Town Hall – held at the Allegro Hotel in the Loop, where he and others discussed and debated the future of journalism. Listening to him speak, he clearly knew the business of journalism and the future it faces.

While Callaway wasn’t busy pounding away on the journalism beat, he could be found doing other activities – an author, writing and performing in plays, or performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He also founded a journalism program for students at the University of Chicago.

John Callaway certainly was one of the best interviewers and journalists to ever grace the Chicago market. He asked questions and got answers – something some of today’s journalists don’t even bother to do. He was clearly old school – and he was comfortable with it. He left us too soon – there were stories still left to be told. His passing leaves a void in Chicago journalism – Unfourtantely, one that won’t be filled.

But the legacy he leaves behind in Chicago journalism is an impressive one.