MBC permanently closes River North museum

Pandemic, changing lifestyles took toll

After delays, taxpayer funding, and a much ballyhooed opening, it’s curtains for the Museum of Broadcasting Communications’ River North museum, which closed for good April 30 as reported Tuesday morning by the Chicago Tribune. The museum had historic artifacts from Chicago’s television and radio past, and included the Radio Hall Of Fame exhibit. 

Open since June 2012, MBC has had trouble financially operating the facility and according to now-retired media columnist Robert Feder, was looking to sell the top two floors of the four-story building to a real estate firm – and they did to Fern Hill in 2019 with an option to buy the rest of the building – one Fern Hill exercised last month. 

Founded some 40 years ago by Bruce DuMont, the MBC had been looking for a permanent home for years, first based in a River City condo complex in 1987 and then at the Chicago Cultural Center, before temporarily closing at the end of 2003. MBC secured public funding of $6 million from the state of Illinois for a brand new building erected at the southwest corner of Kinzie and State slated to open in 2006. But delays in the execution of funding abruptly halted the project, leaving a half-finished eyesore of a building (full disclosure here, the person writing this worked across the street from MBC for eight years.)  

After a wait of several years, the MBC building was finally completed and opened after public funding came through. After more than 200,000 visitors came through the doors, attendance plunged after MBC started charging for admission according to a Chicago Reader report from 2015. Crain’s reported the museum pushed off its debt to 2018 – a year before half the building was sold. 

There was controversy surrounding the museum, from a donation Comcast made months before it opened to the way DuMont was running MBC – not to mention turmoil in the organization after he retired in 2017. Once available at the Cultural Center, the video and audio archives they amassed moved to an online portal, which was very hard to find and use (from personal experience) at a time when similar clips could be found on YouTube and on the Fuzzy Memories website.

A 2012 photo of the yet-to-open Museum of Broadcast Communications. (T Dog Media)

Nevertheless, the building hosted some terrific exhibits including for Saturday Night Live, not to mention hosting a public memorial service for Soul Train creator Don Cornelius and a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan event. But the museum paled in comparison to similar, better-funded – and better-run venues by The Paley Center For Media in New York and the UCLA Film & Television Archive in Los Angeles.

After the third and fourth floors was sold, the museum’s space was shrunk by half. Then the museum closed at the dawn of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, but reopened briefly only to close again due to low attendance and did open again in October 2021. But the issues of violent crime in the area have increased since then, keeping attendance down. Just this weekend, three people were shot a block down the street and last year, another person waived a gun at a TV camera during a live shot nearby.

As for a future location, MBC is keeping mum – one proposal they may be looking at is setting up at college campuses or at a university – perhaps Columbia College. “That building has always been way more than we needed,” MBC board member and WGN Radio host Dave Piler told the Tribune. “We’re doing something in a new time that’s very interactive. I love Bozo and I love Svengoolie, but we also have to look at a different generation and what they need to see.” This could be hard to do, since TV nostalgia from that era is mainly aimed at older people and local TV and radio since the 1990s hasn’t had the same kind of effect on the younger generation as it did for Baby Boomers and the upper echelons of Gen X. MBC recently held an online auction to raise money for whatever they’re going to do next, with a lot of stuff to bid on from the awesome (station tours and a chance to sit in on a few radio shows) to the absurd (Bill O’Reilly.) 

As for the building being more than it was needed…maybe this should have said twenty years ago when this entire pet project of Bruce DuMont’s came to fruition. It comes $6 million of taxpayers’ money too late. 


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