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Off the Air but Still on the Job

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By Michael Miner

Off the Air but Still on the Job

I was born indignant," said Ed Schwartz. "I live indignant. I read indignant. I write indignant. I'm outraged by a lot of things that shouldn't be. There are so many things we could fix if we really wanted to, and that's why I write so much. When I was on the radio I could just say it."

Schwartz said it for 23 years. He said it on WIND, on WGN, and on WLUP. He said it to the nighthawks who for years on end made his graveyard-shift talk shows the highest-rated programs in their time slots. But 'LUP changed its format last year and Schwartz hasn't worked at all in 1996.

So he writes letters to newspapers. "I probably have seven or eight in the pipeline right now," he said. "Believe me, I don't do it for ego. But I was on the radio for 23 years, and I felt I was involved. I was part of the community. And not being on the radio I have to find other ways of being involved." The letters are pointed and smart, and the dailies have printed several. These he's clipped and mailed to me to let it be known he's still weighing in.

"I get calls from people with radio programs that I know, and they put me on from time to time," Schwartz told me the other day. "And I've been known to call a talk show here and there myself. But my goal is to get back on the air every day. The radio dial has changed considerably in the past few years and there are fewer places to go. I'm here. I'm available. I get up every single day and prepare like I'm going to be on the radio that day.

"I was up at six o'clock this morning and read both newspapers from cover to cover. I clip everything that's important to me. But I'll tell you what I do with it, since I'm not on the radio. Everything that attracts me I file for future use, and anything that looks interesting enough I send to somebody in the media, whether I know them or not, and urge them to look into it. I think by this time I have driven such luminaries as Anne Keegan of the Tribune and Ray Coffey of the Sun-Times and Mike Royko and others a little loony with my mailings. I send them things all the time."

Journalists aren't the only ones to hear regularly from Ed Schwartz.

"Whenever I come up with an idea of interest I write to the mayor," Schwartz said. "And he writes back."

He does?

"Ah, yes. If I think of something pertinent to Chicago I write it up, usually in longhand, and if I'm extremely passionate I send it to the mayor's home. Because I know he'll read it. But usually I settle for sending things to his office."

Where the mayor may not read it?

"Oh, he does!" said Schwartz. "I swear to God he responds. Rich Daley reads the mail and will often answer himself, and usually forwards correspondence to his various department heads when he wants them to look deeper at something. I've written to him over feelings and ideas about such things as Chicago's heat emergency of last year, the Soldier Field Weedfest, and numerous other things of interest and importance, and he is always seemingly prompt to respond."

Schwartz, who's 49, recalled writing his first letter to the editor when he was 12. It proposed putting jobless people on relief to work cleaning police and fire stations and municipal buildings, both to reduce the city's operating costs and to offer the unemployed the dignity of work. The Sun-Times published it.

This sounded to me like a precocious burst of contemporary Republicanism.

"I wouldn't admit to being a Republican, because I'm not," said Schwartz. But he continued, "I don't think that most problems are unsolvable if we actually apply ourselves with the intention of solving them. There is a very selfish self-interest on the part of some to not solve the obvious."

Some being who?

"I think there are people in politics, government, business, who all have agendas, who are more profit motivated," said Schwartz. "And that is a major cause of what ails me."

In short, Schwartz is--or was--one of those radio voices inclined to color human affairs in shades of guile and conspiracy. But when I asked if he felt any kinship with Rush Limbaugh his blood surged.

"Actually, I find Rush Limbaugh reprehensible," Schwartz said. "From what I've seen, what I've heard, what I've read of Rush Limbaugh, he's in it for the money. To me it's a tragedy that a man with such above-average communications skills uses all he knows, all he's learned, and all he can do to fatten his bank account. I suppose that he represents what we have commonly come to know as the American way, but the American way is helping your neighbor and not just out-earning him. And it bothers me that Rush Limbaugh is unfair. He uses his power as a mass communicator to further his agenda, without any interest in listening to those who disagree. I don't think you learn anything by closing your mind."

Schwartz recalls his own heyday in clear contrast. "I would argue with people I disagreed with, but people could call up and say whatever they wanted. I invited on people I disagreed with, but I never had anyone on to beat him up. And I never brought anyone on to make the phones ring. Whenever I hear a talk show host bring up abortion, gun control, and the Loch Ness monster I know his phones aren't ringing."

WGN, where he worked in the 80s, was "the greatest experience that I can recall. Every night was a joy, every program was memorable. Every minute of it was a highlight to me. Because of the size of the place, the reach, the reputation, the call-ins I worked with on the air. I was a program host, talk show host--I did everything. I did interviews, placed phone calls, played comedy materials. Unpredictability was my goal. Unpredictability but reliability. I hardly ever took a vacation. I never took a night off."

When Schwartz was about ten years old his grandparents gave him a $75 Zenith Royal 500 portable radio. He's never been without a radio since. "My living room looks like the radio shack on a U.S. Navy destroyer," he said. "I have shortwave antennae slung across the ceiling, and at the command post in my living room I have a half dozen radios, all on, and all tuned to various channels and frequencies--police departments, fire departments, coast guard. I'll show you how crazy I am. I have my living room outfitted like that, and in my bedroom I have a mini version of the same thing. When I'm lying in bed I can turn to the left where I will find a scanner on quietly tuned to the various frequencies I like to listen to."

Schwartz falls asleep and wakes to the sound of this scanner. He lives alone.

His home is the top of a high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan. It's like living on top of a radio antenna, he says. "I'm 600 feet in the air. I can pick up shortwave radio signals from Saudi Arabia. The night the TWA flight went down and everybody turned on CNN to see what was going on, I turned on the shortwave and listened to the coast guard rescue effort at the scene."

Schwartz's work ethic caught up with him a couple of years ago at WLUP. He caught pneumonia, didn't take enough time off, and almost died. He's still on the mend, he says, but strong enough to work and certainly eager.

"This period of unemployment from the radio has not been a period of inactivity for me. I keep busy, I keep thinking. I'm on the phone or pen in hand every day all day. I'm very busy. But I'm not making any money. And with no bread coming in I have to get back to work."

He's got a small file at home of recent fan mail in the spirit of this letter from author Eugene Kennedy. "As you contemplate schedule adjustments," Kennedy wrote WGN two months ago, "may I suggest that your strength lies in the friendly spirit that you have been able to preserve even during the age of Attack and Shock radio? One voice I miss very much is that of Ed Schwartz who was so skilled at drawing the city close, as on the night of Mayor Washington's death....There was benevolent magic in his ability to sketch a portrait of the city, to let it listen to itself and so possess itself in a new way."

But Schwartz isn't insisting on a job behind a mike. He was an assistant program manager and community-affairs director before he reached the air, and he'll go back to an office job if that's what's open to him.

"I have an agent offering me to all the radio stations in town. Radio is in such a state of flux that all of the stations that might be interested in me are changing managers and aren't in a hiring mode. I belong on the air, but I've got 30 years of programming experience. I've got 30 years of working for great broadcasting companies for successful executives where I have learned my craft. I feel like I have a lot to offer."

Writers Without Borders

A couple of years ago David Schabes read an admirable piece in the New Yorker about the flooding of the Mississippi River. It told the tale of the folk who lived along the floodplain and the way they threw up levees to protect their towns. And he thought, "Why on earth is this wonderful piece in the New Yorker? And the reason is that there was no better place in the midwest for this to appear."

The line of thought gave Schabes an idea he spent 18 months nursing. Now he's just come out with issue one of the Midwesterner, a monthly magazine published in Chicago whose aspirations are as high as they are elusive. Schabes wants the Midwesterner to be that better place.

"It is important to understand that the Midwesterner is a national magazine," he explains in his first "letter from the publisher" to his readers. "The articles and stories published in these pages will not necessarily have any (implicit or explicit) Midwestern theme or angle, but they will always be smart, respectful, and--of primary importance--accessible and approachable. This is how we think of Midwesterners, and this is how the Midwesterner will present itself."

In other words, the Midwesterner will carry articles and fiction not necessarily of a midwestern focus, or by midwestern writers, or even for midwestern readers. "It's really more of a sensibility," Schabes allowed.

Groping for a handle on the concept, I tried comparing the Midwesterner to the New Yorker, which I suggested was a national magazine with a Manhattan sensibility.

"I suppose it is, somewhat," Schabes said. "And the Atlantic is a national magazine with a New England sensibility. I suppose that could be said. That's certainly how it was designed. And the New Yorker too. They're both very old publications, and their identity has evolved somewhat away from that. But that's what they meant to do."

The first issue of the Midwesterner impresses me. It's literate, eclectic, and attractive to look at. So I will take on faith Schabes's belief that the midwestern sensibility is one that can be marketed beyond the region. I did, however, ask what that sensibility is. The two cities whose literary traditions I know something about are Chicago and Saint Louis, and those traditions are very different. Up here we value writing that's lean and sardonic; down there the way was pointed by Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams, tale spinners who lost no sleep worrying that they'd written one word too many. What are the common roots?

"It's not a particularly easy thing to articulate," Schabes replied. "There are aspects--a certain honesty, straightforwardness, compassion, honesty, a little restrained and maybe a little impatient with Hollywood hype and overintellectualizing things."

He mentioned writers who fill the bill: Jane Hamilton, the Oak Park novelist who is represented by a short story in the first issue, and Jane Smiley, who is not.

"I've written to her several times," he said. "She hasn't gotten back to me. And Garrison Keillor too. I'm working on them. I sent several letters. I sent the prototype. And finally I sent a copy of the issue with a card."

He's aware that Keillor had a falling out with the New Yorker, and that many writers welcome a reliable home for their shorter pieces. Jane Smiley, as it happens, already has one, the Hungry Mind Review, published in Minneapolis.

Schabes started out in publishing as an editor at Critical Inquiry, an academic journal published by the University of Chicago Press. Three years ago he launched Radwaste Magazine, a bimonthly for the scientists and engineers of the American Nuclear Society that focuses on radiation waste and environmental restoration. He's seeding the Midwesterner with a mix of loans and family money.

He's 34--"right on the edge," he thinks, of being too old to take this kind of plunge.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Ed Schwartz, by J.B. Spector.

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