You can revisit the past, but you can't go home again | On Media | Chicago Reader

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You can revisit the past, but you can't go home again

Reflecting on the Reader's 40-year history . . . and my own


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Eliot Wald, an early Reader writer (he went on to Saturday Night Live and then Hollywood), made the disconcerting observation to me back around 1980 that the boomers were no longer the insurgent generation—the outsiders holding the establishment accountable.

Why's that? I said, alarmed.

Because we're not outsiders anymore, he said. You may not have noticed but we're the ones starting to run things.

That, in a nutshell, is the early history of the Reader. It was founded in 1971 as an "alternative" to the four dailies operating then in Chicago, but by mid-1978 two of those were history, while the Reader was becoming a voice as much to be reckoned with as the surviving Sun-Times and Tribune.

1971 was an auspicious time in Chicago and America. Richard J. Daley was reelected yet again, and the dailies mindlessly endorsed him. But this time dozens of reporters and editors at the Sun-Times and Daily News, remembering the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention, ran full-page ads in their papers disavowing the endorsements. Across America, the Vietnam war continued but the war-driven hyperpolitics of the 60s were a spent force. A massive generation's creative juices were diffusing from political protest into the wider culture. In Chicago in the early 70s they were creating Jam Productions, Music of the Baroque, Alligator Records, WXRT, Grease . . . and the Reader.

Its founders were brash young Carleton College graduates with a business plan, and as shrewd as it eventually turned out to be, if in the Reader's first few years there was a pot to piss in, there wasn't much more—certainly nothing along the lines of salaries, or office space, or even a phone number the Reader could call its own. The founders lived and worked together in a series of apartments in Hyde Park and Rogers Park, and as cofounder Tom Yoder explains elsewhere in this issue, the only Illinois Bell calling plan they could afford had to be taken out in publisher Bob Roth's name because it wasn't available to businesses.

In the decades ahead Yoder would make himself so much at home at O'Rourke's, the city's preeminent journalists' bar, that when it closed he installed one of the wooden booths in his sixth-floor Reader office, along with the huge photo of playwright Sean O'Casey that had hung on the bar's west wall. But it wasn't until about 1977 that he could hold his head up there. "For years, I don't think any of us felt comfortable at O'Rourke's," Yoder remembers. "Probably not till we started paying ourselves living wages."

I joined the staff in 1979, early in the living wage era, but my relationship with this paper goes back to its genesis, when still without form and void it was a gleam in the eye of its creators. When I heard what they intended to create my reaction was clear and strong—they can't be serious!

In the summer of 1971, while I was visiting my girlfriend Betsy's shop, a young woman came in and invited her to advertise in a new weekly newspaper that would debut in October. I listened in. The name—the Reader—struck me as infantile, the business plan as incomprehensible. The idea was that the newspaper would be free and the advertising would pay for everything. This didn't sound like a good deal for advertisers—it sounded like a surcharge. And the ultimate folly, in my view, was that the Reader had no ideological ax to grind. In that day, an alternative paper had only one reason for being, which was to tout its favored one true path to making the revolution, cleansing the earth, and reconciling the races. If a free weekly didn't preach to a choir, who the hell would read it?

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