Construction resumes on Museum of Broadcast Communications

By Matt Watson

In the shadow of the Trump International Hotel & Tower, 401 N. Wabash Ave., a half-completed concrete structure returns to life as construction crews race to complete the building that will house the memory of broadcast legends such as Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue and Bozo the Clown.

After almost five years on hold, construction resumed at the Museum of Broadcast Communications, 360 N. State St., in September 2010. The MBC showcases images, artifacts and visual media throughout radio and TV history and hosts the National Radio Hall of Fame. Crews originally broke ground on the site in July 2005, but after a funding stalemate with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, they were forced to stop construction in May 2006 because of a lack of financing.

“[Blagojevich] promised certain funds and then reneged on that promise, and that brought the project to a halt,” said Marc Glick, executive producer at the MBC. “The thing that re-energized this project was Gov. [Pat] Quinn keeping the state’s promise and coming up with a $6 million grant.”

The state grant, Glick said, will allow the museum to finish the structure’s outer shell. Under the grant’s provisions, the MBC has until April 30 to complete construction on the building’s exterior.

Upon completion of the full structure, which is slated for the end of 2011, the museum will have its own home for the first time in its 24-year history. Founded in 1987 by Bruce DuMont, who could not be reached for comment, the MBC was originally housed in River City Communications, 800 S. Wells St. It moved to the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. in 1992 and remained there until 2003.

“There was only so much space that could be used,” said Wally Podrazik, consulting curator at the MBC, referring to the cultural center. “If we wanted to have an event with X amount of people, they might say, ‘Oh, we’re having a concert upstairs so be quiet.’”

Originally a parking garage, the site was chosen for its attractive location and the opportunity to reuse the garage instead of building a completely new structure. The resumed activity at the site created a buzz that helped the museum gain more support from the local community.

“It’s a lot easier of a sell when you can walk a sponsor through this magnificent building,” Glick said. “You can’t ask for a better address than State Street.”

Matt Wylie, principal architect with Eckenhoff Saunders Architects, said recycling materials was one of six categories within the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design certification process. The MBC was awarded LEED Gold certification—the second highest achievement. According to Wylie, it was the first museum in Illinois to receive the honor.

“The building is about communications,” Wylie said. “So within the exhibits in the museum there will be an interactive kiosk with digital content that explains the very strategies we used, how we’re green and what level of efficiency we’re using.”

Eckenhoff Saunders Architects designed the building with a large glass front and an open layout, which will allow natural light to enter the building to cut down on electricity use. Wylie said the atrium is a transition space, where the temperature inside will remain closer to the temperature outside, which will diminish the building’s heating and cooling needs.

The project needs to find additional funding to complete the interior of the building and the exhibits. Glick said it will come from private donors and corporate sponsors, like NBC News, that backed the project before it was put on hold. Touting the LEED certification will encourage other environmentally friendly institutions to donate to the MBC, Wylie noted.

“You have to admire cultural entities willing to take a leadership role,” Wylie said.

Although the museum has not had a physical presence in the city since 2003, it has remained active through its website, The site showcases the MBC’s collection as an online museum, with more than 8,500 hours of digitalized radio and television content and thousands of photos.

While the online presence helped raise awareness about the museum and gave people a place to experience the art during the museum’s hiatus, Podrazik said the website is no substitute for the exhibits.

“There’s something [special] about going to a physical exhibit that’s better than going online,” he said. “You get to see the tactile side of physical objects and images, hear the stuff firsthand, go to events and meet personalities.”

The museum grew out of its cultural center location because of additions to its collection. At 62,000 square feet, the new space will allow for continued growth and enhance the way exhibits are displayed.

Podrazik said the museum will explore innovative ways of observing broadcast’s history by adding an interactive element to the experience. Museum-goers will be able to see TV shows and hear radio broadcasts from the most pivotal moments in U.S. history, including the John F. Kennedy assassination and the first lunar landing.

“There are some other museums focused on broadcasting where they emphasize things like physical radios and TVs,” Podrazik said. “They’re very much ‘thing’ collections, and that’s fine. But there’s a modern and contemporary story to tell and a contemporary way of telling it.”

According to Glick, the new building will also house fully functional radio and TV studios and the National Radio Hall of Fame, which has been online since the MBC left the Chicago Cultural Center.

“In the previous museum locations, there was a section for it, but it’s picked up a little more [substance] since then,” Podrazik said. “It’s a type of thing you can point to with pride.”

Another exhibit, “Chicago Television,” explores Chicago’s role in the developing history of broadcast communications and profiles local talent, such as Dave Garraway, Studs Terkel, Jim Conway and Ray Rayner. With the completion of the coast-to-coast coaxial cable in 1951, which allowed live transmission simultaneously in different cities, Chicago became a broadcast hub.

“This city’s role in the broadcast industry has been stunning,” said WGN’s chief meteorologist Tom Skilling. “To look back on it and have a facility that stores and archives these pieces of broadcast history for future generations is really exciting.”

The MBC houses countless artifacts from iconic broadcast shows and events, including a camera used in the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debate held in Chicago and costumes from the cast of “Bozo.”

Along with more well-known pieces of history, the museum also showcases vintage televisions, radios and cameras. Skilling said WGN donated old news sets and memorabilia from Ray Rayner’s children’s show.

“It seems a shame not to commemorate the accomplishments of these programs and their contributions to American society,”

Skilling said.

Because broadcast is always evolving, the museum will also look to the industry’s future. And because things are advancing so quickly, Glick said, the exhibits planned for this section when the museum was slated to open in 2005 are now outdated.

“We’re going to wake up in 10 years and find the whole industry far different than it is today,” Skilling said. “To look back on it and show future generations where this mass media communication industry came from, I think, is pretty admirable.”