An Exit Interview With Chicago Media Columnist Robert Feder

From an interview by Eric Zorn on ericzorn.substack.com of Chicago media columnist Robert Feder:”

Robert Feder and I began writing columns for major Chicago newspapers on the same day 40 years ago last March. I was a feature writer in the Tribune’s Tempo section, and the editors had tapped me to write a weekly column on the radio industry. Robert was a reporting assistant to Sun-Times media columnist Gary Deeb, and when word of the Tribune’s plans leaked out, the Sun-Times editors moved quickly to create a radio column of their own, naming Robert to write it.

He and I competed for several years until I had to give up the radio beat after getting engaged to a producer from WBEZ-FM, but by that time our rivalry, such as it was, was quite friendly. In fact, Robert recommended the jeweler who made Johanna’s engagement ring.

We’ve remained good pals over the years, so it was no surprise when he wrote in mid-June suggesting lunch on July 5 with me and his former Sun-Times colleague Neil Steinberg, another former rival of mine who has become a friend.

Then, last Friday morning, I was stunned along with nearly everyone else in Chicago media to read his blog post, “My childhood dream became the honor of a lifetime.

After 42 years of reporting on Chicago media, I’m stepping away from the beat. My website at RobertFeder.com will continue online, but effective today, I’m concluding the run of my daily column and wrapping up my tenure with the Daily Herald.

Feder brought a relentlessness and integrity to covering his beat that made his daily dispatches essential reading not just for those in the business but also for regular consumers of news and information in this region. He followed personalities, trends and behind-the-scenes developments at stations, papers and websites.

Retired Daily Herald Editor John Lampinen put it well in a note to subscribers:

(Feder) shared insights. He had opinions. But the bread and butter of what he has done has been to report.

With accuracy, fairness and understanding. And I should add, with hustle, tenacity and humility.

He became a personality too. But it has been the amazing breadth of his reporting that made him that, not any swagger. If you wanted to know what was happening in Chicago media, you had to read Feder. He usually had it first.

He never played the pundit game — yakking on news-talk programs — and seldom gave interviews, in part, he once told me, because he didn’t want to appear to owe any media outlet anything. He considered guest appearances inherently compromising for a person in his position.

But now? I proposed that he allow Neil and me to conduct an exit interview with him over lunch, with the journalistically unusual stipulation that he could speak freely and then edit the transcript of his remarks.

As we sat down, he told me the timing of our lunch was no accident and reminded me that it was almost exactly a year ago that the three of us had met in the same restaurant to debrief me after I’d decided to accept a buyout offer and leave the Tribune after 41 years.

We didn’t think to record that conversation, which may be for the best. But here, without further ado, is Robert Feder …

ON THE TIMING OF HIS DECISION TO STEP DOWN

Everything came together at once. Within the last six years, I lost both my parents and my wife. That started me thinking about how short life is and understanding what happens when the last day comes and there is no tomorrow.

I had two big career goals: One was to make it 40 years on the beat, and the other was to keep working until age 65 so I could go on Medicare. I exceeded both. I wrote about the media for 42 years, and I’m now 66.

When you’re covering a beat year after year, decade after decade, it’s not easy to stay motivated every day. You’re always on such a short leash. You’re on call 24/7. If something happens, it doesn’t matter what else you may have planned, you have to stop what you’re doing and cover the story because you’ve made that commitment.

And in order to do it well, you have to be curious, you have to want to keep up. And I wasn’t as curious as I used to be. My beat didn’t really interest me the way it used to, and I know that the impact of what I was covering has clearly diminished too.

All the businesses I was covering are in decline. The business models are broken for television, radio and newspapers. Everything is changing. And unless I really wanted to redouble my efforts to learn about what’s coming next — to learn all the new players and where things are going — I felt it would be a disservice to continue.

So it just all seemed like it was time.

My Daily Herald bosses couldn’t have been nicer or more understanding. They suggested other alternatives — maybe going part time or taking an extended break – but it came down to the fact that the beat really didn’t excite me anymore. So much of what I was reporting seemed like I had done it over and over again.

ON HOW DEVELOPMENTS IN HIS PERSONAL LIFE INFLUENCED HIS DECISION TO STEP DOWN.

I’m also in a very good place personally now, and that was a huge factor in my decision, too. My daughter is doing great on her own, living with her boyfriend in West Town and working in information technology. I’m back together with my first wife — we were childhood sweethearts, married briefly right out of college, and reunited some 40 years later after my second wife died — and I want to travel and enjoy life with her. That’s not easy when you have to write a column every night and get up before 6 a.m. every day to post it.

ON A LIFE COVERING MEDIA

Everything starts with Walter. I formed the Walter Cronkite Fan Club when I was a 14-year-old freshman at Niles East High School in Skokie. I wrote him a letter after I started it, and he wrote back: “Dear Mr. Feder: I am humble in the face of, but grateful for, your kindnesses toward me as members of the Walter Cronkite Fan Club. I personally am appreciative of your loyalty, given the assumption that you in reality are paying tribute to the efforts of all of us at CBS News to deliver the news fairly and impartially without fear or favor. Please extend my very best wishes to all the members of the Club. Sincerely yours, Walter Cronkite.”

Looking back, I realize I was essentially channeling [Sun-Times columnist] Irv Kupcinet in that newsletter, but my universe at that time started and ended with Walter Cronkite. The newsletter would cover his activities for CBS News, a broad range of references to him in the media, and reprint drawings of him in Mad magazine or political cartoons. Even his secretaries would feed me information for the newsletter, like telling me when Walter went to see “My Fair Lady” on Broadway or where he was going on vacation.

In many ways it was the template for what turned into “Robservations,” the concise, boldfaced items in my blog.

The newsletter was purely analog of course. I would pound it out on my little typewriter and take it to the printer where they would make 200 or 300 copies, then I would fold them, address each envelope and mail them out.

When I was a freshman at Medill, Walter came to the Evanston campus to speak one night, and I was one of three students chosen to be on a panel to question him. When I greeted him backstage, I noticed that he was wearing the tie that I’d sent him for his birthday just a few weeks earlier. I couldn’t believe he’d taken the time to remember that.

After the event, Walter took me aside privately and said, “Now that you’ve begun your studies in college, it’s a good time to focus on your career instead of mine.” He suggested I should wind down the newsletter, so I did. But he remained a role model, a mentor and a friend for the rest of his life.

After I graduated from Medill in 1978, I moved up to full-time reporter at the Lerner Newspapers, where I’d worked since high school. A short time later, I was named managing editor of the Lincoln-Belmont Booster, one of the Lerner weeklies on the North Side.

One of the people who subscribed to the Walter Cronkite Fan Club newsletter and was familiar with my work was Gary Deeb, then the nationally syndicated TV critic of the Tribune. When Gary crossed the street to the Sun-Times in 1980, he called me when he was looking to hire a legman. My first words to him were: “When do we start?”

My first day working for Sun-Times and covering TV and radio full time as a reporter was May 19, 1980 — two weeks before the launch of CNN and the beginning of the cable news revolution.

In early 1982, the Sun-Times got wind that the Tribune was planning a weekly column devoted to covering the radio beat, so they assigned me to write a radio column on Mondays — the only weekday when Deeb didn’t write. It debuted on March 22, 1982, the same day the Tribune started your radio column, Eric.

Deeb left the Sun-Times in 1983 to become the media critic for ABC 7, and I took over covering the business of local media while a succession of TV critics – starting with P.J. Bednarski and Daniel Ruth – wrote more about programming, the national scene, Hollywood and so on.

I consciously chose not to emulate Deeb’s aggressive personal style. My apprenticeship with him was invaluable — from learning how to read a ratings book to developing sources. But I like to say that I learned as much from Gary about what not to do as what to do. And I said to myself then that if I were ever in that position, I would definitely choose to do the job differently.

Deeb was famous for his take-no-prisoners style. And it was enormously entertaining to read if he wasn’t writing about you. But every time you burn a bridge, you lose the opportunity for that person or that organization to trust you.

So you have to decide: Is it better to write something that makes you the center of attention? Or is it better to focus on the story? I never wanted to make it about me. I just wanted to get the goods and have the people trust me.

In that way, Kupcinet was much more my role model. It was never as important where Kup got his information as was the fact that it was coming from him. When Kup said something was happening, you believed it because you knew that he knew everybody. And I think taking that approach had a lot to do with the longevity of my career.

I took a buyout offer from the Sun-Times after 28 years in 2008 and assumed I was just going to fade away and others would take over the beat. Right then, the economy collapsed and any thought of doing something else dried up because no one was hiring anywhere.

Meanwhile, people kept calling me with story tips long after I’d left the paper. That’s when I started thinking that maybe I could continue covering the beat without an association with a newspaper. It all came together when Torey Malatia, the general manager of WBEZ, reached out and asked me to write a blog for the website of their new Vocalo initiative. So 10 months after I left, I was back, this time covering not just TV and radio but also print and digital media.

I then went to Time Out Chicago (2011-2013), the Tribune (2013-2016) and, finally, in 2017, I joined the Daily Herald.

And since you asked about readership, at its peak in March, 2021, my blog had nearly 1.4 million page views in a month.

ON THE RECENT ARRANGEMENT THAT SAW EXCERPTS FROM HIS BLOG PUBLISHED IN CRAIN’S CHICAGO BUSINESS

It feels like the pinnacle of my career because I can now say my column has been published by the Sun-Times, the Tribune, Chicago Public Media (WBEZ/Vocalo), the Daily Herald and Crain’s. For me, there were no other mountains to climb.

ON THE DEMANDS OF COVERING THE MEDIA BEAT

The part of covering my beat that I don’t think anybody really fully can appreciate unless they’ve done it is how much time I had to spend on things that had no direct benefit to the column. Readers and subscribers reached out constantly with questions, and they expected answers: “Why did WFMT go off the air for 10 minutes last night?” “When is that weekend weather person going to be back?” “Why did that radio station play the same song twice last night?” Believe me, I don’t carry all that information around in my head — and the answer was probably never going to be a news item for me — but trying to be helpful to individual readers was a big part of the responsibility that I felt.

ON HIS FEUD WITH FORMER CHICAGO RADIO STAR STEVE DAHL

Steve could be really nasty about me on the air, and I know I took a lot of shots at him in print. But those early conflicts turned out to be great promotion for me. There are people who’ve told me they’d never read me until they heard Dahl go after me. But all that’s way in the past. Steve and I have come through the fires together. We’re survivors. You reach a point where the fact that we’re still here and doing what we want, that creates a bond that overcomes any past slights or insults. We have a lot of respect for each other now, I believe.

ON WHAT THE LOCAL MEDIA BEAT COVERAGE SHOULD LOOK LIKE GOING FORWARD

I would hope that anyone who comes after me would have the same enthusiasm and commitment about today’s media environment that I did starting out.

I can’t imagine they would focus on radio as much as I did. Radio has a declining role in the market. My daughter doesn’t even listen to radio. I’m sure your kids don’t, either. You could probably say the same about TV news and print newspapers. I would think the coverage in the future would be more about digital, about nonprofit newsrooms, about streaming, about new financial models, about all these new platforms that matter now.

ON WHAT’S NEXT FOR HIM

I want to be open to discovering things I can get excited about. I want to collaborate on interesting projects with friends. As far as I’m concerned, nothing is off the table.

I’m also looking forward to reflecting on what I know and what I’ve done and what I’ve written. Without having to worry about writing tomorrow’s column, I can think about everything with a broader perspective.

ON FEELING RETIREMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME

Monday was the first time in 42 years that a big local media story was unfolding and I wasn’t on the clock, I knew I wasn’t going to have to write the next day. The shooting in Highland Park happened just down the street where I lived for 20 years. I would have written about the scene, the unfolding live coverage, the commercials that were blown out all day and night, the deployment of anchors, reporters and producers on a holiday, and how the B-team had to give way to the A-team in all of these news shops.

Instead, I found myself watching it all as a civilian for the first time in my adult life. It was a unique experience.

I have to say I didn’t miss it. In all honesty, I felt fortunate and relieved not to have to cover another tragedy.

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