Bill McCarter, who headed Chicago’s WTTW for 27 years before retiring in 1998, died of complications from cancer April 21. He was 81.
Newton Minow, a former FCC chair and WTTW trustee, recruited McCarter from WETA in Washington, D.C., to run WTTW in 1972. “I have a very high opinion and respect for Bill,” Minow once said. “He is everything you could want in a person, a broadcaster and leader. One of the keys to his success is his exquisite balance and judgment.”
Minow said in a WTTW interview that McCarter had been offered the position of PBS president and turned it down on three occasions.
“Bill was a mentor and a friend,” said Dan Schmidt, who succeeded McCarter as president of WTTW’s licensee, Windows on the World Communications, which also operates classical WFMT-FM. “He played a critical role in making WTTW and WFMT the trusted cultural institutions they are today. Millions of viewers, their children, their parents and grandchildren continue to benefit from the foundation that he built.”
McCarter chaired the Association of Public Television Stations and was involved with national affairs but deliberately avoided identifying Channel 11 with the PBS brand.
He advocated that public TV should be defined legally by its “nonprofit” mission rather than the additional restrictions of “noncommercial” economics. Indeed, under McCarter, the licensee operated WFMT, a leading classical music station, in the style of a public radio station on a nonreserved FM channel, with a mix of commercial and noncommercial revenues.
“His philosophy was that WTTW was an independent television station existing to serve a great city. So he did not like to position the station as an affiliate of PBS,” recalls Andy Yocom, a programmer who worked there for 22 years. Programming was produced locally and bought from various sources, “of which PBS was just one.”
Throughout primetime, the station assigned an air director to control the station breaks, removing PBS logos and inserting local branding, Yocom says.
WTTW invested resources in one of public television’s strongest local production slates, including a nightly news/interview program, Chicago Tonight andan offbeat video zine, Wild Chicago. Yocom says the local news program has required a huge commitment of payroll and also blue-chip airtime — the first half-hour of primetime at 7 p.m. “Unless you go with a big commitment like that, five days a week, he believed, you risk having it dismissed by the audience.”
At WETA he created Washington Week in Review, and at WTTW he was a prime mover behind the contemporary-music series Soundstage and Sneak Previews, the first national showcase for movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. WTTW was a longtime partner in producing The McLaughlin Group.
During his tenure, WTTW and WFMT won 12 Peabody Awards, five duPont-Columbia Awards and 150 regional Emmys.
McCarter advocated “Candidate Free Time” — offering three minutes of unedited airtime to political office-seekers. He presented the model to the FCC during a nationally televised hearing in 1996 and encouraged other public television stations to follow WTTW’s lead to help voters make informed decisions.
To help the board guide the staff, McCarter devised an annual program-performance audit to help the board set specific objectives for the coming year, Yocom recalls. If programming didn’t adequately address certain education issues, for example, producers would step up their efforts.
“He was a great guy to work for,” says Yocom. Though McCarter didn’t tolerate any sloppiness, he was thoughtful, kind “and, in his own way, nurturing.”
The Chicago broadcaster began his career at WFIL in Philadelphia, where he worked with Dick Clark on American Bandstand, according to WTTW. He graduated from Lafayette College and did graduate work at Temple University. He was decorated for his Korean War service as an officer with the Army’s 45th Infantry Division.
Through the years, McCarter received the Board of Governors Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, an honorary doctorate from DePaul University and the Meritorious Services award from Northeastern Illinois University. In addition, he was a trustee of Elmhurst College and a member of the Board of Visitors of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
McCarter was preceded in death by his wife, Linda Warner McCarter. He is survived by his daughter Amy and her husband Jim Costello; daughter Juli McCarter and son Max McCarter; and grandchildren Emma, Ben and Charlie.
Memorial service was held May 6 at Kenilworth Union Church, Kenilworth, Ill. In lieu of flowers, the family requested that contributons be made to the William J. McCarter Fund, WTTW, Attn. Renee Weingard, 5400 N. St. Louis Ave., Chicago, IL 60625.