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Longtime WBEZ radio GM Carole Nolan dead at 80

Carole Nolan former general manager WBEZ-FM (91.5) with GarrisKeillor. Ms. Nolan died Thursday 89.   |  Phocourtesy WBEZ

Carole Nolan, former general manager of WBEZ-FM (91.5), with Garrison Keillor. Ms. Nolan died Thursday at 89. | Photo courtesy of WBEZ

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Updated: August 9, 2012 6:20AM

Carole Nolan, former longtime general manager of WBEZ-FM (91.5), died Thursday.

Ms. Nolan, who was 80, had been in a hospice for the past few weeks suffering from muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s disease, according to officials at the public radio station.

The West Englewood native and former Chicago Public Schools science teacher ran the station for 25 years, starting in 1971, and is credited with transforming it by improving the station’s signal, engineering a transition from ownership by the Chicago Board of Education to a community governing board and moving the station to Navy Pier.

She also was responsible for WBEZ winning a $500,000 challenge grant for its first fund-raising drive as soon as the station’s license was transferred from the Chicago Board of Education to the community governing board and leveraging an additional $500,000 in inaugural memberships from the audience to ensure that the station would be financially sound without the school board’s yearly subsidy.

And she was among a handful of station managers who helped save the parent, National Public Radio, from insolvency in 1983.

Former WBEZ program director Ken Davis called Ms. Nolan the station’s “founding mother.”

Torey Malatia, president and CEO of Chicago Public Media, which runs the station, said, “She was brilliant.”

Malatia recalled when Ms. Nolan had to decide under pressure in 1994 to buy $1 million worth of steel — before the price of steel shot up — that was needed to build the WBEZ studio at Navy Pier. She bought the steel, and the $7.6 million studio opened on time as part of the Navy Pier redesign reopening in 1995.

“She just had a real sense of measured risk — when to take risks — and then how to make sure you had a lot of people in place to help you through difficult times,” Malatia said. “She worked damned hard to make sure she was successful. Not a lot of people at the time understood why Chicago would need a public radio station of high quality.”

Carl Matthusen, longtime manager of KJZZ in Phoenix, said Ms. Nolan looked “every inch the science teacher” and didn’t impress people at first.

“But when the downpour begins, you find out she’s the one with all the umbrellas,” he said.

Merrilee Redmond, a former WBEZ public relations manager and member of the Chicago Public Media Community Advisory Committee, said: “Carole was a visionary. . . . Without her, there would be no public radio in Chicago as we know it. When she took over, the station broadcast five hours a day, five days a week from a weak signal and played marching music and ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on tape.”

Ms. Nolan offered a launching pad for, among others, Jim Nayder, host of “The Annoying Music Show”; NPR’s “Weekend Edition” host Scott Simon, and the late Dick Buckley, who hosted “Jazz with Dick Buckley” on WBEZ.

Phil Rogers, a reporter for WMAQ-Channel 5, said Ms. Nolan provided “a turning point” in his career when she promoted him to news director at WBEZ in the late 1970s.

“We built WBEZ’s first newsroom and launched real live news coverage,” he said.

“Carole Nolan was a smart, kind and extremely loyal person,” he said. “She was compassionate, and she was really driven to make WBEZ an important place for its listeners and for Chicago.”

Cheryl Corley, Midwest reporter at NPR, said Ms. Nolan, who hired her in the ’80s, was “an incredible role model for women — running a radio station when few women held such a position.

“She encouraged her female staff to move ahead,” Corley said.

Ms. Nolan was writing a book about her time at the radio station at the time of her death.

Ms. Nolan earned a bachelor’s in chemistry at DePaul University in 1954 and a teaching degree from the Chicago Musical College, where she trained as a classical pianist. She taught in Chicago’s school system, where she wrote curricula for science classes.

Ms. Nolan loved to travel and had visited all of the continents.

She is survived by seven cousins: Robert Rosenkoetter, Cindy Fielding, Craig Alton, Sharon Bohlin, Laverne Alton, Anne Nolan and Joanne Alton.

Visitation will be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday at Glueckert Funeral Home in Arlington Heights. Mass will be at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at Our Lady of the Wayside Church in Arlington Heights, followed by burial at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Alsip.

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