Spotlight on Bob Lemon

The Channel 5 General Manager Everyone Loved

Curator's note: Bob Lemon's tenure at WMAQ-TV ended before my arrival. But I frequently heard staffers with greater seniority than I invoke his name---always positively.
Take a moment or so to read the following profile of Bob Lemon (written by Norman Mark) that appeared in the Panorama magazine of the old Chicago Daily News on May 30th, 1970.

The executive as good guy

Bob Lemon of WMAQ-TV makes the system work for him

By Norman Mark
He who would claim the credit if his world were perfect, also must get the blame when all goes awry.

That, in essence, is my very own, freshly-developed Culpability Theory.

It applies, for instance, to State's Atty. Edward Hanrahan, who would have basked glory if the Black Panther raid had succeeded and who now must shoulder the responsibility for his raiders' mistakes.

The converse, the Approbation Theory, holds that: He whose head may be lost if all goes wrong, deserves knighthood when his plans prosper. Or: All credit to the man who naturally would have been blamed in case of error.

And that applies to Bob Lemon, 51, vice president and general manager of WMAQ-TV, a local station which has had an amazing year.

WMAQ-TV, for instance, was the only station to pre-empt prime time for a special on the Black Panther raid. It was the only local station this year to introduce a news-feature show, By-Line.

Editorially, it has been the bravest broadcaster in Chicago, favoring a withdrawal from Vietnam, supporting the Senate motions which would stop our Cambodian operations and demanding that Hanrahan resign. WMAQ-TV also opened three hours of air time for the public to respond to the outspoken editorials. The result was a most interesting show.

Monday night, WMAQ-TV won eight of the 12 local Emmy awards, coming in close to totally dominating the ceremonies as any station in Chicago history. The trophies went to a drama-comedy show ("Royko at Best"), an anti-pollution special ("Alone in the Midst of the Land"), a variety hour ("The New Performers") and a segment of the station's year-end round up (on space exploration)---demonstrating WMAQ's various areas of excellence.

ALTHOUGH none of the awards mentioned him by name, Lemon was ultimately responsible for every program.

Furthermore, most of the WMAQ-TV staff (with the possible exception of a few hawks who disagree with the station's editorials) adore their boss. Lemon, once a high school dropout, is described by them as everything from "the Renaissance man of television", "a real pro" to "the best boss I've ever had."

In person, the man is deceptively soft, a quiet, good-humored, intelligent man who quotes frequently from a wide variety of books ("I'm a voracious reader"). He thinks carefully about each question put to him and his answers are often very candid. Beneath the Midwest intellectual exterior, there is a decisiveness and a quickness in the man that reveals why he went so far and so fast with NBC.

HIS PATH to the executive suite began in New Guinea in World War II, when he published a newspaper while serving in the Army Air Force. When the war ended, Lemon was determined that the world must be changed, that a holocaust must never happen again.

But few highs school dropouts change the world (although Lemon may be one of them). He returned to his home town of Bloomington, Ind., worked in a wax factory and then helped start the town's second newspaper.

He worked for six months without pay for the new paper and was hired as its advertising salesman. He wanted to write, but he was needed as a salesman.

He became a salesman for WTTS in Bloomington when it was founded in 1949 and still remembers the minister's invocation at the time. The minister said, "As we dedicate this antenna in a world of too many noises, may this station not be just another noise."

as program director of its Philadelphia station in 1957, transferring to WMAQ in 1958, and rising to general manager in 1965.

As an NBC vice president, he is in charge of Chicago NBC properties and makes WMAQ-TV policy.

In Lemon's mind, humans may be divided into users and contributors to society, and he wants to be among the latter.

"Most people in a leadership capacity are there because they're ambitious, have a lot of drive or like to tell somebody else what to do," Lemon says. "I used to feel I wasn't ambitious, but finally I had to recognize that I must be.

"I had to accept that I must have in my genes an enormous drive and part of that is that you want to think for other people, plan other people's lives, and direct them. But in order to accomplish whatever it is you want for that ambition, you must work through other people."

COMMUNICATIONS, for Lemon, begin at home, in Winnetka. He admits that he owes much to his wife Frona and that, if he has any hobby, it is attempting to maintain close contact with his children Kathy, 20; Theresa, 18 and Robert Jr., 9. They in turn tune him into today's youth.

Lemon's concerns about his community are expressed in WMAQ-TV editorials which he does not consider particularly brave. When they are compared with the stands other stations in town have taken, they are indeed courageous.

"I believe you will gain an audience with an honest, responsible, strong position," Lemon says. His words are echoed by few other broadcast managers. "Namby-pamby editorials would not add to the station's audience," he adds.

"What the audience can't stand is incompetence. If we did the editorials badly, we would lose the audience.

"I personally would like to have the largest audience, the highest quality programming and make the most money. None of those are contradictory to me.

ABOUT the only frequent criticism I have heard about Lemon is that his station wouldn't be allowed to be so outspoken as it is if it did not produce vast profits for NBC. WMAQ-TV takes in much more than $25 Million a year, according to recent estimates.

He answers, "If a man has a sense of mission, if he wants to do something, he has to retain his constituency. Everybody I know deals from some kind of a power base, and one of those bases is that you survive.

"I consider it appropriate and proper that I do make as much profit for my company as I possible can," Lemon says, carefully measuring his words. "I also consider it appropriate and proper that we do programming which is meaningful, and that they go hand in hand."

LEMON'S JOB, locally, is trying to determine what 8,000,000 people in the Chicago area want. "One way is trying to stay human, which is tough, and listening to your own people. Plus doing a lot of research." He also tries to lead his community, searching for that balance which will result in "as much leadership as possible, without committing suicide."

Nationally, Lemon sits in on the highest councils of NBC and firmly believes that giant corporations can be influenced and moved. He is also firmly committed to "networking", to network-originated programs. He believes that much of what is excellent in TV exists because there are huge networks, and he disagrees with those critics who would seek to destroy the networks.

, Lemon, despite a lack of formal education, is knowledgeable and has wisdom.

In a business where sales and profits are supreme, he is concerned about news and quality programming. At a time when society often repays bravery with abuse, he is courageous. While "The System" is under attack from all sides, he makes our present broadcasting system work for him.

This may indeed be the time of the "silent majority," but Robert Lemon stands up well as a loud, brave, rare minority of one in local broadcasting.

Introduction and main index to this site
WMAQ radio history | "Amos 'n' Andy" | "Fibber McGee and Mollie" | "The Breakfast Club"
Dick Kay | Television at the Merchandise Mart | 1970 television facilities tour | Channel 5 turns 20
The "Chicago School" of television | "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" | Dave Garroway | Mary Hartline
"Lights Out" | Sound effects | 1930 studio tour | WLS | "Empire Builders" | Barry Bernson
Floyd Kalber | The Queen of Love and Beauty | "Today's Children" | Staff announcers | Carol Marin
Ron Magers | Studs Terkel l "Chicago Tonight" | Channel 5 News scrapbooks |Roger Miller recalls
Zoo Parade | Clifton and Frayne Utley | Val Press | Len O'Connor | Johnny Erp | Bill Ray | Daddy-O
Experimental Television: 1930-1933 | Bob Deservi | Kermit Slobb | Ding Dong School | Quiz Kids
Bob Lemon | The Korshak Chronicles | KYW: The Chicago Years | WENR | O.B. Hanson | Renzo
Jack Eigen | Ed Grennan | The World's Best Cup of Coffee | Glenn Webster | Mr. Piano | Hawkins Falls
Chicago Television for Kids |
Radio Hall of Fame |The NBC News Night Report: 23 February, 1967
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