A Conversation with Chicago's Rick Kogan
Rick Kogan is the living legacy of Chicago's iconic writers Studs Terkel and Mike Royko. A newspaperman since he began his career at 16, today he writes for the Chicago Tribune and hosts a weekly radio program, After Hours with Rick Kogan, on WGN Radio that is heard across the nation every Sunday night. He was named Chicago's Best Reporter in 1999, inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2003 and won an Emmy Award for his broadcasting work. He has written fourteen books, including the bestselling Everybody Pays: Two Men, One Murder and the Price of Truth, co-authored with Pulitzer Prize-winner Maurice Possley, and his homage to another great Chicago journalist, America's Mom: The Life, Lesson and Legacy of Ann Landers. Known for his insightful newspaper reporting and his extraordinary skill and compassion as a radio host, it was Stay Thirsty Magazine's privilege to visit with Chicago's own Rick Kogan in his beloved hometown for this conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: Your father, Herman Kogan, covered Chicago for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Daily News for forty years as a reporter, feature writer, editorial writer, book and drama critic and magazine editor. He was one of Chicago's iconic "newspapermen." Your mother, Marilew Kogan, was deeply rooted in perpetuating Chicago's literary and journalism culture. When did you decide to carryon the family business?
RICK KOGAN: The first sound I remember is that of the typewriter keys clacking in my father's small office in our Old Town apartment, where he wrote books about Chicago, its history and its characters. As a child I spent a great deal of time, especially on the weekends, hanging around the Sun Times/Daily News offices with my father who was an editor at both papers, soaking up the atmosphere, the chaos, the utter magic of it all. Genetics? Environment? Probably a combination of both.
STAY THIRSTY: As you look back over your nearly fifty-year career as a journalist, author and radio show host, what do you think your parents would be most proud of?
RICK KOGAN: Frankly, that I have a job. Neither could have anticipated the dramatic changes in the business of journalism but I do believe they would appreciate the fact that I am still writing for a newspaper and that I care about the future of journalism. They might be worried that my daughter, Fiona, who my dad never met and my mom knew only as an infant, has decided that she too would like to write for newspapers even though she is wise enough to ask, "Do you think that newspapers will still be around when I get out of college?"
STAY THIRSTY: There is a story that the legendary Chicago writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkel came over to your parents' home the night you were born. What role did he play in Chicago's literary history? How were you influenced by him and his work?
RICK KOGAN: He actually came to the hospital the night I was born in order to, in that glorious tradition that seems to have vanished in this hopelessly politically correct age, take my father out for a celebratory drink. Especially after my father died in 1989, Studs became a fatherly mentor, as well as drinking buddy. Both he and my father, and some others as well, taught me to be curious and kind.
STAY THIRSTY: Another legendary Chicago writer and journalist was Mike Royko. How will he be remembered in the pantheon of Chicago's literary and newspaper history?
RICK KOGAN: And also a great friend and mentor. Simply put, Mike was the greatest columnist in the history of Chicago. And that is saying something. I am willing to entertain arguments but there are few people around who know anything at all about such "contenders" as Finley Peter Dunne or Ben Hecht.
STAY THIRSTY: You have said that, "success is the residue of passion" and that, "all I wanted to do in my adult life is write." You have written well over 4,500 byline columns and fourteen books. What stories affected you the most? Which ones do you keep personal copies of?
RICK KOGAN: I don't keep copies of my stories in any pile but for the one that exists somewhat precariously in my head and, for some, the even more unsteady place in my heart. I like to be a reporter. It reaffirms my belief that there are good stories out there behind the skyscrapers, stories of so-called "ordinary people" who give the area its soul and character and tell us something about ourselves.
STAY THIRSTY: Of the tens of thousand people you have met in Chicago, which ones stand out in your mind and which ones affected the direction of your life? Do you get to know people better interviewing them for the newspaper or on your radio program?
RICK KOGAN: They all stand out and I am sure that many, if not all, have affected me, though I'll be damned if I could tell you who and how. Any face-to-face encounter is better than phone, email or text. That's the way I like to do things. The radio format has its moments but doesn't lend itself to deep relationships.
STAY THIRSTY: The internet and the economy have profoundly and permanently changed the way the news is delivered and has put enormous pressure on the economics of the newspaper business. Along the way the tradition of being a newspaperman has come under attack and is at risk of being eclipsed by the influence of citizen journalists. Is the newspaper journalist tradition still alive? Will Chicago and America be the poorer if it is allowed to fade away?
RICK KOGAN: Newspapers may eventually go the way of the horse and buggy and the rotary phone but journalism can never vanish. Fiona Kogan will need a job.
STAY THIRSTY: You have seen Chicago change by the week, the month, the year and the decade. How do you feel about Chicago as a city today and how will it look in the years to come?
RICK KOGAN: I am worried. The rich get richer and the poor…. Well, I take a walk on the South Side and I see more empty, weed-choked lots and boarded-up storefronts and homes than one could ever imagine, except those who live nearby; a pair of bedraggled yellow dogs on their own, traipsing lazily along West Polk Street; and some neighborhoods that look as if they were transported here from the rural South of the 1960s.
STAY THIRSTY: Chicago is clearly in your DNA. What do you prize most about living and working in Chicago?
RICK KOGAN: The people. And the middle of the Michigan Avenue bridge, where Chicago comes together for me, in a symphony of buildings and water and sky. I can see the future from the bridge, but also the whispers of the past whispers, of the Algonquins who found skunk cabbage and wild onion on the banks of the river and affixed to this site the Indian name for those earth products, Checagou; of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, the black man who became the first non-native settler here when he built a cabin on the river's northern bank in the 1770s; of the Ft. Dearborn massacre of 1812, and of the engineering geniuses who reversed the river's flow in 1900 to keep the lake clean.
STAY THIRSTY: What projects do you have on the drawing board?
RICK KOGAN: A children's book, nearly complete, and whatever newspaper story comes next.