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Rich Bradley, longtime news director and on-air voice, dies at 83

 Rich Bradley
NPR Illinois
Rich Bradley

Rich Bradley helped start public radio in the Springfield area, and no one is more responsible for NPR Illinois’ public affairs heritage. The first news director and longtime morning edition host, he died Monday.

“He was always a great guy and a good friend. He'll be missed,” said Dale Ouzts, former general manager, who shared the airwaves with Rich on the station's initial broadcast day in January 1975.

For 35 years, Rich brought the new experiment of public radio to a central Illinois audience. Listeners became accustomed to waking up to his smooth baritone delivery. His style was authoritative and accessible.

While the audience knew his professional side, colleagues found him personable, funny and caring.

“Among the many, wonderful qualities he possessed as a gentleman, Rich Bradley was the public radio historian for Springfield,” said Brad Swanson, former program director and general manager at the station. “He was an almanac of dates and events, people and places. He had an uncanny recall ability and, as a storyteller, he could keep students and staff enthralled for hours.”

Karl Scroggin first met Rich in 1977 when he was a student worker at the station. He went on to become music director. “Rich and I worked so well together. He taught me so much...like he taught so many.”

Rich often talked about how he pushed to get the job at the new station. He had been in Springfield since 1965, when he began working for WCVS 1450 AM for $125 a week. In the early 1970s, he moved to the statehouse as part of the Illinois News Network.

He then brought his experience of state government coverage to the campus of the former Sangamon State University, developing a news philosophy that moved away from “pack journalism” and focused especially on public affairs.

He worked through call letter changes – from WSSR to WSSU and later, WUIS – while building the station into a respected news outlet.

 Rich with Peggy Boyer Long
NPR Illinois
Rich with Peggy Boyer Long

“Rich was instrumental in launching so many journalism careers -- including mine, when he took a chance on a young print reporter in that new medium of public radio and hired me as his first Statehouse bureau chief,” said journalist Peggy Boyer-Long. “He always encouraged us to do our thing and find our own way. And we grew because of that. I never could have become a political journalist without him. Love you, Rich.”

"Rich was a consummate reporter,” said Mary Carlin McNeil, who worked as both a local and statehouse reporter at the station. “Always a stickler for getting the facts correct, but also giving you latitude to discover the story. He backed up his reporters 100%. He trusted us and we trusted him. He taught me many lessons in life and in journalism. One of my best bosses ever and I will miss his great voice and humor."

Rich was a founder of the group now known as the Public Media Journalists Association. In 2005, he received its highest honor, the Leo C. Lee Award, given to those who make a significant contribution to the industry. He was also a past board member for the Illinois News Broadcasters Association.

He was also instrumental in bringing state government coverage to the rest of the state. He put together the method for delivering daily audio reports, first through satellite distribution and later an internet-based system. The pioneering approach to having other Illinois public radio stations chip in to share in the cost of a statehouse bureau was copied across the country.

 Rich Bradley on the air
Rich Bradley on the air

Bill Wheelhouse, who was hired as Statehouse Bureau Chief in 1995 and later became station manager, said that is his lasting legacy.

“Rich was not only the voice of public radio in central Illinois, but he was leader at the state and national level. He also was an early adopter of computers and creating a computerized newsroom,” he said. “Nationally, he helped form an organization to help professionalize public radio journalism. For many he was that reassuring voice for more than three decades that went along with the growing popularity of public radio.”

Rich hosted the journalist roundtable State Week, the longest running program on NPR Illinois. He played traffic cop for the group of reporters who would break down the week’s news with analysis and commentary.

Charlie Wheeler, a former journalist and professor, is a longtime panelist.

“I was so sorry to hear of Rich’s passing,” Wheeler said. “Rich was an old-school radio guy, who cut his broadcast teeth editing reel-to-reel audio tape with a razor blade and scotch tape, but he was very much on top of current events in Illinois government and politics,” Wheeler commented. “I appreciated his ability as moderator to draw out insights into the most state and local news each week. He had a knack for framing very complicated issues in a way that listeners could say, “Now I get it,” after hearing the panelists’ discussion and analysis he guided so skillfully. And his sense of humor was second to none!”  

  Rich Bradley giving instruction in 1985.
NPR Illinois
Rich Bradley giving instruction in 1985.

Rich oversaw numerous younger reporters and interns, including those who were part of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at the University of Illinois Springfield.

“I'm grateful to Rich who helped me land my first job in the Quad Cities in 1984, after working for him at WUIS (then WSSR) part-time while enrolled in the PAR program,” said Herb Trix, News Director at WVIK in the Quad Cities. “Despite the early morning hours, he was always so relaxed and easy to work with, and always reminded me never to wash my coffee cup (only rinse it with water).”

“You know, working at the university and in the university environment with young students has, in a lot of ways, kept me young,” Rich said in a later interview. “My kids seem to marvel at how the old man seems tuned in to a lot of the things they are tuned in to. I attribute a lot of that to being around the students.”

After growing up on a farm in Champaign County, Rich wasn’t sure about his future plans. He graduated from Ogden High School, then took different classes, ranging from engineering to accounting, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. But none really clicked.

It wasn’t until he transferred to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale in 1960 that the radio bug bit him.

“I found they had just put a radio station on the air in 1958 and students were involved in running it. On a lark, I thought ‘that sounds like a real trip. I think I’ll give it a try.’ Once I got exposed, it was like an infection. I found I loved the work. I loved the people associated with the work,” he said.

But he admitted ego also played a role.

“Man, I thought people can hear me on the radio. That was the beginning.”

Upon graduation in 1963, Rich worked in Carbondale until he moved to Springfield.

His tenure as a journalist included coverage of scandals, major political events and landmark legislation.

He covered presidential visits, including Richard Nixon’s trip to Springfield in which he signed off on the National Park Service takeover of the Lincoln Home. He was also on the air live when U.S. Senator Barack Obama stood outside the Old State Capitol on a frigid day in 2007 to launch his presidential bid.

He saw four Illinois governors – Otto Kerner, Dan Walker, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich -- wind up in prison. He guided the station’s coverage of Blagojevich’s historic impeachment and removal from office, in which all the proceedings aired live.

NPR Illinois

“Fortunate stations have a historic, iconic voice that the listener feels is their friend. Rich Bradley was that for 91.9 FM,” said current GM Randy Eccles. “I experienced the end of his years anchoring Morning Edition. He was an authoritative and welcoming pro. Seeing the outpouring of good wishes at his retirement event reflected the impact Rich made for many listeners in central Illinois.”

Rich finally hung up his headphones in September 2009. Jenna Dooley replaced him as host/anchor for Morning Edition.

"Talk about big shoes to fill,” Dooley said. “Rich was a trusted voice for so many listeners over such an impressive career. He was also generous with his craft and shared his knowledge of journalism with young reporters eager to learn the ropes. I am so grateful for his kind, patient, and empathetic mentorship.”

Radio is known for being a transient profession. Few last as long in the industry as Rich Bradley and hardly any remain at one station for 35 years. On the occasion of his retirement, he reflected on his run at WUIS.

“All this time I have been reluctant to let go of this child of mine,” he said. “But the time has come.”

A celebration of life may be held at a future date. In lieu of flowers, the family asks for memorials to the Animal Protective League, Illinois Humane and Land of Lincoln Honor Flight.
Copyright 2023 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.