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Remembering Rich Bradley

Rich Bradley
NPR Illinois

I’ve always told people I was hired at WUIS in the men’s restroom. And for that, I have Rich Bradley to thank.

This, and a lot of other memories, came flooding back as we learned Rich died last month.

I had moved to the area in 1994 and decided to take classes at Sangamon State University. I had worked in radio for about a decade, starting in high school. But I admit I was considering a career change. Still, I stopped in to the public station on campus to see about work opportunities.

I spoke to Rich, who was news director, and he told me there were no positions open at the time. A couple of months went by.

In between classes, I stopped in the building that housed the station. I walked into the restroom and, there was Rich.

“I was going to call you,” he said. A person had left and there was now a part-time student position available. Little did I know that chance meeting would lead to nearly 30 years at WUIS, now called NPR Illinois. And it would also give me the chance to know Rich.

While he was always dignified and professional on-air, I remember him most for being gregarious and always ready with a joke. Some were hilarious, others less so, but you had to appreciate the effort. He was a character.

One thing that stands out about Rich was that he didn’t take things so seriously that the job stopped being fun. After all, we get to meet people, seek out the truth and inform the public. Not a bad gig.

He was instrumental in getting me to apply for the Public Affairs Reporting program on campus. I interned at the statehouse bureau, and then stayed on after graduation to work with Bill Wheelhouse. While I was covering state government, Rich was based across town on campus. We talked with him most every day. Sometimes, he would call about a technical issue or news topic. Other times, just to shoot the bull and stay in touch.

Once in a while, we’d meet for lunch. Always a greasy spoon that he preferred over a gourmet take on cuisine. If meat loaf was on the menu, you knew what he was ordering. I still laugh about the station function where they served soup and half a sandwich. He couldn’t figure out what happened to the rest of the meal and wound up hitting a fast food spot after the event was over.

Since he came to Springfield in the 1960s, there wasn’t a major event in politics or government that Rich didn’t have a hand in covering. From the death and subsequent scandal involving former Secretary of State Paul Powell, to presidential visits, to the impeachment of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He kidded me for freezing while covering Barack Obama’s launch of his first presidential campaign, outside the Old State Capitol, as Rich co-anchored the event from a warm studio.

Rich saw it all and explained it all to listeners.

What I learned from him was that you hire good people, then let them do their jobs. Help them when you’re needed. Stay out of the way when you’re not. Don't slow down the creative process.

Rich was confident in his staff. He hired women for key roles when other news organizations wouldn’t. He let students tackle stories that other news directors might have given to a more seasoned reporter. He wanted to make sure young journalists got the experience. That model proved successful. For proof, just look at the number of people who worked in the newsroom who have gone on to do great things.

Rich grew up on a farm in east central Illinois. He’d tell stories about walking the fields. He was still a farm boy at heart.

He’d tell us how he helped in delivering his twin sons, because the ambulance couldn’t arrive fast enough, or stories from his many years on-air.

Sure, we heard these stories more than once. But that’s probably why I still remember them so well.

He came to what was then known as WSSR before its launch in 1975. He was the morning voice and overseer of the news department until his retirement in 2009. Rich was affectionately viewed as the Godfather of Illinois Public Radio.

He helped bring statehouse coverage to the entire state. In the 1980s, he was instrumental in putting together the system for delivering stories through a satellite uplink and a funding plan still in use today.

To a lot of us, he was like a father figure. Rich liked working with younger people and said that made him more aware of what the newer generation was thinking. Though I’m not sure Rich was as hip as he thought. He couldn't tell you what band was on the top of the charts, but he could talk plenty about the Statler Brothers.

Still, there was always respect from everyone who worked with him. And he deserved it.

Rich wanted the station, and public radio in general, to aim higher. He led the computerization of the newsroom and made sure reporters had the best equipment and training. He demanded quality sound recording and doing the job the right way.

When he decided to retire, I succeeded Rich as news director and remain the only other person to hold that job in the nearly half-century the station has been around. Those are shoes that are impossible to fill.

In the years since, he would email often. He would stop by during our fund drives. He was still interested in what was happening at the station he helped launch. No matter how busy I was, I would make time to chat with Rich because it was important to him and me. I’m sad I won’t have that chance again.

Since his death, I have heard from several who have come and gone through our doors during Rich’s tenure. They feel the same way I do. He was a great boss and an even greater guy.

I’m glad I stopped in the restroom that day. And I’m glad I got to know Rich Bradley.

Note: A Celebration of Life for Rich Bradley will be held Saturday, August 12, at the Firefighters Postal Lake Club at 940 W. Lake Shore Dr. in Springfield. The event is from 1-4 p.m.

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