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Northwestern School of Communication

Chicago broadcasting mogul Melody Spann Cooper shares her take on life and work in Dialogue with the Dean

(Communication) is the most powerful degree you can get right now”

Melody Spann Cooper
Chair and CEO of Midway Broadcasting Corporation

Melody Spann Cooper might be Chicago broadcasting royalty, but happy is the head that wears that crown.

Positive, engaged, and thoroughly dialed in, Spann Cooper is the chair and CEO of Midway Broadcasting Corporation, Chicago’s only Black- and female-owned broadcasting company—and the final guest of the 2023-2024 academic year in Dean E. Patrick Johnson’s Dialogue with the Dean series. Spann Cooper joined Johnson May 21 at the Hal and Martha Hyer Wallis Theater in the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts.

“I want to be joyful every day,” she said. “I control the energy wherever I am.”

In a lively 90-minute conversation, Spann Cooper detailed her unconventional ascent in the business world, the importance of radio for both community and times of crisis, the unheralded value of a communication degree, “moments versus movements” in DEI, and how she keeps a level head in a high-pressure, competitive business.

“We all grind,” she said of her family’s legacy. “I don’t mind working.”

Born in Englewood and raised in Auburn Gresham, both on Chicago’s South Side, Spann Cooper was the middle child of a homemaker mother and Mississippi-born cab-driver-turned-radio-mogul father, Pervis Spann.

“In a relatively short period of time, he went from sharecropper to shareholder,” Spann Cooper said. “He dreamed so big and was so smart—a real visionary.”

The elder Spann had a late-night blues show on Chicago’s WVON—1690 AM, the “Voice of the Negro”—and was promptly christened “Pervis Spann the Blues Man” (he was also the first to call Aretha Franklin “the Queen of Soul”). He cultivated a devout following and helped grow and expand the station and its holdings. Spann Cooper at age 15 started working with her father, though she had little interest in pursuing radio or business—it was journalism she was ultimately after. But legal fights between her father and his business partner led to a judge overseeing the matter to suggest that then-30-year-old Melody take over the company. Surprising even herself, she said, “absolutely.”

“(The word) ‘absolutely’ is nonbinding,” she joked. But Spann Cooper followed through and purchased the company’s controlling interest in 1999.

“It’s always been that trusted voice,” she said of the flagship station, now flanked by Spanish-language station WRLL and digital streaming network VONtv. “In a communications world, there is so much noise; it’s a touchpoint for Chicago.” 

Black Chicago, specifically. Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks had a show in the 1950’s; “Blues Man” Pervis hosted a “sleepless sit-in” to raise money for Martin Luther King, Jr., in the early 1960’s; later it broadcast conversations with a promising young community organizer named Barack Obama. Though WVON played music in its early days, it functions now in talk format.

Spann Cooper detailed the import the station holds for the Black community in Chicago, but also AM radio’s necessity in times of crisis. When bad weather or bad actors hit a cell or FM tower, communications go down. But “AM is a ground game” she said, and frequently “it’s the only reliable source of information.” She has testified before congress multiple times on the matter, most recently to push back on car manufacturers who want to take the AM frequency off their dials. 

“They can’t track you with traditional radio,” she said of their logic. “There’s no value in the data.”

Where there is value, she said, is in a degree in communication, “the most powerful degree you can get right now.”

“Say that again?” Johnson half-joked at the remark. 

“The transferable skills in the art of storytelling (are) powerful,” she reiterated.

Johnson asked Spann Cooper about her hobbies (decorating with flowers), her downtime (a second home in Las Vegas), and what keeps her going (her girlfriends). Spann Cooper revealed a decades-long battle with rheumatoid arthritis and the ups and downs of helming a veritable institution in local broadcasting. Johnson steered the conversation to the backlash against diversity, equity, inclusion initiatives and Spann Cooper replied, “I love when people ask this question.”

“I didn’t get tricked in 2020,” she said of what was branded as a national reckoning around race. “I took advantage of it, but I didn’t get tricked by it.” 

“Is this a moment or a movement?” she recalled asking herself. “It’s a moment.” 

But she isn’t much fazed by the backlash, as the work is central to what she built at Midway and how she prefers to live her life—knowing full well that the more voices that are at the table, the better the outcome.

“The beauty of this country is we are all different, and that’s something to celebrate,” she said. “You can call it DEI, you can call it inclusion—let’s just do good business.”

In addition to her work at Midway, Spann Cooper is co-chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Council for the Obama Presidential Center, commissioner of the Illinois Liquor Control Commission, a trustee at the Griffin Museum of Science and Industry, and the author of The Girlfriends Guide to Closing the Deal. She delivered a commencement address at her alma mater, Loyola University Chicago, in early May.

Dialogue with the Dean is a series of conversations with emerging and established communicators who are advancing the futures of their fields, challenging paradigms, and promoting social justice. We’ll be back for the 2024-2025 Dialogue with a Dean series in the fall, which will center on film