91: The First Female

91: The First Female

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

The First Female

If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.

~Margaret Thatcher

Recently, I was awarded the 2017 Distinguished Alumni Award by my high school. This honor gave me the opportunity to speak to the students of Niles West High School. I told my student audience that a big difference between us now is perspective. They were in their seats just beginning their choices. I was standing on stage already knowing where many of my choices had taken me.

I was the founding general manager of WYCC-TV Channel 20, an educational public television station in Chicago. If anyone had told me when I was graduating from Niles West that I would be responsible for putting a television station on the air in Chicago twenty years later, I would have laughed. And, more importantly, I would not have believed it was possible for me to do it.

Time and perspective have given me a belief in myself, my abilities, my capacity to learn as I work, my appropriate use of my determination and energy, and my awareness that being afraid to fail won’t kill me.

On a cold November day, the Chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago asked for a meeting with me. As I sat across from him, I concentrated on the once-in-a-lifetime request he was making. He told me that the City Colleges had purchased the license to put Chicago’s second PBS affiliate on the air. He wanted me to build the station and launch it. I would begin as Program Director, and in a couple of months I would be named General Manager of WYCC-TV. This title made me Chicago’s first female television GM.

As the eldest of four daughters, one of the greatest gifts my parents gave to each of us was the belief that we could accomplish whatever we wished to do. I always felt I was unlimited by gender. I was ready to work in the male world of television management. I was proud and, at the same time, sad that I was Chicago’s first. Happily, more women would follow me into this level of management in television broadcasting.

Much of my energy went toward protecting the station from the whims of those to whom I reported at the City Colleges. Chancellor Shabat became my mentor and always offered a fair ear and productive suggestions. Other males in the college system were not as willing to have a female create and manage the station. There was blatant jealousy, and many attempts were made to block my success. I faced each one with the strength that came from my belief that my young staff and I could do the impossible with the budget we were given. I would make unwavering eye contact with every man who tried to hinder our work. They pushed just so far, in part because of my strength as a manager and also because they knew the boss of all had assigned the station to me. I know many of these men were hoping I would fail. I did not.

Within the three-week window before the station’s airdate, my chief engineer came into my office almost in tears. “The console for the master control has not arrived,” he said. “I need something to use in the meantime if we are to make our launch deadline! Something like cafeteria tables.”

“Go ahead and borrow what you need,” I answered.

Shortly after our conversation, I heard drilling. My engineer had made holes in the tables to temporarily place our consoles. Soon afterward, I received a raging call from the President of the College in which the station was being built.

“How dare your staff take tables from our cafeteria without my permission!”

I knew this man had a rather large ego, so I softly and gently thanked him for saving us in our time of dire need. I promised we would always ask his personal permission if we had similar needs in the future. As I left his office, he was smiling.

I wished all confrontations could have been that easy. When the new Chairman for the City Colleges Board of Trustees wanted to broadcast religious services on the station, I sent him a note telling him it was time we spoke in person. This man was a force in the business world and politics and had never been told “no.”

I explained that WYCC was a Public Broadcasting station and could not air religious programming. I showed him a letter I had requested from the station’s lawyers in Washington. And I said, “No!” He complied, but never spoke directly to me again.

I never felt fear in protecting the station from the bureaucracy in which it was steeped. I believed in myself and my mission. In one decade, my station made the top ten in educational television stations as rated by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Banners throughout Chicago celebrated our first decade on the air. My staff and I felt pride in having built from scratch a beloved and watched station in Chicago. Our city’s broadcast historian interviewed me as Chicago’s first female television general manager.

On the day after our celebration, a fire alarm went off at the college that housed WYCC-TV. I ordered the entire staff out of the building and stayed with my ship! Sitting in master control, I realized suddenly that if the operators were not back in a half-hour, I had no idea how to change the program to the next one. I was protecting my station, but I was the least useful of anyone. It was a most humbling realization and a wonderful laugh for Chicago’s first female TV GM!

~Elynne Chaplik-Aleskow

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