Howard Shapiro 1926-2012
Howard Shapiro was a giant of Chicago television — the last of the independent pioneer owners, who oversaw transformation of the market’s first UHF operation into a broadcast empire encompassing 10 stations and two national networks.
As chairman of Weigel Broadcasting Co., he relished his role as patriarch of the family business, appearing in the office as recently as last week to sign checks, share stories and banter with employees.
Shapiro, 86, died of complications from pneumonia Thursday at his home in Glencoe.
“Howard had a very gruff exterior, but he was a real softie inside,” said Neal Sabin, president of content for Weigel Broadcasting and creator of its nationally distributed Me-TV and This TV networks. “He really cared about people — he just didn’t want you to know it. I’m honored to have spent so much time with him.”
With a degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University, Shapiro worked briefly in radio before he founded C.E.T. (which stood for Chicago Engineers for Television) in 1949. The television retailer became known for its phone-number jingle (“Mohawk 4-4100”) and its “quarter-meter plan” (which allowed customers to watch TV by depositing quarters in boxes in their living rooms). In 1964, he became one of the initial advertisers on WCIU-Channel 26, Chicago’s first UHF station.
Within four years, Shapiro and partner Bill O’Connor were majority stockholders in the station’s parent company and wrested control of Weigel Broadcasting from founder John Weigel, father of famed Chicago sportscaster Tim Weigel.
Under Shapiro, the station aired a variety of block programming, including time-brokered ethnic and foreign-language shows, The Stock Market Observer and the original incarnation of Don Cornelius’s Soul Train. With Sabin’s arrival as general manager in the ’90s, Weigel Broadcasting transformed Channel 26 into a general market station and expanded its operations rapidly.
The company now owns and operates 10 stations in Chicago, Milwaukee and South Bend, Indiana, including The U, U Too, Me-TV, Me Too, as well as the Me-TV and This TV national digital networks.
Shapiro served as president of the Chicago/Midwest chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences from 1983 to 1987. In 1997, he received the academy’s Silver Circle Award.
He made his last public appearance April 20 when he attended the Silver Circle induction of his son, Norman Shapiro, president of Weigel Broadcasting. They became the first father and son in the chapter’s history to share the prestigious honor. Bruce DuMont, president of the Museum of Broadcast Communications, who emceed the Silver Circle event, called the Shapiros “the first family of Chicago television.”
Luke Palermo, current president of the Chicago/Midwest chapter of NATAS and associate professor in the television department at Columbia College, praised Shapiro Thursday as “truly one of the last of the media moguls of our time.”
Said Palermo: “His dedication to his work, his family and his personal causes was characterized by his never-ending desire to remain active and involved, even late in his life. Whether it was working in his office, as late as this past week, or attending the last Silver Circle ceremony in April, to honor his son Norman, he was there, present and involved. Howard did not want to miss anything concerning the business he so loved. In all his endeavors, including past president of NATAS, Howard was dedicated to the success of our medium and loved every moment of his ‘TV life.’ He will be missed.”
In addition to Norman Shapiro, he is survived by two other sons, Ken Shapiro and David Shapiro, a daughter, Caroline Smith, and four grandchildren.
Services will be 11:30am Tuesday at Weinstein Funeral Home, 111 Skokie Boulevard in Wilmette.