Radio-active Skippy: WLS deal transforms Jacobson into pitchman

Walter Jacobson

Walter Jacobson

In a broadcast journalism career spanning 50 years, Walter Jacobson has never held a radio job and has never made commercial endorsements. Now he’s about to do both.

The celebrated Chicago anchorman has agreed to appear on WLS AM 890 as a commentator and as a spokesman for an advertiser specializing in reverse mortgages.

In a deal expected to be announced this week, sources said, the Cumulus Media news/talk station will air Jacobson’s “Perspective” commentaries once a week during the 9-to-11 a.m. weekday show, hosted by Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass and former news anchor Lauren Cohn. Each 90-second piece will be rerun during weekends on WLS.

Jacobson also will record commercials promoting a company that deals in reverse mortgages, a government-insured program allowing people 62 and older to tap their home equity without making payments. The ads will run on WLS throughout the day.

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but sources described it as a six-month deal for which Jacobson will be paid about $50,000. Donna Baker, vice president and market manager of Cumulus Media in Chicago, declined to comment.

Jacobson said his contract gives him the right to approve the copy he will read in the ads. His decision to accept the commercial offer came after he struck out in efforts to land a strict news or commentary job, he said. His most recent gig, co-anchoring the 6 p.m. weekday news with Bill Kurtis and delivering 10 p.m. commentaries for CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2, ended last February.

“I’m 76 and I’ve got kids I’m still helping through these tough times,” said Jacobson, the father of four and grandfather of three. “I haven’t been working for six months and my brain was getting a little addled. The most important thing to me is to continue the commentary.”

The veteran newsman, known since his early days in the business as Skippy, began his career as a reporter for Chicago’s City News Bureau and has been a fixture on Chicago television since 1963. Despite his unabated vigor and enthusiasm, Jacobson lamented that no station in town would hire him.

“They don’t want guys my age anymore,” he said. “Age and experience in local TV news now are being trumped by youth and good looks. So they hire people from Wichita to anchor Fox [Chicago] news — people who don’t know the difference between Madison Street and Madison Avenue.”

But Jacobson insisted he had no regrets about accepting commercial endorsement work for the first time. “Others have done this and I feel good about it,” he said.

Among those who preceded him was longtime anchor partner Kurtis, who most notably appeared in a series of humorous ads for AT&T before Bill & Walter were reunited at CBS 2 in 2010.

Even the late Chet Huntley, one-half of the legendary anchor team of Huntley & Brinkley, became a spokesman for American Airlines and Big Sky Montana Development Co. after he retired from NBC News in 1971.

Asked if doing commercials could damage his credibility as a newsman, Huntley said at the time: “I think this is much too subjective for me to resolve. I think the listener and the reader will have to do it. And if, in their opinion, this damages or destroys my credibility, so be it.”