R.I.P. Chuck Collins & The UnderGround News

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Chicago Tribune

August 5, 2010

by Phil Rosenthal

Award-winning investigative reporter Chuck Collins, who first made a name for himself as host of WSNS-Ch. 44’s ground breaking “Underground News” in 1970, has died, the trade paper Variety reported this week.

Collins reportedly died after a lengthy illness in Scottsdale, Ariz., on July 9 at age 60. Chicago Tribune archival material suggests he might have been 61.

The late 1970s was a boom time for Chicago television investigations and Collins was at the forefront before moving on to NBC News, where he worked on programs such as 1983-84’s “First Camera.”

For WTTW-Ch. 11 in 1978, he helped expose a payola scandal involving WDAI-FM. For WMAQ-Ch. 5 in 1979, he helped expose strip searches of women by Chicago police. Other award-winning efforts included “Murder by Natural Causes” and “Exploiters: Children for Sale.”

“We try to choose stories in which viewers will be able to relate to the victims,” Collins told the Chicago Tribune’s Gary Deeb at the time. “The strip-search story, for instance, didn’t just dwell on the fact that it happened to a couple of people; we approached it from the standpoint of ‘Hey, it could happen to you.’ As we later found out, it had happened to thousands of women in Chicago.”

Through WTTW, Collins also co-produced the 1979 PBS documentary on aging and retirement, “Miles to Go Before I Sleep,” narrated by Helen Hayes.

But it was as host of one of WSNS’ earliest efforts, the late-night “Underground News,” that Collins initially gained notice. The Tribune, as the free-form 1970-72 program was launching, reported Collins was a 21-year-old from Lake Forest College who beganbroadcasting at Highland Park High School, where the paper said he started a campus radio station.

One never quite knew what was coming next on “Underground News.” The eclectic mix of guests included John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the Grateful Dead, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, activist Abbie Hoffman, Mick Jagger, Joan Baez, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. Charles Percy.

“What was it exactly? Hard to describe,” future Hollywood writer Bruce Vilanch recalled in a 1975 Tribune column. “A talk show, but one that also featured music. Nearly everyone on it was young, and not all of them were foolish. A parade of headliners, from Woody Allen to Peter Max to the ubiquitous Jane Fonda — a three time interviewee, she held the record. A half-hour of nightly conversation, exchanging of ideas and Earth News. And all of it hosted by the genial, intelligent, and incredibly persevering Chuck Collins.”

Survivors, according to Variety, include Collins’ mother, sister and two sons.