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Venerable Fine Arts Radio Station: Icon or Dinosaur?

April 2, 1990

CHICAGO (AP) _ Most radio stations can hire and fire, switch ad policies and conduct programming experiments without creating an uproar. But not WFMT.

WFMT has friends, and the Friends of WFMT won’t stand for any tinkering with the venerable fine arts station.

The Friends are suing to protect WFMT’s international reputation, says Herbert Kraus, president of the 400-member citizens’ group that was rebuffed in the first round of its court fight to prevent tampering with the station’s ″unique character.″

But the FM station may have to give up some traditions to survive, say officials of WFMT, whose owners are under fire for staff cutbacks, a revised ad policy and alleged mismanagement.

WFMT, which turns 40 next year, has carved out a special niche in broadcasting.

The nation’s first radio ″superstation″ in the late 1970s, WFMT is heard across the country and around the world through syndication and satellite relay.

It produces broadcasts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the city’s Lyric Opera and live performances elsewhere, as well as in-studio concerts, talk shows and radio dramas. It has won numerous awards, including more Peabody awards than any other station.

It also has a weekday talk show by Studs Terkel, Peabody and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and broadcaster, who’s been at the station for 27 years.

″It is really the best fine arts-classical music station in the country, probably in the Western world,″ said Leon Despres, head of the Friend’s legal team.

″It never sacrificed quality. It never used jingles for advertising. It was just consistently interesting - musically, aesthetically. ... You just aren’t bored by anything.″

But WFMT’s not for everybody.

Local columnist Dennis Byrne says ″you can search the world over and not find another station as stuffy.″

Why does WFMT ″find it necessary to bore its listeners with a Saturday afternoon of news from the BBC?″ Byrne asked in the Feb. 6 Chicago Sun-Times. ″What other station would find it more important to tell its morning listeners about a lute recital ... than expressway travel times?″

Even Kraus concedes there are problems. ″Their share of the audience has gone down, so they probably are doing some things wrong. ... We’re just concerned about the general character.

″Maybe there should be more music and less talk,″ he said. ″A little stuffy? That could be true also.″

WFMT’s audience is aging and the station needs new listeners, said Alfred Antlitz, the station’s general manager.

″We’re taking something that’s very good and saying we need to fix a few things to make it much stronger,″ Antlitz said.

WFMT’s programming goes beyond classical music to a fine arts mix ″that our core audience is intensely loyal to, though it tends to turn off people who just want background music,″ he said.

WFMT - owned since 1969 by the Chicago Educational Television Association (CETA), which also owns local public television station WTTW - served for years as a model for commercial success in fine arts broadcasting.

But lately it has had trouble making ends meet, Antlitz said.

Financial woes this year prompted the firing of eight of its more than 40 employees, and a decision to accept pre-recorded advertisements (″jingles″ to the Friends) for the first time in WFMT history.

″It was the only station left in the country that didn’t take canned commercials,″ Kraus said.

WFMT prefers announcer-read ads, but the policy cut into potential revenues, Antlitz said, adding it was too soon to gauge the change’s impact.

The Friends fear too many changes will reduce WFMT’s audience and revenues, prompting a decision to sell. Fine arts stations elsewhere - KLAC-FM in Los Angeles, for example - have been turned into more profitable rock stations, Kraus noted. Jazz stations also have been scuttled in recent years, such as WRVR in New York.

WFMT supporters would try to buy the station if it went on the market, Despres said, but 98.7 FM would be worth ″easily $25 million″ as a commercial frequency.

The Friends contend the station’s financial problems began in 1986, when CETA replaced its independent management.

Antlitz said CETA just ″wants us to excel ... and live within our means.″

The Friends lost the first round of their court fight Feb. 6. Circuit Judge Albert Green ruled they had no standing to file their lawsuit, which contends the donation of the station to CETA by WGN Continental Broadcasting Co. made WFMT a charitable trust.

The 1969 gift agreement notes CETA’s plans ″to maintain the unique fine arts programming of the station for the benefit of the people of Chicago.″

Green ruled that only the state attorney general’s office could seek a trust designation, but gave the Friends a month to offer additional arguments.

Despres said he was not optimistic, and the group will appeal.

The lawsuit also contends WFMT was illegally deprived of $9 million in profits from the 1986 sale of Chicago Magazine, the slick, lifestyle publication that began as WFMT’s program guide, for $17 million.

Antlitz said the money is in an endowment fund that can be tapped for capital improvements at WFMT.

″We’re very much committed to the fine arts character of the station,″ said CETA attorney Richard J. O’Brien Jr., but ″we’re committed to the station’s economic survival as well.″

The association denies the Friends’ allegations, he said.

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