WFMT celebrates 60 years as Chicago radio’s cultural oasis

Sixty years ago this month — on December 13, 1951 — Bernard and Rita Jacobs began broadcasting what they called “serious music and the spoken arts” from a dingy converted ballroom in the old Guyon Hotel on the West Side. Few took notice of the struggling radio station on the frequency-modulation dial (as FM was known), but that would quickly change.

With the addition of such key employees as Norman Pellegrini, Mike Nichols, Raymond Nordstrand and Studs Terkel — along with a fanatical devotion to programming excellence and technical innovation — WFMT-FM (98.7) soon would become the most honored classical music station in the world.

WFMT Offers Escape From Daily Trash was the headline of Paul Molloy’s TV/Radio column in the Sun-Times just six years later. “WFMT is devoted entirely to cultural entertainment and expression, and its backbone is ‘serious’ music (90 percent),” Molloy wrote. “The important thing is that WFMT has struck out for quality rather than quantity, and turned a healthy profit catering to the minority.”

Beyond fulfilling its “fine arts” programming mission, the station amassed a legacy of bests and firsts. The Midnight Special, its venerable Saturday night showcase for “folk songs, farce and show tunes,” was credited with the first American broadcast of recordings by Bob Dylan and the Beatles. With the advent of satellite technology, WFMT became the country’s first radio superstation. In 1982 it was the first radio station in the world to broadcast a compact disc. Its monthly program guide became the last word on high living and fine dining as it morphed into the enormously profitable Chicago magazine (and spun off to new owners for $17 million in 1987).

On the eve of its 60th birthday, WFMT is still going strong. The latest Arbitron ratings show the station ranked 26th overall with a 1.3 percent share of listeners. But a more revealing sign of its popularity was the just-finished November pledge drive, which broke all records with $901,600 received from 5,226 listeners. It was so successful, in fact, that management called off plans for the usual February pledge drive.

No one is more aware of WFMT’s unique place in Chicago’s cultural landscape than the Boston native and public radio veteran who has headed the station since 2000. Steve Robinson, whose current title is executive vice president for radio and project development at parent company Window to the World Communications, said he’s known it from the start.

“In the first few weeks after I became WFMT's general manager, I introduced myself to many of Chicago's cultural leaders,” Robinson recalled, “and virtually everyone echoed what Bill Mason, general director of the Lyric Opera told me. He said: ‘WFMT is one of Chicago's most important cultural institutions.  And I don't use the word "institution" lightly, because that's what it is. It's as important as any arts institution in the city of Chicago.’ It was true then and it's true now.”

To celebrate the station’s 60th, WFMT will host a special Day of Music with a daylong live broadcast December 13 from Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington. The event will be free and open to the public from 10am to 8pm.

“We have been planning this Day of Music for months, and are excited that so many artists have signed on to help us celebrate our birthday,” said Peter Whorf, program director of WFMT.  “Everyone from local opera star Nicole Cabell to trumpeter/composer Orbert Davis, from folk singers Claudia Schmidt and Lee Murdock to the Music Institute of Chicago Chamber Orchestra — all of these, and so many more, represent nearly the entire spectrum of fine arts programming to which WFMT has been dedicated over the past six decades.”

A special composition written by Stacy Garrop and performed by the Lincoln Trio will have its world premiere that day. “We truly see this broadcast as our gift to Chicago, with a special thanks to all of the listeners who have supported us over the years,” Whorf said.

How has WFMT managed to survive and thrive over six decades? Robinson credits its programming consistency and what he calls “our unwillingness to water down the music we broadcast in any way.”

But there’s more: “While we of course program music from the standard repertoire, WFMT listeners know we always take risks by programming music not heard frequently on the radio or in the concert hall,” he said. “We also program more vocal music than virtually any other classical music radio station in America. And throughout its history WFMT has frequently produced daylong specials, be it the music of a single composer to celebrate a birthday or any number of other creative and interesting ways of presenting the music.”

Of equal importance, he said, is that WFMT is “ ‘embedded’ in the musical life of the community in a way that is distinct from any other music station in America. We broadcast performances by literally dozens of Chicago area instrumentalists, chamber ensembles, orchestras, bands and choirs from a diverse array of venues and locations. The list is very, very long and includes major organizations such as the Lyric Opera, Chicago Symphony, Ravinia Festival as well as [dozens of] smaller organizations. The station also works closely with almost every educational institution in the city.”

Legend has it that Bernard and Rita Jacobs had to pawn their car and luggage to acquire full ownership of the station that would bring their dream to life. Sixty years later, their investment continues to enrich and reward listeners every day.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)