‘S Perilous

WFMT head Steve Robinson met performer Hershey Felder at a party in Felder’s digs at the Four Seasons Hotel in March. Felder invited Robinson to the Royal George to see his one-man show, George Gershwin Alone, which despite a withering review by Tribune critic Michael Phillips had been running for six months in Chicago after playing for six years all over the world. (Phillips is “an idiot,” Felder says.) A couple weeks later Robinson took him up on the offer. “I was the last person in town to see it, and I didn’t have my radio ears on,” Robinson says. But somewhere between “Swanee” and Rhapsody in Blue, a light went on, and “I suddenly realized this would make great radio.”

On Friday, July 1, WFMT Radio Network will broadcast George Gershwin Alone live to 59 stations across the country. Later this month it’ll launch its own record label, WFMT Radio Network Recordings, with a two-CD box set of the show. This Gershwin minifest is the latest effort in Robinson’s campaign to beef up WFMT’s network, a task he was handed just before it lost its raison d’etre.

Don’t confuse WFMT Radio Network with Network Chicago, the misguided recent attempt to brand and expand the local media conglomerate made up of WTTW Channel 11, WFMT, a Web site, and a short-lived weekly publication, CityTalk. The radio network is the syndication and production arm of WFMT 98.7 FM, Chicago’s esteemed classical music station, an odd duck that has the advantage of being both commercial and nonprofit, running ads right along with its pledge drives. The WFMT Network was created in 1976 to increase the reach of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera by recording and distributing their performances to radio stations in other parts of the country. It now produces and syndicates classical music and jazz programs for nearly 700 mostly public stations in the U.S. and throughout the world.

But in 2000, when Robinson was hired away from Nebraska public radio to run 98.7, the network was a financial drag, he says, racking up an annual loss of more than $250,000. Not long after his arrival Robinson was put in charge of the network and instructed to turn it around. That proved to be a bigger challenge than anyone had anticipated: within two years both the CSO and the Lyric lost their broadcast sponsors and went off the air.

A short primer on WFMT’s history might be useful here. The station was started in 1951 as a commercial fine arts outlet by Bernard and Rita Jacobs. In 1968 they sold it to Tribune Company-owned WGN. But WFMT had built an intensely protective listener base that feared this sale to a commercial entity. They went to court, protesting a concentration of media ownership, and WGN wound up donating WFMT to the Chicago Educational Television Association (CETA), the owner of WTTW. Along with the station CETA got about $500,000 in debt and Chicago magazine, which started out as the WFMT program guide. But the station did well over the next 15 years or so and was allowed to operate more or less autonomously.

Then in 1986 CETA sold the magazine for a reported $17 million, and soon it was squaring off in court against the Friends of WFMT, a group of listeners who feared that the station, with its coveted mid-dial frequency, might be the next thing on the block. After a PR blitz by the Friends, the lawsuits were settled and the station’s advocates were given four seats on CETA’s radio committee. But a few years later, with WFMT in financial straits due in part to Illinois Center offices that were costing almost $400,000 a year, the parent organization tightened its leash. In 1995 WFMT moved into WTTW’s building on the far northwest side.

In 1991 Dan Schmidt had been brought in by WTTW head William McCarter to straighten things out at the radio station; seven years later he succeeded McCarter at the parent company, where he instituted Network Chicago and got himself on the current hot seat. Schmidt hired Robinson, who says the radio station is now “enjoying the largest audience and highest ratings in its history.” But a part of that boost is attributable to the demise of WFMT’s longtime rival, WNIB, which went off the air in 2001 after being sold for $165 million. WNIB, disdained by WFMT diehards as classical lite, regularly beat ‘FMT’s audience numbers in the last decade of their long coexistence. Robinson says membership in WFMT–17,000 when ‘NIB shut down–has since risen to 23,000.

Robinson has hustled to launch new programming for the network, which he says is now the most active classical, jazz, and folk music radio syndication company in the country. Its offerings include a syndicated 24/7 classical program service; long-running shows like The Midnight Special; numerous multiweek music series (including Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, which won a Peabody Award this spring); and regular broadcasts of concerts by organizations that pay for the service, like the New York Philharmonic, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and Jazz at Lincoln Center. Special programs include last weekend’s broadcast of Lorin Maazel’s controversial new opera, 1984 (an excuse for discord if there ever was one).

Robinson says the network, which shares facilities and some employees with the station, “just turned the corner” financially; it’s expected to show a $200,000 surplus in fiscal 2005, which ended June 30. The network budget for the year was about $1.6 million; the total budget for the network and the radio station was just over $7 million (including more than $2 million from memberships and donations). A fund-raising drive that ended last week raised more than $400,000. According to numbers provided by Window to the World Communications (the parent company’s name since the mid-80s)–which doesn’t usually separate WFMT’s finances from the rest of its holdings–WFMT finished the year with an estimated $377,000 surplus, despite spending nearly 50 percent of donations on fund-raising and membership expenses and more than a third of its advertising revenue on advertising sales expenses.

Meanwhile, financial problems continue to plague WTTW. In the last few weeks an unexpected $1.5 million shortfall in the parent company’s total budget of more than $40 million jeopardized contract negotiations with Chicago Tonight host Bob Sirott. WFMT’s watchdogs still worry that the radio station’s marriage to the TV station might not be financially healthy, and that top-down management from the parent company, with its public broadcasting mind-set, is responsible for programming changes–like putting a pair of hosts on the morning show–that have riled some of its fans. Program director Dennis Moore quit last fall (though he’s still around as a weekend announcer) and only a month ago was replaced with another public broadcasting alum, Peter Whorf, formerly managing producer of WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight. Whorf, a violinist, is an Eastman School of Music grad; before his stint at ‘BEZ he worked at NPR stations that filled the hours between morning and afternoon news programs with classical music. He’s in charge of building the station’s audience, and says he expects to do that by “doing more of what we do so well,” plus offering a wider variety of classical music and more live performances.

How this will work out remains to be seen, but with Whorf handling the local front, Robinson is expected to have more time to focus on the global entity. The regular audience for WFMT is now about 350,000; the network reaches 2 million.

A Pair for the Pier

Another pairing: Art critics Dave Hickey and David Pagel will share the juror’s job for next year’s Navy Pier Walk sculpture exhibit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.