By Michael Miner

Alan G. Artner used to own a radio whose band control had broken, making it impossible to change the frequency. The man at the shop told him to throw the radio away; instead, he had it set to 98.7 FM. Artner couldn’t have cared less about any other frequencies.

As he says, and not modestly, “I’ve listened for 38 years, and I have not listened to any other station.” But WFMT rewarded his fidelity in the usual way–by becoming unworthy of it. “It used to provide for all of my needs,” Artner says, “and it doesn’t anymore.”

The Tribune’s art critic finally had had enough, and now he’s said so, in a remarkable screed published Wednesday of last week. Artner didn’t simply fret about standards, in the time-honored way of fine-arts-section savants earning their paychecks. He evoked a golden age. “I recall, for example, how on Monday evenings program director Norman Pellegrini would play every available recording of works such as Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra and Mahler’s First Symphony, comparing and in plain language analyzing the piece movement by movement.”

Artner assailed perfidy. “Today through Sunday, on the annual winter fund-raising drive, you again will hear employees trade on that history and promise its continuance. Don’t believe them.”

And finally he threatened his beloved station’s pocketbook. He told “serious listeners” to sit on their wallets.

“I didn’t ask people to do that,” Artner says, brusquely setting me straight. “I said specifically, don’t give a single dollar this week without insisting that the station adhere to higher standards. I wanted to be very careful. Every word meant exactly what it said. I don’t want to see the station hurt. The point of writing the piece is that it’s been hurt enough.”

Point taken. But a declaration that a cause is no longer worthy will be widely read as a good excuse to save your money. That’s how I read it, and so did WFMT morning host Carl Grapentine.

“What I was most disappointed in was his closing,” Grapentine tells me. “The piece was labeled ‘commentary.’ It was well researched and well thought-out. But to admonish people not to give money to the station until they do things the way he thinks they should be done–I’m astonished he would do that. I thought it was mean-spirited. If WFMT were to use its podium to go on the air and tell everyone not to buy the Chicago Tribune until things are the way we think they should be it would be wholly inappropriate. I think this was wholly inappropriate.”

But this was not the Tribune picking on a fellow institution. It was simply one critic with deep feelings putting them out there at the risk of looking silly–no small risk for someone proud of a radio that could tune in only one station. I remind Grapentine that back in the days of glory that haunt Artner, the late Claudia Cassidy used to come on WFMT for half an hour each Sunday and tell Chicagoans what theater to avoid. Artner is a critic in her tradition.

“That was a review,” Grapentine responds. “I think this is a little more wide reaching–especially on the day when we begin our membership drive.”

It appears that to Artner art criticism is siege combat against the huns. He looked the cows of Chicago coldly in the eye last summer and discerned “a homogenized jollity that ultimately was about buying, supporting and approving a top-o’-the-world, ain’t-we-grand vision created by the city’s bureau of tourism.” Two Sundays ago he defied the rising tide of academic affection for Norman Rockwell, thundering that Rockwell took America’s commonplaces and “so cossetted and sugared and fattened them that they became at once comic and maudlin, outsize and empty.” Rockwell, wrote Artner, “trusted only excess.” Often excoriated as an arrogant snob, he says the reaction to the WFMT piece has been different. “In other words, they agree with me.”

Artner didn’t name Grapentine, but he singled him out for attack. Artner observed that WFMT now plays “few pieces in the morning and afternoon that exceed 20 minutes in length.” And he complained, “Anyone who does listen–and has a reasonably good memory–would know how often on the Monday-through-Friday morning program the same pieces in the same performances turn up in the same order with the same anecdotes. [WFMT executives Dan Schmidt and Anders Yocum] give the impression that the rest of the station’s programming should be as successful, but tune in regularly and before long the effort shows itself as formula. How does management keep from noticing?”

Says Grapentine, “I might do a sequence of this piece followed by that one followed by that one for a particular reason. One of the more common conversations I have with callers is with the people who say, ‘Can I play x or y?’ and I say, ‘I just played it a week ago, so I really shouldn’t.’ And they’ll say, ‘Well, I didn’t hear it.’ I have to balance those two things, the constant listener and the casual listener.

“If I were left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t play the Pachelbel Canon anymore. I play it two or three times a year. But I always have people call and say, ‘What is that?’ Obviously Mr. Artner is at one extreme, and I’m probably at that extreme too. I bet if we could listen to what we wanted to listen to, it would probably be very similar. But that’s not what my job is. You have to appeal to the aficionado and the novice. I feel I have to be accessible–I hope that’s not a dirty word–without pandering. I’m sorry he doesn’t like my choices of what I play on the show. They’re not always my personal choices, but they’re what I feel are best all around.”

I pass along this argument to Artner.

“That’s a pretty big admission,” he responds. “The station managers seem to feel he’s their star, and things other hosts aren’t allowed to do, he is. Carl plays quite a bit of vocal music, arias, and so on, and other program hosts don’t have that luxury. Carl chooses the music himself.”

“It is the most popular show on the station,” says Grapentine, “although I feel that’s almost a bad thing to admit. Should the station be programmed strictly according to popular tastes? Of course not. But should we program with total disregard to popular taste? That’s suicide. And isn’t that a little haughty? We only play classical music, and that makes us pretty damned elitist. Only 5 to 8 percent of the population expresses any interest in that. I don’t think we can afford to be any more elitist.”

Artner: “I’m surprised he’s saying he doesn’t do what he wants. Carl chooses the music himself. I didn’t put it in the piece, but the constant returning to the same artists is very apparent. If it’s a baritone represented on the program, it’s going to be Bryn Terfel. If it’s a soprano, it’s Renee Fleming. If it’s a contralto or mezzo, it’s Cecilia Bartoli. Except when he does his birthday thing.”

Grapentine: “If the morning show’s extremely hectic, maybe I don’t have time to do the research and go through 12 different versions of a song and decide which is better when I need something three minutes long at four minutes to the hour.”

Artner: “Content is what is important. Content is what brought the station into existence. Content is, moreover, what they’re still trading on….Any kind of commitment based on giving listeners only what they say they want doesn’t benefit either side for long.”

Grapentine: “We will program everything exactly as Mr. Artner wants if he will make up the difference in the money we lose.”

WFMT critic-at-large Andrew Patner weighs in by E-mail: “AGA either knows nothing of the history of the station or willfully ignores it. Competition is not (and never has been) WNIB. It’s WBEZ, CDs, the Internet, radios with push buttons and remotes, a world without music education in the schools, etc. If we aired full-length plays or 30-minute critics’ shows with no musical integration we would have no listeners–you, I, and he all know that.”

Susan Lipman, who used to be president of Friends of WFMT, also reacts: “This is a very disconcerting article that needs serious review by all of us at WFMT.” Lipman led the angry faithful who went to court in 1989 when WFMT experimented with prerecorded commercials. Today the group is moribund, but she’s on the station’s board.

I ask Lipman if the station is obligated to educate tomorrow’s audience while entertaining today’s. “You bet it is,” she says. “If it’s giving them what they say they want it’s providing a status quo. If you give them what they need it’s opening up doors and worlds. I think the station is trying to do that. But with all these focus groups and listener mail, maybe it doesn’t yet know how.”

There are two kinds of deep thinkers. There’s the sensible bunch that argues toward the truth. Then there’s the crowd that argues from the truth. They’re insufferable, but they know what they think. Like a theologian of old, Artner judges WFMT by its sins and is certain what they are. Sins are categorical, and no amount of economic necessity can make them something less.

The Age of Reform

CHICAGO, March 3, 2012 (AP) Presidential candidate Nader Rosenthal pressed his crusade for political reform today, calling for an end to party primaries and a return to the old-fashioned smoke-filled-room method of picking nominees.

“Direct democracy has failed,” Rosenthal declared in a speech before thousands of cheering supporters in Chicago’s historic United Center. “Unless corrupt party bosses commanding patronage armies step in, I fear for the republic.”

Visibly buoyed by his return to the heartland, the charismatic Rosenthal railed against “a system that makes it impossible for America to choose the leaders it’s in need of.” He thundered, “Vision, character, and leadership have gone out of style, and it’s time for the people to bring them back.”

Rosenthal was clear about what steps he thinks the people must take. “Sit down, shut up, and let the machines take over,” he declared, bringing an applauding crowd to its feet. “You’ve done enough damage already.”

Despite his enormous popularity among the Democratic Party’s rank and file, Rosenthal is given little chance of winning its party’s nomination. That’s because it’s become almost unheard of for the faithful of either party to vote in their own primary. This modern political tradition can be traced to the 2000 primaries, when Democrats by the millions discovered how much fun it was to ask for Republican ballots. What began as a lark quickly evolved into a central aspect of both parties’ campaign strategies. This year, Rosenthal’s most ardent supporters have registered as Republicans in order to cast ballots for former Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker, whom they perceive as the easiest opponent to defeat in November. Chastity Bono of the Bono political dynasty is also drawing considerable Democratic support.

Recent polls of likely voters in the upcoming Illinois Democratic primary show Rosenthal running far behind gay sex- and child-care-advice columnist Dan Savage, who was identified in the GOP’s Iowa caucuses as “the one guy we think we can beat” and has enjoyed massive Republican backing ever since.

“With all due respect to Rocker and Savage, this nation can and must do better,” said Rosenthal. “The era of the ward heeler, the back room, and the public trough gave us choices between candidates of the caliber of Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. There’s no reason this nation can’t do that well again.”

The most famous of “smoke-filled rooms” was the suite in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel where GOP bosses in 1920 selected Harding, a venal Ohio newspaperman, as their party’s nominee. Harding was long rated by scholars the worst president in American history, but surrendered that distinction after a massive crossover vote in 2004 nominated Charlie Sheen, who defeated Strom Thurmond in one of the closest elections in American history. Thurmond had become the Republican standard-bearer by cornering the Democratic vote in the crucial late primaries after the New York Times reported he was dead.

Though Rosenthal’s speech today was generally well received, one seemingly impromptu moment stunned his doting audience. “I’d like to be able to say how much your love and affection means to me,” he exclaimed. When the cheering subsided he continued, “But since you’re all voting Republican, it doesn’t mean a damn thing. So up yours!”

Afterward, senior campaign officials scrambled to explain away the outburst as a shrewd attempt by Rosenthal to gain the Republican support he desperately needs by hinting at lunacy and nervous collapse.

“Too little too late,” responded the Savage camp.

News Bite

The Sun-Times decided the coming IPO of the Internet operating company divine interVentures was blowout news, worth spreading across six pages in Monday’s business section. The odd thing is, none of the coverage was contributed by the paper’s new Internet columnist, Darcy Evon. Actually this admission was less odd than appropriate, given that Evon’s column is a sideline to her Internet newsletter, the “i-Street Reporter,” and divine interVentures is an “i-Street” investor. The column and newsletter both end in a note acknowledging the relationship (though for a long time the newsletter didn’t mention it), so everything is sort of on the up-and-up or at least out in the open. But Evon still can’t write about the biggest player on her beat.