It is undoubtedly a tribute to the charisma of Ray Nordstrand that more than 18 months after his removal as station manager at WFMT FM, Chicago’s fine-arts radio station, echoes of that upheaval still reverberate through the land. At the time no one clearly explained why he was ousted, nor has a satisfying interpretation of the move come since.
On the face of it, no one should be shocked by a shift of this kind. After all, some radio stations these days change their managers–not to mention their whole programming formats–about as often as the New York Yankees change managers. And Nordstrand, who had been boss at WFMT for 20 years, was not fired. He remains in charge of long-range planning and development, an area in which he has performed spectacularly over the years. And Nordstrand isn’t complaining–at least not on the record. “I’m as involved and creative as I’ve ever been,” he says.
So why should there be so much unrest and turmoil? Why, for example, should a listeners’ group called Friends of WFMT regularly issue alarms and warnings about the station’s possible transformation into one more gauche, blaring outlet of rock? Why do staff members speak glumly and anonymously of demoralization that has transformed the multimillion-dollar studios into “a cathedral of hurt”? And why has the Illinois attorney general been urged to investigate whether WFMT’s trustees are violating their mandate? All of this seems to contradict the image of exquisite culture and civility that has long been WFMT’s distinctive trademark–along with the classical music, the long pauses between recordings, the measured cadences of the announcers.
The storm continues in large part precisely because WFMT is so special. Though it hovers between 17th and 20th place in listenership among Chicago-area stations, accounting for about 2 percent of the radio audience at any one time, its fans are uniquely loyal and extraordinarily affluent. They don’t just tune in from time to time; they tend to leave the station on all day. And these listeners have the wherewithal to make advertisers very happy. In the wealthier neighborhoods along the lakeshore from the Gold Coast to Lake Bluff, ratings show WFMT consistently the number-one choice of adults. This gives the station the so-called “classical advantage,” allowing it to charge advertising rates two to five times those of similar-sized stations.
WFMT also has an awesome reach. It is the nation’s first radio superstation, heard on cable systems in 43 states. It is a distributor of fine-arts series, including programs by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Chicago, to some 500 American stations and to radio services in 23 foreign countries. And it is the producer of a rapidly growing subscription music service called the Beethoven Satellite Network.
WFMT is, in short, a cultural edifice and trendsetter for the nation. It has been called the New Yorker of radio stations: an institution several cuts above the pedestrian, never yielding to fad or snipping corners in its commitment to quality, yet still tinged with enough irreverence and spunk to open its microphones to the likes of The Midnight Special and Studs Terkel. Those who love it tend to be possessive about their station–and wary lest the barbarians who swarm over the FM dial from one end to the other invade the studios and pull the plug on Mozart, Bach, The Midnight Special, and Studs Terkel forever.
And so just as the venerable old New Yorker was rocked with controversy recently due to a shake-up in management, so WFMT felt yet another acute tremor late last year when Chicago magazine, which had been a part of the WFMT empire, was sold for $17 million to a group from Detroit. Coming on the heels of the Nordstrand shake-up, the sale portended for some the beginning of the end. The lingering suspicions and resentments surfaced–especially when the Chicago Educational Television Association (CETA), WFMT’s parent company, announced that the proceeds from the sale would go “to assure the stability and continuing vitality” of its other child, WTTW, Channel 11. This failure to include WFMT appeared all the more crass since Chicago in its original incarnations was the product of WFMT, not WTTW. Studs Terkel called the snub a “heist,” and the Friends of WFMT labeled it an “expropriation” of funds that properly belonged to the radio station. Not so, said CETA executives, who argued that Chicago magazine would never have flourished without WTTW’s input, and that the radio station would in fact benefit from the money.
Precisely why these lingering misunderstandings cannot be worked out calmly and in good faith is what makes the WFMT story so intriguing. The principals are all rational and charming people. Above all, they love WFMT and what it stands for. Yet they are not likely to settle their differences soon because of their very different perspectives.
Although they are surely not the only characters in the drama, four of those principals personify several dimensions of the dispute. For Rita Willens WFMT is her child; for Ray Nordstrand it is his life; for Robert Wilcox it is his civic responsibility; for Studs Terkel the station is his consuming passion.
WFMT’s early days are as clear to Rita Willens as if they had happened only yesterday. She was Rita Jacobs then, the young wife of Bernie Jacobs, and together they “traveled on a dream” of creating a radio station that would feature “fine arts, integrity, and total communication with the audience.” It seemed a crazy, impossible dream in the beginning. Bernie Jacobs’s first effort to launch such a station, WOAK FM, in 1948, ended in financial disaster, and he shelved the idea for a while.
Bernie and Rita were west-side Chicagoans from families that cherished classical music, drama, and poetry. “Both of us were raised on the New York Philharmonic radio concerts,” she says. “Good music was part of our everyday environment.” Bernie, a radio technician in the Air Corps during World War II, had the technical expertise to run a small operation. Rita, who had graduated from Roosevelt University in the same class as Harold Washington, possessed a warm personality, loads of enthusiasm, and an innate sense of what ought to appeal to an intelligent audience.
On December 13, 1951, the pair acquired full ownership of WFMT, the successor of WOAK, and began broadcasting eight hours a day. Short of capital, they had to pawn their luggage and car to get the station, even though the price was modest. “Those were the days when television was coming on strong,” says Rita. “Radio seemed to be fading fast. In some cities you couldn’t give away an FM station.”
The studio was a second-floor room in the old Guyon Hotel at Pulaski and Washington. Bernie and Rita usually slept at the station and subsisted on fried rice from the Chinese restaurant on the ground floor. Bernie functioned as engineer, manager, and ad salesman; Rita as the sole announcer and programmer. To augment their own limited supply of records, the two traveled by streetcar in their off-hours to Johnny’s Record Shop on Oak Street to pick up new recordings. By a reciprocal arrange- ment, the owner lent the records in exchange for occasional commercials on the station, thus becoming WFMT’s first advertiser.
Even so the whole project appeared doomed after only two weeks. The couple was broke. So one night at 9:45 Rita seized the microphone and asked plaintively, “Is anyone listening? We need money to keep going . . .” The phone began ringing immediately, and by midnight scores of callers had pledged thousands of dollars. The contributions kept coming in, totaling more than $11,000 after three months. In addition, people came to the station to offer their services as volunteer ad salesmen, studio cleaners, or envelope stuffers.
That first desperate venture in fund-raising confirmed the Jacobses’ conviction that there was indeed a broadcast market for culture in Chicago. “You know,” says Rita, “I wasn’t all that surprised at the response. Right from the first day there was a sense of energy in what we were doing and in people’s reaction. We knew we had something great.”
Rita Willens, now 60-ish, lives quietly in her suburban home and carefully guards her privacy. But she is still as bright, personable, and articulate as she must have been in those exciting early years. And she is fiercely and protectively maternal toward the child she and Bernie conceived and nurtured. But she believes commercialization and lack of creativity have damaged their creation, and that saddens her.
From the beginning, she and Bernie set the standards that eventually contributed to WFMT’s success. It was they who decreed there should be no more than two and a half minutes of commercials per hour, that none should last longer than 60 seconds, that all commercials would be read by the station’s announcers, and that no sung commercials or jingles would be tolerated. It was they who hired Norman Pellegrini, a young record collector and student of the organ, as their first employee. They soon after added Mike Nichols, a University of Chicago student, to the staff. They gave Studs Terkel, who had been blacklisted by most media during the McCarthy era, an opportunity to host his own program later in 1952. And in the following year, they added Ray Nordstrand, a Northwestern University economics student, as a part-time announcer. Thus, within less than two years, the station’s long-term policies and nucleus were established.
Pellegrini continues today as program director, Nordstrand as WFMT president (a largely titular office now), and Terkel as the renowned “free spirit.” Nichols moved on to fame as a comedian and director of plays and films, but not before launching one of WFMT’s staples, The Midnight Special, a freewheeling potpourri of recorded music (mostly folk), comedy, and skits, heard every Saturday. Recalls Rita, “We had just put on a live performance of folksinging in our studio. It was hosted by Fleming Brown, and it was so refreshing and well received that Mike said, ‘Let’s let our long hair down a couple hours every week.’
“You know,” she says, “we were in steady touch with our listeners then. A marvelous, warming relationship developed.” Her emphasis is on the “then.”
Under Rita and Bernie’s guidance, the station scheduled an ever-widening range of cultural programming: plays from the BBC, poetry readings by people like Dylan Thomas and E.E. Cummings, lectures by creative thinkers like R. Buckminster Fuller and Arthur Miller. “Our goal was to have adventure, balance, and surprise,” says Rita. “We went against the conventions that said you should never have a soprano in the early morning or you should always have a chamber music hour in the afternoon. We said we didn’t want any chamber music hours or opera hours. We wanted to give listeners a panorama of music in a 24-hour period. But we avoided predictability; the audience had to be alert or they’d miss something.”
That unpredictable format, so typical of The Midnight Special, was characteristic of daily programming as well throughout the 1950s, says Rita. Advertisers came aboard, and so did listeners and critics. In 1958 the station, which had moved to the old Potter Palmer mansion on Lake Shore Drive, soared to eighth place in listenership among all Chicago radio stations, an unprecedented achievement for an FM outlet. In 1960 it won the Alfred E. Dupont Award as the best radio station in the country. The awards have continued, filling one long hall in the studios with plaques and making WFMT unquestionably the most honored radio station in America.
Bernie and Rita did not long savor their success because their own dreams were coming unraveled in the 1960s. Bernie had been stricken with multiple sclerosis, and though he struggled to remain in charge, his energy and concentration slipped away. Meanwhile, the station was still losing money each year, partly because its modest little program guide had evolved into a slick and financially draining publication called WFMT Perspective.
Rita and Bernie quarreled increasingly over business and family matters. She also found fault with Nordstrand’s emphasis on charts, graphs, and growth sheets. His concern for the bottom line, she believed, did not leave him sufficiently in touch with WFMT’s sensitive and delicate nature.
In 1964 Bernie separated from Rita and their only child, Noah. And in 1965, before the inevitable divorce was finalized, he fired her as a station employee and banned her from the premises. Refusing to be vanquished, Rita not only survived her exile but established a reconciliation of sorts with her ailing former husband. The two remained friends until his death in 1975, and Rita was to return to the air shortly after, producing several award-winning programs.
Meanwhile, Bernie, saddled with medical bills, sought a buyer for his station. First, he appeared ready to sell to a local investment group that included Nordstrand, Pellegrini, and William Benton, son of the Encyclopaedia Britannica heir. Then he changed his mind and sold instead to WGN Continental Broadcasting Company for approximately $1.2 million ($350,000 down and the rest over a period of years). Rita regarded WGN as unquestionably “the buyer of choice” because of its experience in radio and its commitment to retain the WFMT format.
WGN appeared determined to continue WFMT’s growth, moving the studios to modern quarters at 500 N. Michigan and giving the station the highest antenna in Chicago (atop the Prudential Building). However, WGN never had a chance to demonstrate its long-term intentions, because a group called the Citizens Committee to Save WFMT, a self-appointed organization of possessive and fearful listeners, sued WGN, charging that it did plan to alter the Jacobs format. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 1968 that the sale violated Federal Communications Commission rules since it gave Continental Broadcasting, owners of WGN radio and WGN Channel Nine, too much control over the Chicago media.
WGN fought the decision, to no avail. The adamant citizens’ committee, whose membership included Saul Bellow, insisted Continental Broadcasting represented corporate greed at its worst. In 1970 the issue appeared to be settled at last. Continental Broadcasting donated WFMT to CETA. To some it seemed a strange arrangement–a nonprofit corporation owning a profit-making subsidiary. To others it was a marriage made in heaven. The CETA board, overseer of WTTW, had long experience in public-service broadcasting, and the agreement stipulated that WFMT would continue to be run “in the public interest,” while taking on the renegotiated financial obligations to Bernie Jacobs and his estate. Under the arrangement, Nordstrand became president of WFMT, Inc., publisher of Chicago Guide, as the program guide was then known, and general manager of WFMT, while Pellegrini was named vice president and station program director. WFMT prospered in the 1970s, adding to its announcing and advertising staffs, greatly increasing the station’s power, and transforming Chicago Guide into the slick and temporarily profitable Chicago magazine.
Rita, who had remarried, returned to the air in 1976 at Pellegrini’s invitation as a rotating host on The Midnight Special. She was appalled, she says, by what she heard and saw. The “marvelous, warming relationship” the station enjoyed with its listeners had been dissipated, in her view, by an increasing intrusion of “announcements, commercials, and reportage.”
“I became so furious listening to political ads I clocked the station and found only 15 minutes of music in one hour-long segment,” she says. She found The Midnight Special so heavily dominated by folk music (a favorite of Nordstrand’s) that it was growing “stagnant and parochial.” Furthermore, the unpredictability of programming had been replaced by “an endless succession of syndicated symphony and opera broadcasts programmed to suit the demands of a sponsor.”
Rita cast an especially jaundiced eye on WFMT’s profitability. Although the station was at last making money, CETA was getting only a minimal return from its profit-making arm. Exactly how much has never been publicized since CETA-WTTW does not provide a clear breakdown. However, it was reported that in the latter 1970s dividends of $200,000 to $300,000 were provided by WFMT. But by then WFMT, Inc.’s gross revenues and market value had risen astronomically. Rita speculated that a $300,000 return from a subsidiary whose gross revenues were said to be more than $15 million would not only alarm the average trustee but put him in a selling mood.
Rita expressed her fiscal and programmatic concerns to Pellegrini but she lacked the power to effect any real change. The two quarreled in 1981 and Pellegrini fired her from her Midnight Special slot. Still concerned for the station’s future, Rita talked to friends and reporters. Her nagging question: where is all the money going?
In 1984, attorney Robert G. Johnston, an associate of Rita’s, put the concerns in a formal letter to Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan calling for a formal investigation. WTTW’s board, he argued, is not properly overseeing the activities of WFMT; it is allowing its subsidiary to function too freely and recklessly. In particular, Johnston cited outside activities of WFMT, Inc. in which Nordstrand and Pellegrini were involved–the establishment of a profit-making entity called Concert Radio, Inc., which had been seeking (so far unsuccessfully) to acquire New York City’s classical station WNCN, and Nordstrand’s activities as a paid consultant for WXJY, a Wisconsin classical station. Johnston questioned the move of WFMT in 1981 to its handsome new offices and studios, including a $2,000,000 music performance studio, at Three Illinois Center. “There is considerable documentation to support public concern that WFMT, Inc. staff, resources and reputation are expended in undertakings that appear to have little benefit or relationship to the public interest,” said Johnston. Although the broadside was aimed at CETA’s stewardship, the real target, obviously, was WFMT, Inc., particularly Nordstrand. The unavoidable implication: something funny is happening to the profits and CETA-WTTW had better take notice. Hartigan never responded to the letter, and a CETA spokesman dismissed it as full of “innuendo and misinformation.”
And there the issue lay festering until Nordstrand’s demotion in 1985. Did it mean the suspicions had some foundation? Or was it a first step in a CETA plan to alter the WFMT format? Then came the sale of Chicago magazine and the apparent diversion of profits to WTTW. To some it looked like one more step down the road–CETA getting rid piece by piece of a costly operation.
Rita Willens takes no joy in the shifts, since she is not privy to what they mean. “What I greatly fear,” she says, “is that WTTW, failing to realize an appropriate profit, has concluded that fine-arts broadcasting doesn’t pay and magazine publishing doesn’t pay. And they want out.”
And what will happen to her child?
Ray Nordstrand sounds in person exactly as he does when he’s hosting The Midnight Special. He speaks slowly and thoughtfully, with precise enunciation. He is polite and self-effacing, almost shy, always careful not to offend, a kind of middle-aged Clark Kent. It is not easy to imagine him the acquisitive, devious person some critics portray. He has been with WFMT since he was 22 years old. And he talks about the station the way one might describe a priceless work of art. Walking through the studio, he points out the library of more than 40,000 records and tapes, the state-of-the-art broadcast and recording equipment, the coterie of faithful employees still at work late in the evening. “This is just a wonderful, wonderful place to work,” he says.
Ray Nordstrand, the only child of an immigrant couple, grew up in the Lincoln Park-Lakeview area and still lives in that community. Divorced in 1980 after 17 years of marriage, he is currently raising his only child, a 16-year-old daughter.
His parents managed a rooming house, and his father was an assistant manager at the Swedish Club. Like many kids growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, he was a radio fan, letting his imagination expand on the adventures of Jack Armstrong and Captain Midnight. He also acquired a passing knowledge and love of music–classical and folk. He dreamed for a time of becoming a radio announcer, then abandoned the notion in favor of more practically oriented schooling in economics at Northwestern. His associates say he has always been good with numbers and percentages and attentive to every detail when making plans or projections.
His penchant for figures and love of radio came together fortuitously in 1952 when he accompanied a friend who was trying out for an announcing job at little WFMT. The friend failed the test, but Nordstrand took it and was hired. Within a few years he and Pellegrini had become the station’s irreplaceable foundations.
Nordstrand is credited with building the financial base at WFMT, an achievement that earned him the nickname “King of the Abacus.” He conducted a demographic study of subscribers to the station’s program guide and in 1955 developed a pioneering analysis of the entire WFMT audience–long before such studies became common. It revealed that the average listener was more affluent, better educated, far more inclined to buy new cars, drink imported wine, eat at good restaurants, and travel regularly than the average citizen. From this came WFMT’s invitation to advertisers to make use of the “classical advantage”–a marketing strategy now employed by classical music stations all over the country. Indeed, it can be argued that the growth of classical music stations in places like San Francisco, Denver, and Hawaii can be directly traced to WFMT’s trailblazing. And for this, Nordstrand and Pellegrini have received most of the credit, especially Nordstrand.
Pellegrini has been known to complain that his partner gets too much of the credit. And Rita Willens would certainly echo that sentiment. Yet Nordstrand is anything but boastful about his achievements. “This is and always has been a team effort,” he says, “and I hope it always will be.”
Toward Rita Willens, he expresses no animosity. “Her values and intelligence account for much of the genius of WFMT,” he notes. “She and Bernie were the mind and soul here from the start.” Bitter criticisms of him, such as those embodied in the Johnston letter, are absolutely without foundation–the result of “misinformation” and her own bitter experiences at the station.
As a station manager, Nordstrand tended to keep a fatherly (some would say paternalistic) hand on the whole operation–best symbolized by his habit of personally passing out paychecks each week to the station’s 60-odd employees. “I didn’t consider that paternalistic,” he says. “It gave me a chance to say hello to people who worked hard and showed a lot of dedication. I think there is a certain economic value in it too because people tend to work harder when they’re appreciated.”
Employees at the station talk about Nordstrand with a kind of affection and admiration bordering on awe. “Yes, he’s unorthodox,” says one, “but people who make a difference operate that way; they have extraordinary vision and dedication. Every inspired leader has peculiarities.”
Adds another, “The man has sacrificed what most of us want in their life. He works 12 to 15 hours a day–no vacations. What do they want from him?”
The “they” in this case is the so-called “gang of four” who approached the WTTW trustees in early 1985 and accused Nordstrand of failure to make decisions promptly, of refusing to delegate authority, and of not exercising adequate cost controls. The four carried a lot of weight: Alan Kelson, Chicago magazine’s editor in chief; Don Gold, the magazine’s editorial director; Richard Marschner, WFMT general sales manager; and James Freundt, WFMT finance director.
The stripping of Nordstrand’s authority followed in a tortuous series of steps. In June 1985 Kelson replaced him as publisher of Chicago. In July John Diederichs, a retired Sunbeam executive with no professional experience in media, was inserted above him as WFMT’s chief operating officer. In August Marschner took over as station manager.
Nordstrand was deeply hurt and the radio staff was devastated. Some 40 employees including Terkel, senior announcer Mel Zellman, and veteran production director Jim Unrath signed a petition to the CETA trustees expressing anger and seeking a reconsideration. “Management-employee relations at WFMT have always been defined by collegiality, openness and civility,” they wrote. “No one of us here has ever been in doubt as to where authority reposes, but that authority has always been accessible. Moreover, that authority has consistently taken pains to communicate its genuine interest in the opinions of staff members. There is growing concern that this may no longer be the case; the primacy of hierarchy appears to have supplanted the valuation of a free exchange of ideas, and accessibility and openness have become circumscribed.
“Most puzzling is why the faithful stewardship of a demonstrably successful enterprise would be terminated in such an abrupt fashion. The absence of any coherent and plausible explanation for this move is at least as disturbing as its suddenness. If the action is part of a long-range business strategy, its goal remains completely unclear to those most affected by it . . .”
Fearing a revolt, Robert Wilcox, chairman of the CETA subcommittee that oversees WFMT, met with employees of the station and the magazine and read a prepared statement that only poured more oil on the fire. “Several members of senior management,” he said, had “approached the trustees with a serious and growing problem that, if left unattended, would threaten the organization.” That problem, he explained, was Nordstrand’s management style, and it had been dealt with efficiently and expeditiously for the good of all.
Terkel pointed out that WFMT is not only the most honored station in the country but was in the midst of its best year ever financially. Wilcox admitted this was so, then got as specific as he was ever to get in the immediate aftermath of the shake-up. “The discussions [with Nordstrand] we’ve had over the last year have been of the most distressing and frustrating sort,” he said. “Time and again we have been left with the difficulty of an understanding on Ray’s part of what management means in terms of delegation, in terms of communication, in terms . . . of a steady, uninterrupted honoring of the assignments and responsibilities of people.”
Terkel countered that the bottom line is what counts in any business, and on that score, WFMT appeared to be doing very well indeed. “So I find this bizarre,” he said, “if you don’t mind my saying so!”
“I find you bizarre,” retorted Wilcox, “so we’re even on that!”
Aside from a vague reference to problems with “accounts receivable,” Wilcox provided no breakdown of Nordstrand’s failures. The implication was that he had bungled terribly–especially after Wilcox noted that the new WFMT management had asked for permission to borrow $1.5 million for “the maintenance of its financial strength and to finance growth projects.”
Was it really only Nordstrand’s quirky management style that had gotten to the trustees? Or was the problem more serious? The answers were at best ambiguous.
Ray Nordstrand rolled with the punch and kept his own views largely to himself. But he would not accept the assertion that he was a poor manager. “What sticks in my craw,” he told the Lincoln Park Spectator newspaper in a rare interview, “is the implication that this place has suffered from bad accounting practices and sloppy cost control. If I would say one thing about myself, it’s that I’m a good bottom-line man. In all the years I’ve done this, nobody has ever had a problem with my accounting practices, from the board to Arthur Andersen, who audits us. Our accounting is very neat. And as for cost control, we have always run a very tight operation, we’ve never had a lot of bureaucracy or extravagance in personnel.”
Now, a year and a half later, Nordstrand says, “I still don’t know why the shake-up happened. I really don’t know.” Perhaps, he says, a partial explanation can be found in “the irrationally escalating value of FM stations–a phenomenon threatening the future of classical radio.” A station worth $1 million ten years ago would have been worth $10 million five years ago and could go for $20 million today. And $20 million is what some analysts believe WFMT could bring on the open market today, given its central location on the dial and its high power–provided (and only provided) the new owner could change to a more lucrative rock or other popular format.
With that kind of money talking, Nordstrand indicates, trustees can quickly lose their “public interest” perspective and begin scanning the bottom line with furrowed brows. Why live with a dividend of $300,000 a year (or less) when the $20 million acquired from a sale could be invested and yield six or seven times that amount? More than one classical outlet has already shifted to popular music in an effort to squeeze more money out of a valuable property.
Classical radio, especially a first-rate operation like WFMT, will always have huge costs and overhead, he says; there is no way it can provide the sort of return a hard-nosed bottom-liner would seek.
As for his own activities in Concert Radio, Inc. and other consulting projects, Nordstrand insists he has always acted with the knowledge and approval of the CETA trustees. People who know him well insist this is so. Says one, “If you could see how carefully and scrupulously the man prepared for every board meeting, how open he tried to be to every suggestion, you couldn’t possibly accept the charge that he was stubborn or intransigent.”
Why then the shake-up and demotion? Nordstrand does not speculate beyond his “escalating value” theory. However, several more specific and sinister scenarios are possible. It may have been that the CETA-WTTW board back in 1985 was already determined to get rid of Chicago magazine. Nordstrand was on record as opposing any sale, and as CEO he could exercise considerable influence. Consequently, he had to be gotten out of the way, so to speak. Perhaps, goes an alarming rider on that theory, the board really intends to sell the station too, its assurances to the contrary notwithstanding. After all, when Nordstrand was shelved, Wilcox told everyone CETA had every intention of maintaining Chicago magazine as an integral part of the operation.
Or it could be, goes another theory, that Channel 11, headed by president William McCarter, simply wanted more control and influence at WFMT than was possible under Nordstrand’s unique management scheme. And indeed, under new management, there is a closer working relationship between the two enterprises.
Nordstrand’s office desk is piled high with contracts, brochures, and correspondence concerning WFMT’s ever-expanding syndication projects. “Marschner and I get along very well,” he says. “We’re a beautiful team. A lot of what I’m doing now is terribly similar to what I always did. . . . Of course, I was bruised by the change but I am surviving.”
He hopes WFMT will not be sold, and the very thought of its transformation into just another commercial station causes him to almost lose his characteristic calm composure. “When I see the mindless, nasty, greedy, formula-ridden stupidity of so much commercial radio, I’m so grateful to have been associated with this place,” he says, “to be able to present the very best there is and to treat the community with respect. I can’t imagine anything better.”
Nordstrand attends social affairs promoting the arts, is frequently consulted by Chicago cultural leaders, and is one of the city’s top experts on folksinging and folksingers. He is also something of an unofficial cultural ambassador for the city. “Chicago is the greatest in the world,” he says very earnestly. “We have the best symphony orchestra, the best opera in the Lyric, the best folk music, the best blues, the best architecture–per building I’d say we’re better than New York or San Francisco. Just going through some of the old neighborhoods can get me high.”
Yet Nordstrand’s influence has certainly been diminished by his demotion. In 1985 shortly before the shake-up, the Tribune’s Eric Zorn wrote, “Nordstrand is a major tastemaker in the city and his social circle, such as it is, includes members of the Illinois Arts Council and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events, club owners, entertainers and artists. As the overlord of a major magazine and the most culturally influential radio station in the city, his decisions pack an immediate wallop.”
He has lost a lot of that wallop.
It is difficult to imagine two people further apart in appearance, taste, and mannerism than Louis “Studs” Terkel and Robert Wilcox. Terkel at 73 is still the ubiquitous interviewer-author, the quintessential rough-hewn guy from the neighborhoods, with his open-neck, red checkered shirt, a mop of unruly white hair, and a nonstop stream of opinion on politics, art, and life.
Wilcox, 11 years younger, is the quintessential retired corporate lawyer and civic-minded board member. He is proper, genteel, well tailored, and chooses words with great care, as if stepping through a mine field. Wilcox has lived his entire life in Winnetka but now conducts much of his downtown business from the Chicago Club, whose premises no male may enter without coat and tie. He has been on the CETA-WTTW board for 24 years. He remembers listening to WFMT when Bernie Jacobs owned it and professes great admiration for Nordstrand, Pellegrini, and the others who have contributed to the “culture, style, and ambience of the station.”
Terkel came to WFMT at the nadir of his career as a radio actor, after he had been accused of subversive activities. He has since achieved fame with his freewheeling interviewing style, and he has parlayed it into a series of best-selling books. For Terkel, WFMT has been salvation, home, and a daily opportunity to do what he loves most: spread his gospel of culture to the world. One of his favorite passages is from a book called Akenfield, a kind of English version of his own book Working. In it a young working-class man explains that when he started hanging around libraries and museums his whole outlook changed, and when he began paying attention to classical music his first reaction was “I have no right to listen.”
“That’s the problem,” says Terkel. “People feel they don’t have the right to appreciate these things. In the richest country of the world millions are starving for deeper things, and they don’t know it. Crap is the norm!”
Under Nordstrand WFMT has long soared above the norm and opened up thousands of ears to the “deeper things.” Now, in his latter years, Terkel sees its continued existence threatened–and threatened, in his view, by the sort of profit-hungry business tycoons he has always railed against. For Terkel is the incurable defender of the underdog and the champion of the little man in his fight against impersonal forces. He sees the enemy moving into his very home, determined to destroy, or at least maim, the nation’s most successful audio communicator of culture.
“Who are these guys anyway?” he asks referring to the CETA trustees. “How dare they put their grubby hands on us! I wouldn’t trust them any farther than I can throw Luciano Pavarotti!”
Terkel wants to know why no one on the WFMT staff was consulted before management was overhauled, why an inexperienced and much resented outsider like Diederichs was thrust hastily into the operation, why the $17 million profit from the magazine sale went to WTTW, and why the WFMT staff was recently ordered to cut costs by reusing old recording tapes. “I’d like to know if they’re recycling old tapes over at WTTW,” he says. “I believe the board has utter contempt for us and its viewers and listeners.”
His concerns are shared fully by the Friends of WFMT, a 36-member group that includes former alderman Leon Despres as chairman, Dr. Quentin Young, and Charles Benton, and that functions as a successor to the citizens’ organization that resisted the sale to WGN almost 20 years ago. In a statement to the CETA trustees last summer they wrote, “Essential to WFMT’s reputation for excellence was WFMT’s reputation for independence. In the public’s mind, rightly or wrongly, that independence is gone, and with it, rightly or wrongly, is WFMT’s former reputation.” The “mystique” surrounding the station has been dissipated, they argued, and there now hangs over it a cloud of suspicion–the suspicion that WTTW, in disregard of its public trust, intends to sell WFMT to the highest bidder. The handing over of the $17 million to the television station, says Despres, is “the signal and confirmation” that the trustees do not have the best interests of the station in mind.
The Friends of WFMT want, but have not obtained, a written pledge that the station will not be sold. Terkel calls for more radical action–the resignation of Wilcox and the entire CETA-WTTW board.
Robert Wilcox views the brouhaha with a weary concern. “We intend to assure the autonomy and integrity of the station for its own sake,” he says, repeating a statement he has made more than once. “We intend to continue it at its high-cost location. No, we are not going to sell! We have no intention of selling!”
The repeated charge that a sale is forthcoming reminds him of the conspiracy theories concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy, theories that won’t go away, the absence of evidence notwithstanding.
Were then the charges of the gang of four well founded? “There was,” says Wilcox, “a gradual loss of confidence in Ray’s managerial ability and style–a style epitomized by carrying crucial papers around in his jacket pocket, as if the place were a sole proprietorship, a mom-and-pop operation.” When the four upper managers approached the trustees, he says, “a managerial and decision-making paralysis existed at the station . . . Decisions were not made at all or not made in an orderly way. Decisions were made and revoked. . . . Regular managerial meetings were an exercise in futility. . . . Financial records were in unacceptable condition . . .”
He interjects quickly that Nordstrand is nevertheless “a gifted man with great imagination and devotion . . . a man wholly engaged in WFMT, a fine team player.” But he did not alter “his narrow management style to reflect the success he contributed to so greatly. . . . We made changes to preserve what was and will be for the indefinite future . . .”
This sounds like bottom-line talk, but Wilcox declines to go into details except to acknowledge that “our profitability was threatened by Ray’s management style.” That does not mean, he notes, that the $1.5 million line of credit was sought to repair mistakes; it was mainly for growth projects involving Chicago magazine. It also does not mean, Wilcox adds, that CETA has ever operated or ever will operate WFMT for maximum profits. “We are not hard-nosed, profits-oriented businessmen. The station is a cultural asset, and we understand it will always have high costs.”
Nor, he emphasizes, is there any truth whatsoever in the suggestion that Nordstrand ran any side operations for his own benefit. “Ray has never been engaged in development opportunities that should be WTTW’s,” he says, “none at all. His integrity and conduct are above reproach.” And the Johnston letter “is not worth the paper it’s printed on.”
If Nordstrand’s management was so disastrous, why were the staff (aside from the four complainers) so universally unaware? Their petition and continuing protestation of loyalty to Nordstrand, says Wilcox, represents “a sad misperception, a failure to understand the real situation. I knew what I was doing [in replacing Nordstrand] and it made me sick. But I had no choice.”
Even more misguided, he says, are the Friends of WFMT, who keep finding sinister intent in every management move. “I have to wonder if Leon Despres is a friend of the station,” says Wilcox. “Is he bored? Is he getting some kind of psychic lift out of this? There’s no question he and his group have created considerable turmoil.”
The externally created turmoil is, of course, minor compared to the internal turmoil that gripped Chicago magazine after Nordstrand was demoted in 1985 in order to “improve management.” A magazine that had been showing a profit of several million dollars a year plummeted to a reported loss of $500,000 in 1986 before it was turned over to the Detroit group. Wilcox says that disaster did not stem from any incompetence on the part of new management but from “our failure to see that the boom in city magazines was flattening out.” Then there’s WFMT, which had been turning over some profit to CETA in recent years–until the “improved management” took over. This year it is expected to lose almost $400,000. Wilcox insists there is nothing ominous here either; the loss is due to reorganization and new national broadcasting service costs.
He also says an endowment will be set up from the proceeds of the magazine sale and both WTTW and WFMT will reap the benefits; the press release that omitted any mention of the radio station was “a mistake.”
He vigorously defends the 35-member CETA board for its “democratic” manner of operation and for its “racial, ethnic, and geographical mix.” New members are selected by a nominating committee of the board on the basis of “civic record, corporate position, and involvement in public affairs and the cultural life of the city.” Many decisions involving WFMT are handled, however, by Wilcox’s smaller WFMT subcommittee, which includes McCarter, financier Henry Meers, and gallery owner Richard Gray. The board’s abiding goal for the radio station is perfectly consistent and aboveboard, says Wilcox. “We want a first-rate cultural facility in financially healthy condition and under sound financial control, with a free rein for the staff to develop and explore their creativity.”
Come to think of it, that’s what just about everybody wants. But there always seems to be another shoe dropping somewhere. The latest involves an unsigned poison-pen letter to Despres from a WTTW “vexed trustee” claiming that some board members really are determined to get rid of the station. It attacks Nordstrand’s management record and charges that WFMT’s ratings drop woefully when Studs Terkel’s daily program is on. Copies have been widely circulated, and they have served to stir up the ever-simmering caldron.
Rita Willens finds the letter “very interesting.” Terkel notes indignantly that the charts, in fact, show listenership goes up, not down, when he’s on. Wilcox doubts that the letter came from a trustee at all. And Nordstrand shakes his head. “There’s a lot of paranoia going around,” he says.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.