WFMT on the Move

Poor WFMT, so far from Orchestra Hall and so close to WTTW.

Does it matter to the listener where the music’s coming from? Probably not. Yet Chicago’s “fine arts” station knew itself by its milieu, and this milieu was defined by the symphony down Michigan Avenue and the Lyric across the Loop, by nearby theaters and museums, and by the hotels and restaurants in which great artists held court. WFMT stalwarts mingled easily in this world and imagined their station vital to it.

Which is why their recent move eight miles northwest to Albany Park felt like exile. “Change is always difficult,” station manager Dan Schmidt acknowledges. “The life and energy of the heart of this city is wonderful. And it is a loss not to be able to stroll down Michigan Avenue for your lunch break. But what we gain is so compelling.”

What WFMT gains may be nothing less than its salvation. “Being able to get out from under the rent at 303 E. Wacker,” Schmidt says. “We were paying something short of $500,000 a year. I figure we’re saving $300,000 a year [of a $5 million budget]. It’s given us the ability to step back from the edge a little bit. We’re able to take that savings and put it into making radio instead of rent payments. It looks like we’ll be able to offer the entire Lyric Opera opening night series again. We had a major sponsor pull out last year.”

The last ten years of WFMT history helped prepare the staff for its poignant uprooting, delivering a series of shocks from which the station’s old sense of splendid otherworldliness never recovered. The parent Chicago Educational Television Association–personified by its president William McCarter, general manager of WTTW–stepped in to set things right that weren’t widely believed to be wrong. Managerial changes were made, Chicago magazine, which WFMT had nurtured from a thin program guide, was sold off, devoted employees were fired, and the station’s format was changed to allow prerecorded commercials. Aghast loyalists formed Friends of WFMT and went to court alleging mismanagement. An accommodation restored the old commercial format, and the Friends haven’t met in years. Nevertheless, WFMT had been taught the sort of lesson in who’s boss that Mexico learns whenever the marines drop into Vera Cruz.

WFMT’s need to escape its extravagant quarters in Illinois Center, leased originally to share with the long-vanished magazine, was never disputed. WFMT explored Navy Pier–where WBEZ would decide to make its new home–and various bargain spaces in the overbuilt downtown market. “We looked at over 350 alternative sites and properties,” says Schmidt.

Apparently nothing made more sense than moving in with Big Brother. And so last month, when its Illinois Center lease ran out, WFMT moved into a floor of the new wing WTTW had been building out on Saint Louis Avenue, north of Foster and west of Kedzie. The new quarters are bigger than the old, says Schmidt, and the new performing studio is not only a third larger than the old but acoustically superior. These gains count for something, weighed against the lost trappings of centrality and autonomy.

“We’re in the same building, though planets apart,” says Studs Terkel. “I suppose you’d call it peaceful coexistence.” Since Terkel doesn’t drive, the free parking lot at the new place is no attraction, aside from making it easier to hitch rides to lunch. “I depend on the kindness of strangers,” he said, “kids with cars.”

As for getting to work, “it’s the eighth test of Hercules,” Terkel says. “I take the Foster 146. Then I change and take the Foster 92 bus and then comes the walk, about three good blocks. Picture that on a cold, blizzardly day. I count the steps. So I find myself a frontiersman. Gary Cooper. More like Gabby Hayes.”

I reminded Terkel that he always hated the walk underground through Illinois Center. He denounced it as dehumanizing, and he stomped along loudly growling to himself.

True enough, he says, but he didn’t freeze.

Secrets of the School Board Miracle

Whenever God’s work must truly be our own, we’re usually in big trouble. But a superboard of public school educators stepped in this summer to do the job right, and the Tribune marveled.

“That the Chicago Public Schools’ new executives have managed to plug a hole projected to reach $1.4 billion by 1999 and balance the habitually red-inked budget for four years without new state money is amazing,” reported education writer V. Dion Haynes. “That they were able to do it and find $206.8 million in surplus funds is miraculous.”

Columnist R. Bruce Dold commented, “Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas and his crew have performed a short-order miracle (assuming their numbers hold up).”

Education writer Jacquelyn Heard respected the supernatural dimension of the big story even while offering a note of agnosticism. “Vallas’ apparent fiduciary magic has other big-city school leaders . . . asking a simple question: Hasn’t this all been just a little too easy?”

The September issue of Catalyst, a monthly journal on school reform, brings the coverage down to earth. Although “new school leaders have earned a reputation as miracle workers,” writes managing editor Lorraine Forte, without reform legislation passed last May in Springfield “balancing the budget would have been virtually impossible.”

Dold’s column last month had praised the General Assembly’s Republican leadership, Senate president James “Pate” Philip in particular, for giving Mayor Daley “the power to stage a coup” against the school system’s bureaucracy. Dold went on, “It’s too bad that the coup wasn’t staged two years ago, when the school board cried poor and the legislature allowed it to sell [$427 million in bonds] to close the deficit. Did they pour those bond proceeds down a rat hole? The ease with which Vallas and company balanced the budget this year makes you wonder.”

Well, that’s probably half right. Dold “was right on the money about Republicans making this possible,” says Catalyst editor and publisher Linda Lenz. “But he seems to suggest it was because they put Daley in charge and he replaced bad people with good people. If he’d replaced bad people with good people a year ago they wouldn’t have been able to do this without the ties being taken off state and local money.”

The villains in this summer’s public education drama were the feckless bureaucrats and school board potentates who put children last. The heroes were the able and selfless public servants who drove off the villains, exposed their multifarious sins, and vowed never again. So the story was cast. “It leaves the impression that they found all of these hundreds of millions of dollars that had quote, unquote been wasted,” Lenz says. “Why, indeed they have found areas of waste. But most of what they did to balance the budget is the result of legislation passed by a Republican-controlled legislature back in May.”

The General Assembly did much more than give Daley power to stage a coup. Its revised school reform act, says Lenz, “made it possible for the school board to spend its money much more rationally. . . . Previous boards couldn’t have done almost any of the things this board did.”

Catalyst observes that Chicago may now “use annual increases in state Chapter I money for the school system’s basic budget.” The schools’ tax levies have been collapsed into one, giving the new superboard “the ability to shift money from, for instance, playgrounds [to] regular classrooms.” This change of the law allowed the board “to redirect some $90 million to the regular operating budget,” including $62.2 million in teacher pension funds. The superboard was freed from the responsibility to draw up a balanced budget because the Chicago School Finance Authority’s budget oversight powers were suspended until 1999, which is the year the school board has to resume increasing pension contributions and the year the superboard will be disbanded. The finance authority was created in the first place because years of creative bookkeeping caused the school system to collapse in 1979.

Lenz applauds the board’s new flexibility, but not as a cure for what ails the school system. The General Assembly tossed Chicago a meaty bone to chew on for four years, and her enthusiasm for that bone is conditioned by her faith that serious reform will come before the city starves again. “We hope that sometime in the next four years the state will revamp how it funds schools and will increase funding for low-income schools,” she says. “Edgar has a task force at work on it. Presumably more districts outside Chicago will feel the pinch. Nothing will happen with state funding until more districts start screaming.”

Check back in 1999. The eve of a millennium is a good time to take stock of a miracle.

Boys Town Not for Everyone

Uh oh. Rex Wockner won’t be writing his monthly column “Boys Town” for Nightlines any longer. The issue is trademark infringement, and you can guess the rest.

Seizing the moment, Wockner himself sent out the releases announcing that his “irreverent and playful” column had finally come to the attention of the heirs of Father Flanagan. Attorney Thomas Sarro wrote Nightlines that “our client has been using “BOYS TOWN’ in interstate commerce, both as a mark and as a name for over 77 years.”

“We can moan about it and say it’s silly, but it’s not worth spending money on,” says Tracy Baim, publisher of Nightlines. “Most people on the Internet say “Fight it! Fight it! Fight it!’ But most lawyers on the Internet say, “Well . . . I’m not entirely sure they have a clear case, but I understand trademark law is very hard to fight against.”‘ She remembers how the Gay Olympics became the Gay Games, losing a legal battle that dragged on for years.

Wockner will have to come up with a new name for his next column. “Boys town,” he explained in his press release, “is a widely used nickname for Chicago’s main gay neighborhood in the vicinity of Halsted, Broadway, Clark and Belmont.” It’s also the home away from home in many great cities, and since moving to San Diego in 1993 Wockner’s been chronicling boys towns the world over.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Yael Routtenberg.