WFMT’s Uneasy Truce

“I’d like to turn down every jingle there is,” said Alfred Antlitz, general manager of WFMT. “But we’d be out of business–if we don’t find another way to support ourselves.”

So for the past 13 months Antlitz hasn’t been turning them down; with a heavy heart he’s put any number of inane canned commercials on the air. That, he told us, is why WFMT is now operating in the black for the first time since 1987. It is also why about a hundred hard-core WFMT listeners met at Roosevelt University two weeks ago and excoriated the station.

Antlitz attended that meeting, which was called by Friends of WFMT. “I felt like Saddam Hussein sitting there,” he told us afterward, “but I wanted to be there.” Fact is, he was made to feel welcome. He arrived early, during the meeting of the Friends’ executive committee, and to his surprise was asked to come in and sit down. Later, Studs Terkel got up and called him “a good man.” Terkel called Antlitz’s new boss, Tom Voegeli, “a good man” too.

Terkel stopped there. A lot more troubled water will have to flow under the bridge before the amity extends to the board of the Chicago Educational Television Association, which owns WTTW and also WFMT, and in particular to William McCarter, who’s president of CETA’s board and general manager of WTTW.

Nevertheless, the Friends and CETA formally buried the hatchet in court last December. They agreed to stop suing each other, and to mutually add four people to the Radio Committee of CETA’s board of trustees. Since then the Friends have held the hands-on managers of Chicago’s “fine arts” radio station in a more kindly light.

Formally, a better WFMT is everybody’s goal. And at Roosevelt, Antlitz and Tom Voegeli, CETA’s senior vice president of radio, who also showed up, got a bracing whiff of the Friends’ unhappiness with the WFMT they’ve got. The format of the meeting was simplicity itself: the Friends lined up at the mike and took turns railing.

“The music you don’t like has got to be on there, too,” a musicologist decreed. “Stockhausen and Bartok have to have their day, even if you hate their guts.”

A doctor said he’d written 40 sponsors condemning their canned commercials. He said his letter goes like this: “I heard your commercial and I’ll be damned if I’ll ever buy it. It’s a desecration.” And he added, to cheers and laughter, “They really like to have a copy of the invoice of what you bought from their competitors. Tell your friends.”

As the room rang with denunciations, forms circulated seeking volunteers to be “station monitors” and to man a “telephone tree.”

“Why are we so footsie-wootsie with WTTW now?” an elderly Friend rose to ask. “Why did we stop fighting? I’m a fighter.”

“I’d like to think that what you’re hearing is a form of fighting,” replied Quentin Young, who chairs the executive committee. “Does it sound like it to you?”

Apparently it didn’t. The Friend felt co-opted by the December settlement. “I don’t know what we got except those four people,” she said, “and they can throw them off anytime they want.”

“No they can’t,” said Young. “They’ve got three years’ tenure. I submit to you that this station will be dead or flourishing within three years.”

(The newcomers to the Radio Committee, which oversees WFMT without actually running it, are Susan Lipman, who’s president of the Friends and executive director of Chamber Music Chicago; Joan Harris, Chicago’s former commissioner of Cultural Affairs; lawyer Gary Johnson; and Bruce Sagan, publisher of the Hyde Park Herald. They’ve transformed the once indolent committee. It now meets once a month and it meets at WFMT, so the station’s staff can attend.)

“A little over a year ago, WFMT died,” pronounced a former University of Chicago student, who said WFMT was a big reason he moved back to the city. “It’s not a matter of saving it. The station is dead.” He said that he’d just given ‘FMT one more chance and listened to it for a week. “It was an absolutely disgusting experience. It seems to me that WFMT programming used to be based on music. Now it seems to me to be based on advertising.”

After about an hour of this, Antlitz took the floor. He said he’d joined WFMT as an engineer in 1961, and over the years assembled on his table at home much of the equipment that runs the station. The 30 years, by and large, had been “a labor of love.” And in early 1989, he was put in charge. “When they come to the engineer to run the company,” he joked, “you know you’re in trouble.”

WFMT isn’t dead, said Antlitz, “but it began dying a long time ago. It’s not a matter of the last year or the last two years. It’s a problem that goes back at least a decade.” WFMT, he said, began to think of itself as rich when it wasn’t, and it lost track of its audience. “The problem was almost fatal. I hope it’s not but I wonder if it is or not.”

A year or two ago, said Antlitz, the staff was searching for a slogan to put on billboards and bus cards. And program director Norm Pellegrini bitterly proposed: “You cretins! Why aren’t you listening?” So why weren’t they? Why was just as large an audience tuning in WNIB? The reason, says Antlitz, is that ‘NIB played nicer music. “There aren’t enough of you,” Antlitz told the Friends. He described an audience that consists of 20,000 purists like the French who insist on Stockhausen even if they can’t stand him, and 300,000 dial flippers.

A few days later we called Antlitz and asked him to elaborate. “The fact of the matter is,” he said, “if we were to program only to those people who really care about recorded commercials, there wouldn’t be a large enough audience to support us. But I think that in the future this will be our target audience more than it has been in the past. I think it would be a tragic mistake if WFMT tried to be a popular radio station. Our problem, however, is to keep the audience large enough and supportive enough that we can support ourselves.”

We found Antlitz wrestling with a really miserable decision. “There is a commercial I hate and have already rejected once,” he told us. “I think it will aggravate members of our audience. But that commercial represents $60,000 a year in revenue that we will lose to WNIB. In fact, I was told today that it will go to WNIB if we don’t take it.”

How important is $60,000 to WFMT, whose annual budget is a little over $4 million?

“It’s extremely important,” said Antlitz. “$60,000 may be the difference between keeping the present staff and letting someone go.

“This particular commercial,” he went on, “is totally out of keeping with our programming style. And most people I play it for can’t even figure out what it’s about. It’s just something that will get listeners upset if it’s on the air. But to turn down $60,000–it’s not an easy thing.

“The way I look at it, WFMT is like an upscale restaurant that has a dress code. And we say we have a certain environment that we want this commercial to convey–an environment of Brahms and Beethoven. And then there’s this god-awful commercial sitting there.”

It sounds as if you’re going to hold your nose and run it, we told Antlitz. (And he did.)

“Because I am driven by a necessity to meet a budget,” he explained. “Until there is a mandate that being an arts institution overrides being in the black I may have to do it.” He compared accepting the commercial (he preferred not to say for publication who the client is) to chemotherapy. “Maybe our hair will fall out,” Antlitz said bleakly.

He reflected, “The 20,000 aren’t going to like it. Maybe the 300,000 won’t mind.”

The solution to his predicament seemed obvious. All WFMT needed to do was spend a few bucks and write its own commercial–something the station’s announcers could read over the air that would treat both client and audience with traditional dignity.

Antlitz had proposed that.

“Ad agencies buy a number of stations at a time and we’re only numbers on a page. If we don’t take it as is, they’ll just ship it somewhere else. In fact, we’re afraid we’ll lose the entire advertising agency.”

Such arrogance! we said.

“That’s more common than not,” Antlitz told us. “The agency’s proud of what they call their ‘creative’ and they don’t want to be told it doesn’t work in a particular market. Now, if we had higher ratings, we could be a little bit of a bully, too, and say, ‘You need us.’ That used to be true . . . ”

Program Director Wanted

Al Antlitz said something to the Friends that surprised us. Though he conceded that WFMT’s “presentation” had changed–and he wasn’t proud of how–the programming, by and large, was still being done by Norm Pellegrini.

We thought Pellegrini had been deposed months ago by Peter Dominowski, a radio consultant from Florida. We asked Antlitz about this. He said that although Dominowski became program director last April, he wasn’t around full-time until July. And Pellegrini, as “senior program consultant,” continued to do the programming right up until this month.

Dominowski busied himself by fiddling with the presentation, and by racing ahead with a plan to computerize the record library. The first month’s programming to bear his stamp will come in March.

And that will be that, for Dominowski has resigned. “He came here with lots of good ideas,” said Antlitz, “and he wanted to do research, but he found there wasn’t enough money for research. And there was a problem of just being accepted–as you saw at the meeting on Saturday. Many of the things he was accused of wanting to bring he didn’t intend to bring.”

On the other hand, Antlitz acknowledged, the computer system was brought on line “prematurely,” before the station was ready for it. And to make matters worse, Dominowski interfaced his computer with Chicago magazine’s computer too late for the March deadline. For the first time ever, you won’t find the WFMT listings in the next issue of Chicago (which began as the station’s program guide). The station will mail them out to listeners who want them.

It’s not clear where Dominowski’s departure leaves Pellegrini. “I’m of the opinion that with Norman and I working together we can do it all at home,” said Antlitz, “but I know Tom Voegeli wants a national search for a new program director. I think that’s likely to anger the Friends again, but Tom has the attitude we should have the best program director in the country.

“Of course, that could turn out to be Norm Pellegrini.”

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