Even his detractors call him a visionary. He prefers to think of himself as an architect.
Since 1971 William McCarter has been president and CEO of CETA–the Chicago Educational Television Association, parent of WTTW and WFMT. But he’s been in television virtually from its birth; he worked on the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and early Philadelphia Orchestra broadcasts. In his first public-broadcasting job, in Washington, D.C., he invented Washington Week in Review. On the downside, he also had a hand later in creating that weekly much-heat, little-light shouting match, The McLaughlin Group. Since coming to Chicago he has turned WTTW into one of the powerhouses of what he calls the public-broadcasting arena. He’s better known for his fiscal caution than for his bold programming strokes–but it’s worth noting that many of the bolder PBS stations are now suffering from money woes.
Within the small world of the broadcasting industry, McCarter is well-known. Outside it, he is known primarily for his part in the grand flap over the changes at WFMT several years ago, when he played a shadowy role many interpreted as Machiavellian and hostile to the arts.
Chicago’s “fine arts” station had hit an economic shoal, and early in 1987 CETA’s board–which had previously offered little interference in the running of WFMT and its program-guide offshoot, Chicago magazine–abruptly sold that publication. (Included in the sale were the rights to WFMT’s program listings–but not those of Channel 11, which had also run in Chicago.) The sale of the magazine stripped the radio station, which had recently moved into a tony office suite at Illinois Center, of a major income source, and when it was unable to sublet Chicago’s share of the office space, that became a liability. The board made an arrogant but desperate decision to junk WFMT’s live-copy policy and began to air recorded commercials. This and other ill-considered changes set off a firestorm of protest, including a lawsuit by the Friends of WFMT.
McCarter says he came into the decision-making process late, after the sale of Chicago, and only at the board’s express request. He made some bad hires in the station manager’s office, and they made some poor choices. However, most of the blame seems to belong to the board–more specifically, to the radio committee and its chairman, Dan Levin–yet McCarter took the heat. How much of that he actually deserves is a murky question–and most of the people who could answer it are either gagged by the court settlement of the Friends’ suit or forbidden to talk by the terms of their severance packages.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but found a rather shy man, a man fully engaged by his work. Above all, he is a businessman. It’s fair to say he’s more interested by how things get on the small screen than by what gets there. And that may translate to an essential indifference to the arts–and to other potential sources of programming, for that matter. If it can’t pay its own way, McCarter won’t produce it.
The list of shows produced by WTTW in the arts and entertainment area since 1981 occupies four pages closely printed in very small type. It runs the gamut from Catching Salmon: A Guide to Fishing in Lake Michigan and Bill Veeck: A Man for Any Season to Lyric Opera’s productions of Antony and Cleopatra and Madama Butterfly, from Lamb Chop’s Play-Along to Nelson & Jeanette and Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey. There are 214 Frugal Gourmet episodes and specials, 11 years’ worth of Sneak Previews, hundreds of Image Union segments.
That list’s fraternal twin, the “public affairs” catalog, is comparably long and offers history (Top Guns of ’43), local issues (more than 1,600 editions of Chicago Tonight With John Callaway), the banal (Kup’s Show, Leo Buscaglia specials), the criminal (Gangs: When Will the Killing Stop? and six years of Illinois Lawmakers), and a mix of documentaries.
Neither list, however, offers much in the way of controversy. WTTW certainly airs its share of polemical and mildly risque material, but virtually all of it is produced elsewhere. Most made-in-Chicago offerings lean toward the comfortable slightly-left-of-center political stance that both the news media and the lakefront elite accept as the norm; a special on Gus Hall is as unlikely as a sympathetic treatment of professional antiabortionist “Bullhorn Joe” Scheidler. We got Bleacher Bums, but not Warp.
On the other hand, it’s reassuring that a venue remains for civilized discourse in an age of video pit bulls. John Callaway makes a real effort to balance his programs with articulate individuals of all opinions; he expresses his (basically liberal) views but never trashes anyone. And if conservative programming means not wasting videotape on such atrocities as Peter Sellars’s perversions of great operas, it can’t be all bad.
The payoff for an inoffensive stance can be seen in several kinds of numbers, too. One is the rankings in gross rating points (GRPs). A sheet showing the GRPs for 24 “metered markets” in the last three years shows that Chicago has consistently been number one in the number of viewers watching public TV. WTTW’s audience has declined somewhat–but the audience has declined for almost all other PBS stations, too. Another payoff comes in financial contributions, from subscribers, corporations, foundations, and various government bodies. Among McCarter’s talents, say several sources, are the lobbying skills to keep subsidies coming.
“Bill McCarter’s one of my favorite people,” says Newton Minow, former FCC commissioner and the man who first called television “a vast wasteland.” “I was responsible for bringing him to Chicago–and it’s one of the smarter things I’ve ever done.” Minow, now a partner with the law firm of Sidley & Austin, got to know McCarter, then in Washington, as a member of the board of what is now the Public Broadcasting Service. “When we were looking for a new head of WTTW, I remembered Bill and I recruited him. He asked me, ‘Why should I leave the nation’s capital to come to Chicago?’ and I told him, ‘Chicago is the nation’s real capital.'” McCarter is “a committed Chicagoan” now, says Minow; when he had the chance to return to Washington as president of PBS, he turned it down to stay at WTTW.
“Bill has a great sense of community service,” Minow continues. “He knows what the community needs, what the community will respond to. And he’s a real professional. I was chairman of the WTTW board when he came here, and some people said, ‘But he’s not an academic–we need an academic.’ I told them, ‘No, we need a television person.’ And I was right.”
Minow characterizes McCarter as “a modest guy–a little bit shy,” and says that if he has a weakness, “it’s that he’s too nice a person. Any mistakes he’s made have all been pretty much on the up side.” Minow points out that WTTW is the most widely watched PBS station in the country, and that it has an extremely diverse viewership. “I think everybody feels that we’re fair. There are many places in the U.S. where public broadcasting is in a lot of trouble with the community.”
“He’s at the high end of quality for a human being in all respects,” says Daniel Levin, CETA board member and chair of the radio committee. Levin, president of the Habitat Corporation, is fairly typical of the board’s rather exclusive makeup; most of them are presidents, partners, chairmen, or CEOs. “He’s creative, an excellent administrator,” Levin continues. “He has the ability to weave complicated situations together and get results. He makes a great commitment to people; he loves to solve problems without giving up. I wouldn’t trade those abilities for anything. Bill McCarter gets things done that otherwise wouldn’t happen.”
“Put me in his fan club,” says Joan Harris, the city’s former arts commissioner and longtime angel to Chicago Opera Theater. She’s one of four nonboard members appointed to CETA’s radio committee as a result of the court settlement between CETA and the Friends of WFMT. Still, she’s not exactly an outsider; her husband, Irving, is a CETA board member for life.
Harris first worked with McCarter in 1976, when she produced a television version of Chicago Opera Theater’s The Mother of Us All. “Bill understood the importance of showcasing local culture; he really understood that this was something Channel 11 should be doing.” Harris produced two other COT shows–one of them, Summer and Smoke, won four awards, she notes–and a fourth called Here to Make Music.
Harris calls McCarter generous, imaginative, and “a bridge builder to the community” and notes that the two of them “share a passionate love of Ernie Kovacs and Mel Brooks.” As for the current situation at WFMT, which has been running in the black, but barely, she says, “He understands exactly what the problems are. We’re not home yet, and I’m the first one to say so–but things are much better.”
“I don’t think there’s another man in another comparable job in the country who can touch him,” says board member Richard Gray, owner of Richard Gray Gallery. “He’s conservative, which is both a strength and a weakness. He’s very careful. He has clear vision; he’s never completely focused on the moment or the day, but on the opportunity. He’s certainly very good at dealing with the board–motivating, supporting. He’s a strong leader.”
Gray faults McCarter for “his whole handling of the ‘FMT thing,” but notes, “The fault is not wholly his own, but he’s the point man so he takes the blame. He made some mistakes, in choosing personnel mostly, and that created some unhappiness.
“His strongest points are his innovations, his breadth of vision, and his understanding of what CETA is and could be. He understands the environment and what we’re faced with down the road. He’s the single human being in the picture who’s on top of all that.”
Don Petkus, a board member and senior vice president at Commonwealth Edison, worries about having to replace McCarter someday. “He’s made a tremendous impact, not only on the station but on its role in our society. He’s a visionary on the subject of broadcasting–he really gets caught up in it.”
Petkus, a member of the board’s nominating committee, notes that invitations to join it are seldom declined. “The people on this board don’t need extra activities–but they recognize the station as one of the jewels of Chicago. Bill is very, very effective–he can pick the phone up and get [important] people in Chicago. That’s a sign of the high esteem he’s held in.”
“He was a very good boss,” says former WTTW staffer Bruce Mundt, who now works for PBS in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. (He worked at WTTW for ten years, ending up as director of broadcasting.) “He’s a visionary, a brilliant man, and a very important part of the development of public television. He made WTTW a very strong, viable force in the city of Chicago. It’s always had the reputation of being one of the best–if not the best–stations, in terms of meeting the needs of the community. It’s had the highest ratings of any public-television station in the country forever; other stations look to it to see how a public-television station should be run.”
When Mundt received the tempting offer from PBS, he went to McCarter to talk about it. “And he said, ‘I’m going to take off my WTTW hat and put on my Bruce Mundt hat.’ He was able to look at it from my perspective. It’s a memory I treasure.”
“He’s a complicated guy,” says independent producer Tom Weinberg, who has worked with McCarter in various capacities for 20 years. “He’s very charming. My personal take is, he’s a very loyal guy. If and when he makes up his mind about someone or something or some idea–takes a stand–he’s rock-solid about it.
“I brought to his attention the lack of independently produced material on Channel 11 and gave him some ideas, and he said, ‘Let’s do it!’ We came out with Image Union in ’77. There were controversies, but he was steadfast in keeping it on the air and in the same time slot. He put money behind it, he fought off staff people, he fought off outside people–and after 15 years it’s still on. He made a personal commitment to it, he bought into what it meant. When he says he’s going to build a building, he does. When he says he’s going to put Callaway on four nights a week and leave him there, he does. If he says he’s going to do something, he does it.”
Weinberg’s view is not entirely positive, however. “The results [of McCarter’s administration] are mixed but overall good. It’s an incredible resource, that TV station, and I think it’s underutilized in a lot of ways. I think he and the other people who run it could do a lot more with it. They could do more programming that’s responsive to the community, with more viewpoints–and I wish they would.”
Weinberg sees CETA as “a very strong one-person deal–McCarter has mastered the control process.” But its future without McCarter is somewhat uncertain: “What happens when he retires? It’s going to be fascinating to see how it unfolds.”
“Bill McCarter is one of the reasons I was attracted to the position,” says Dan Schmidt, CETA’s senior vice president for radio and WFMT’s de facto general manager. “I liked him right off when I first talked to him. We communicate well.
“To some extent, WTTW is not given enough credit nationally for its production efforts–unlike other big-city stations, it’s invested mostly in local programming.”
Schmidt says McCarter’s greatest strength is “his ability to look ahead and steer his organization into the future very adroitly. He sees the pitfalls and the opportunities well ahead of most [public-TV] executives. He’s entrepreneurial, he runs CETA in a very businesslike way–“Without a margin, there’s no mission.’ His weakness is that he is very eager and very open, and usually very candid. I think his first instinct is to speak his mind, to shoot straight, to talk straight. And there are times and situations where it’s better not to do that.”
“I admire his farsightedness in public broadcasting,” says WFMT’s Ray Nordstrand, now editor of its program listings, the Fine Arts Circle. “I admire his philosophical and strategic views of the problems the industry faces–he really has the kind of foresight that is needed.” Nordstrand feels that WFMT’s situation is much improved from two or three years ago, and he’s pleased with Schmidt’s appointment. “I would rather not comment on WFMT vis-a-vis CETA,” he says, but notes that “we are moving steadily, irreversibly, and substantially closer back to the tradition of live copy.”
“He has run one of the most successful PBS stations in the country,” says the Tribune’s Tempo editor and media critic James Warren. “That’s unchallenged, it’s impossible to dispute. The guy deserves credit for that. The questions would come on the extent of the creativity of his programming. Some would argue that he has been more cautious than he might have been. WTTW specializes in quality but unadventurous programming with a few local frills. In the context of the PBS universe, they are much envied for their financial stability–but not especially looked at as any creative pacesetter.”
Tribune TV critic Rick Kogan calls McCarter “a mystery man of sorts” and adds, “Channel 11 is well run on the business side, but they need to be more adventurous. I have always argued that local [network] affiliates do a lousy job of reporting the news. Their response is always, “Our job is to make money.’ But that’s a bad argument for a public-television station. They did a Michael Feinstein special–why not a special on Chicago saloon singers? Bill is trying to make WTTW a part of the fabric of the community, but there’s more to that than offering perks to subscribers.”
Many of McCarter’s critics prefer to remain anonymous; among them are employees, and former employees, of CETA. Broadcasting is a relatively small world. His critics call McCarter lucid, direct–and slick. They call him a visionary–and a micromanager and meddler obsessed with detail who can’t assign a project to someone and leave it alone. They say he has an “edifice complex” because of his intense interest in the physical plant. They say his management style sets individuals against one another, and that he exercises such complete control he’s called “the Mad Prince.” Even board members acknowledge some problems with the way he gets along with staff.
His critics say McCarter’s far more interested in the mechanics of broadcasting than in what actually goes out over the air. They call him risk-averse. And they say that the bottom line is his top priority.
According to these individuals, McCarter is unquestionably the man in charge at CETA. Four out of nine people used the term “rubber stamp” without prompting to describe the board (also categorized, memorably, as “mostly pale and anonymous business types and lawyers”).
“I think he has information in mind rather than the arts,” says one. “I don’t think he understands the arts. What has he done for Chicago music, Chicago theater, Chicago literature? Where is his contribution to the Chicago artistic community? How many Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies do you play when there are other things available to you?”
“Look at the shows he’s put on–Wild Chicago, the show with a built-in sneer,” says another nonfan. “It’s gentle ridicule of Chicago weirdos, held up for their betters in the suburbs. The constituency is upper-middle-class white suburbanites–‘Winnetka talks to Wilmette.’ I know you can’t be all things to all people, but he seems to run from the challenge.”
Studs Terkel–a man who has never been afraid to speak his mind and call things as he sees them–has had an overwhelmingly negative view of McCarter. During the upsets at WFMT, Terkel loudly and repeatedly condemned McCarter’s handling of the station, the sale of Chicago magazine, and the disposition of funds from the sale. But Terkel’s still working at the station–though in a less accessible time slot–which may say something for McCarter’s tolerance.
“I have witnessed Bill McCarter’s style as a TV viewer, and experienced it as a staffer at WFMT,” Terkel says. “WTTW is considered the most successful public-broadcasting station in the country–and it is, if you consider raising money the most important thing. But if you’re interested in enlightening people with programs you can’t see anywhere else, it’s a zero.
“The board is just a rubber stamp. I respect the board less than Bill McCarter, for among them are the pretenders. There are two parts to the board: the old-time dinosaurs and the ‘friends of culture.’ The old dinosaurs look to the friends of culture for direction–but the friends of culture are craven, and almost venal. There’s an amoral aspect to it.
“But the funny thing about it is, the more I think of Bill McCarter, the less I disrespect him. Like the kids say–I don’t ‘dis’ him anymore.”
In person, Bill McCarter is slightly awkward but friendly and even charming in his manner. We spoke in an anonymous conference room near his office, dominated by a television set on a high stand, an industrial-grade VCR beneath it; WTTW’s PR director sat in.
His statements tend to ramble and loop and sometimes get caught in an underbrush of verbiage, but there is no question that this man lives and breathes his job. He becomes most interested and intense when the subject is broadcasting and broadcasting technology; second place goes to funding questions.
McCarter confesses that he does not own a camcorder or a home computer, that he still has a record collection (invaded by compact discs), and that he is a newspaper and magazine “addict.” But despite this apparent identification with media anachronisms, McCarter’s focus is on the future. In a recent speech at Northeastern Illinois University he suggested that TV “is in the middle of a paradigm shift” and projected the future of broadcasting, breaking its history into three periods. The first era, from 1920 to the mid-80s, “the age of radio and television and the passive audience . . . was rooted in a magical friendly environment and technological scarcity. The current transition period [mid-80s to 2000] is abruptly changing this landscape and has altered not only our thinking but our vocabulary. The term ‘VCR’ was unknown about ten years ago.” The third period, beginning about the year 2000, will be the “age of multimedia on demand and the video/computer marriage.”
McCarter also defines both “fading” and “coming” vocabularies: on the out pile are television, the TV set, networks, stations, stereo, commercial TV, noncommercial TV, and the video store. Arriving to take their places are video, the media player, direct broadcast satellites, interactive services, fiber-optic cable for TV, high-definition television, laser-disc technology, and cable radio. He says we will be moving “from an age of information to an age of knowledge.” He sees homes dominated by huge, high-definition monitors: combination personal computers, home libraries, and cable-TV receivers. These monitors will, he says, be “interactive, meaning a viewer can take course work, shop, bank, or consult a doctor without leaving home.” McCarter envisions video–coming in via fiber optics, not the old-fashioned cable used today–“as a utility along with electricity, gas, and water, and a communications center will take its place along with the kitchen and the living room. . . . The future belongs to the producer/programmer. . . . The battle for the mass audience is about to be over. The battle for the splintered audience is about to begin.
“What have we learned during the first era of television? It can be powerful, illuminating, and enriching–also erratic and tasteless. It informs, entertains, and offers a ‘Window to the World’–but education and the electorate have yet to be properly served.”
Bryan Miller: Why don’t we start with the reasons you left commercial television for public TV? After all, if you’d stayed with that career, you’d probably be sitting in a big office on a high floor of a skyscraper in New York with a vast budget.
William McCarter: I really didn’t make that big a distinction. I’ve been in radio and television all my life, all my career. I worked up through the ranks of the television business, and I was very fortunate, in my first [commercial] assignment, to be at a place that was a hotbed of activity, in the Philadelphia area. This was right after the Korean war. I was able to do all kinds of things–the gamut, from working as one of the assistant directors in the Army-McCarthy hearings to American Bandstand to the Philadelphia Orchestra with Eugene Ormandy. And I felt completely at home. It was just one of those lucky things, when you’re working at something and you’re working hard and this voice says, “You’re where you should be.” It was that simple.
To answer your question–I was in the production end for a long time. I worked up through all the studio ranks, and then into directing, producing, and program managing. Public broadcasting was a little bit of a poverty end at that time, but it was really a good opportunity to put my stamp on something. So I moved over, out of commercial and into public.
I have never regretted that move. A couple of times I did wonder what might have been–I had done some free-lance work for NBC, and in Philadelphia I was working for an ABC production center. But an opportunity came up to shoot the program schedule [for the Washington PBS station] so I moved over.
BM: So it wasn’t a matter of philosophy–it was a job opportunity.
WM: Not philosophy, but I think a larger breadth of opportunity. Even in those days [commercial television] was beginning to focus–you had your soaps on daytime, you had an enormous volume of game shows, and things like that. And even though there were some terrific dramatic things being done, and the news operations were really beginning to blossom, I was more interested in longer-form programming and things like that.
I went to Washington because of the opportunity–I guess there’s a sort of a builder streak in me. I’ve been called an architect. I wanted to be an architect, but I didn’t quite make that turn in the road. So I like to build–but in the media world. And I went to Washington because they wanted to build that outfit, and that was enticing. You never completely estimate the time and energy a job like that is going to take–it just looked good. I had seven years there, which is very good because that’s a city, a place you have to understand. And then I got the call from Newton Minow, that they were looking in Chicago. And I said to myself, “This is one of the big three markets.” In those days [being on one of the VHF frequencies] was important–it’s less important now, but then there was a disparity between VHF and UHF, and this was an 11 channel–and they had an agenda.
BM: What is that agenda?
WM: We’re producing broadcasts for what, for want of a better word, I’d call the “quality niche”–that’s a little precious, I realize.
BM: When you got into it, there was no Public Broadcasting Service.
WM: No. It was just another kind of television that was instantly a trade-off. You had a terrific opportunity to work on a wider range of things, and you had a terrible funding situation. You had to look at it and say, “Wow. Is that trade-off going to work?” Maybe the romantic in you sort of pushed you over–but it’s always been a burden, and it’s a burden today. But more on that later.
BM: It looks to me as though PBS is turning into, perhaps not another network–but as though it’s becoming more centrally controlled. It’s providing more programming . . .
WM: I really don’t think it is a network in the traditional sense. But you do have a grouping of interesting and successful production companies. You can go over to the commercial sector–you can run down the Viacoms, and the 20th Century Foxes, and Tribune Entertainments, and all these subgroups. And they are the program-maker/suppliers to distribution sources, whether you call them networks, or independents, or syndication groups. It’s the same thing, really, over in the public area, in that you have about ten institutions that produce national materials in addition to what they do for their area of license.
What might those be? You’ve got the Children’s Television Workshop–they produce things for clients worldwide, and they also put out Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact and that sort of thing. You have the MacNeil/Lehrer corporation, which hooked up with NBC for the two major conventions. That was their decision, it wasn’t anybody else’s. And they’re producing a nightly program that is bought at public, and they’re producing a lot of miniseries for NBC–the most recent was the Dr. Koop series. And then you go over to American Playhouse. American Playhouse is working the drama end, and really performing miracles with a small amount of money, but they’re producing feature films, they’re producing TV, and they will sell to all comers.
So none of these things are too exclusive. Then you have WNET, you have WTTW, you have WGBH, you have WETA, you have KCET. And you have Bill Moyers’s organization, which is active on CNN and public television and different places. So that’s the more accurate view of this world of activity. And all suffer from the marketing problems we have–but they’ve managed to maintain a pretty high-level output.
We used to go to market for those programs. There was a marketplace–producers would take things to our meetings, and you’d bid and buy. We were the first to buy Monty Python; that was from the BBC. When we want to show presidential news conferences, we buy into a pool.
Now, [the feds have] given the money to the PBS agency, which really doesn’t make [programs], they only commission. And that’s where your analogy to more centralized activity like a network comes in.
BM: Doesn’t a network also buy its programs from independent producers and market them to its subsidiaries?
WM: Yes. Oh, yes. We’ve got a catalog that shows all sorts of things that we’re producing now, what we call “in the pipeline.” None of those programs are to be produced exclusively for the Chicago area. Now, some of these things are being sold to cable systems. We just sold the library for The Frugal Gourmet to Lifetime Cable, a couple of years of rights, even though it’s simultaneously appearing on public. There’s a lot of things like that going on.
BM: How does cable fit in with public television? A lot of your niche has always been the cooking shows, and the house shows, and the fly-fishing shows, the how-tos–which you could justify when you’ve got three major networks and public television is doing some of the niche marketing the big guys aren’t interested in. But what happens when you have a hundred cable channels, and they can make a profit showing to even tinier niches than you do? How does this cut into your mission and your profit?
WM: That process is under way; we’re being very pragmatic. We’ve seen what it did to the three networks–although at the same time it allowed for the birth of the Fox network, so that’s a little bit contradictory. [The decline of the networks] is sort of leveling off a little bit. And yet the cable people tell us, “We have a court channel, and a how-to channel, and a Spanish channel, and a cooking channel,” and so on and so forth; they’re all either on-line or they’re coming. And they’re probably going to be successful.
I think the system to watch, to get an idea of the future, is the one up in New York with 150 channels. It’s got interactive, and all the things I just mentioned. It appears that you can take it that far and make it work.
The result will be fewer TV stations. I think that’s a fairly safe guess. And those TV stations remaining will have to get used to a lower standard of earnings.
In public, too, there will be fewer stations, as the survival of the fittest sort of plays itself out over the 90s. I think that if we can keep the niche strong, public will make it–but it’s not going to depend just on PBS, it’s going to depend on the whole mix. So the way to answer your question is, we’re going to try to keep the niche strong in Chicago, and I know they’re going to try very hard in New York and Miami and Los Angeles.
But the niche will be made up of three things, as it is now. One piece will be nationally acquired public-television materials, of which we will be a buyer and a provider. We also need to be able to buy classic-motion-picture packages. That’s important. The second piece of the niche will be the ability to acquire programming worldwide. For instance, we bought the CNN Headline News Service sometime back, and we found that extremely helpful in the mix. We’re not going to be able to buy that too much longer, as it takes its place in the market, in cable. And the third thing, and perhaps the sleeper, is the regional programming piece. That’s the Callaway program, Chicago Tonight, Wild Chicago, and on and on and on.
The answer for me lies in that mix. If you’re deficient in any of the three, you could have trouble.
BM: What do you think is the proper balance between information and entertainment?
WM: That’s going to come more and more under the microscope. The answer to that is complicated by the way that those two things are beginning to blur together–information as entertainment is going to confuse things, and it has already. All these actuality programs–Dial 911, and all of that–the reason for them is money. They can produce those at half the budget of some of the other things they were doing. So that’s not so much a philosophical move as an economic move.
Here, we see almost an equal mix of information and entertainment, even in the way we supply material. We put our programs in two groups: one is arts and entertainment, the other current and public affairs. We’ve put together a pretty respected news and public-affairs component. Take the Callaway show. We made up our minds some time ago that it wouldn’t be enough to do it once a week, we had to do it nightly–or Monday through Thursday. And that’s paid off. That’s a core piece. If money gets difficult–when and if it does–I don’t look forward to having to choose between some of these programs.
But we’re putting a high emphasis on original programming–and one of the main reasons is, so much of it has disappeared. The [commercial] news shows are basically look-alikes. So it was my belief, as well as Callaway’s, that you have to give a market of this size–at a very available time slot–an ability to take the one or two major stories that night in that market and explore them. That way the pieces sort of complement one another. And, of course, we have it next to MacNeil/Lehrer, so that makes it a 90-minute piece.
We’re trying to keep alive the documentary niche, with WTTW Journal. We’re also trying to keep a show I was responsible for, in my Washington days, which is Washington Week in Review. It was out of that experience that we put together Chicago Week in Review. We’ve also had input into The McLaughlin Group, which is another, more sprightly version of that format.
We’d like to stay in the arena of national and local news analysis, of current affairs and issues, where we can pool [with other PBS stations] on the university resources and political resources. We’d like to keep the documentary alive, maybe ten a year; we’d like to laugh at ourselves with Wild Chicago. Because no one else has anything like that.
Of course, the cultural riches here are so strong that they give us some targets of opportunity, and we’ve done a lot with the orchestras and the opera companies. But that programming is awfully expensive–it makes it hard.
And then we threw a couple of other things in there, in the balance between information and entertainment, which would be things like the Golden Apple awards and Illinois Young Performers. I can’t tell you how many calls we’ve had here from all over the country, “How did you put that together? Would you send me a cassette?” And we do, of course. We want them to emulate it if they can. But the interesting thing is they’re having trouble pulling it together, either politically–in the case of all of the teacher activities and organizations, for the Golden Apples–or in terms of getting underwriter-sponsors.
BM: How important is the Federal Communications Commission to you?
WM: It’s a big part of our lives. They’ve now made the first move toward allowing the Baby Bells into the television market. I think we have a very imaginative FCC chairman now. The FCC is going to allow the telephone companies to go the full competitive route and get into the television business, which I think is wise–and they’re going to allow the cable companies into the telephone business.
BM: What does that mean to Channel 11?
WM: We enjoy a very good relationship with the Ameritech people. When we sent a team to Cologne to produce the two Chicago Symphony concerts there, Ameritech was very instrumental in making it possible. It means our relationship may broaden.
I like to produce materials for all comers–public television, syndication, cable, home video. I think the competition is broadening. The lines are blurring. It used to be that there were sacrosanct divisions between network television and public television–and those lines are opening up. I think it’s going to be fairly chaotic, but I think it’s going to result in higher-quality fare.
BM: What is Channel 11’s relationship with Channel 20? This second public channel doesn’t get much press.
WM: We used to own Channel 20, years ago. In the late 70s, early 80s, we just did not have the wherewithal to put a good service out on a second channel. Again, you have to make your choices–and we wanted to keep a strong origination component here. We had to make a decision. It needed a transmitter, it needed an antenna. We would have had to move it to Hancock or Sears Tower, and that’s very, very expensive. To make a long story short, we returned it to the FCC. The commission had hearings, and they awarded it to the Chicago City Colleges.
Our relationship is quite good. Their schedule really works the instructional and traditional educational mix, and ours is the more general program mix.
BM: Is there still a duplication of services there?
WM: Not really.
BM: One of the persistent criticisms I’ve picked up is that you’re not as adventurous as you should be at producing things, compared to WGBH and WNET. The question I’ve heard is, “Why isn’t WTTW doing more of this?” Here you’re very sound fiscally, but perhaps not adventurous enough.
WM: What would be an example of that?
BM: One example, out of WGBH, would be Masterpiece Theatre . . .
WM: That’s basically an import.
BM: Great Performances . . .
WM: We are in the Great Performances mix [as coproducers].
WGBH and WNET don’t have the original programming designed just for their own market to the extent we do. So it’s a balance. If you want to develop a Masterpiece Theatre–they did that years ago, and that was a wonderful thing, but that’s basically Mobil and the British archives–you have a choice: Do you want to develop another one of those things? Or do you want to work on documentaries here in Chicago?
BM: Nova is another.
WM: We’ve come along with what we think is going to be the successor to that, which is The New Explorers. And I think The New Explorers, in its new one-hour format, is going to be the next Nova.
Incidentally, Callaway’s show is the only nightly news and issue analysis left in public television, that I’m aware of, in a major market. New York had to close up [a similar show], and Boston had to close up–and in New Jersey the whole system just got closed up.
Overall the volume of original programming–and I am substituting “original” for “adventuresome” [laughs]–not imports, but original, is declining. There’s less and less being done in the commercial sector all the time. Three or four stations are doing the largest volume of work, public or commercial, and we are one of them.
BM: This is a time of retrenchment. Is it just the recession, or are there other factors at work? Are VCRs and laser discs and home computers and all the other temptations cutting into your market? Most of the other cultural institutions in town are reporting problems with the cocoon culture.
WM: There’s more going on than a recession. Now, this is a personal view. There was an article in the Chicago Tribune recently, occasioned by a meeting of the country’s orchestras in Washington, about how the gains in season length have to be balanced against the rapidly mounting cost of pulling people and money into concert halls. And I think the word “recession” is inaccurate to describe this climate. Everybody has a notion of what a recession is, and how long it’s going to stay–and then it’s going to leave and everything will get better and we’ll go on. That’s not what’s going on here. I think that’s a piece of it, but a larger piece is a general restructuring of the whole infrastructure of communications, the arts, and cultural activities. I think we need to look at the degree to which we may be either overbuilt or don’t have the economic capacity to maintain what we’ve got–maybe they’re the same.
There were 900 orchestras attending that meeting. There are over 100 opera companies. There are close to 300 public-television transmitters. And look at the universities: they’re doing the same thing up in Michigan they’re doing in Illinois. I think the message coming out is: We’re overbuilt.
The 70s and 80s created an atmosphere of “Everybody can have a great law school, a great natural sciences department, and a great football team.” And I think that’s beginning to come down hard, because we really never could, although now we’re going to find that out for sure. I think the universities are starting to think, “If you have a dental school, and I’m within 300 miles of you, why do I have a dental school too?” It’s a hunch, but I think maybe we can’t afford all these orchestras, either.
In tandem with that is a technological revolution. This thing swoops in on us–where was the VCR ten years ago? Now you have the videodisc, and the burgeoning of [all sorts of] television–not to say that it’s quality, because it isn’t. The overall quality of television is pretty far down.
BM: I wasn’t really even considering commercial network television in this context.
WM: Oh, but it’s very instructive [laughs]! And if you watch it, you wonder, how can all these stations subsist?
So you have a piece of a recession, you have a piece of being overbuilt, you have a piece of a technological revolution–all this is coming down.
I talked with Chicago Opera Theater, and I talked with [CSO executive director Henry] Fogel and [Lyric Opera general director Ardis] Krainik, and all of them. They’ve all got the same problems. And this town’s pretty good–as a matter of fact, it might be the best, all things considered!
But I know there will be fewer commercial television stations as we edge toward the end of the century, and there’s going to be fewer public stations. In public television we had an unfortunate funding system where just about anybody could get some money and set up in business. Most of them just have a couple of recorders and they pick up something off of a satellite, and they broadcast. And when you have–in the San Francisco, Washington, and New York markets–four, five, and six broadcasts of MacNeil/Lehrer in the same night, you have a problem. And we’re gonna suffer for that.
BM: My parents live in the Kansas City area, where they can pick up four or five classical National Public Radio outlets, which is great when they’re playing music and you have some real choices. But if you don’t happen to like All Things Considered, you can either turn off the stereo or put on a CD. There is tremendous duplication there, but there’s no place to go–they’re all running the same stuff at the same time.
WM: The funds, the money to pay people to keep doing that, just can’t keep up. This is going to play out–and it’s already playing out. New Jersey has a public-television network. They have five or six UHF transmitters in south Jersey and north Jersey and Newark, what have you. And they had a budget crunch–the governor is having a problem there, with the opposite party in charge of the legislature. Bottom line: one billion dollars out now. And the [budget cutters] just went down, and in 30 seconds drew a line through 23 years of work [building the New Jersey system]. The whole thing is gone. And New York and Philadelphia are looking at how they can fill that hole, that market.
So how do we survive in this environment? So far, the niche is holding. We have between a 67 and a 70 percent cume–that means that 70 percent of the [entire Chicago] market is watching regularly [once a week at least]. That’s the highest in the [PBS] industry. And we’re awful happy about that. How long is it going to be there? We watch it very, very carefully. But the niche seems to be working.
The cable systems in town will have, say by 1997, 150 channels–then that will have a bearing on where we’re going to make our investments. If they get into classic films, some of the things we buy, that could impinge on us. They seem to leave the children’s area completely vacant. Why do they do that? I don’t know. It seems to me that if you’re running a commercial station and want to be around a while, you would invest more in children’s programming–and even try to come over and take some of the programming we have. But they don’t.
BM: It seems to be the opposite. When I was a little kid, Shari Lewis was on commercial television. Now my daughter’s watching her on your station.
WM: That’s right. And you know how that happened? Each year we have someone in to host the Illinois Young Performers Competition–and we’re stuck every year. We want to keep a young people’s tone to it, but we want to keep it high-class. We want to get into Orchestra Hall and do it right. It’s a very expensive program.
So somebody said, “What about Shari Lewis?” And I thought, “My God–she goes back into my time.”
BM: But she looks just about the same as she did then.
WM: You’re right–she’s remarkable. She looks terrific. So we brought her down, and we put her up in one of the Orchestra Hall boxes with Lamb Chop, and it sparkled. It was a neat little piece of business, and everybody liked it. So we brought her back, for Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. It’s working very well.
BM: How do you grade CETA, particularly compared to its peers in the other major markets?
WM: I grade the institution in five ways. This is pretty much on the television side, but I think it applies to the radio side as well.
On the television side, of course, there are the television station and the production center. Number one is to have the service reach the largest possible audience. We’ve been pretty successful at that. We customize the service to the audience. One of the ways we do that is with the people identifiers–we have a library of about 230 of those.
BM: Are those the “Hi, my name’s Ignatz, and you’re watching Channel 11” spots?
WM: Exactly. We’re required by the FCC to broadcast our call letters and number every hour. The traditional way to do that is to take the station number and chrome-plate it. We wanted to do things a little differently. We started out with still photos, then we built our library of people in the community–the Commonwealth Edison worker coming out of a manhole, children playing, people in the park. It’s a way of saying “We’re here, in Chicago”–we’re not an Arby’s franchise. It’s something we’re making.
BM: Was that your idea?
WM: Yes, it was, actually.
The second thing in my grading system is the volume and energy of the regional and Chicago-only productions. The third thing, because we’re not in a small or midsize city, is to tap the art of a hub like this to produce original programming to show nationally. When the Hubbard Street Dance Company went to Paris, they were such a hit–our productions of them had shown on German and French television, so they had an audience that was ready for them.
The fourth thing is that you need a strong plant, and you do need the latest equipment. We’ve had some notable successes there. First, we did those simulcasts with WFMT, all those years, in stereo. When TV stereo came along, one of our engineers came up and said, “We think we have the black-box answer to television stereo sound, and we want to develop it with a local firm called Telesonics. Now, we’ll need some time to do it, a little bit of money, and we want to go on the air at three o’clock in the morning to test it. What do you say?” And I said, “Sounds good–why not?” Nothing ventured, nothing gained–risk is a big part of this business. So we tried it and it worked. And it’s a credit to the quality of the people on our engineering staff that they really developed this thing. We went into a national competition, and to make a long story short we won it–and now we’ve been collecting royalties on that [technology] for five years, substantial royalties, well into the six figures.
We’re working on this high-definition thing now. We called the Sony people, and they said, “You’re calling at the right time. All we have on our demonstration tapes are Japanese dolls. We don’t have anything that’s Western. We’ll send you all the equipment, and you make a tape.” So we produced something about 20 minutes long, called Playin’ Chicago. It’s a boy-girl thing that takes us through the Art Institute and Wrigley Field–it’s really a lot of fun. We try to stay on the leading edge.
The fifth thing is to do all of the above and live within your means.
So I grade myself and the station according to these five things. And I think we’ve done pretty well.
BM: Do you have a timetable for high-definition TV?
WM: We’re very enthused about it–but the next thing to happen is that the FCC has to pick a standard, by late ’93. Whichever technology they choose–and Zenith and AT&T and others are all working on this–we want to be in the vanguard.
The FCC has to make a selection, and then they have to reconfigure all the channel numbers, the spectrum. You know, high definition takes more band width–it’s the equivalent of two channels for each one. There’s a real possibility that it will all be UHF, and they’ll use the VHF channels for other things. But they’re really in earnest about high definition, they’re moving on it. Shortly after the turn of the century there will be a new design of the system, a new numbering system, to facilitate high definition.
Digital video is part of high definition, and we’ve got our toe in the water there. We’re hoping to increase our capacity and get some new equipment later this year. Digital is really an exciting development; it gives you a flawless picture and CD-quality sound.
BM: One persistent criticism of public broadcasting is the old charge that it’s welfare for the rich–that it’s elitist. How do you answer that?
WM: The only answer is that it’s a stereotypical view. When we look at the demographics–when you take all three networks, ourselves, independents, whatever you want, and you chart the audience, their schooling and their income and everything, they’re almost mirror images of one another. It’s almost startling.
BM: So it’s not just the wealthy and the middle classes who are watching.
WM: You bet. We have a tremendous lower-economic-strata audience for our children’s programming.
BM: They’re turning on Sesame Street for their kids–but are they watching MacNeil/Lehrer at night?
WM: Probably not.
Let’s say that a mother instinctively wants her kids to watch Lamb Chop and Sesame and so forth–but is she going to listen to MacNeil/Lehrer? The ratings don’t indicate it. But if you put them all together, it’s 70 percent of the market–and WBBM is 90 percent of the market, so that’s pretty good. You run down all the statistics, and they say, “It’s all television, and viewers find what they want to find.”
We went through an episode with something called Tongues Untied.
BM: The black gay documentary.
WM: There was a pretty demonstrative reaction to that nationwide–some of it based on watching the program, and some based on hearing about the program. Then, the other night, we went with The Lost Language of Cranes [a drama in which a son’s confession of homosexuality causes his father to come out of the closet]. For the life of me, I was worried about Cranes. But that’s what we’re all about. And it’s a risk–yup. We’re going to lose some subscribers–umm hmm. Some people are going to be upset–umm hmm. The audience was just about a four rating–a four is four times 31,000 homes. And you figure one-and-a-half or two people to a home, well, that’s a quarter of a million people, maybe. And calls–the phone log, which I look at the first thing in the morning–there were maybe ten. And that was a difficult program.
BM: You aired Tongues Untied?
BM: And did you get frantic reactions?
BM: How much of this kind of thing is fueled by the newspapers and other news media? And how much of it is people who just tune in and are grossly offended by what they see?
WM: I think it’s both–but the print fueling is a big component.
Just before you came, we got a call from someone who lives up in Lake Forest and takes a great interest in what we do. She called one of our fund-raisers about a program we aired and said, “This is not something you should be doing, you should not move beyond Masterpiece Theatre and MacNeil/Lehrer. What’s wrong with you people?” Well, we asked her, “Mrs. X, did you see the program?” “Oh, no. I wouldn’t watch the program. I read about it.”
BM: PBS is funded to a certain extent by Congress. Is this station getting state or city money?
WM: Here in Chicago our contributions break down to about 6 to 7 percent from both state and federal. The viewer is 50-some percent, foundation activity would be 10, and “corporate underwriting” would probably be 20, 15 maybe. Contract production–where the production center produces materials for clients–provides [the rest, and] a surplus that goes back into operations.
BM: I’ve been watching what seems like an inordinate amount of television lately to prepare for this interview, and I was interested to see numerous commercials between programs. I thought that there was an experimental program to run commercials on a handful of public stations back in 1983, but I thought it had ended. So how is it you’re still running commercials?
WM: If you were to go across the United States in a helicopter right now and pick up the signals of 300 public stations, you’d find that everybody’s got commercials.
The experiment did end in ’84–it stopped abruptly. And [the way the commercials were broadcast] was much different then. That experiment was requested by Congress, because they were getting ready to reduce public-television funding. They asked for some volunteers, and we were one of the ten that volunteered. And they said, “Use a lot of taste, never interrupt a program, and use no more than two minutes between programs.” That’s the whole story. We did that, several others did, and in fact it was quite successful [economically]. The experiment then went into political machinations, and [the PBS stations] decided that continuing that activity would endanger federal or state funds. So we closed the experiment down, that was the end of it.
What did come out of it was something called “enhanced underwriting,” and here we go into the great jungle of euphemisms. That meant a commercial that met certain standards. And we began to fool around with that line that says “This program is made possible by, or brought to you by,” and goose it up. So the FCC rules came out, and they said something like, “There cannot be a call to action, you can’t use a telephone number, you can’t say this is the finest airline in the world.” We follow these FCC regulations right to the letter, because if we don’t we’ll hear from them, we’ll be fined. So we watch it.
We just had one of the airlines come in. They had a perfectly acceptable commercial, but there was one small thing we couldn’t use–we lost a tremendous amount of money, but we just couldn’t take the chance.
It used to be that if it was an automobile it couldn’t move, and if it was an airplane it couldn’t fly. Now the automobiles can move, and the airplanes can fly [laughs]. But it reflects the tension and the need around this particular funding area. But the bottom line–all of the evening underwriting for public television nationwide yields, total, about $70 million. Seventy million dollars would be the revenue of one of eight commercial stations for one year in [a relatively small market like] Denver.
The problem with “enhanced underwriting” is that it’s resulted in the perception, as you said, that there are a lot of commercials–and in no money. We’ve also lost a lot of corporate sponsorship of major programs recently. The AT&T people and the Pepsico people have both pulled out of MacNeil/Lehrer, and the Texaco people and the Martin Marietta people have left Great Performances. So we’ve almost got the worst of two worlds.
BM: Is it worth it?
WM: One could make an argument that it isn’t worth doing. And we’re asking ourselves that. But how do you make up the $70 million shortfall? We’d have to cut some of our series in half.
BM: Or would it be better to say no to the government money and sell more commercials, as long as you maintained your standards and the things that are important to your subscribers? Would it be better to privatize yourselves?
WM: That’s an option.
BM: Then you could be as elitist as you liked.
WM: [Laughs.] There’s a myriad of views on this, and frankly this is gonna occupy center stage. I’m not anxious to make a big point of this and worry people, this is just something we have to work through. But it opens up the subject of how we finance and fund this niche we’re talking about, in all its glory. Because besides the confusing relationship public television has with the corporate sector, the foundations are hard-pressed across the country, I’m finding, and have moved to educational initiatives, and health initiatives, and maybe those should come first–but their total amount of money in public broadcasting is quite small. I think it’s under 6 percent, nationally.
You have the pledge night, which is a rather stunning example of testing the patience of an audience.
BM: I was going to say “of a major irritant.”
WM: It is! You’re absolutely right, and nobody feels it more than we do. But we’re sort of caught. You know, you hold these pieces. And what we’re doing is putting them together, and hoping nothing slips off the edge. And frankly, none of them are particularly attractive.
And of course we have the direct-mail piece, and then we have the federal piece. And I got a call this afternoon from our friends down in Springfield to see how the state piece is. I’m not a chef or a cook by any stretch of the imagination, but one gets the feeling of constantly refurbishing an omelet, or a Caesar salad.
And there’s one thing missing in all of this, that makes the public-broadcasting dilemma, radio or television, most acute. And that is–unlike the universities and the orchestras and the opera companies and the theater companies–there’s no box office. That’s usually news to people. There’s no place where you go out and buy a ticket, or pay tuition. It’s all on a wing and a prayer. That makes us particularly vulnerable, and that’s going to make itself felt.
I wish there were some way that people could offer to pay not to have the irritant of the pledge night, because it irritates the very people who are there watching. It’s a marketing tool, but it really hurts us with some people–we get letters saying, “I’m going to leave you for the next two weeks!” And we understand that.
BM: I know of one public radio station that told its listeners a few weeks ahead of time, “If you’ll give us money now, we won’t have a pledge week.” And they were able to cut it down to just a couple of days.
WM: I’ve heard of that. We have some ideas and some things up our sleeves, we’re trying to stay ahead here. But it’s difficult. It’s difficult. Our annual operating budget on the television side is about $35 million, and on the radio side $5 million. The annual operating budget for WMAQ or ‘BBM is probably a little more than double that. Now, they’ve cut back on their news coverage. That’s where all of their expenses are really going, fueling their news shows–which also bring in revenues. And [our expense] is the local programming. And we’re one of three or four of the most extensive origination houses in the country. Now, that’s a bit of a magic act. But the magic won’t last forever.
BM: Do you have any other answers for the funding question?
WM: Some people want to privatize public television, as you said. Others want to get the government really into it.
BM: But isn’t the government really into it now? Besides, conservatives charge that public television is too liberal, and the liberals I’ve been talking to say it’s much too conservative. I don’t know if you can really please anyone entirely. But wouldn’t taking more government money open you up even more to the likes of Senator “Bugaboo” Helms?
WM: Yes, yes, that’s true. As someone said recently, “Can you imagine what would have happened on the Senate floor if they’d had any real money in this thing?” [Laughs.] How long will the states be able to stay involved? Hard to say–that’s going to get harder. What about the stations that are supported by universities? It’s gonna get difficult. Universities are about to say, “What’s in that building?” Well, we’ve got the radio station there. “Why are we in the radio business? You’re asking me to build a chemistry building, there’s a building.” And out is going to go the radio station.
Then there’s the question of corporate underwriting–they’re also spread too thin. Then you come down to the viewer, and they say, “I’d like to help, but you’re really driving me crazy with these pledge weeks.” Everything about funding has a downside, and what we’re trying to do is use all the imagination we can.
BM: Let’s move to some questions about programming.
BM: For starters, how do you justify running Lawrence Welk?
WM: We don’t. We don’t run Lawrence Welk.
BM: You did until relatively recently–a whole slew of “greatest hits” programs.
WM: There’s a division of thought on that. The one side said, “Is that really what we’re about?” The other side said, “There is a tremendous older audience that would just love it.” And you have to make that call. How do you justify running The Lost Language of Cranes?
BM: But Cranes is demonstrably noncommercial, and Lawrence Welk is about as commercial a show as I can think of–ostentatiously so, in fact.
WM: There is a library of Lawrence Welk shows, and they are run by about 200 [PBS] stations. There’s a much smaller group, 20 or 30 stations, that don’t run them, and we are one of them. We did carry one run of them several years ago.
Now, here’s what might confuse you. The public-television community created a big Lawrence Welk special to run during the pledge [weeks]–like we did gospel. So there was one great show, with all the champagne bubbles, and everybody ran it.
BM: What happened with The Frugal Gourmet? I hear the series is now being produced in Seattle.
WM: We had six or seven great years with Jeff. At one point in time that was very successful–the program was well watched, and it paid for itself through book sales and broadcast and cable sales.
But Jeff never left his home in Seattle, and he just really wanted to return. He had a heart bypass and wanted to get back to Seattle–and we said fine. You know, that’s a long run. And we even sent one of our people along to help him get set up with his own studio back there. I think he put out a group of programs this year. I don’t know how much longer he’s going to go, but I don’t think he wants to do it too much longer. We wish him well, and we’re helping him out as best we can.
BM: How did you lose Siskel and Ebert?
WM: I don’t know if we lost them. We developed the original Sneak Previews, with Siskel and Ebert, many years ago. It was a pretty successful series, and of course when you get that successful other people notice. Tribune Entertainment said “Wait a minute,” and went to their agent and offered them a more lucrative deal than they could have had with us–and that’s a perfectly natural transition. Then, two years later, Buena Vista did that to the Tribune. [Laughs.]
And now we’re back on the air with Sneak Previews.
BM: Do you think the show took a wrong turn when you started reviewing videotapes?
WM: No. I think these things have a life to them, even Siskel and Ebert. So you begin to look for ways to branch out and beef up the formula. We tried videos, and then we tried specialties, like old favorites and children’s and family classics. We’re pretty satisfied with the formula the way it is now; I think the balance is right.
BM: What is the average life span of a program? How can you tell when one’s become geriatric?
WM: It’s subjective–you get so you can sense it. In commercial television, it’s based on arithmetic. But in the public arena we don’t go by ratings.
We ask ourselves, “Are we accomplishing something with this program?” “Does this program still have vitality to it, or is it getting stale?” We look at the mail. We keep a very elaborate phone log every night. We try to keep our switchboard open–it’s kind of masochistic, but we do get a real feeling when the switchboard lights up!
BM: Some years ago, you did a television production of Summer and Smoke with Chicago Opera Theater–
WM: Would you call that adventuresome?
BM: Yes, I would.
WM: Yeah, I would too.
BM: But there hasn’t been anything like that since. You did three collaborations with COT–
WM: Yeah, but bigger than Summer and Smoke was a gospel thing from Quinn Chapel on the south side. That was a huge production.
You know, it’s hard in this business. I read a lot. I pick and choose my television–in my private life. But you sometimes have to be careful about the perception that somebody would say, “Why don’t you do such and such?” And you say, “Well, we did something we felt pretty good about exactly like that.” And invariably the answer is, “Well, I don’t watch that much television.” I think statistically we’re on the right track in terms of original programming, which is really the key.
Did I get off here?
BM: I was wondering why there hadn’t been anything else but those three productions with Chicago Opera Theater.
WM: Chicago Opera Theater? Because we had a very heavy concentration of Chicago Opera Theater. And in order to do some work with the Lyric, we had to cut back on some other things. We were very strong in the Soundstage arena, and now we’re going to come back to that next year. Then we had to get into the gospel arena, and we had to get into the CSO arena. So I guess we have to spread it around.
We just won a grant to do something called Expressly for Television [on the intersection of video and the arts], and we have a major [Robert] Altman piece we’re going to try to do, called McTeague, with the Lyric.
BM: Do you think you’ve done enough with the various Chicago theater companies?
WM: No, we haven’t. It’s a bedeviling question for us.
We are pretty ambitious about attending and monitoring plays and performances–we do keep up on it. We have a couple of questions we ask if we see something that meets our criteria. One, will they discuss rights with us? Often they won’t when the show is playing–they fear it would dilute the box office. I think that’s open to question, but you have to respect their feelings. Number two, could it be shot onstage, or would it be best brought back to the studio, with new sets built?
BM: You had a big hit with Bleacher Bums.
WM: Yeah, talk about coming out of the box and getting lucky early on–people are still talking about that one.
The short answer to your question is that I wish we could do more. Sometimes it’s very hard to scrape up the money for the rights, the performers, and the production costs.
We’ve been thinking about having a Chicago playwrights’ contest. We’re keeping our eyes on the possibility.
BM: Now, to segue off in a completely different direction–who chooses the board of directors?
WM: The board chooses the board.
BM: So it’s sort of self-perpetuating.
WM: Yeah. It’s been in operation since ’53. This board really owns these assets. It’s theirs. And it’s a real clear ownership situation. It’s a good board, and it’s a strong board.
BM: To whom is it accountable?
WM: Well, I guess it’s accountable to itself, and indirectly to the community.
BM: What I’m looking for is whether there’s any kind of direct contact with the community, if the community doesn’t have any say in who’s on the board.
WM: It’s accountable through a variety of mechanisms. For instance, the board’s got an extensive web of committees. It has a very unusual annual program audit procedure, whereby we of the staff prepare a review and a committee of the board sits down and studies the output–percentage of children’s, percentage of original, percentage of national, ethnic variety, and so on. Where are the trouble spots? Are we holding to our pledge to the hearing-impaired audience? It’s rather extensive.
Then we go on a retreat, where the staff comes forward and responds to a lot of basic questions.
We have a community advisory committee [of nonboard members] from all walks of life–clergy, the gay community, the music community, the teaching community–and they’ll come in and they’ll have a go. Their report is given to the board.
You’ve got a television committee, and a radio committee, and a policy and planning committee, and developing committee, and a marketing committee, and so on and so forth.
BM: The settlement with the Friends of WFMT called for the appointment of four civilians to the radio committee. How has that worked out?
WM: That has been a very interesting thing. The core of that problem was lack of information, for which each side has to accept some responsibility. It’s a pleasure to say that it’s the only committee that has an extra–as you say, four civilians, but the four have been a terrific asset. They come from all different walks of life. Bruce Sagan, Joan Harris, Gary Johnson, and Susan Lipman have all fit in very well.
It’s even gone beyond just the radio committee. Susan Lipman has this performing arts group, and she says, “You know, there’s something coming on Live From Lincoln Center on such and such a date, and we’re going to have the group in live a month later. Let’s tie up at the end of the program and get in an announcement about that.”
Well, that is a little thing, but it’s the thing that will distinguish organizations in the future. Because it weaves this instrument into a community rather than just exhibiting to it. As a matter of fact, we’ve made those announcements several times–and she says she’s had a measurable impact from that.
BM: Is there anything you would do differently if you had it to do over again in the WFMT and Chicago magazine situation?
WM: Yeah, probably.
You have to understand what my role in that was. When I came here, my job was the television operation. The radio operation, frankly, was more successful–it was doing very well.
Back in the early 70s the board said, “You know, your predecessor had a television magazine, and we also have a radio magazine. We tried to get those together, but we weren’t successful. Could you look into that?” And I did–it made sense. And we combined those two into something called Chicago Guide. And Chicago Guide then became Chicago magazine. It was always a two-part partnership.
WFMT had the interest and the inclination and the better editorial skills–why, I’m not sure, but they did. So the division of labor was that WFMT would work on the editorial, and [WTTW] fueled the circulation. The marketing came from us. The magazine frankly blossomed. We caught a wave, just like we were surfers–we caught the tidal wave of what we now know as the “city magazine.”
It did so well that–hands off. I really had no official responsibility for the magazine, and was delighted by their success. It worked well for the total corporation. You asked what I would do differently–but [the system] did very well for 23 years. And the board oversaw it.
BM: Most knowledgeable people seem to think that the board reflects your will. The term “rubber stamp” came up more than once, which may be an exaggeration–but the sense is definitely that you are the guiding force.
WM: That really is unfair to the board–and to me. That really is not the case.
BM: You’re not the leader?
WM: I’ve been here, and we’ve had some success, and everybody [on the board] gets along–but I did not enter the radio situation until the board and the chairman said, “We’ve got some serious trouble here.” If I had been thinking–it’s like the Army–I’d have said, “Gee, I’d like to not volunteer for this.” But I didn’t think of it. It’s sort of instinctive–back to the builder-architect feeling–“Go to look at the trouble.” I didn’t think much about it, but I stepped into a situation that had deteriorated so fast it was shocking.
When you’re putting sandbags on the dike, you don’t think too much about it–but it was the speed with which it got into trouble that shocked the board.
BM: One of the things I’ve never quite understood is why, if there was a problem, the board let WFMT/Chicago move into their extremely expensive new digs at Illinois Center.
WM: I can’t answer that. I was here, but I had no direct line of responsibility.
I can answer your question “What would you do differently?” from the day I entered it–but prior to the sale of Chicago, I was not involved.
I emphasize the speed with which things happened–it exacerbated the feelings. “What do you mean, we’re in trouble? It’s impossible!”
BM: Many of the criticisms have dealt with your personnel choices, especially for general manager of the radio station. There were some unfortunate choices.
WM: Yes. Those are the changes I would make.
There’s a lot I can’t speak to on the record. Very briefly, when I arrived on the scene, the board was unsettled. They were upset. The station had to come under some sort of operational control. It was an assignment: Do everything possible to save the radio station. And that’s what I did.
My first move was to bring Ray Nordstrand back, because I thought he had a great many skills in this area. This had been a successful organization–I thought the talent must be there. There was a person down there that they all listened to by the name of Al Antlitz, so I asked Al to step in as general manager. As it turned out, that was not a good move. There were other problems, too.
Throughout this I talked with Norm Pellegrini and others about what to do. I reached up into Minnesota Public Radio to ask a very able producer-manager type, Tom Voegeli, to come in. He’s very well thought of in radio circles–and it was a difficult situation. He found that he preferred producing to management. He’s back in Minnesota now.
So. You put all these things together–and, sure, I would love to have some of those decisions back. Nonetheless, that’s what happened.
I then asked Dan Schmidt to come down [from Minnesota] as general manager, and they’re very pleased with Dan at WFMT.
But that was only one part of it. The other part was that we had to get the station back on its feet financially. And that took some doing.
The key things to remember here are that the board owned it for 23 years, through all its triumphs, and the board very much wanted to secure the asset. And when they asked me to take on this assignment, I told them, “You know, we’re going to have to move very fast and do some unorthodox things”–one of which was that fund-raiser.
BM: The beg-a-thon.
WM: Yeah, the beg-a-thon. And that got us some ready cash.
BM: Wasn’t there a feeling of betrayal, on the part of a lot of the people who had given money, when you brought on the raucous commercials?
WM: Yes. But we were really scrambling. I had the leeway to bring some funding support over from WTTW, and I applied to the [CETA] endowment fund, and we had three successive years’ grants from that, and that helped.
One of the biggest things we’ve had to do is recognize that advertising–on either side of the message-policy equation, whether it’s recorded or live–will not support WFMT. That’s a pretty basic realization. So one of my major contributions, along with stabilizing the manager situation, has been to set up a hybrid revenue situation–one that includes advertising and member-subscribers, which borrows a leaf from public television. And we’re nurturing the syndication group, the Fine Arts Network. That’s now coming along well, and the surpluses from that go to the radio station.
The end result is that we’ve had three years in the black, and won the  Marconi award [in the category of classical stations].
BM: Do you have a timetable for eliminating the recorded ads?
WM: We’re taking a hard look at it now–it’s just a question of revenues. In ’88 we had to dig ourselves out of a hole. And one of the answers was to broaden the commercial policy. We’re continuing to tighten our guidelines.
BM: You took heat for the sale of Chicago magazine, and the money from that being put into the [CETA] endowment fund . . .
WM: That’s not my call–I work here [laughs]. You couldn’t have a staff person make that decision. That was a board decision. It would have been nice to have some [financial] help [from CETA], but I think [the board’s] decision was to make whatever help was available come out of the audience.
BM: Was it their decision to set things up so that WTTW could have its own program listings in Eleven magazine, but to restrict WFMT’s listings [considered an asset to a publication] to Chicago even after it was sold?
WM: I can’t really talk about that. The person to speak to this is Dan Levin [of the board’s radio committee], because it was his call. But it had to do with the debts that needed to be paid off.
BM: So you had to pay off, what, six or seven million in debts?
WM: Yes, immediately–or the board did. The board was running all this.
BM: What about the program guide? WFMT has just recently been able to start publishing its own listings again [in the Fine Arts Circle]. I know there was a great deal of unhappiness expressed that Chicago magazine continued to run those, and the folks at WFMT felt they weren’t getting anything for them.
WM: Well, when the sale was made, by a board committee–you have to remember that everybody had their assignments, and we had a group that was skilled in handling sales–my assignment was to do everything possible to regain the equilibrium. When they sold the magazine, they sold the assets of the magazine. Then the buyers said they’d pay $6 million for ten years of subscription feeding [of names of Channel 11 subscribers]. They also said they wanted to keep the radio listings, the reason being that the buyers had had a similar magazine in Detroit, and they had sold the classical listings in terms of advertising. I don’t think the board was anxious to do that–but they did it.
That was in ’87. A little while ago, when we were trying to build up revenues, we went back to the magazine and said we’d like to get those listings back. [And that was fine with] the magazine, too. So we got ’em back to build the Fine Arts Circle.
BM: During the troubles, the staff at WFMT voted to certify the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists–AFTRA–to represent them in negotiations. You have refused to recognize the union. What’s the story there?
WM: You asked me what things I’d do differently. Well, one of the things I’d change would be a faster response to misconceptions.
First, you have to understand that, at WTTW, we deal with AFTRA, with the Writers’ Guild, with the American Federation of Musicians, with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and many, many others. The issue is not unions. When you’re in a city the size of Chicago, it’s something you work with.
When this came up, the management team at WFMT thought the issue was one that should go to the National Labor Relations Board. I really can’t speak to this on the record, but they felt that the election was not kosher. It is presently being arbitrated, and there’s no answer yet. That’s really all I can say.
BM: One final ‘FMT question: what is their current financial situation? You’ve said they’re in the black, but are they well into the black?
WM: We’ve still got a ways to go. We reported to the board a very modest–under $100,000, say $50,000 or $75,000–in the black. What we’re working hard on now is trying to maximize the revenues. One is advertising–and the debt situation was so strong that we were forced to loosen the message policy. It’s not what we would have liked to have done, but when you’re faced with payroll, you try to work your way through these things. So we’re mindful of returning to the on-air tone and presence that have always been a tradition–and we’re gaining on that.
We’re also trying to relieve the rent burden that they have down there, which is just too heavy. We’re actively working on alternatives right now.
There is one other point that needs to be made about WFMT and all the troubles they have had: in the midst of the magazine problem, and all those other things, WFMT also picked up a competitor–WNIB. WNIB was never really competition before. That made a difference.
BM: A couple of questions about your personal style: some people have complained that you have an “edifice complex.”
BM: Well, you said you wanted to be an architect! But they say you tend to be a micromanager, particularly in terms of what goes on in this building, the WTTW complex. Basically, they’re saying that you get involved in details that are really too small for you to concern yourself with. I’m told that you even worry about little things like the color of the internal signage–that you once had all the signs redone so that they were just the right shade of terra-cotta. Is there any justice to this charge?
WM: Naw, I let the building engineers worry about the signage.
But television is concept and details–particularly in production, one must balance both. Once the assignments are made, I fully delegate and then monitor the results. However, as the saying goes, “God is in the details.”
BM: One thing that puzzles me is that you are one of the most important men in Chicago broadcasting–and yet you are virtually unknown outside that community. You don’t turn up in the gossip columns, and you have never been one of the faces in front of the cameras on pledge nights.
WM: I’m just not good at it, it’s not where my head is. We have so many people who are good at it–so I let them do it. I think it’s safe to say that I’m more recognized nationally. And I think I can do a better job behind the scenes.
BM: Do you anticipate retiring anytime soon?
WM: Yeah, in the next few years–I’d say three or four.
BM: What do you see as your legacy?
WM: Even before the electronic revolution, which is now engulfing us, I think my goal was to try to put in place an electronic parkland, a window to the world–that’s really what this is–that would produce and broadcast a unique quality-program niche for this metropolitan area. And that implies all the program and production architecture. But you’re not going to get that unless you put in place all the funding and marketing and financial architecture. You have to do the whole package. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
I’ve also tried to provide a model in WTTW. There’s a lot of fear and confusion in the quality-program niche of the broadcasting arts right now. They’re looking for a model. And I think we’re close to being one here.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.