Classical station bows out with class

Chicago Sun-Times, February 13, 2001

COMMENTARY by Wynne Delacoma

It could have been worse.

After the last note of classical music faded away on WNIB-FM (97.1) just
before midnight Sunday, we could have been treated to a triumphal blast
of "Roll Over, Beethoven" to herald the longtime classical-music station's
switch to '80s rock, golden oldies rock or alternative rock.

Actually, all my radio picked up in those first moments was static as the
new owners, Bonneville International Corp. of Salt Lake City, took over
airwaves they had purchased for $165 million from WNIB's founders
and owners, Sonia and Bill Florian.

But on Monday morning, Barbra Streisand's greatest hits were wafting
from WNIB's space on the FM band. After 45 years of Bach and Beethoven,
Puccini and Penderecki, the new owners launched themselves  with
non-classical Barbra.

WNIB as a classical music station is history, but WNIB's programming
won't disappear entirely. "Those Were the Days," Chuck Schaden's popular
Saturday afternoon program of vintage radio shows, can now be heard on
WDCB-FM (90.9), the jazz station based at the College of DuPage.
"Performance Today" has moved over to WFMT-FM (98.7), now the
city's sole commercial classical station. Other programs and program
hosts may turn up elsewhere in the future.

WFMT is a quality operation that seems to be finding renewed energy
under Steve Robinson, its new programming vice president. Classical
music remains on the local airwaves. But it was still difficult to listen last
weekend as WNIB's familiar voices and programs signed off one by one.

Not surprisingly, it was a classy sign-off, one that took quiet satisfaction in
having done the broadcasting job well for 45 years.  It also was a reminder
of how vibrant Chicago's local classical music scene is.

Bruce Duffie, a WNIB program host for more than 25 years, focused on
Chicago artists and institutions as he brought the station's classical era to
a close Sunday night.

He played excerpts from a recent interview with the city's newest distinguished
arrival, Lyric Opera of Chicago's music director Andrew Davis. We heard the
Chicago Symphony, Chicago Symphony Chorus and assorted CSO principals.
The lineup also included singers Susanne Mentzer and Sunny Joy Langton,
pianists Elizabeth Buccheri and Richard Boldry and tenor John Vorrasi in works
by Chicago composer William Ferris. A bare sampling, but an evocative one, of
the depth of Chicago's classical music scene.

If a classical music station is doing its job, it offers much more than Beethoven
in place of Limp Bizkit. It also showcases the best of the music being made in
its own hometown. Anybody can pop a Brahms symphony into a CD player and
broadcast it.  Listeners can buy their own Brahms symphony CD at the local
record store. A local radio station, however, can bring us the local composer,
the string quartet or solo artist who might not otherwise be heard.

Luckily for Chicago musicians and music lovers, WFMT is as committed to
talented local artists as WNIB was. But WNIB's unique take on Chicago's
classical music scene will be missed.

With too many farewell calls coming in, Duffie turned off the phones around
10 p.m. and invited us to simply enjoy the music he had chosen.  It had been
a "privilege and a pleasure," he said, to broadcast this music  into our homes,
and he hoped we would remember WNIB kindly. He signed off with "Lyric
for Strings," a meditative piece by American composer George Walker that
strongly evoked Barber's more familiar "Adagio for Strings."

An elegant finish to 45 memorable years.