Death  With  Dignity

By Bruce Duffie

I was the one who had to pull the plug.  Literally.  Because of the technical demands of the change-over to the new owners, the main power connection to the transmitter was through a cord plugged into the circuits on a wall in the back room.  At 12 Midnight as Sunday, February 11 turned into Monday February 12, I finished my tasks in the control room, took a few deep breaths and walked slowly to the back room.  There, I grasped the cord and pulled it decisively out of the wall.  [ PHOTO ]

The effect of this was to change the world of Classical Music in Chicago forever.

No longer was Chicago the last remaining 2-Classical-Station-City.  No more would there be a choice for listeners who enjoyed various kinds of concert music fare.  Never again would there be dial-switching among those who love serious music.  WNIB, as a Classical Music station, was history.  [ Commentary by Wynne Delacoma in the Sun-Times ]

The staff, including myself, were informed that the change was coming just a few hours before the story broke in the newspapers, late in November.  WNIB, which had been started by William C. Florian in 1955, was being sold.  The new owners, Bonneville Incorporated, a media conglomerate based in Salt Lake City, would take over at an un-specified time a few weeks later.  Needless to say, we were in collective shock.

I will not go into the relative merits of the decision, nor will I debate here the value of changing the format to whatever-they-have-on-today.  Neither will I propose any alternative arrangement similar to suggestions from listeners.  And I probably won't be able to persuade anyone to view this event as anything more or less than a severe bump in the road of life.  Vita brevis, ars longa the saying goes, but this time, we have outlived the span of an artistic venture.  The art will, of course, continue and even flourish...  but with one less dispenser to deliver it in this market.

Within the first year or so of its life, WNIB started doing Classical Music.  Not exclusively, but more and more, until those wonderful sounds emanated from 97.1 FM at practically all hours of every day.  "Back then," there were several stations presenting similar offerings.  Quite a few did a bit of classical on a regular basis, but eventually there were three full-time Classical stations.

The two giants fought it out for awhile...  WFMT, with its blend of recorded music and live concerts, and WEFM, which was begun as a demonstration of the Zenith brand of audio equipment.  They were the pioneer, having started around 1940. That format lived until the station was sold in the early 1970's.  As a boy, I remember listening to great music in large-uninterrupted segments, presented by legendary voices.  At the top of every hour, there was one commercial for Zenith products, and an invitation to visit the Zenith Display Salon on North Michigan Avenue...  "Where no sales are made."

During that time, WNIB was gaining strength and popularity at a slow rate, but hanging in there.  So when WEFM was sold, the new owners provided WNIB with a better transmitter site and equipment, so as to insure the continuation of fine music in Chicago from a variety of frequencies.  This was partly to appease the "Citizens Committee" which had formed to try and save the station and its format.  The common mis-conception was the WNIB got the WEFM library.  Truth is, we didn't need it.  We had already amassed a fine collection, which was being used every day.  Perhaps not as large and diverse as at WFMT's, but certainly workable.  WNIB's  Program Director, the late  Ron Ray , went over to WEFM and selected a couple hundred LPs that would either replace some of our worn copies, or just add items here and there to our diversity.  The rest went to WBEZ, which used them for a short time.

This left 2 full-time, commercial stations doing Classical Music.  Even then, that was a rare achievement.  Today it's unheard-of.  Chicago was the envy of concert-music enthusiasts in every other market... even New York!  As you may know, I did interviews with many musicians, including lots of composers who were based in the "Big Apple."  When I presented their music on WNIB, I routinely sent them copies of the WNIB Program Guide. Invariably they would let me know by phone or letter that they wished New York had something akin to what we were doing here.

WNIB continued to grow.  The Arbitron Ratings, which measure audience listenership showed that WFMT was ahead, but WNIB was very close behind.  And one day, we pulled ahead.  The Little Engine That Could had finally moved in front of the Big Giant Gorilla.  Everyone smiled but knew that it wouldn't last. But it did last.  For most of the 1990's, WNIB placed ahead of WFMT in the ratings book.  Not by much, but definitely ahead.  Book after book, quarter after quarter.  And while this does represent a major victory, it needs to be explained.

Many of our collective listeners switched back and forth, often not knowing which station they were listening to.  We got calls about their advertisers, and they got requests for our Program Guide.  Everybody was happy to have the choice and amazingly, the two stations managed to keep cool about it.  After all, we were talking about a small number of listeners, and we were not battling tooth-and-nail for absolute dominance.  With slight variations up and down, we were numbers 22 and 24 in the market.  Our combined ‘shares' were generally between 2.3 and 3.4, meaning that a tiny percentage of radios-in-use were tuned to one or the other of us.

Those few listeners were loyal.  Fiercely so, in fact.  They let us know what they liked and what they didn't, but they stayed with us.  The two stations played symphonies and operas and concertos... and occasionally interviews, too!  Some of our listeners were one-station fans.  We got calls and letters saying they couldn't stand what was presented on the other station, and I'm certain the other station has a similar file of correspondence.

Now there is only one game in town, and everyone must re-think just how that sole proprietor should dispense the valued commodity.  It is comforting to know that quite a number of former WNIB listeners have participated in the just-ended WFMT pledge drive. It is classical music that must survive on the air. Every listener has an opinion, and the ownership and management of WFMT is listening.  There is no way to please everyone, and it's probably not a good idea to try to be all things to all people.

The potential is there.  How they utilize their singularity will determine the future of Classical Music Radio in Chicago.

 = = = = =

For links to more articles, letters and photos about WNIB, click  HERE .

 = = = = =

Bruce Duffie was an Announcer/Producer with WNIB from September 1975 until the final broadcast in February of this year.  Visit his  PERSONAL WEBSITE 
[ ], and send him  E-MAIL  [ ].

 = = = = =

Published in CityTalk Magazine, March 9, 2001
Links added to this Website posting in August, 2003