WFMT is an FM radio station in Chicago, Illinois, featuring a format of fine arts, classical music programming, and shows exploring such genres as folk and jazz. The station is managed by Window To The World Communications, Inc., owner of WTTW, one of Chicago's two Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Public television stations. WFMT is also the primary station of the WFMT Radio Network, and the Beethoven and Jazz Networks. WFMT transmits from the Willis (Sears) Tower.
A unique feature of this commercial station is that it airs no pre-recorded (by non-station hosts) advertising on-air. A brief attempt at introducing pre-recorded commercial advertising, the only time in its history, proved unpopular with listeners. All advertising on the station is currently read exclusively by WFMT's on-air hosts.
WFMT's programs can be heard through its satellite services, or syndication, internationally. The station's programming is also available online.
On December 13, 1951, Bernard and Rita Jacobs put WFMT on the air at 105.9 FM with a classical music/fine arts radio format. They began with 8-hour-a-day broadcasts (3-11 PM), with Bernard serving as the station's engineer, and Rita as the station's announcer. By 1953, programming had expanded to 18 hours per day.
WFMT moved to new studios in the LaSalle-Wacker Building in 1954. The station's power and antenna height were increased, increasing its broadcast range, and the transmitting frequency was changed to the present-day 98.7 MHz (105.9 was relicensed to Elmwood Park and is currently home to WCFS-FM, which simulcasts WBBM's all-news format). That same year, WFMT aired a live recording made on July 4 at Circle Pines Center in Delton, Michigan, with Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy.
In 1957, the station received an Alfred I. DuPont Award as the country's best broadcaster in the small-station category. WFMT also aired a discussion between Frank Lloyd Wright and Carl Sandburg, which was simulcast with WTTW, marking the first collaboration between WTTW and WFMT. Another collaboration occurred the following year, as the two stations began a pioneering stereo music project in which WTTW broadcast a left audio channel, and WFMT broadcast the right audio channel simultaneously.
WFMT won another Alfred I. DuPont Award in 1961, this time as the country's best broadcaster in the large-station category, in addition to the station's first Peabody Award. The station quadrupled its broadcasting power the same year and offered its first multiplex stereo broadcast, which was tested the following year, presenting the first live concert series broadcast in stereo, with music by the Fine Arts Quartet. In 1964, Hi Fi/Stereo Review readers voted WFMT the highest-fidelity station in the US. The station's first series of Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts began in 1965.
The station began distributing WFMT programming to other American and international radio stations in 1972. In 1973 it created the Fine Arts Network for broadcast syndication of Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera and BBC's My Word! and My Music panel game shows.
In 1979, WFMT became America's first radio superstation, delivered by satellite and cable systems across the United States. WFMT programming entered the Communist Bloc, as the Soviet Union and China began broadcasting WFMT tapes of Chicago Symphony Orchestra radio concerts. In 1980, WFMT became the first US radio station to join the European Broadcasting Union. A live performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was heard in the US, United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Sweden and West Germany simultaneously. Wagner's Ring Cycle was broadcast live for the first time as a digital transatlantic performance from Bayreuth, Germany to the US and Canada in 1983.
The WFMT Fine Arts Circle, a member/listener support and funding group, was formed in 1991.
In 1995, the station moved to its current location in the WTTW complex in Chicago's Northwest Side. The new facility included an all-digital path from studios to transmitter. The WFMT Jazz Satellite Network debuted two years later.
WFMT celebrated its 50th anniversary on December 13, 2001, which Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley declared WFMT Day.
In 2002, WFMT Radio Network hosted and produced a live broadcast from Durban, South Africa featuring the world premiere performance of Princess Magogo, the first South African indigenous opera and the first opera with a libretto in the Zulu language. The broadcast was produced and hosted by Steve Robinson and was heard by over four million people on 155 stations in the US and on European state radio networks.
In 2003, the station began syndication of the program "Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin", an educational daily program on various themes in classical music. It was created by Steve Robinson and is now carried by over 50 stations in the U.S. and is heard by over 400,000 people each week. They also launched a Fine Arts Hotline for the Chicago area that same year.
People of WFMT
Several noteworthy individuals have worked at WFMT in its history. Award-winning stage and film director, writer, and producer Mike Nichols, at the time a student at the University of Chicago, joined the station in 1952. Nichols started the folk music program The Midnight Special in 1953. The show still airs weekly on WFMT, with Rich Warren as the host.
Carl Grapentine, a weekday morning-drive host on WFMT, has served as the voice of the University of Michigan Marching Band since 1972 and has doubled as the public-address announcer at Michigan Stadium since 2006.
Two-time Peabody Award-winning audio dramatist Yuri Rasovsky, creator of the National Radio Theater of Chicago, began a decade-long association with WFMT in 1975. He is still heard periodically on The Midnight Special in his classic "Chicago Language Tape" skit.
WFMT is noted for the longevity of various staff members. Norman Pellegrini joined the station and became program director in 1953, holding the position until 1996. Ray Nordstrand was hired as an announcer, also in 1953. He later became the assistant of original owner Bernard Jacobs. Nordstrand moved up to the position of president and general manager in 1970. He retired in 1993 after suffering a heart attack, but continued to work as a consultant to the station until his death in 2005.
Another key contributor to WFMT’s success was Associate Program Director Lois Baum. Arriving at the station from KPFK in California in July 1964, Baum produced and oversaw the production of countless spoken arts programs and features. She produced the Critic’s Choice series, regular broadcasts of reviews and commentary by artist Harry Bouras (whose name was the inspiration for the playful Chicago art group, the "Hairy Who"), theater critic Claudia Cassidy, and journalist and author Herman Kogan. Baum selected and programmed plays and readings produced by the BBC and by the National Radio Theater of Chicago, and created The Storytellers, a program devoted to short stories. With co-producer George Drury, she created Word of Mouth, a spoken arts program that presented a mixture of rare archival recordings and new studio recordings of poets, novelists, philosophers, scientists, actors and musicians. In addition to her extensive work with spoken arts programs, from 1972 until 2009 Lois Baum co-hosted with Norman Pellegrini nationally syndicated broadcasts from the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
In August 2000, Steve Robinson was hired as general manager of WFMT. He had worked in classical music radio for 33 years.
Since going on the air in 1951, WFMT has garnered a strong reputation for technological innovation and sound quality.
In 1958, WFMT and television station WTTW collaborated on a pioneering stereo music project in which WTTW broadcast a left audio channel, and WFMT broadcast the right audio channel simultaneously.
WFMT broadcast a live concert in 1969 using Dolby noise reduction, the first station to do so. In 1972 it broadcast for the first time in four-channel (quadrophonic) sound, a live performance of the Chicago Lyric Opera's presentation of Rossini's Semiramide.
In 1978, WFMT participated in the first stereo relay of a live performance via satellite, from the San Francisco Opera.
In 1979, WFMT was one of the first local FM stations to re-broadcast its programming via satellite. This feed was received by cable companies (who transmitted WFMT's programming to their subscribers), as well as by home TVRO users.
In the 1980s, WFMT moved into the digital era, being chosen by Sony and Philips to be the first station in the world to broadcast music from the compact disc format, thanks to the station's reputation for high audio standards. The station broadcast material from Digital Audio Tape for the first time in 1987, and was once again chosen by Sony to broadcast from a MiniDisc, to demonstrate the subtle differences between an MD and a CD. WFMT also broadcasts in HD.