News & Politics » Media

WFMT Takes a Turn

by

comment

An engineer at WFMT for 28 years, most of them good ones, Alfred Antlitz now finds himself running the station during one of the worst. "I never thought I'd be in this position," he told us. "I almost can't explain it."

But there he is. "My background is in the ministry, by the way, so I do all right with a group of people," Antlitz mentioned. Two Fridays ago he put his people skills to the acid test. The group he had to deal with numbered seven--15 percent of his staff. They came into his office one by one and were greeted by Antlitz, who's WFMT's senior vice president and general manager, and by David Levin, director of the WFMT Fine Arts Networks, and Jim Barker, the general sales manager. And one by one, Antlitz fired them. He fired station director Torey Malatia and the manager of project development and production, Larry Rock; and the former general sales manager, Tony Judge, and announcer Kerry Frumkin; and program secretary Sydney Lewis, syndicate director Kathleen Jenkins, and librarian George Drury. The following Monday, part-time accountant Kathy Cowan got the boot.

Funny, we said. A year ago, you and Torey Malatia and Larry Rock were a team of three dedicated to turning WFMT around. Now you've dumped them. "Yeah, I know, I know," Antlitz said gloomily. "It not only left a bitter taste in their mouths, it left a very long-lasting one in mine."

For all his people skills, Antlitz's way of letting people go lacked finesse. He told them to clear out by five o'clock and then he posted a security guard at the front door. Later, he found these methods difficult to explain. "You really have to have a feel for the pressure of the station to understand why some things happen," Antlitz said awkwardly. "Friday was such an emotional day for all of us, we didn't respond in our normal fashion."

Times used to be nicer. "I remember articles published in national magazines about this ivory tower, how people came here and never left," said Antlitz, who's a perfect example. "Today, in some ways, the spirit of the company is the antithesis of the company I remember and I want to get back to it, but with the company on a very secure financial basis, so we're impeccable in terms of accounting and management and have team spirit again.

"This is going to be hard to achieve. This and the events of recent years have made morale here rather low."

"Recent years" goes back at least to 1985. WMFT traditions hearken to 1951, when Bernard and Rita Jacobs founded the place on a shoestring. By '53, when Studs Terkel, Mike Nichols, and Ray Nordstrand were all on staff, the station's lofty idea of itself was fixed. In 1969, Bernard Jacobs, divorced and mortally ill, sold WFMT to the Tribune Company's WGN subsidiary. As fearful then as they are now of philistine ownership, faithful listeners organized into the Citizens Committee to Save WFMT (many of whose members now belong to the like-minded Friends of WFMT) and appealed to the FCC on grounds that the Tribune Company was monopolizing Chicago media.

Under pressure, the company did the right thing. In 1970, WFMT was handed over gratis to the Chicago Educational Television Association (CETA), the high-minded body of leading citizens that ran Channel 11. And for the next 15 years or so, WFMT was left alone to collect Peabody awards, nurture a modest program guide into bulging Chicago magazine, delight in its excellence while snickering intramurally at WTTW's sturdy mediocrity, and turn over its profits.

But even in the good years, some staff members chafed under the fatherly rule of Ray Nordstrand, the placid overseer of both the radio station and the magazine. His cautious hand may have suited WFMT, with all that heritage to defend. The magazine--fat but never sassy--was conspicuous evidence of Nordstrand's unwillingness to dare or to offend.

In 1985, the editor in chief and editorial director of Chicago and the general sales manager and finance director of WFMT--"the gang of four," Nordstrand would call them--took their grievances against their CEO to the board of trustees. They found that they'd tapped CETA's own buried vein of dissatisfaction. Months of meetings followed involving CETA president and WTTW general manager William McCarter and leading trustees, as CETA searched for new leadership. "Gang" member Don Gold remembers: "One long, anxiety-filled evening, they offered me the opportunity to run the radio station. I was the editor of the magazine! I figured they wanted me to fire people I knew, be a hatchet man. It seemed like the wrong job for me. But I wasn't the first they asked, and I wasn't the last."

Eventually John Diederichs, a retired Sunbeam executive and former CETA trustee, took over the WFMT-Chicago operation, and Nordstrand was stripped of all his executive authority. To the shocked WFMT staff, William McCarter was a suspicious outsider and Diederichs was a total alien. Art dealer Richard Gray, a member of the subcommittee of CETA trustees that oversees WFMT, remembers, "He had a lot of skills, maybe not the best people skills." Gold says, "He tried to apply management principles from industry to a station where the president [Nordstrand] passed out paychecks."

Also at work now was "some of the best accounting talent in Chicago"--Gray's words--puzzling out Nordstrand's books. CETA concluded that WFMT had not been paying its way; the magazine was carrying it. And with Chicago itself now skidding into the red (the trustees chose to blame the old regime for this decline), the mood at CETA was to unload.

"There was a large body of opinion to cut loose the whole ball of wax before it drags us all down," Gray remembers, "but many of us had a view of the sacredness of the station." There was nothing sacred about Chicago, however, and CETA peddled it in 1987. Soon after, something bizarre happened. Ray Nordstrand had stayed at WFMT to head up long-range planning and development. Diederichs left and William McCarter put Nordstrand back in charge.

Why? On the silly pretense that WFMT's present turmoil isn't his business, McCarter wouldn't talk to us for this story. But we asked Gray. "In retrospect I don't understand it and I don't think Bill McCarter understands it either," Gray said. "It was an extremely well-intentioned effort to try to overcome some of the problems of communication and ill feeling that emanated from some of the staff. At least this was the man everyone had looked up to and was friendly with. It didn't work."

No. Nordstrand was temperamentally unsuited for a time of strife and change. His staff came to him with suggestions for increasing revenues and he didn't respond. Which is why early in 1989 Antlitz, Malatia, and Rock took their concerns to William McCarter just as the gang of four had done four years earlier. In March, McCarter put them in charge of the station.

If the staff had voted on a general manager, Malatia probably would have been the choice. As it was, the triumvirate of vice presidents decided among themselves; and Antlitz, the chief engineer, with more time to give the job than either of the others, became the GM, the first among equals. Soon McCarter named him senior vice president.

Antlitz demoted Rock from vice president two months ago. Malatia kept the title to the end, but it became apparent by late last summer that Antlitz was ignoring him. A letter of support signed by most of the staff was sent to McCarter but it didn't help. Malatia and Rock had been Antlitz's old management team; David Levin and Jim Barker became the cornerstone of the new. And when Antlitz decided "we had a stratum of management that we could not afford," Malatia and Rock were part of it.

What forced his hand, Antlitz says, was a disastrous two or three weeks in which Talman Home cut its advertising in half, Continental Bank stopped advertising altogether, and new Arbitron figures showed WFMT once again trailing WNIB. A budget predicated on a 10 percent increase in sales, one written to protect everybody's job, had to be scrapped.

Fortunately, there's a bright side to the January 12 bloodletting. Here it is. In one stroke, Antlitz furnished proof positive to those who need it that management is either (a) methodically destroying the station or (b) finally taking steps to preserve it.

First consider the perspective of Friends of WFMT. Last October, the Friends asked the Federal Communications Commission not to renew CETA's license to operate WFMT unless CETA placed the station under an independent board of trustees. The Friends' petition argued that since 1985, when CETA dissolved an earlier board, it "has tried to bleed WFMT of money and strip it of assets." As evidence, the petition pointed to the sale of Chicago magazine, whose $9 million net profit was placed in an endowment fund to which WFMT does not have access.

Last spring, Antlitz infuriated much of his staff by directing WFMT to ask the public for help in erasing a $400,000 deficit. "Some of us were embarrassed, and I think it did us some good," he says. "It got out of our systems some of the attitude of holier-than-thou." The Friends' petition argues that this appeal was fraudulent. There was no real deficit, say the Friends, because interest on the $9 million is rightfully the station's, and it would have put WFMT comfortably into the black.

The Friends fear that McCarter means to cheap out WFMT, possibly so no one will care if he unloads it one day to some low operator who'll pay dear and shift at once to rock 'n' roll. It's a dark, cynical theory, and the January 12 massacre gave the Friends a fat peg to hang it on. They promptly organized a mass mailing that characterized the dismissals as "further evidence" that "the unique fine arts character of WFMT is in immediate jeopardy" (their emphasis).

"I think they're gutting the station and taking the very best people," said attorney Tom Geoghegan, a Friends leader. "I would have said a week ago I don't think they're malevolent. I don't think I'd say that anymore."

The way Antlitz tells it, management finally showed a little resolve. "Do you know what people kept saying to me?" he asked us. He told us they said, "Al, we won't believe in WFMT again until you do something demonstrable to show WFMT is grappling with its problems."

Who said this? we wondered. Listeners? The board of trustees?

"I heard it from employees who would call me on weekends and say, 'Al, do something . . .'"

Is this what they wanted done? we asked Antlitz.

"Well, we can sit and debate for hours and hours whether wise decisions were made or mistakes were made," he said. "You can argue whether the captain should have turned left or right. But dammit, I turned!"

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

Find out how you can help

Add a comment