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Will This Man Ruin WFMT?

Q&A With Peter Dominowski, the New Program Director



Peter Dominowski, the new program director at WFMT, feels ill-used by the Chicago press. When I called him for an interview, although I identified myself as someone with a viewpoint--that the old WFMT was a pretty good station--he sounded relieved. "I'm so glad to talk to you. All these reporters from other papers have been writing things about me and what I've done, and none of them have bothered to talk to me. That doesn't happen in smaller markets, and I'm really surprised at it happening in a big one like Chicago."

When we met, he seemed ill at ease. He fidgeted constantly with his right foot, which he'd crossed over his left; his eyes darted nervously around his office. It's not an office that bears many signs of individuality as yet; wooden rolltops cover the shelves, and a stack of bound Chicago and Chicago Guide magazines fill one corner; only a large, unframed color photo of a group standing next to a BBC sign, Dominowski among them, bespeaks his dominion.

He hasn't been here long--just since April 15--and so far only on a part-time basis. The 37-year-old Chicago native is burly and bearlike; bearded and bespectacled, he was dressed like a junior-college assistant professor in an unfashionable tie and jacket, in contrast to his stylish predecessor, Norm Pellegrini. In radio for the last 15 years, "in all aspects of programming," he has most recently owned and operated Market Trends, a Florida-based research and consulting firm with TV and radio clients. With that business to wrap up, he won't be here full-time until early July.

Dominowski established a public radio station in Orlando, Florida, in 1980, and was its program director for nine years; he's also the author of two books on public radio programming and research. He came to WFMT first to discuss the possibility of doing research and consulting, and found himself, in March, being tapped to become program director instead. His wife, a physicist in Orlando, will remain there for a while yet.

A great deal of controversy has surrounded WFMT in recent months. The new station manager, Alfred Antlitz, has abandoned WFMT's decades-old policy of no prerecorded commercials, hired burblemeister Jay Andres away from rival classical station WNIB, and brought in Dominowski to replace Pellegrini, who's now a "senior programming consultant," all in the name of profitability. (Antlitz says program director will be more of an administrative position than it's been, and that Pellegrini will still do some programming.) Profitability became an issue after the Chicago Educational Television Association (CETA), which owns both WFMT and TV station WTTW, sold the radio station's one-time big money-maker, Chicago magazine, in 1987, and squirreled away the $9 million of net proceeds in a trust fund that WFMT did not control. WFMT recently became a union shop.

Bryan Miller: What were you hired to do at WFMT?

Peter Dominowski: I was hired to be the program director, and to examine what the station has done, and look forward to the future, and what it can do. Every commercial radio station, ultimately, in order to survive, has to be profitable, or at least break even. Most of them, of course, are interested in being wildly profitable; I think WFMT would probably be fairly satisfied with coming close to breaking even, because I think we probably see ourselves as a public service organization more than most radio stations. Nevertheless, it's a basic economic fact that no business can survive without bringing in money. It doesn't matter whether it's Amoco or Nuveen or Lyric Opera or the Chicago Symphony or WFMT. They all have to fill seats, and they all have to raise money from various sources. The station has to survive, or else it can serve no one. I think I'm here to make the best of the past, and also look forward to the future.

BM: What have you done so far?

PD: Primarily, I've just been studying the situation, getting to know the people, getting reacquainted with Chicago. I have yet to make many program changes or adjustments or suggestions.

BM: Did you change Studs Terkel to 10:30 PM?

PD: Well, it was ultimately my decision. Studs came to us a month or so ago, and was really dissatisfied with his [7 PM] time, and suggested two alternative times, and we agreed with one of those.

BM: What was his other alternative?

PD: I believe the time that he'd been on years ago, ten in the morning.

BM: What made you decide not to go with that?

PD: Well, in general, most people that would like to listen to a talk show at that time simply aren't able to, because of what they're doing.

BM: What kinds of situations have you found? I know there must be uncomfortable aspects to it. How much were you aware of before you walked into it, and how much has risen up to bite you now that you're here?

PD: Well, I was pretty fully aware of the situation, I think. There's a lot of emotions surrounding WFMT, both internally and externally, and many people think of it in a very different way than the way they think of many radio stations. So that's something you have to be prepared to deal with.

BM: Can you go into any more specifics? It must be uncomfortable to be sitting here with your predecessor still here.

PD: Well, I have a great deal of respect for Norm Pellegrini and what he's done and what he's meant; obviously, he's managed to, over the years, be a great boost to the artistic and cultural community of Chicago, and I think he deserves a lot of credit and recognition for that. So I'm not really very uncomfortable at all with his being here; he's been very generous and cooperative with me in our dealings together, and I would hope that'll continue over time, because we hope to still retain Norm as a consultant to the station, and still keep him active in some projects.

BM: Do you know why he was replaced? Was it his idea?

PD: I think that's a question you'll have to ask our general manager.

BM: Now that you've been here for a little while, and you've had a chance to start thinking about your plans for the future, what do you think you'll be changing?

PD: Well, primarily we have to ensure that we are both an artistic success and a hit at the box office. We can't afford to be either/or. We really have to be both. I see my position really as someone who is going to be remodeling the station in some aspect. A lot of people who've never met me, or never even spoken to me, already have wild assumptions about what I'm going to do, and it's interesting that they have those, because they obviously know far more than I do of my intent at this point. [He laughs.] But to make an analogy to, say, Orchestra Hall, what I really want to do is remodel Orchestra Hall: I want to put in additional seats; I want to put in seats that are more comfortable, so that people can enjoy listening for longer periods of time; I want to install more doors, so that more people can get in to enjoy it. That's the kind of remodeling I want to do to WFMT: make it more comfortable to listen to, so that people will enjoy it for longer periods of time, and, hopefully, bring people to it that may have never listened before.

BM: How are you going to make it more comfortable?

PD: I think, in general, by trying to give the impression that we are more open, more friendly, more relatable.

BM: How do you do that?

PD: I think by the selection of your music, and the way in which your announcing staff and your entire station's sound relates to listeners.

BM: And what kind of music do you think would be more friendly? What kind of music do you expect to program? I've been hearing that you've said, "Cut back on Mahler, cut back on Stravinsky, cut back on Prokofiev." Is this true?

PD: No. I've never said those things.

BM: OK, are you thinking them?

PD: Any and all possibilities currently exist. But the fact is that I haven't made any definite decisions.

BM: Well, then, what are some examples of music you think would be more comfortable and the music that's been less comfortable?

PD: Well, I think there's a time and place for everything. For example, last night when I attended the Lyric Opera annual meeting, as people were approaching the dinner tables and eating dinner, vocal operatic music was not played. It was all instrumental opera music, and I think even those who planned the evening for the Lyric Opera itself recognized that in a certain situation it's that music which is more attunable and amenable to what people are doing.

BM: Does this mean you're going to cut back on vocal music?

PD: Not necessarily.

BM: Or cut back on vocal music at certain times of the day?

PD: Perhaps, yeah.

BM: So we might not get to hear the vocal version of the Faure Pavane, just the instrumental version?

PD: Not necessarily. I haven't made those decisions yet. I think you're looking for meat, but . . .

BM: I'm looking for information. You say people haven't talked to you; I'm trying to talk to you and find out what it is you do intend to do. Maybe you can allay a few of the rumors. . .

PD: Sure. Well--

BM: Or else give some substance to them so people have something solid to go on--

PD: I want to make it more comfortable to listen to, really. The way it's really judged is by people listening. Because the average person who listens to radio, even a classical station, doesn't have some sort of tally sheet: Well, I've just heard 5 minutes of Bruckner, 10 minutes of Telemann, 16 minutes of Mozart, and 4 minutes of Stravinsky, and therefore I'll decide based on that whether I like the radio station. They make their judgments in a much more direct fashion, by turning the station on and seeing if what is on the radio station at that time pleases them, or if it doesn't. If it does please them, they generally continue listening, if their life-style permits; if it doesn't, they tune the station off. So decisions, by most people, to listen or not to listen to a radio station are not intellectual decisions. They're emotional decisions, based on the spur of the moment. So even if I currently knew exactly what I was going to do, analytically laid out the exact percentage of each composer--

BM: I'm not asking for exact percentages. Just what you are going to cut back on, and what you're going to add to.

PD: Programmatically, as I said, that hasn't been decided. We hope to have a feeling of friendliness, of approachability, and of fun. One thing I don't think WFMT has been in the past is very much fun to listen to. Sometimes, you know, those of us in the cultural fields have been accused of taking ourselves too seriously.

BM: I've always found the WFMT announcers had a certain dry wit, which I personally prefer to folksiness.

PD: Sure. But all those things are subjective terms, and ultimately people will hopefully judge whether they like the station based on whether they choose to listen or they don't. That's the only determinant of whether we're successful.

BM: Is there reason to think that people find WFMT unapproachable or not fun?

PD: Yeah, there probably is. A lot of people find classical music intimidating.

BM: Well, then, among people who listen to classical music. We've been fortunate in this town in having the two choices, and in their being so different. If you're interested in Strauss waltzes, you can turn on WNIB almost anytime, and you can hear Strauss waltzes. And that's fine. We've had more alternatives on this station. But yesterday at drive time it was dueling Strauss waltzes. Are we going to lose that distinction?

PD: Well, it wouldn't be the first time that there's stations of similar format in a market; I'm sure a lot of times there's dueling Phil Collins on other radio stations, or dueling Barry Manilow on still others.

BM: We're talking about a smaller target--perhaps a better educated target, a more affluent target. Does it really serve that target to have two WNIBs? Is that what we're looking at?

PD: No--we have no intention to change our call letters.

BM: Good, glad to hear it. But in terms of the format--you've hired Jay Andres, who is the quintessential Mr. WNIB.

PD: He used to work there.

BM: And for many people he epitomized the WNIB sound. He's very casual, barking dogs in the background, a lot of mistakes but laughter to cover it up--whereas at WFMT, it's been a little more serious, but I wouldn't say . . . stodgy.

PD: Well, again, it's a subjective opinion.

BM: So you think WFMT has been stodgy?

PD: I think there's elements of stodginess, yeah.

BM: So how do you get rid of stodginess without becoming vulgar?

PD: Well, vulgar is also subjective. . . . You know, I don't go along with the belief that there is inherently classical music which is somehow terribly inferior and some which is terribly superior. Those that do hold that view generally tend to believe that anything that more than several people like must obviously be inferior because someone likes it.

BM: That's not what I'm getting at at all. But what is the benefit if something, some style, is so popular that that's all you hear all the time?

PD: Well, I think there's very little chance of that ever happening. There's a range of programming at WFMT--not only what it programs itself, but what it chooses to run--the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera, and orchestras from around the country, a wide range of repertoire. We currently program radio drama and spoken word programs--there's a diversity on this station which no other station in the community has. I don't think that will change.

BM: That's the old WFMT, though. What I'm trying to find out is how much of this is going to stay, and how much will change.

PD: Well, there certainly will be some changes--both in terms of several programs or styles that [will] no longer [be] on 'FMT, and others may be transferred to different times, but, again, specific decisions simply haven't been made.

BM: I'm not a fan of spoken word myself, but I certainly feel that it should be there for those who enjoy it. Where else do they have to go?

PD: Well, there are lots of cassettes available. I think these affluent people probably have the means to purchase these. Radio itself cannot satisfy, inherently, every need or every whim. There's limited channel space in any market, and there's a limit to what programming can be made possible by advertisers.

BM: Are you going for a lower common denominator overall? A less elitist approach?

PD: I think anything which makes an attempt to be exclusionary can be elitist to some extent.

BM: How is WFMT exclusionary?

PD: I'm not saying that it is. I think it can easily give some people the impression that you have to be a PhD in order to be qualified to listen to the station. But that isn't true just for WFMT; it's true for any station across the country with a similar format. And classical stations across the country have changed a lot in recent years, and I think that's important for people to remember, because I think a lot of people, especially those who may have been listening for a number of years, their memories range not only so much to what things were like yesterday, but how things were 10 years ago, or 15 or 20 years ago, as though that status quo still prevails. And many things that may have been true and successful 10 and 20 and 30 years ago no longer prevail and are no longer successful. People's memories often still reach back to those times, as though they still existed.

As you look around the country, at what other stations of this general format are doing--WCLV in Cleveland, a very successful fine-arts station, has drastically tried to make itself more approachable, has featured a lot more music and a lot less talk, has broadened its morning show to include a traffic report and other life-style news of interest; WNCN in New York does promotions on the street, sponsors lots of concerts, still plays lots of classical music. To me, suggesting that strongly promoting classical music or trying to market it in a way that appeals to people, by saying that that somehow cheapens or destroys the music, really blasphemes the power of music.

BM: There's a big difference between sponsoring concerts, and even having contests and promotions, and having "life-style" features. I'm not sure what that means, but it sounds People magazine-ish.

PD: I think those are all subjective and pejorative terms that people use, and, again, most folks don't listen to radio that way. The question is simply. Do they like what's on or don't they?

BM: Are you worried about offending your longtime core listenership?

PD: Yes, anytime you broadcast any music or any programming, you are guaranteed to offend someone. Seemingly, there is a small percentage of people who are already offended when very few changes have been made, because they perceive changes have been made.

BM: Don't you think that the advertising policy is a major change? It would be pretty hard not to be offended by that if you don't like jingles.

PD: I suppose. It's unfortunate, perhaps, that it had to happen, but it's a necessity that it happens for the station to survive.

BM: But if people turn you off when they hear the "no bull" ad come on, is that gaining you anything?

PD: Well, I would say if the station went off the air in six months due to lack of funds, what does that gain? People need to realize that WFMT for years was the single commercial radio station in the entire country that did not broadcast prerecorded commercials.

BM: Isn't that something to be proud of, instead of to be abandoned? I've been told that there's a cheaper rate for broadcasting prerecorded commercials, so that you're really not making any more money at it.

PD: I don't know where you're getting your facts, but that's very, very wrong.

BM: All right. And if somebody hits the station button when a bunch of men screaming "No bull!" comes on, and switches to WNIB until they play a jingle, are you really gaining, are you building a listenership that way? Or are you just teaching people to switch channels?

PD: Obviously, all radio stations wish that people would stay tuned to their station forever. That's not realistic. We want to build listening as long as we possibly can. But since that move was necessary for financial survival, it's one that we undertook with regret, but with the reality that in order for WFMT to survive, it needed to be done. And I accept that.

BM: How about bringing over Jay Andres? Has that been a happy move?

PD: I think the jury's still out on Jay.

BM: How does he fit in with the image that WFMT has been cultivating all these years?

PD: Well, seemingly, if the WFMT of the past, exactly as it was, was still successful today, I wouldn't be here. The commercial policy wouldn't be here. It would still be going on the same. So obviously we have to go on the assumption that, for whatever reason, that wasn't entirely successful. So some change in the status quo has been necessary. The question, of course, is which changes.

BM: Does his listenership seem to be coming over with him to the afternoon?

PD: It's too early to tell.

BM: Have you heard the rumors that CETA plans to sell WFMT's extremely valuable slot and merge it with WBEZ?

PD: Right. I've heard nothing of the kind. Obviously, every day of our existence should be a clue to the rational person that it's simply not going to happen. The CETA people have been very sympathetic. They have only asked us to do two things: to produce a product of quality, and to be able to do it within our means, which I don't think is unreasonable.

BM: Have they said anything about giving back the Chicago magazine money?

PD: Any radio station should be able to operate on a break-even or profitable basis.

BM: I'd like to ask you some questions about a "letter to clients and colleagues" you sent out in July 1988. I don't know if you remember it.

PD: That's a long time ago.

BM: Well, two years ago. Anyway, I'd like to read you some parts of it and ask some questions.


BM: You say that "if a music-based format is not successful, the music must be changed," that stations must abandon, "programming decisions based entirely on musicology," and play only that music that will appeal to the target audience, and you give baroque and "cutting edge" as two examples. One of the things you've italicized is, "A quantum leap could be made if we stop programming music simply because it is considered classical, and rid ourselves of the self-imposed obligation to play all music of all eras, simply because it's been written and recorded." How does this letter apply to WFMT?

PD: Well, it's a commonsense thing in radio broadcasting. We're being a little more selective about what we broadcast. Every radio station is trying to present music its listeners will like.

BM: Are there specific things you think WFMT should cut back on, in keeping with this line of reasoning?

PD: Once again, those decisions haven't been made. We haven't figured out what kind of audience 'FMT has.

BM: Have you started your focus groups? Will you be doing that?

PD: We haven't determined that yet.

BM: How are you going to find out what your audience is, and what it likes?

PD: I'm not sure I can really discuss that, since it obviously has management and budgetary implications which I have yet to have an opportunity to discuss with my management.

BM: Could you just give me a general idea of how long it's going to take for this to really take shape?

PD: I would hope within several months.

BM: Earlier you said that you thought WFMT took something of a public-service approach to broadcasting. Do you think the station has a little obligation to educate its listeners, not just to give them soothing sounds?

PD: Not necessarily. I think the education is somewhat implicit in the music you're playing, in many respects. It's simply a technique. You know, most of what most radio stations do are techniques to please listeners. I think the question is, do you control your destiny, and do you take an active interest in the specific likes and dislikes of your listeners and try to go out and please them, or do you simply place one record on after another and not really think about what people are doing in their lives at a particular time or who it is you're broadcasting to at that particular time? I think radio's job is to serve people, and the only way you can serve them is to get them listening and keep them listening.

BM: But if you exclude certain things, what happens to the educational or sampler aspect of listening to classical music on radio?

PD: They've been excluding certain things on WFMT for years.

BM: Such as?

PD: Whatever isn't being played at that moment is excluded. If you have Shostakovich on for a half hour, then everything else during that listening period is excluded.

BM: But looking more generally, at a programming week, or day, or month . . .

PD: Well, that also rides on the false assumption that people are spending most of their time every day with one single radio station, and that's really not true.

BM: A lot of people used to spend all their time with WFMT. My own personal dial was always soldered to 'FMT.

PD: Well, that may be so, but it's extremely atypical.

BM: I've talked to a lot of people--especially since I started working on this article--who have said that that was their former habit.

PD: Well, obviously that's a wonderful situation that every radio station hopes to have. But in general, the way people use radio--that doesn't conform to those patterns.

BM: Another thing you suggest in your letter is "segued sets," with back-to-back uninterrupted selections, the way rock stations do it. Is that something you're going to try at WFMT?

PD: There's no decision on that yet. It depends on what the target audience is going to be.

BM: How would you put together a classical music segued set? Would you bleed from one number to the next, the way they do on rock stations?

PD: I don't think you'd cross-fade them, but you'd begin one piece of music after the other one ended.

BM: Without saying what it was or who it was.

PD: Right. You probably would ultimately identify it, but you certainly don't have to do it right at that exact moment.

BM: Would these be pieces by different composers?

PD: Normally--could be, depending on how creative you wanted to be in putting together the music. The primary thing is, is the music enjoyable, and would it sound good together? The test of this technique--and, again, this is simply a technique; it has no positive or negative value necessarily--is does it make the music sound good, does it make people want to listen to you more because of it.

It seems that a lot of people--and maybe I'm misinterpreting--are trying to make value judgments about techniques, and really the techniques are not what's important. The music, and whether they want to listen to it and whether they enjoy it, is what's important.

BM: I have a newsletter here from the Friends of WFMT, and they say you've told the announcers to talk faster. Have you?

PD: Not specifically. I don't discuss in public my critiques or discussions with individual announcers. It would be kind of like discussing how your editor tells you how you're doing your job as a reporter. It's privileged information.

BM: No, I just meant your general philosophy of radio announcing, not what you've said to specific people.

PD: My general philosophy is that it should be interesting, and should make people want to listen.

BM: One of the reporters who didn't talk to you said that you did "top 40" classical programming. Would you talk about that?

PD: Well, there's really no such thing.

BM: My understanding is that "top 40" is more "easy listening" music, very little vocal stuff, more living artists or artists who are currently working, if you will--more Kathy Battle and less Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Is that what you've done in the past, or is it not?

PD: Not necessarily. Your job as a radio programmer is to bring the music to people so they can enjoy it. The only way you can serve people through radio is through listenership. If people aren't listening, they're not being served. My job here or at any other radio station is to accomplish that task.

BM: Is that how you've accomplished it? I want to know how fair this accusation is.

PD: I think it's an inherently pejorative term. . . . What we're basically trying to do is take a station that has, in round numbers, on the average, 1 1/2 percent of people in Chicago listening to it to, say, 2 percent. I don't see this as mass commercialization, as a cataclysm.

BM: So we're going to hear less Victoria de los Angeles?

PD: I think you're asking specifics, which are really just far beyond the interest of the average person.

BM: Maybe not beyond the interest of the Reader reader. They tend to go into things in greater depth. But let's talk about people currently singing, versus people who are in the past.

PD: Well, I think if we want to truly reflect and tie into our cultural community, it makes sense for us to highlight those individuals who are going to be performing in and around Chicago. I think one of the things 'FMT has done well over the years is to try to give boosts whenever possible to culture and art in Chicago. And one of the many ways we can do that is to highlight artists who are going to be appearing in this area, as a tie-in and an assist to other cultural institutions.

It seems that there has been, in some ways, an incredible amount of emotion and misinformation connected with WFMT. I guess in one sense it's complimentary, because it shows the strong emotional bond that some people had, and continue to have, with WFMT, and have had for many years. But even though I wasn't here at the time, I recall the incredible hubbub when it was announced that there might be lights at Wrigley Field, and that no one would go see the Cubs anymore--the city would be in shambles, and it just wouldn't be the same. And, if I recall, Cubs attendance is better than ever, and the city has survived and thrived, and the team is more popular than ever. So a lot of times, I think, there's a tendency for people to assume that if an institution changes just slightly, a cataclysmic result will occur.

I want to look ahead. At Lyric Opera last night, Ardis Krainik's theme was not "let's glorify the past." Ardis is a successful person, and like most successful people, she looks into the future. Her theme is "looking toward the 21st century." She said, "We obviously have a great institution; what can we do to make it even better, to improve it, to expand it even more?" That's the same way I feel, really, about WFMT. I'm concerned about the remainder of the 20th and the 21st century, not dwelling upon what WFMT was in 1960 or 1955. I'm looking toward the future, expanding, continuing as the premiere fine arts/classical music station not only in the city, but in the United States.

BM: Any other comments?

PD: Listen.

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

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