Jay Andres | Bleader

Jay Andres

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Jay Andres deserves to be remembered as the Sun-Times remembers him Thursday, in a five-column farewell at the top of a page unfortunately labeled OBITUAREIS.

Andres, who died a few days ago in California at the age of 86, had been an important Chicago radio personality with a large following. He was the city's "voice in the middle of the night — as Bruce DuMont puts it in Maureen O'Donnell's obit — on WBBM in the 50s and 60s. When WBBM went all news Andres moved on to WGN, then to WNIB — where he was the popular morning man — and in 1990 to WFMT. "Dismaying audiences of both classical radio stations," I wrote then.

It was one move too many. WFMT was in grave financial trouble, struggling to find a new way, and Andres hoped to be part of the solution. Instead, he became the problem's face — or rather voice. Nothing was more intolerable to WFMT's hard core audience than the prerecorded commercials the station's management resorted to in an attempt to raise revenues. But the audience damned Andres for his chatty style — which his previous listeners had found so friendly and soothing — and lightweight musical choices. His background in commercial radio didn't help either.

Station manager Al Antlitz told me, ""I wish our audience were more forgiving. Our audience is not. It's a supportive audience, but it's unforgiving and merciless in its demands."

I spent some time with Andres in the WFMT studio one afternoon after he'd been given notice.

I asked him about those canned ads he was airing.

"I have no objection," he said. "I think they ought to use more ads. They're the only way to make money. And I see no reason why you can't put a jingle in with serious music."

What about the Lotto ad? we asked.

"I like it. But I'm different. That's why I'm going—I'm different."

Antlitz told me, "WFMT needs change, and it's not going to change.I think they want to go back to the time when Mike Nichols was here and everything was hunky-dory. I would say disregard the Friends of WFMT. But the problem is, they're on the board now. They probably have good intentions about running a radio station, but the sales department frankly should run a commercial radio station—within reason—because they are the ones bringing in the money."

But that view did not prevail.

The astonishing thing is that WFMT wasn't on a one-way slide to a classic rock format. The core audience, represented by Friends of WFMT, demanded reform and got it. The station shifted to a business model that combined ad revenues with public contributions solicited as memberships in the WFMT Fine Arts Circle, which was concocted in 1991. A notorious new program director came and went. Andres was sent packing after a year. Then Antlitz disappeared. Eventually the canned commercials disappeared. Things got worse before they got better, but WFMT regained its bearings.

Almost 20 years later, add WNIB to the list of the long since disappeared. But WFMT soldiers on, a once great institution that survived because in its hour of crisis it was able to make changes that were hard but necessary — and then unmake most of them when they turned out to be not as necessary as all that.

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