By Ted Shen
Sonia Florian is one of classical radio's women pioneers, and after four decades in the business she's acknowledged by her peers to be an unassuming, tireless, tenacious entrepreneur. Her decidedly middlebrow taste and cautious managerial style have turned the independent station she manages, WNIB, into a surprising survivor, with ratings respectable enough to attract blue-chip national advertisers.
And she says she has no intention of giving WNIB up. For the past four years there's been a consolidation frenzy among commercial-radio broadcasters, as national chains have been gobbling up local independents--particularly those with desirable FM signals. WNIB--which at 97.1 is ideal because it's smack in the middle of the dial--could fetch tens of millions of dollars. But Florian has rebuffed several overtures from potential buyers, including two serious offers in the past year. The radio subsidiary of Viacom proposed a buyout two summers ago, and she was curious enough to meet with its broker. The offer of $70 million astonished her, but she wondered what she and her husband, Bill, who legally owns WNIB, could possibly do with so much money. "I didn't even bother to reply," she says, shrugging. "I'm perfectly happy with running this station, programming the kind of music I like. Besides, Bill will hold on to the station until the day he dies. It's been our whole life."
Florian has a routine each day when she arrives at WNIB headquarters, a plain one-story former warehouse on Erie Street just west of the Kennedy Expressway, where the atmosphere is decidedly casual. A gaggle of cats and dogs that live on the premises--legendary for the noise they make during broadcasts--jostle for her attention. The top priority of her day is feeding and petting them. A couple of years ago Alan Heatherington, then music director of the Chicago String Ensemble, was bitten by the station's German shepherd. As Sonia led him to the sink, one of the employees yelled at her and Bill for allowing the animals to be there. Bill yelled back, "You're fired! Fired!" He wasn't.
After feeding the animals, Sonia makes her rounds, checking in with her lieutenants and peering into the station's large, dusty record and CD library. "To tell you the truth, the station pretty much runs itself," she says with a cheerful smile. But she insists that it gives her enormous pleasure just to come to work, putting in long hours and only rarely taking a vacation.
In the late 50s, when Florian joined the fledgling WNIB as a jack-of-all-trades, AM stations ruled the airwaves, and classical music headlined any major station's programming, providing cultural cachet and luring European immigrant listeners. But slowly AM ceded its dominance of the dial to the FM band, and pop music and shock jocks became the darlings of mass advertisers. The number of classical-format stations--which appeal to an affluent, well-educated, but small audience--dwindled.
According to data compiled by the Federal Communications Commission, of the 13,400 or so commercial and not-for-profit radio outlets broadcasting in the United States today, fewer than 30 are classified as commercial operations with predominantly classical fare--though perhaps 250 more, almost all nonprofit National Public Radio affiliates, include some classical music in their mix of news and fine-arts offerings. In Chicago only WNIB and its longtime rival, WFMT, still carry a full slate of classical and related programs. Both are under pressure to sell--and each would love to see the other disappear.
"The economic pressures on these two stations to sell are great," says Jack Minkow, president of the Winnetka-based Broadcasting Asset Management Corporation, one of the nation's largest radio brokers. "We have a number of companies that would retain us to make a deal if either decided to be on the market. The demand for a full-signal FM station in Chicago is very intense right now, with the value easily approaching $80 million."
Before 1997 the federal government, in an attempt to curtail the concentration of power in influencing public opinion, had numerous regulations affecting TV and radio owners, including ones barring any company from owning more than 40 radio stations nationwide or more than 6 in a single market. But the proliferation of cable channels, the burgeoning Internet, low-power FM, and other modes of mass communication lessened fears about concentrations of power, and in 1996 Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which loosened many of the regulations. The only remaining federal curbs on the growth of big national chains are a Justice Department regulation barring a company from controlling more than 35 percent of any market's ad revenues and an FCC regulation limiting the number of radio stations a company can own in a large market such as Chicago to eight, of which no more than five can be FM.
Minkow says the act opened the floodgates for buyouts and megamergers, because companies could now own as many stations as they wanted nationwide. By mid-1998 the top five national chains each owned at least 150 stations. Hundreds of small owners have gladly sold out, in many cases getting stratospheric returns for what had been paltry initial investments. According to the Wall Street Journal, so many radio stations changed hands last year that the transactions were valued at more than $15 billion--up from $3.6 billion in 1995. In 1997 Dallas-based Evergreen Media acquired Chancellor Broadcasting, which by then owned 51 stations nationwide, as well as ten radio stations from Viacom. The resulting conglomerate, Chancellor Media, now trails only Infinity Broadcasting, the radio unit of CBS Corporation; in 1998 Infinity had 181 stations and revenues of about $1.9 billion. But Chancellor recently announced that it's going to acquire Capstar, which should make it number one.
In Chicago, the third largest advertising market in the country, Infinity and Chancellor are the powerhouses. But neither is likely to be interested in either WNIB or WFMT. "They are out because they're up to their limit [Infinity has eight stations and Chancellor five FM stations]," Minkow explains. "However, there are dozens of other candidates, including the number-three chain [in terms of revenue], Jacor, Emmis Broadcasting Corporation, Walt Disney's ABC radio unit, and others that want a presence in Chicago." He also says one can't rule out privately held companies such as Bonneville International (which is controlled by the Mormon Church); it bought WPNT FM and WLUP FM from Chancellor in 1997 for about $161 million. "So it's safe to speculate," says Minkow, "that 'NIB can command well in excess of $70 million. And the same can be said for 'FMT."
That kind of money was far from Bill Florian's mind when he applied for a license to operate a Class B FM station back in 1954. A radio hobbyist since his childhood in Chicago Lawn and an "audio engineer-tinkerer" since doing a stint in the navy, he was intrigued by the potential of FM broadcasting even though the number of radios in the country capable of being tuned to an FM frequency at that time was less than one million. "I believed that FM was a better form of transmission than AM," he recalls, "and it offered much clearer and cleaner sound, especially for broadcasting music." Back then the FCC granted licenses for free, requiring only that they be renewed every three years. (A nominal yearly filing fee was later added, and now amounts to $5,200 for WNIB.) The call letters Bill picked are a measure of his ambition: NIB stands for Northern Illinois Broadcasting.
Florian took on a partner, another licensed engineer, and together they built a makeshift studio in the unheated attic above the ballroom of the Midwest Hotel, at Hamlin and Madison. On July 9, 1955, the station came on the air, billing itself as "Chicago's FM Voice of Variety." It broadcast mostly jazz, show tunes, and easy listening from five to midnight seven days a week.
Among the first announcers was Bill Gershon, then an undergraduate at Roosevelt University who was curious about radio stations. "It was very much a neighborhood station with a low-power 3,000-watt transmitter," he remembers, "and the antenna was bolted to the hotel's flagpole. I signed up for the experience, even though I wasn't paid until later--very little even then." Florian, a jazz aficionado, also hired Dick Buckley to take care of the jazz portion of the musical menu. "Bill didn't have money to pay us," says Buckley, now a DJ at WBEZ, "but it was fun to play music I liked."
There was no money because there were few advertisers. Gershon says, "Most advertisers went to where the audience was--on the AM spectrum. Oh, we had a couple of sponsors, like Kroch's & Brentano's or a record store."
It was Gershon who came up with the idea of filling the Sunday-evening 5 PM-to-midnight slot with freebie records sent in by classical labels. "Classical music wasn't part of our programming at first," he says, "since most other FM stations aired lots of classical music, especially WFMT and WEFM. But I told Bill we should make use of the 12 records we had in the library. He said, 'All right. Just don't have any of that ivory-tower stuff here.'" So Gershon ushered in what he calls WNIB's "friendly, low-key, no-pontification" style. By early 1957 he was gone, but classical music remained a fixture at the station. In fact, it began creeping into the weekday programs, though Florian says it was a tough sell.
In the station's early years announcers and hosts came and went, mostly because of the measly pay and lack of job security. Bill Plante left town and is now with CBS News; Marty Robinson moved over to WFMT and later WTTW TV. Only rarely was anyone fired. Today employees seldom leave. Many of the 14 full-timers and 6 part-timers have been around for more than 20 years, including music director Miller Peters and DJs Fred Heft, Bruce Duffie, and Ken Alexander.
Sonia Florian, then Sonia Atzeff, arrived in 1958 to give the chaotic operation some order, since Bill Florian had been devoting much of his time to the technical side. She didn't have any experience as a manager, but then the job didn't pay much. "I was studying at Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt hoping to become an opera singer," she recalls, "but I quickly realized that I didn't have the talent. Besides, I'd decided to cast my lot with Bill. He was convinced FM would succeed. And I was head over heels in love with him. He was so nice looking with those piercing blue eyes--you know how this sort of infatuation happens to people in their 20s." They were married nine years later when she finally forced the issue by refusing to go with him on a cross-country trip unless they got married. "I'm old-fashioned that way," she says matter-of-factly. "I didn't think it right for a single woman to travel on the road with a single man."
By then Bill had bought out his equity partners and become the sole owner of the station--which he still is--and she was entrenched as the manager, one of only a handful of women decision makers in the industry. Sonia had always been passionate about mainstream classical music. "I can listen to Verdi all day and not be tired of it," she says. "If I didn't have to program for an audience, I'd probably play opera and ballet music all the time." As the station gradually added more on-air hours, she made sure they were filled with classical music, and by the early 60s almost all the hours were classical. Always on the lookout for congenial, authoritative hosts, she snatched up Karl Haas's popular middlebrow show Adventures in Good Music in 1975, and she turned the dinner hour over to excerpts from the 18th- and 19th-century European repertory, a show called Zephyr.
Florian believes that audiences prefer the mainstream music WNIB programs. "I never thought the folks at 'FMT cared about what the public wanted," she says. "They were elitist, and I always believed that once our station had a wider coverage area we'd beat them in the ratings. I could never imagine playing Honegger's Joan of Arc at three o'clock in the afternoon."
Her populist policy of "more music, little talk, and nothing mentally challenging during the day" is derided by classical purists, who prefer cutting-edge music and voice-of-God annotations. "She's dumbing us down" has been a constant refrain from detractors. But Florian says she realized that the very survival of classical music on the air depended on its winning converts. "I can't play Schoenberg when there are people out there not aware of Beethoven and Mozart," she says. It took other classical-music schedulers years of declining ratings to come around to her point of view.
For most of its first 30 years WNIB languished in the giant shadow of WFMT. Bernard and Rita Jacobs, another husband-and-wife team, had founded WFMT in 1952, and they shepherded it through its lean years, which lasted well into the 60s. They too were often strapped for money, but they had the backing of the city's culturati, and they had a knack for promoting classical music and drama. Mike Nichols and Norm Pellegrini were the first announcers, and they inaugurated a policy of calmly read commercials that were devoid of jingles and sound effects. Nichols went on to Second City, but not before he started the Midnight Special and a series of radio plays produced by the Playwrights Theatre Club, the precursor of the Compass Players and Second City.
An ailing Bernard Jacobs sold the station to WGN in 1968, but it was rescued after a heated campaign by the Hyde Park-based Committee to Save WFMT. In 1970 it became a for-profit arm of the Chicago Educational Television Association, which also ran WTTW.
The station entered its glory days around this time, when Ray Nordstrand took over as president. He'd been hired by Nichols in 1953, when he was still an economics student at Northwestern University--after proving he could correctly pronounce a list of composers' names. By the early 70s WFMT was celebrated--and satirized--for having knowledgeable announcers who could rattle off foreign names. The station was also nationally known for the homespun, in-depth interviews done by Studs Terkel, who'd joined the station in 1953. In 1976 the station formed the WFMT Fine Arts Network to distribute Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera performances across the country; a decade later it extended its reach with the Beethoven Satellite Network, programming that stations around the world can download.
WFMT had become an institution as much identified with the city as the Cubs. Its listeners were noted for their fervid loyalty; its public-minded news and interview and drama shows won an enviable number of prestigious broadcast awards, including five Peabodys and a cabinet full of Major Armstrongs and DuPonts--all top awards for excellence in programming--between 1961 and 1986, the height of its renown. Just as important, WFMT scored impressively in the ratings, for a classical station, and its audience was coveted by advertisers from Northern Trust Bank to Mercedes-Benz that were pitching tony products and services.
Nordstrand and Pellegrini, who'd become program director, hobnobbed with the city's establishment, schmoozing with the flair of cultural potentates. Seeing a rosy future for classical music and a great role for WFMT in that scenario, Nordstrand and his team embarked on an imperial expansion in the fall of '81, moving the staffs of the radio station and its 11-year-old glossy lifestyle magazine and program guide, Chicago, into a palatial suite of offices at 303 E. Wacker. Widely perceived as an arts maven and a savvy manager, Nordstrand was invited to sit on various boards, including those of the CSO and the Lyric.
In contrast, the Florians had always assiduously avoided the spotlight. Neither frequented cultural schmooze fests, though they weren't often invited anyway. Sonia felt ill at ease at cocktail functions and ladies' luncheons, and the gruff, taciturn Bill, whom many still mistake for a maintenance man, preferred to hang out with his biker and engineer buddies. "I feel far more comfortable spending time with my staff and close friends, who are like an extended family to us," says Sonia. "And both Bill and I are too busy taking care of our business."
Though they're neighbors on the FM dial, WNIB didn't have as wide an area of coverage or as strong a signal as WFMT. From the very start, listeners in the northern and northwestern suburbs--important to advertisers--had trouble locking on to 97.1 because the signal from a station in Zion, WKZN (96.9), interfered. "Listeners in some suburbs got static at our frequency," says Sonia. "Because of that, our ratings were so minuscule that we weren't included in the Arbitron survey." Advertisers had long regarded Arbitron as the most reliable radio-ratings service, and they found it hard to justify buying airtime on any station that didn't have a rating.
Because WNIB couldn't attract advertisers, the Florians tried throughout the 70s to persuade WKZN to move to another frequency. They failed, and their station's fate was in constant jeopardy. "There were times that we couldn't pay employees, and I ended up running the control board and coordinating the announcements," recalls Sonia, chuckling softly. "To get some income we had to rent out fringe time periods to foreign-language and religious programs." Somehow she persuaded landlords to accept ads in exchange for office space as the studio grew. "We moved from a tiny but costly two-room suite on State Street to a slightly bigger space on Riverside [Plaza], then to Chestnut, then to Delaware," she says. "We had to, because our record library just kept growing."
Then in 1978 WEFM, Chicago's only other classical station, decided to abandon classical music (the frequency now broadcasts country-and-western music). The Florians picked up some of its advertisers, charging them an average of $20 for a 60-second spot. (The top rate these days is close to $200.) "That helped us a lot by giving us some breathing room in hard times," says Sonia. It also helped that more and more radio listeners were switching to FM for its high-fidelity, albumlike sound. By the early 80s around 75 percent of all listeners were tuning in to FM stations.
In early 1983 WNIB's fortunes took a turn for the better. With a loan from Sonia's brother, who's a surgeon, the Florians bought WKZN outright for $1 million. That allowed WNIB to broadcast simultaneously from both frequencies. No longer hindered by static, WNIB's signal came across loud and clear as far north as Milwaukee and as far west as Rockford. Almost overnight the number of its potential listeners doubled--a fact that didn't go unnoticed by WFMT's upper management. William McCarter, WTTW's CEO at the time, reportedly told Nordstrand, "Now, Ray, you've got real competition."
Sure enough, WNIB's ratings started to creep upward--enough to land it on the Arbitron charts. That trend, coupled with a burgeoning economy, helped ease the task of newly hired sales manager Steve Adler. "We got queries from national media buyers who normally placed ads on the other station," he recalls. "Some of them were getting tired of 'FMT's policy of airing no jingles but only ads spoken by its announcers. So they came to us--TWA, Toyota, AT&T--as did local companies such as American National Bank and Chicago Cadillac Dealership. We welcomed them all--and the ads produced by their agencies. Pretty soon we were able to charge more for the ads." Yet Sonia stuck to her thrifty ways, and two years after buying WKZN the Florians had enough money for a down payment on their current quarters, the Spartan building on Erie with space for a large studio, their vast record collection, and all the animals.
Meanwhile over at WFMT things were starting to unravel. The station had overextended itself paying for pricey equipment and additional staff and the exorbitant long-term rental for its downtown office. Then WNIB's success persuaded some major WFMT sponsors to switch, and the station's ratings began to slide. Nordstrand was nudged aside as general manager in 1985 and lost his president's title two years later. In a 1985 Tribune interview McCarter hinted that WFMT could be sold for the right price, but in 1987 WFMT was dissolved as a separate corporation and became a not-for-profit operating division of CETA, which had been renamed Window to the World Communications, Inc. WFMT did, however, retain its commercial license, which allowed it to continue selling ads.
Several other key executives were also fired, including Dean Grier, who immediately went into the syndication business, under the name Inter-Continental Media, in competition with his old boss. He rang up his contacts in Europe, cut a couple of deals, and soon offered the Chicago broadcast rights for the programs to Sonia Florian. One of the prize programs that WFMT was forced to drop was the Salzburg Festival, which turned out to be a ratings winner that burnished WNIB's image. The alliance between WNIB and ICM would eventually involve WCLV/Seaway Productions, an arm of the classical station in Cleveland and a strong rival of WFMT's in the music-program distribution business. As the local outlet for ICM's syndicated programs, WNIB now airs selected live concerts of topflight American and European orchestras and festivals. One exception is the CSO, whose 39-week concert series is still carried on WFMT, though the fate of this series is now in doubt. Amoco, the longtime underwriter, recently merged with British Petroleum, and the new entity, BP Amoco, declined to continue funding the series, though WFMT is optimistic about finding another sponsor.
The year 1988 proved to be another watershed for WNIB. "We passed 'FMT for the first time in the ratings," Sonia says with pride. "I have the date [in July] marked on my calendar." According to her tally of the published Arbitron reports, from then until 1994 her station beat WFMT in nearly 75 percent of the quarterly ratings periods. "For the last four years we were the clear winner," she says. "They pulled up maybe once or twice."
The Arbitron ranking of commercial stations in the Chicago area for the fall quarter of '98 shows WNIB with a 1.3 percent audience share and a cumulative weekly audience of 324,900, a slightly different measure. It ranked 23rd in audience share among the 39 local nonpublic stations surveyed. WFMT had pulled almost even, with a 1.3 share but a cumulative weekly audience of 284,300. Sonia calls that "a statistical blip." These aren't big numbers compared to top-ranked WGN AM, which had a 6.6 share and a weekly audience of 1,006,600. But combined the numbers for both WNIB and WFMT suggest that the radio audience for classical music in the Chicago area is close to half a million--a figure that's extremely appealing to niche advertisers who want to target the well-heeled.
That audience, says Ross Currie, who buys spots on both stations for TN Media (he pays WFMT slightly higher rates), is extremely loyal. "They are really upscale, very well educated, and usually don't listen to other types of music," he says. "There are plenty of companies--like Chrysler, Ameritech, Amoco, and the New York Times--that want to go after this somewhat older, more established segment of the demographics, companies that would shy away from pop music and talk radio."
A hard core of classical-music devotees exists in almost all major radio markets, yet the numbers don't seem large enough to guarantee profitability for more than one commercial FM station broadcasting classical music in a single market. A recent shakeout in New York left WQXR the sole commercial survivor. Philadelphia and Detroit have one station each, both noncommercial. Boston has two stations, but one of them is a Public Radio affiliate. San Francisco briefly had two commercial stations, but in December one of them converted to adult contemporary.
Chicago is unique in this country in that it has two commercial FM classical stations, though it's not clear whether both are profitable. "'FMT enjoys the privilege of having a commercial license--and therefore can air commercials and yet be part of a not-for-profit organization," Minkow says. "Technically the expectation is not there for it to show a profit." Neither station is forthcoming with figures, but the privately held WNIB, which doesn't produce programs for distribution, generates most of its yearly revenues through ads. Those revenues are believed to be around $4 million, and Sonia Florian, who keeps her overhead low by making do with only 20 employees, doesn't dispute that figure. "We are fairly profitable," she says.
WFMT's financial picture is almost as difficult to decipher, largely because its revenues and expenses are mixed in with those of WTTW in its annual reports. ICM's Dean Grier guessed that WFMT operated in the red for much of the 80s and well into the 90s. It has since cut some costs; its move to a new, state-of-the-art annex on WTTW's campus, on the 5000 block of North Saint Louis, slashed its rent. According to station manager Anders Yocom, it now pays about $200,000 a year for its mortgage--half what it paid in rent.
But its overhead is still higher than WNIB's--it has around 40 employees, and the bills for its new facility aren't cheap. Yocom and Dan Schmidt, who was put in charge of WFMT eight years ago and is now head of WWCI, say they're finding more ways to cut costs. WTTW and WFMT now pool their sales and accounting staffs, and, Schmidt says, "We count every paper clip here."
Funding from corporate sponsors, which had been the main source of WFMT's income, remains down. "We're looking to diversify our revenue streams, to help us avoid dependence on ratings-driven advertising," says Schmidt. "Ratings, I submit, are just one of the variables that determine our success. Our minimum threshold is a 1.0 audience share, a measure of our viability in the advertising marketplace." One gimmick he's come up with is the WFMT Fine Arts Circle, a club of 15,000 dues-paying listeners. Revenues from them now account for one quarter of WFMT's operating budget, he says. "We're talking about very loyal supporters--including the 20,000 or more who wrote us and complained when we aired commercial jingles. We don't anymore of course. Not so at the other station. Our ads are more expensive, but they are still cheap. And we don't have as much clutter."
The 1998 annual report lists WFMT's total revenues at $5.3 million, with $2.7 million of that from ads, but some of that income may be shared with WTTW. And there are rumors that WFMT is still losing money and is being subsidized by WTTW.
Asked where he sees WFMT going in the near future, Schmidt says it's still Chicago's fine-arts station, with "the widest, most varied program mix," a mix that includes Jazz With Bob Parlocha and Live From Studio One music broadcasts. "Our mission is to serve the local community, and to take the city's musical life to an international audience. Given that the station is not-for-profit, all the revenues we generate we turn back into fine programming for the community. We, in effect, subsidize Lyric and CSO broadcasts. And we take risks by broadcasting contemporary works and live concerts showcasing local performers in our studio."
Yet Schmidt has moved WFMT's format closer to WNIB's. "We've made a strategic decision to have more music, less talk," he admits. "The days of full-service stations--with formats that attempt to serve all audiences--are over. Radio is now a format-driven medium. And in the face of direct-broadcast satellite radio and new-media entrants such as commercial-free cable music services, stations will need to strive to be ever more community involved and maintain strong local content." That's why the station ditched the BBC's weekly news roundup International Call in the mid-90s, along with its scholarly lectures and poetry readings. This policy clashed with Norm Pellegrini's penchant for erudite commentaries--"I said no to back-to-back broadcast of segments from the talk-heavy Shaping the Ring," says Schmidt--and in 1997 Pellegrini was fired, though he still freelances as a host.
During the morning and afternoon drive hours, when radio gets its largest audience, people stick with DJs they like. "That's why it's important to have warm, personable hosts who can introduce and chat about music in a nonintimidating fashion," says Schmidt, adding, "They are not easy to find or groom." Which is why WFMT twice raided WNIB's talent pool. In 1990 it hired away Jay Andres, who was later fired. Next was Carl Grapentine, who'd defected from WFMT to WNIB in 1990 but decided to return in 1996. "Now I think we have all our chips in place, and we're grooming in-house talents," says Schmidt. "We're poised for growth."
Despite Schmidt's bravado, growth won't be easy. WFMT not only has to compete with WNIB, but it has to look out for WBEZ, some of whose talk programs would have fit right in at the old WFMT. WBEZ, which moved up a notch in the latest Arbitron survey (to a 1.8 audience share or 382,100 listeners), also sees itself as a champion of the Chicago community. And though it airs little classical music, its jazz shows and news analysis appeal to the same boomer audience WFMT and WNIB covet.
There's a distinct corporate air at WFMT these days. Huge photos of program hosts and shelves of trophies and plaques line the lobby of the airy new quarters. Despite a deliberate attempt at casualness, Schmidt is very much a suit. The camaraderie and pride of the past have largely evaporated, giving way to nostalgia for them. Old-timers are retiring, which may be a relief to WWCI executives who don't have to pay their high salaries anymore.
But would they want to sell the station? Mace Rosenstein, a media lawyer in Washington, D.C., who used to be a WFMT announcer, believes that for the right price the WWCI board of trustees would sell. "At some point," he says, "the positives will outweigh the negatives."
But Martin Koldyke, an investment banker who's chairman of WWCI's board, says, "The station is not for sale. We have a mission to fulfill." Radio broker Jack Minkow says, "If they were purely profit driven, then they should cash out. But whoever buys it is sure not to regard classical as the station's most profitable format--and the members of the 'FMT congregation would be up in arms, damaging the goodwill for Channel 11, WWCI's number-one priority. The risk of a negative repercussion is just too great."
Nevertheless, the new corporate mentality at WFMT may one day make the decision. If someone offers enough money, the suits may let the station go.
The Florians insist they won't be the ones to sell. They built WNIB up from nothing, and they're proud of that. "The Florians should be applauded for having built a ratings winner against a colossus with seemingly unlimited resources," says Minkow. They might also be applauded for winning the 1992 Deems Taylor Prize, which is handed out by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers to stations that promote contemporary music--an award WFMT has yet to win. Fred Eychaner, an entrepreneur who's been friends with the Florians since the 70s, says, "Sonia has not gotten the recognition she deserves. Most people in this town seem not to know too much about her. In their mind 'FMT is still king. There is an enormous old-boys' network in the arts and media community here that keeps propping 'FMT up. They'd all like to see 'NIB go away."
The Florians are well aware of that--and Sonia is just as fiercely competitive as ever. They're also well aware that they would be handing WFMT a big audience and plenty of ad revenues if they sold, just as they'd reap the benefits if WFMT were sold--since whoever bought either station would certainly change its format. Moreover, the Florians don't seem to need the money--they haven't changed their lifestyle much, though they now live in a big house in Bannockburn and Bill buys BMW motorcycles. And the two of them, who never had children, see their station and their employees as family.
Yet both are in their 60s and nearing retirement age. Bill doesn't spend much time in the office anymore, but Sonia does--and so far they have no one to replace her. One candidate was her nephew, Ted Atzeff. Fresh out of college a couple of years ago, he started learning the ropes, though he didn't know much about classical music. "He waded in slowly," says Sonia, "and he now likes opera especially." But last fall he went off to New Orleans to study art.
Neither station has to sell right now, and so for the time being there's a stalemate. But it's a safe bet the pressure on both to sell will probably only increase--as will the size of the offers. Jack Minkow figures that if the Florians sell soon "they can take home about $55 million. Investing that amount in municipal bonds means about $3 million a year--tax and risk free." He thinks the Florians are more likely to sell than WWCI. "They shouldn't think by doing that they'd be throwing in the towel, deserting the classical audience. There's a time to smell the roses, and that kind of money can buy you a lot of roses."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bill and Sonia Florian cover photo by Dan Machnik; various vintage photos.