It's been 17 years since Victoria Lautman first walked into the WBEZ studio to do a freelance art review and sent her distinctive voice out over the airwaves. You couldn't hear it without paying attention. In those days, well before the adenoidal Ira Glass became an icon, most on-air personalities had conventional "radio voices"--resonant, buttery, modulated. Lautman, on the other hand, was pitched somewhere between a load of gravel and a snort of whiskey. She sounded like Janis Joplin on a good day, if Joplin had had a background in art history. Wrapped in that voice, even another gallery show of minimalist art sounded like a party.
She got invited back, reviewing once a month on Mark Hyland's Saturday show, then contributing regularly to Carolyn Grisko's weekday morning program. She campaigned for the chance to do a show dedicated to arts and culture and in 1990 she got it--Artistic License, two hours on Saturdays, cohosted with Neil Tesser. Tesser quit after three years and she hosted alone for another five. The show was moved to Friday afternoon, then to Thursday night. In 1998, when a lot of WBEZ programming changed, it ended, and Lautman was folded into Eight Forty-Eight, the morning magazine now hosted by Steve Edwards. "I just kept my nose down and kept going," she says, "and in a lot of ways it was really great for me." She taped about eight pieces a month for Eight Forty-Eight, functioned as an arts reporter and substitute host, and was allowed to expand into subjects like medicine and education. Then, last winter, her airtime was cut in half.
Her first reaction was to blame herself: "I rocked the boat," she says. In January, after three and a half years without an increase, she asked for a raise. The response came a month later. As Lautman recalls it, "Tish Valva, Eight Forty-Eight's executive producer, said, 'We're going to give you a raise, but we're cutting the amount of time you're going to be on.'" When Lautman responded, "Well, then, don't give me a raise. I'd rather be on more and be paid the same amount," things turned really bleak: "She said to me, 'No. This is not a budget concern. This is a content issue.'" For Lautman, who says no one at the station ever told her they didn't like her work, having her hours cut was the most obvious in a series of signals that 'BEZ doesn't value her anymore. "My first commitment has always been to WBEZ," she says. "I have rolled with every single punch. This is the first time that I actually thought, why am I knocking my head against this wall? After all these years, I'm just a freelancer. When they gave me the raise [and cut the hours] it ended up being the same amount of money. And when I offered to go back--to rescind this raise in favor of just staying on the air and doing what I like to do--that was no longer an option." Last week, feeling like "the person who goes to work and finds their desk moved into the hall," she asked for a two-month leave of absence starting October 1. She's wondering whether she'll be able to go back.
If Lautman's feeling unwanted, it's news to WBEZ president and general manager Torey Malatia. "Oh God, I hope not," he says. "We just negotiated a new fee. Right now she's the highest paid contributor. It's half the work for about a $10,000 annual raise." (Lautman disputes this.) "But all of these people are terribly underpaid. In some cases they're getting like lunch money. We're dealing with a budget that we'll have to spread among a lot of contributors. We have to be realistic about how much money we can channel to one." Doesn't Lautman's offer to work for her old rate make it clear that money's not the only issue? "This year we hope to add five new arts contributors to Eight Forty-Eight," Malatia says. "Five new voices, young voices, diverse voices, people who know about new emerging kinds of arts, cutting-edge things in communities that maybe aren't mainstream, that our current stable of arts people don't frequent or don't know about. Think about it from the point of view of a radio station that's trying to serve a population of seven million people--Asian-American, Latino, African-American, Arab-American--it's an amazing diversity of population. We talk about important institutions like the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but we're missing so much that's new and interesting out there."
With new grant money he anticipates getting this year, Malatia also wants to add a full-time arts director to his staff, someone to oversee beefed-up arts coverage at the station. And a year from now he's planning to launch an hour-long, five-day-a-week show in Talk of the Nation's midafternoon time slot--a mixture of news and culture that would include arts segments. "Our desire is to do more of this stuff, not less of it," he says. "Since 'MAQ's demise and 'NIB's demise, a lot of this is falling on us. And we should take up the mantle. That's what we're here for." He says Valva is reviewing tapes now, hunting for those five new voices that know what's going on not only in Pilsen, but in Harvey or Kenosha.
But Lautman says it's been eight months since her airtime was cut and no new arts contributors have been hired; in spite of talk about new programs, "there's been what seems to be a kind of fundamental erosion in the commitment to arts and culture programming." She doesn't understand why adding new voices, which she's in favor of, meant her time had to be cut, regardless of money. "It seems crazy to have to stand back from the work you've produced and what you're known for, and have [the quality of the work] be of lesser value than the type of voice being heard," she says. She's doing a couple segments a month on WTTW's Artbeat Chicago and looking to see where else she could take her act. "I'm really sorry I opened my big fat mouth," she says. "If I had kept my mouth shut, maybe I wouldn't have gotten a raise and I could still be doing what I do, which I love." She says the official line will be that she left of her own accord to pursue other projects. "I'm probably shooting myself in the foot," she adds, "but if I'm gonna go out, I'd rather go out with people knowing why and under what circumstances."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.