Terkel on McCarter | Letters | Chicago Reader

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Terkel on McCarter

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To the editors:

Bryan Miller's cover story on Bill McCarter, Channel 11's general manager (September 4), quotes me accurately for the most part. She's on the button concerning my disdain for WTTW's Board of Trustees (CETA). However, I was astonished by this quote attributed to me: "The more I think of Bill McCarter, the less I disrespect him. Like the kids say, 'I don't dis him anymore.'" My God, did I say that?

I'm not faulting Ms. Miller, but I'm afraid something was lost in translation. Perhaps I was off my feed at that moment or the imp of the perverse had me on the hip. The hard fact is: I have no use for the man. I would trust him no further than I can throw William Perry. What I had in mind, though I may have fouled it up in words, is simply this: My disrespect for McCarter is not as deep as that which I feel for his board. An analogy: my contempt for a hit man is not as deep as that which I feel for the Respectables who hire him. 'Tis not as deep as a well, nor as wide as a church door; but 'tis enough; 'twill serve.

The source of my grievance is easy to explain. WFMT, of which I've been a staff member for 40 years, had been--until an outrageous occurrence--the most honored radio station in the western world. (Check it out with BBC, Radio Francaise, Italy's RAI, and Japan's NHK.) It was a jewel in Chicago's crown. Thousands of our city's expatriates (many in New York) still write of what they most miss in leaving Chicago: WFMT. There was no station in the history of fine arts radio quite like it. And it was making money; not nearly as much as a rock station, but enough.

This was the case until we were casually mugged by WTTW's Board of Trustees, an assemblage of "distinguished citizens" whom Bill McCarter has in his hip pocket. Aside from the summary firings of some of our most talented and dedicated staff people--effectively destroying our morale--the board ripped off our property, Chicago magazine. I say "our property" because it grew organically, year after year, out of our original WFMT Guide. There developed a symbiotic relationship between the station and the magazine; one helped the other. When the WTTW board appropriated the magazine as its own and sold it for millions which it pocketed, WFMT was caught between the rock and the hard place.

With chutzpah that could only be described as monumental, the board complained that we were losing money and changes must be made. The crudity was enough to make Nicholas Nickleby's uncle blush. This piece of offhand purse snatching, fused to self-righteousness, was positively Dickensian. The deed was as brazenly done as anything El Rukns ever undertook. The difference is: Respectables did it.

(I should point out that CETA came to be WFMT's proprietor by a freak set of circumstances. Our founder and original owner, Bernie Jacobs, sold WFMT to WGN at the suggestion of Newton Minow, the elder statesman of the WTTW board. When trouble developed, WGN, again at the suggestion of Minow, gave WFMT as a gift to WTTW. Thus, McCarter and the board, having not the slightest idea what our station was about, nor caring very much, became our boss. We were just another piece of property. Under the new order, the clown they first chose as our CEO told me, in the presence of other WFMT staff members: "We own you. We can do whatever we want with you." This man's previous executive experience was in washing machines.)

Were it not for Friends of WFMT--a group of devoted listeners, who valued the station from its very beginning--raising a ruckus, I am convinced CETA would have sold us long ago to the highest bidder. And God knows who that might have been. After all, we were just a piece of property.

WFMT is now a wounded cat, limping along as gallantly as it can. It still, under the most trying circumstances, maintains its standards, but it will never again leap as high as it once did, bringing so many honors to Chicago. We have McCarter and his board to thank for that.

The fulsome tributes paid to Bill McCarter in Bryan Miller's piece were overwhelmingly from board members. Of course. The most telling sentence of her story: "Many of McCarter's critics prefer to remain anonymous. Among them are employees and former employees of CETA." Fear has an honored place in these precincts. And venality. And boneheadedness, for the vandalism of the Respectables was so unnecessary.

Studs Terkel

Bryan Miller replies:

I had the strong impression that I had talked to Studs on a day when he was in an unusually mellow mood--but I guess I didn't realize just how mellow. Yes, he did say that! I'm sorry if I gave the impression that he approved of William McCarter in any way, shape, or form.

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