WFMT might look like a radio station. But when Bernie and Rita Jacobs put the station on the air 60 years ago today, what they were really doing was starting a conversation. One you will not hear anywhere else.
To say WFMT is a radio station is like saying that the Taj Mahal is a nice building.
The WFMT conversation has always been between people. That sounds simple. But it’s not. In a world where “branding and content and image and market trends” shape lives and try to get strangers to buy things, WFMT is about people. That does not mean its some utopian, college radio station grown up. It is a classical music station. And it is a business. But it's also more.
It's people who speak out and share over the air. People who know how to make me believe they are talking to me. And when I have a comment, a question, want to answer back—they will answer. Ready for the conversation.
This grand WFMT conversation means that there have never been pre-recorded jingles or ads. For 60 years that’s been true. The staff announcers read the commercials. Those announcers are accessible. How accessible?
Imagine wanting to invite someone to breakfast at your house every morning. Not just that, but actually looking forward to the part they play in your home on Thanksgiving, Christmas, the first day of school, of the baseball season and strangely enough especially on Labor Day.
Carl Grapentine, WFMT morning man, has been that guest now for the past 25 years. And before that, growing up, a host of regularly rotating announcers played that role as I’d come down to breakfast, steal my sister’s share of bacon, and find my parents surrounded by my Mother’s Bach and my Dad’s Mahler and Beethoven. All from WFMT.
Bernie and Rita Jacobs started the conversation with people like Carl Sandburg and Frank Lloyd Wright. Then Studs Terkel showed up, opening the door to conversational treasures that were like rubies, diamonds and emeralds. If you read it in one of his books, chances are that he talked about it first on WFMT.
And while Studs extended the conversation out across the world, the station kept up that vision of including the world by expanding broadcasting into China and the Soviet Union. This was in 1979. A few years later, WFMT joined the European Broadcasting Union. Still the only American radio station to have that honor. In 1983, they first broadcast the Ring Cycle. Live from Bayreuth.
It’s a good day when the “house band” is The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
So the WFMT conversation is available to anyone with an internet connection. World wide. Or if you are really fortunate, you can walk across the street like I did today and bathe in the live broadcasts being offered for free as part of the 60 year celebration.
But to really soak in that undercurrent of magic that runs along that river of culture broadcast to the world by WFMT—you need to feel the laughing wink and song of “The Midnight Special.”
Started by the acclaimed director Mike Nichols back in the 1950’s, put on the map by Norm Pellegrini and Ray Nordstrand and continued in grand tradition by Rich Warren, the show is the Saturday night, let it all go wild celebration of ‘folk music and farce, show tunes and satire’ and anything else that comes up in conversation.
Back before I can even pin down an age, I was so young, the New Years Eve Midnight Special was how I marked the passage of time. Staying up late, often just my Mom and I, the Midnight Special on WFMT was where folk music royalty held court after the clubs closed down. So Bob Gibson, Steve Goodman, Bonnie Koloc and John Prine ---and all who came before and after from The Old Town School of Folk Music, would sing and play the night into a brand new year.
And I got to go to that party. Be part of that joyous conversation. Later on in life I got to know some of the folks who made that conversation possible. Syd Lewis, Tony Judge, and Paul Engleman. Each of whom could I’m sure reel off dozens of names that also chimed in over the years.
Today WFMT celebrates 60 years. Their story, making culture thrive and grow out in the world. All by starting a conversation.
And for so very many of us who were given the golden opportunity to be part of this conversation, we get once again that feeling of a sun coming up again, listening to the great Ronnie Gilbert and The Weavers start to sing . . . .
My lord, what a morning!