This week is the 60th anniversary of what many consider not only the most unique radio station in Chicago, but in the country, if not the world. When Bernard and Rita Jacobs went on the air at 3pm on December 13, 1951 for an eight-hour shift of classical music and fine arts programming until 11pm with Bernard as the engineer and Rita as the announcer, few could have predicted what a force this then-small station would become. Two years later, the programming had expanded to eighteen hours a day—24/7 by 1968—and in 1954, the station considerably broadened its broadcast range by moving down the dial from its original 105.9 to its current 98.7 FM setting. Generating its own unique programming was a signature element of WFMT from early on: early live programs included concerts by Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy and a conversation between Carl Sandburg and Frank Lloyd Wright. WFMT was also an early innovator in broadcasting live concert and opera performances, including regular series broadcasts from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera that are still running. Other legendary WFMT programs include then University of Chicago student Mike Nichols creating the Saturday night folk music program “Midnight Special” in 1953, which is still on the air, before going on to his career as legendary stage and film director. Writer Studs Terkel began his WFMT show in 1953, which became a stalwart of the station until Terkel’s retirement over half a century later. WFMT has always made the highest possible audio broadcast standards a top priority, including some of the earliest stereo signal broadcasts and, in the early 1960s, the first regular broadcast series of stereo concerts by the Fine Arts Quartet. Voted in 1964 by Hi-Fi/Stereo Review readers as the highest-fidelity station in the nation, other innovations included broadcasting with Dolby Noise Reduction as early as 1969 and in quadraphonic sound in 1972. By 1979, WFMT became the first international “superstation,” not only broadcasting by satellite and across cable systems across the country but also becoming the first American station to become part of the European Broadcast Union as well as to have its prerecorded programs broadcast behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union and China. In 1981, WFMT was chosen to be the first radio station in the world to broadcast music from a Compact Disc and the first programming of DAT (Digital Audio Tape) in the mid-1980s. For all of its cutting-edge technology and industry broadcast standards established by WFMT over the years, it remains in many ways the same “ma and pa” station that it was some sixty years ago in that then, as now, no prerecorded commercials are broadcast on the station. Instead, program and broadcast hosts continue to read advertiser copy with the same precise enunciation and alliteration that they give to carefully articulated foreign phrases and composer opus titles, which is just the way its devoted listeners want it.
Best of Chicago 2011