Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Last Great Oak Falls - a response from Andrew Patner

Chicago Sun-Times and WFMT critic and commentator Andrew Patner sent me a very thoughtful and thorough response to my post on the passing of Norm Pelligrini, which I want to post here, with his permission, in its entirety. Some of the more obvious mistakes it references have been corrected.

Andrew's comments are quite eloquent. I would make just a few responses (not numbered in the same order as his):
1. Although I can see that my sentence construction could be read in various ways, my reference to the station's full boil being brought down to room temperature was in no way a direct critique of Andrew's commentaries, which are in the great tradition of Claudia Cassidy and Herman Kogan, but to the overall direction of the station.
2. To me, 43, as 86% percent of the total, qualifies as "close to fifty" in a article that is not meant to be a legal brief.
3. I made no reference to Rita Jacob's complaints about the number of ads because I understood fully that they were legally mandated, today just as then. I referred, instead, to her complaints against what she stated was an over-reliance on syndicated programming.
4. Steve Robinson may, in fact, be WFMT's general manager, but that is not his official title, and it is the way the present titles reek of corporate bureaucracy that, to me, symbolizes, WFMT's current status.
5. To say that the cutting of Sunday newscasts had nothing to do with staffing or costs seems bizarre when the result was completely automated Sunday programming where live announcers were no longer anywhere in evidence.
6. I see little comparison between Rita Jacobs seeking contributions from listeners when the station had a basically non-existent budget and zero dollars in the till with an institution with millions in annual revenues and a surplus of upper level Vice Presidents, whom I seriously suspect all pull down very substantial salaries, doing the same. Ray Nordstrand was brilliant in leveraging current possibilities to create a self-supporting organization. In today's admittedly very different times, current management has not. Is it really impossible, or do we just not have the same level of thinking?
7. Two primary things we agree on: firstly, as I wrote in my original post, WFMT remains "a Chicago treasure"; and secondly, the magic - and innovation - created by the Jacobs, Nordstrand and Pelligrini were something that happens once in a lifetime, if that often. As Andrew himself writes, we shall not see its like - or their's - again.

Now, on to Andrew's response:

Dear Lynn,

I think you know of my admiration for you, your writing, your websites, and your tireless advocacy for the city's architectural and cultural legacies as one force or another takes a whack at them. And I absolutely share -- and have expressed at my own site and elsewhere -- the very same general sentiments as you have here about Norm's death and the history and continued importance of WFMT.

But I have to point out a few things in this post that are either incorrect or might benefit from some additional context:

1 -- Norm was program director of WFMT for 43 years, from 1953 to 1996.

2 -- Richard Dyer-Bennet is spelled thus, with one "t." The song of his that closed "The Midnight Special" for many years is "Lonesome Valley," which has no "lonesome river," although "Jordan River" is the subject of one verse.

3 -- I do not think that anyone could find any "unraveling" from the station's earliest days through the attacks some 33 years later by the CETA, now WWCI, board beginning in the mid-1980s and the sale of the magazine in 1986. The earlier sale of the station to WGN Continental Broadcasting in the late 1960s and the subsequent gift/transfer to CETA in 1970 resulted in no management or format changes. (Rita [Jacobs] Willens complains in Bob McClory's 1987 Chicago Reader article that you link to that there were to many "political ads" -- Bob should have pointed out that these were and are mandated by the FCC.) WFMT and WFMT, Inc., parent of the station and Chicago magazine then, functioned separately and without interference from CETA/WTTW. The bureaucrats took over in the mid-1980s, NOT in 1970 or at any earlier date. (My late father, Marshall Patner, worked with Len Despres on the WGN/TribCo purchase issue and I worked full-time at WFMT, Inc./Chicago magazine from 1981 to 1983 and observed the management of the station first-hand. I rejoined WFMT in 1998, at the invitation, as a matter of fact, of then WFMT chief Dan Schmidt, now the head of the whole WWCI/WTTW.)

4 -- Steve Robinson's title has changed several times since he joined the station in 2000, but he is in essence the station's General Manager, functions as such, and frequently refers to himself by that title.

5 -- The cut of Sunday newscasts was not a staff- or cost-cutting move. But I agree that it was and is not a good move either and I hope that the Sunday newscasts will be reinstated.

6 -- Is the current "state" of the station "compromised" or simply a reflection of the reality that if we refuse to take recorded commercials and jingles -- and we should refuse these absolutely, we present only announcer-read advertising copy -- and if we do not have the income that we once had from the magazine, then we have to come to the listeners for assistance, just as Rita Jacobs did in 1952. "Endless" pledge drives? We come to the listeners just three times a year and have eliminated evenings, nights, and Sundays from those three membership drives.

7 -- Thanks for the shout-out and link (which brings up my own initial tribute to Norm, with a great photo of Norm and Ray Nordstrand at the station in the early 1960s). If you found the commentary that you heard this afternoon on my "Critic's Choice" feature "veering towards the tepid" there's no one to blame but me. I was under some bad congestion and allergies on Tuesday when I tape it. No one dials my "creative boil" up or down but me. In fact, for the 11-and-a-half years that I have been doing these commentaries no one at the station has ever told me what I could or could not say or talk about or how I might talk about my topics. Nor has anyone ever heard, let alone edited, my commentaries before they are broadcast. The only change in the last few years perhaps did effect the level of "boil" for the better: Program Director Peter Whorf and Steve Robinson asked me to deliver these little talks without a script and ad lib as Peter and Steve thought that that would make them livelier and have more edge and that's how I do them now.

8 -- No, Steve is not Norm. And certainly I am not Studs Terkel or Claudia Cassidy or Harry Bouras. And no one is Jim Unrath. We won't see the likes of those folks again. But we are people who are trying to do our best and to live up to the history and principles of Norm Pellegrini. I hope that listeners such as you will continue to hold us to those standards and I hope that you might also recognize what we get right and when we do so.


Andrew Patner, Critic-at-Large, 98.7WFMT Radio and



Andrew Patner said...

Thanks very much, Lynn, for the post and for your thoughtful responses.

I've taken up enough real estate on your pages already, but a few brief addenda if I may:

1 -- I agree that it would be great if there were again live announcers in the late, pre-midnight hours every day. On Sundays, though, there *are* live announcers -- Dennis Moore and Scott Thomas -- on in the mornings, at mid-day, and early evening, and sometimes later, too.

2 -- Like you, and just about everyone else, I, too loved our carriage of "the great orchestras of the world" when so many of those orchestras were broadcasting and available. And if Rita were still with us I would point put to her that WFMT itself produces and syndicates the New York Philharmonic, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and a number of other fine ensembles and programs and also makes it possible for stations across the country to hear American opera companies 52 Saturday afternoons a year. Rita was probably just mad because kids like me were listening to the Boston Pops syndication every week! ;-)

3 -- Along with so many other Chicagoans, I owe a great deal to Ray Nordstrand who was also my friend, and, for a time, my employer. But not all of Ray's ideas for "creating a self-supporting organization" were "brilliant" -- selling a half-hour of prime evening "drive time" each weeknight for several years to the First National Bank of Chicago for the "Norman Ross Program," moving the station and magazine to lavish studios and offices at "Three Illinois Center"/303 East Wacker Drive that we could not afford and that were a part of our undoing as a stand-alone entity, taking advertisements for cancer "cures," etc. Just ask Norm Pellegrini. Oh, right, we can't now . . . .

I hope that you heard Rich Warren's special all-Norm "Folkstage" and extended "Midnight Special" last night -- four hours of beautiful programming that, remarkably, still just scratched the surface of these sides of Norm.

Best wishes as ever,


Lynn Becker said...

Andrew, yes we've both taken up a lot of real estate on this, but since I've already driven away most of my readers who don't share my - our - obsession, what the hell:

1. at the time I wrote about it originally, shortly after the policy was put into place, live announcers were definitely NOT on hand at the station, or that infamous one hour loss of programming going unnoticed and uncorrected would not have happened. It's good to know that - like the reduction in pledge break hours you described previously - some things do actually get better over time, and give us cause for hope.
3. That's the dynamic, isn't it? Everything great carries the seeds of its own destruction. There's no question that Nordstrand's original core ideas about marketing and managing fine arts radio were brilliantly innovative and are, I believe, what we're missing today - performance at that level is not easy to come by. The fact that the station was able to remain insanely great for a long period of time even after his thinking, perhaps clouded from all the success, started to go off the rails, is testimony to the power of those original ideas.

best wishes,


Andrew Patner said...

Total agreement this round, Lynn! (And do you really want those other readers anyway? ;-) )

I just need to amend something I said. Last night's broadcast was nearly *five* hours not four -- one hour "Folkstage" of Norm's complete 1962 recording of the Golden Ring and excerpts from his 1963 taping of Judy Collins and then just under four hours of an extended "Midnight Special."

And as Claudia Cassidy used to close on Sunday afternoons (and ONLY as she used to say it), "Have a nice day."