I moved from Wichita, Kansas, to Evanston, Illinois, in 1957 to study electrical engineering at Northwestern University. Among the necessities I brought with me was a Heathkit FM tuner, a small Heathkit amplifier, and a “hifi” speaker. (This was years before stereo.) I settled into my dorm room the day before my roommate arrived and took the opportunity to explore the Chicago area FM band. Wichita had but one FM station at the time (KFH, if you want to know), and it mostly broadcast the same content as their AM counterpart. I was eager to be able to listen to classical music over the air, a luxury not available in the hinterlands of Kansas.
So I was tuning across the band when I came across a curious conversation between a couple of guys. I had no idea what they were talking about, but it seemed utterly fascinating to me. This went on for well over a half hour, and then, it just ended: no wrap up, no conclusion, just empty air. After maybe 20 seconds of dead air (an eternity on radio) an eerie guitar solo began, and ran for another five or six minutes. When that ended, there was another few seconds of silence before an announcer informed us that we had just heard a performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” I learned later that the music was “Leyenda” by Isaac Albeniz, performed by Rey de la Torre. I had just discovered the wonderful world of WFMT, their quirky habits, and their wonderful theme music.
WFMT was at that time the nation’s only commercial fine arts radio station. My tuner rarely left 98.7 during my 9-year stay in Chicago. Classical music, drama, poetry, classic children’s tales, folk music: WFMT had it all. Ray Nordstrand, Norm Pellegrini, Studs Terkel, Rita Jacobs, Marty Robinson, Jim Unrath, Omar Shapli, and Robert Conrad are the names I associate with WFMT’s on-air presence. They never used pre-recorded ads: all ads were read live by whomever was at the microphone.
Having worked as a radio transmitter engineer and TV studio engineer in Wichita, I got a chance to work at a small station in Evanston (WNMP) as both engineer and announcer. I worked part time while a student at Northwestern for a little over a year, but we parted ways after I misread the log and signed off the air an hour early one Sunday evening. It didn’t help that I once decided not to play the National Anthem at sign off and substituted the Russian chorale “Oh God, Save Thy People,” which Tchaikovsky used to open his 1812 Overture. One of my coworkers at WNMP was Jim Unrath. When he moved to WFMT, it occurred to me that I might be able to do the same.
(For the sake of narrative, I’ve omitted discussion of my year as transmitter engineer at WEBH-FM in Chicago, and a little more than a year as engineer/announcer at WXFM in Elmwood Park, across the street from Chicago.)
As it turned out, in 1960, WFMT had an opening for an engineer to perform both transmitter maintenance and studio engineering duties at about the same time that I dropped out of NU for a while. I applied and was selected for the job. That was as close to heaven as I had ever been. It was also close to heaven in that the studios were on the 32nd floor and the transmitter on the 34th floor of the building at Wacker Drive and LaSalle Street in downtown Chicago.
This was also the era of expansion of classical music radio. Bob Conrad moved to Cleveland to run WCLV. Marty Robinson went, I think, to Milwaukee. When Omar Shapli announced that he, too, was moving on, I auditioned for the open announcing spot, and, amazingly, was selected for the job. I was on my way to being a WFMT announcer!
Unfortunately, Omar decided that he did not like living in the place he had gone and begged for his job back. He got it. I was crushed. I left WFMT not long after, due to some disagreeable moments with the Chief Engineer. I will always treasure being part of WFMT in its golden years. And I’ll never forgive Omar for changing his mind.