WFMT adds Lyric Opera broadcasts to its `firsts'

Norman Pellegrini, WFMT's program director for more than three decades, is eclectic in his musical tastes, so much so that he even admits to playing rock on this most patrician of fine arts stations. ``But only in minuscule amounts,'' he says in a half-way recantation - with full laugh.

Oddly, though, it's this smidgen of rock that points up WFMT's bedrock philosophy: variety in programming - and never be afraid of new frontiers. Such an approach is the ``staying power of the station. That's why people are listening to us today, and why they listened in 195l,'' says Mr. Pellegrini, referring to the year the station went on the air.

Now this commercial FM station is about to step onto new ground. In May and June, it will broadcast all nine operas from the Chicago Lyric Opera's 1986-87 season, beaming them via satellite to more than 350 cities across the United States.

With Pellegrini as host, the series will slip into the Saturday afternoon time slot (1 o'clock in most cities) held by Texaco's New York Metropolitan Opera live broadcasts, which concluded last week. At a time when rock monopolizes the air channels, WFMT has its feet - and longhair programs - firmly fixed in the middle of the band at 98.7, Chicago.

But nobody knows better than Pellegrini that loyal listeners want more than the meat-and-potato menu of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

WFMT serves up its variety in drama, poetry readings, satire, interviews, news, and the cream of classical music, both live and recorded, both new and old, with bygone renditions sometimes reaching back to scratchy Edison cyclinders.

The folk music, jazz, humor, and rock air on the ``Midnight Special,'' a program started for night owls in the '50s by one-time announcer Mike Nichols, who went on to stage and film fame.

WFMT had its beginnings in a dingy studio housed in a Chicago hotel ``definitely on its way down,'' Pellegrini recalls.

Bernard and Rita Jacobs had pawned their car and luggage to buy the station, and they were determined to build it into a fine arts dream. Pellegrini came aboard as announcer in 1952. It was lean going in those early years. When coffers were nearly empty, Mrs. Jacobs went begging over the airwaves.

And, surprisingly, contributions filtered in. People out there were listening.

Pellegrini now works in a many-windowed office of the Illinois Center, eight floors above the city's hum.

Walking through a maze of studios, one eventually arrives at the archives. More than 40,000 long-playing records pack the shelves.

Nearby are thousands of taped interviews and readings that chronicle Chicago culture over the past 35 years - such as Robert Frost, Archibald MacLeish, E.E. Cummings, and Dame Edith Sitwell reading their own poetry; Frank Lloyd Wright chatting with Carl Sandburg; Saul Bellow speaking about his early days in Chicago; and Dorothy Parker reading her short stories.

Although WFMT's financial lifeline is tied to advertising, the station has strict guidelines. Commercials are held to 6 to 8 minutes per hour, and no hyped-up messages or background music is permitted.

Since 1970, WFMT has been owned by the not-for-profit Chicago Educational Television Association, and it keeps its own profits, plowing them back into station activities.

On the news side, WFMT definitely takes a different tack, offering open-ended segments that run from 3 to 20 minutes. Expectedly, the cultural scene sometimes takes precedence, like the day national and international news played second fiddle to an announcement that Rudolf Serkin was to perform Bart'ok's First Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony. ``But that was unusual,'' says Pellegrini defensively. ``Serkin playing Bart'ok!''

Through the years, Pellegrini has seen the station reap more than 50 national and international awards, and extend its programming from eight hours a day to round-the-clock. and tally some firsts:

It was the first US radio station (1979) to tie into sky-high technology, bouncing its programming off a satellite. WFMT is now heard in 357 cities in 43 states including Alaska and Hawaii.

It was the first radio station in the world (1982) to broadcast a compact disc recording. Now the station owns about a 1,000 CDs.

According to Pellegrini, simply expanding listenership is not the whole game at WFMT. It's also important ``how'' listeners listen. ``We found if people were listening at all, they were listening with a capital L.'' In other words, they turned off the vacuum and stopped eating potato chips when WFMT played Mozart. ``We're not a background station, and we need to keep it that way,'' Pellegrini says.


``Variety helps. And new frontiers.''

The Lyric Opera broadcasts

May 2 - Verdi's ``Un Ballo in Maschera'' with Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Chiara, Piero Cappuccilli, and Fiorenza Cossotto.

May 9 - Mozart's ``The Magic Flute'' with Francisco Araiza, Timothy Nolen, and Judith Blegen.

May 16 - Janacek's ``Katya Kabanova'' with Ellen Shade, Dennis Bailey, Felicity Palmer, and Gregory Kunde.

May 23 Puccini's ``La Boh`eme'' with Katia Ricciarelli, Vyacheslav Polosov, Alessandro Corbelli, and Barbara Daniels.

May 30 - Handel's ``Orlando'' with Marilyn Horne, June Anderson, Jeffrey Gall, and Roderick Kennedy.

June 6 - Ponchielli's ``La Gioconda'' with Ghena Dimitrova, Giuliano Ciannella, Paul Plishka, and Mignon Dunn.

June 13 - Wagner's ``Parsifal'' with Jon Vickers, Tatiana Troyanos, Siegmund Nimsgern, and Hans Sotin.

June 20 - Donizetti's ``Lucia di Lammermoor'' with Edita Gruberova, Neil Shicoff, J. Patrick Raftery, and Gwynne Howell.

June 27 - Lehar's ``The Merry Widow'' with Maria Ewing, Alan Titus, Susanne Mentzer, and Jerry Hadley.

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