WNIB, 97.1 FM (also known as Classical 97), was a classical music radio station that was begun in Chicago, Illinois, on July 9, 1955. The frequency was assigned to William C. Florian who began operations and retained ownership until its sale in 2001. The call letters stood for Northern Illinois Broadcasting (Company). WNIB was the last original Chicago FM license to be assigned by the FCC. Despite many overtures throughout the years to purchase the license, Florian held onto it until February 11, 2001, when it was sold to Bonneville Broadcasting. See WDRV for details of broadcasting on the frequency after that date.
In the early years, Florian built the station, did all the engineering and also sold advertising. He was the Chief Engineer during the entire time of his ownership.
Florian took on a partner, another licensed engineer [whom Florian later bought out], and together they built a makeshift studio in the unheated attic above the ballroom of the Midwest Hotel, at Hamlin and Madison. On July 9, 1955, the station came on the air, billing itself as "Chicago's FM Voice of Variety." It broadcast mostly jazz, show tunes, and easy listening from five to midnight seven days a week. WNIB's frequency, 97.1 Megahertz, had been abandoned in 1953 by WBBM-FM, which moved over to 96.3 MHz, a frequency formerly occupied by WBIK, a background music station owned by the Balaban & Katz movie theater chain. (WBIK was forced off the air when the United Paramount Theaters, which owned Balaban and Katz, merged with the ABC Network and the new company ABC-Paramount found itself owning two FM radio stations in the same city: WBIK and WENR-FM. Owning more than one radio station in the same spectrum was at the time against FCC station ownership rules.)
Among the first announcers was Bill Gershon, then an undergraduate at Roosevelt University who was curious about radio stations. "It was very much a neighborhood station with a low-power 3,000-watt transmitter," he remembers, "and the antenna was bolted to the hotel's flagpole." Florian, a jazz aficionado, also hired Dick Buckley (who was later a DJ at WBEZ) to take care of the jazz portion of the musical menu.
It was Gershon who came up with the idea of filling the Sunday-evening 5 p.m.-to-midnight slot with freebie records sent in by classical labels. "Classical music wasn't part of our programming at first," he says, "since most other FM stations aired lots of classical music, especially WFMT and WEFM. But I told Bill we should make use of the 12 records we had in the library. He said, 'All right. Just don't have any of that ivory-tower stuff here.'" So Gershon ushered in what he calls WNIB's "friendly, low-key, no-pontification" style. By early 1957 he was gone, but classical music remained a fixture at the station. In fact, it began creeping into the weekday programs, though Florian says it was a tough sell.
In 1958, Sonia Atzeff, a graduate of Roosevelt University in Chicago, was hired and steered the programming toward a classical music format. She did programming and engineering, but no announcing. She and Florian were married some years later, and she was the General Manager of the station until its sale in 2001. The station was on the air for various hours, gradually expanding until it reached 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. most days.
Among the other announcers in the early years were Bill Plante, who went on to become a fixture at CBS News, Marty Robinson and Don Tait, both of whom later worked for WFMT, Ken Alexander, who later worked for WAIT and eventually returned, and others.
While classical music was the primary focus, some hours were sold to various people who did half-hour and/or hour-length programs in several foreign languages – including Bosnian, Serbian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, and Spanish. There was also a four-hour block on Saturdays from 1–5 p.m. sold to Chuck Schaden for an old-time radio program called “Those Were the Days.” Even when the other brokered time disappeared, this program remained on the air until the sale of the station in 2001. For many years, there was also a live-on-tape service from the Chicago Temple Methodist Church every Sunday, recorded at 7 p.m. and aired at 10 p.m. the same day. A few services were also aired (on tape) from the Chicago Sinai Congregation. Various talk-format programs with individual hosts ran in the 10 p.m. to 12 midnight hours on various days. Dick Lawrence did a 1920s program once a week for many years that ran in various time slots.
In the 1970s, Curtis Huff would engineer the station during the day, running the voice tracks made by Ron Ray. Live announcers including Tony Lincoln would work in the evenings. When the station expanded its classical music to include “Morning Song,” a morning-drive program, the hosts were Fred Heft, Jay Andres (formerly with WGN and WBBM), Carl Grapentine (formerly and subsequently with WFMT) and Obie Yadgar (formerly of and subsequently with WFMR in Milwaukee). Miller Peters had worked part-time for the station early on, and returned, eventually succeeding Ron Ray as Program Director after his death in February 1996.
When the station went 24 hours, the overnight hours were sold to various format brokers. One of the early overnight brokered programs on WNIB was produced by The Seed, an underground newspaper. The program featured rock music and interviews with rock stars. Later on, WNIB aired jazz from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., and r&b/blues from 2 a.m. Jazz hosts included Dick Buckley, Neil Tesser, Joe Siegel, and others. Blues hosts included Mr. A., Big Bill Collins, Baby Face George and others. A few hours each week were reserved for Public Affairs broadcasting as required by the FCC. From the early 1970s to the early 1980s, black gospel music programming and Sunday remotes from black churches became a major part of WNIB's overnight and early Saturday and Sunday morning programming. Various African-American ministers served as hosts of the overnight gospel music programs. Remote broadcasts of services of several African-American churches were featured on Sunday mornings. By the early 1980s, the gospel music overnight and early morning gospel and foreign language format was dropped in favor of expanded classical music hours and an overnight blues program.
During the 1980s and until the station's demise in 2001, the majority of WNIB's programming was classical music with the exception of Chuck Schaden's Saturday afternoon old time radio program ("Those Were the Days"), Mr. A's overnight blues show hosted by Al Hudgins, an hour of blues with Big Bill Colins, and the required Public Affairs programs.
Classical music broadcasting in Chicago
Classical music broadcasting began in Chicago around 1940 with the establishment of WEFM/99.5 FM, owned and operated by the Zenith Corporation. Their sole advertising for many years was to promote the Zenith Display Salon on Michigan Avenue, where, as their slogan said, “No sales are made.” WFMT/98.7 FM, started in 1952, and a few other stations played classical music for a few hours per day including WXFM/105.9 FM. WEFM was sold in 1973, but litigation by a citizens committee caused it to remain classical until 1977, when it changed call letters and format. WXFM played classical mostly overnight until the late 1970s, with live host Ron Ray, who was the on-tape announcer at WNIB, and later became Music Director of the all-classical station.
Part of the agreement to allow the format change of WEFM was that WNIB would get some of their library and a higher transmitter site with new transmitting equipment. The antenna and transmitter, which at that time were on top of the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive (about 29 stories high) were relocated to the top of the Standard Oil Building, 200 E. Randolph, which, at 1,190 feet was actually slightly higher than the more prestigious Hancock Building, 875 N. Michigan Ave, where many stations had their transmitters. (Eventually, taller antennas and a waiver from the FAA for a higher ceiling would push the Hancock’s height to nearly 1,500 feet.) Only the Sears Tower, 233 S. Wacker, would eventually be higher in Chicago, and, for a time, was the highest building in the world. The new antenna and stereo transmitter gave WNIB an equal shot at the audience of the Chicago market, and allowed the affluent North Shore to hear it with more strength and clarity. Part of the WEFM plan was to change the WNIB call letters to WEFM, but this never happened.
Stability and success
From about 1980 until the end of classical operations in 2001, a stable group of announcers brought the station to pre-eminence in Chicago.
In 1969, WNIB began publishing a monthly Program Guide which listed all the music being played each day on the station. The inclusion of the label and record number enabled listeners to purchase things they enjoyed hearing, and the subscription price helped keep the station going during the leaner times. The covers at first had details of well-known artworks, and later had original sketches and caricatures by Richard Kimmel and Robert Kameczura.
Special programs made exclusively for WNIB included “Collector’s Showcase” which presented 78 rpm discs and featured a topic or performer and was created by Bill Holmes with Bob Wolf and Fred Heft also hosting segments; and “The French Lyrical Tradition” created and hosted by Dr. Morris Springer. “Baroque and Before” was also a long-running hour-length program, and “Zephyr” was the evening-drive show (from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.) featuring shorter and lighter fare. It was the station policy, however, to only play complete works, not just movements of larger works. When the time called for 5 or 6 minutes, an overture or other short work was used. It was not until the 1980s that brief newscasts, weather forecasts and traffic reports were added to the mix.
Complete operas were featured regularly on the station at various times. There were recordings on a weekday afternoon, Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon or evening during this period. For many years, a weekly opera from RAI, the Italian Radio was featured. WNIB spent one entire Saturday playing Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, starting at about 9 a.m. and running until after midnight.
Syndicated programs included “Adventures in Good Music with Karl Haas,” which aired Mon–Fri at 7 p.m., and various live-on-tape concerts and operas from Europe which were also featured sporadically. Orchestral concerts by the Utah Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and other orchestras had weekly series over the years. “The Vocal Scene” with George Jellinek and “First Hearing” with Lloyd Moss ran each week for many years, and “Pipe Dreams,” an organ showcase, also aired on the station for a short while. During the final few years, WNIB played “Performance Today” from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mostly, however, the station played recordings of commercial LPs and CDs, and did no direct recording of live concerts.
Beginning in 1979, Bruce Duffie gathered interviews which were broadcast either to promote upcoming concerts or to celebrate the birthdays of composers and performers. “Who’s in Town” and “Chicago Music Dateline,” which he created and produced, also acted as a calendar of upcoming events. His interviews also were featured on “The Sunday Evening Opera,” and in various composer-programs in the late-night/early-morning hours on the weekends. For these series, Duffie and WNIB won the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award in 1991. Some of these interviews were transcribed and published in various magazines and journals, and now some are being posted on his website.
Over the years, various studio locations for WNIB included a small space in Oak Park, 108 N. State St., in Chicago's Loop, 2 North Riverside Plaza, 25 E. Chestnut St., 12 East Delaware Place, and finally 1140 W. Erie, where the station owned its physical plant and had enough room for the studios and offices, and a large garage-workshop in the back with a parking lot and fenced-in yard for the dogs to run.
Especially in the final 10–15 years, WNIB was quite successful as a Classical Music station. It beat WFMT in the local ratings, and turned a good monetary profit because the owners kept the staff small. Besides the announcers, who covered the day-parts in 6- to 8-hour shifts, there were only a couple of sales people, a couple of office-staff, and a woman who cleaned the physical layout twice a week.
Following the closing of WEFM, WNIB bought WKZN, a station in Zion, Illinois, which occupied the first-adjacent position on the dial at 96.9-FM. Florian had made adjustments to the signal pattern of WNIB over the years so as not to interfere with WKZN, but eventually he simply bought the station to use as a repeater. The call letters were changed to WNIZ, and the signal quality was improved for the classical station along the North Shore region of Chicago and suburbs.
WNIB was also famous for having dogs and cats in residence. They were profiled in the newspaper and on local TV stations, and listeners seemed to enjoy knowing that they were there. The dogs were even audible at times, since the doors to the on-air studios were simple and not air-lock (soundproof) types. During newscasts and live commercials, the barking of the dogs could be plainly heard and response was enthusiastic. Indeed, at the end, many people called wanting to adopt them since they thought they were losing their home. As a matter of fact, it was the Florians who picked up these stray animals and gave them a good place to live, and were simply going to keep them the way they were. In 2001, the new owners got the license to use the dial-position, but not the physical plant or anything else, so the animals were never bothered by any of the after-classical change. The Florians also gave a bit of money and some free advertising to a couple of animal shelters in the area.
Because of the central dial-position of WNIB and WNIZ, the sale price in 2001 was $165,000,000. After the completion of a final program on February 11, the station was turned off. About 20 minutes later the new owners took the air with a different format.
Much of the purchase price of the station went to establish the NIB Foundation, which gives grants to various local performing arts organizations. The offices were in the Erie Street location (where the front door still contained a placque with the WNIB callsign). The day-to-day operations are being handled by Richard Covello and Wendy Rozenberg.
- Article in Crain’s Chicago Business
- Various articles about the sale of WNIB
- Article in the Chicago Reader
- Recollections of Ken Alexander
- Tribute to Ron Ray
- Miller Peters
- Tribute to Mr. A
- WNIB Program Guide
- Self-photo of Robert Kameczura in the WNIB Control Room
- Bruce Duffie at WNIB
- The ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award
- Interviews which have been posted
- Full list of interview guests and usage
- Pictures of some of the WNIB Animals
- Bruce Duffie with Abigail
- General Manager with Sparky
- Sun-Times Article by Wynne Delacoma
- Feder, Robert, "Robservations: Bill Kurtis lends voice to WGN Radio", www.robertfeder.com, 12 December 2016. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
- Obituary of William C. Florian in the Chicago Tribune