On December 13, 1951, radio station WFMT-FM made its debut on Chicago’s airwaves. Founders Bernie and Rita Jacobs vision was to create a station they themselves could enjoy, respect, and share with others. While virtually every other radio station in the Chicago market has changed format or call letters, WFMT has remained dedicated to presenting classical music and other fine arts programming to a wide audience. After nearly seven decades of uninterrupted broadcasting, WFMT is enjoying the largest audience and highest ratings in its history.
Recorded music makes up most of WFMT’s broadcast. The station also broadcasts live and taped presentations by performing artists. Program highlights include live concerts from the Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio, performances from the Chicago Cultural Center, Ravinia Festival and Grant Park Symphony, almost three decades of the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts and Folkstage, along with special broadcasts from renowned artists and venues from around the world. The Midnight Special’s blend of folk music, comedy, and satire continues to draw new listeners with host Rich Warren almost 50 years after its debut under creator Mike Nichols, while new WFMT programs like Andrew Patner’s Critical Thinking, the Impromptu live performance and conversation series, and Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin provide insight, entertainment, and show a range of program offerings unique to WFMT.
WFMT’s reach extends far beyond Chicago’s borders. Through the WFMT Radio Network and its Beethoven and Jazz Satellite Networks, the station offers broadcasts of major symphony concerts, grand opera, drama, mainstream jazz, and folk music to over 650 outlets in the U.S. and around the world. Even more original programming, including a monumental new series, Leonard Bernstein: An American Life, produced by Steve Rowland with Larry Abrams, debuted locally and nationally through the WFMT Radio Network in April, 2004.
WFMT has pioneered a number of technological innovations. In 1958, WFMT and television station WTTW collaborated on a stereo music project in which WTTW broadcast a left audio channel, and WFMT broadcast the right audio channel simultaneously. It broadcast a live concert in 1969 using Dolby noise reduction, the first station to do so. In 1972 it broadcast for the first time in four-channel (quadrophonic) sound, a live performance of the Chicago Lyric Opera’s presentation of Rossini’s Semiramide. In 1978, the station participated in the first stereo relay of a live performance via satellite, from the San Francisco Opera.
In 1979, WFMT was one of the first local FM stations to re-broadcast its programming via satellite. This feed was received by cable companies (who transmitted WFMT’s programming to their subscribers), as well as by home TVRO users. In the 1980s, the station moved into the digital era, being chosen by Sony and Philips to be the first station in the world to broadcast music from the compact disc format, thanks to the station’s reputation for high audio standards. The station broadcast material from Digital Audio Tape for the first time in 1987, and was once again chosen by Sony to broadcast from a MiniDisc, to demonstrate the subtle differences between an MD and a CD. WFMT also broadcasts in HD.