Audio Engineering Society

Chicago Section

Meeting Review, April 1999

other meeting reports 4/23/99 Meeting Highlights
by Brad Olson

Contrary To Local Trends, This Successful Radio Station Was Victim Of Divestiture, Not Consolidation! April 23, 1999 presentation by Gordon Carter, Chief Engineer at WFMT, Chicago At the April 23rd meeting of the AES, we were graciously welcomed into WFMT's relatively new St. Louis Avenue studios on Chicago's north side. An excellent facility tour was hosted by Gordon Carter who has been with WFMT since 1969! Prior to the tour, Gordon gave us the intriguing history of WFMT, and talked about the new studio, showing how a successful studio design can be achieved under the numerous budgetary and time constraints guiding such a project at a non-profit corporation. He told us that WFMT, a legend among classical format FM radio stations, started humbly in the early 50's by a husband and wife team who broke away from another station that would not play classical music. In the 1960s, the Chicago Tribune Corporation bought this small station, seemingly a great windfall for WFMT. Despite Gordon's accounts of the station getting good treatment from it's new parent, along with lots of new equipment during the Trib years (they also moved to the John Hancock building around this time), a citizen's group banded together in attempts to stop Tribune ownership, and actually ended up suing over the matter. Apparently people feared the previously grass-roots station would be "corrupted" or have it's format diluted by the corporation. However, to avoid legal hassles, the Tribune actually donated WFMT to a Chicago educational trust, which also owned WTTW, a public TV station! So technically, WFMT is a for-profit commercial station owned by a non-profit (similar to the setup with a number of Bonneville radio stations in Chicago). The format is strictly classical with no pre-recorded commercials. Some listeners argue that this traditional style combined with the excellent broadcast quality make it the best station in the country! In the mid-80s, they had been syndicating Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts by tape distribution, when the advent of satellite broadcasting led to a new venture by WFMT, the Beethoven Satellite Network. This network originally provided 9 hours a day of programming in a radio format, not just a single show, as is commonly done. The broadcast was originally 15 hours long, with the first 6 repeating so that stations could pick up any continuous block of nine hours depending on their time zone, and still have the full broadcast. Now they have expanded to 24 hours, 7 days per week on three different channels, including the newer Jazz Satellite Network as well. Gordon noted that classical stations never have the largest budgets, so four years ago, when the prior lease came up in the high-rent Illinois Center location downtown, they had to make numerous decisions regarding various trade-offs. This required good planning, and every square inch of floor space had to be accounted for on paper long before the move and construction was begun. Meanwhile, Channel 11 also needed space, and was going to expand their building, so someone got the idea to add a floor onto WTTW, and then finally consolidate the downtown WFMT operations with WTTW. Since the building was fairly new, this addition did not present too many physical constraints in and of itself. Gordon says the biggest key to new building's success was the use of angled walls in a way which serves the dual function of making space utilization efficient and improving acoustics. Unfortunately, he did not want to risk the lion's share of his limited budget on an outside acoustician, since he realized how hit-and-miss good acoustical designs can be. Instead, he modeled the spaces himself using the EASE program. This required a little bit of adaptation, since that program is normally used in hall designs with speakers and audiences, not in a studio-environment type of design. His models gave promising results though, so his next step was to proceed. Another thing Gordon attributes his success to, is the fact that he monitored the HVAC people very closely, knowing that they are not always as cognizant as they should be of end user concerns. For example, he stopped them from putting silencers against right angle corners. The largest acoustical space contains no traps, just a 2" layer of #703 fiberglass going around the room along covering about the middle third of each wall. The ceiling is approximately 14 feet tall, with a wood floor consisting of a double layer of wood slats at 45 degree angles to one another. In order to yield good classical performance recordings, his overall goal was to make the room live, yet somewhat controlled, unlike the extremely dead acoustics of many recording studios. Along with new acoustical designs, they have changed much of their archiving equipment as well. Machines have gone from analog Studer tape recorders, to DATs, but are now changing again to CD-R. This is because of reliability concerns with DAT tapes and machines. The problems are so severe that each DAT to CD-R transfer requires a 100% listening screen! Most of their original analog tapes have been donated to the Chicago Historical Society, or given back to the groups like the Lyric Opera, which technically still owned them. They currently have a contract to record and archive all CSO performances, guaranteeing them excellent console position and setup abilities at this venue. They have done several live CSO broadcasts on the Beethoven Network, but never any simulcasts. To get all this high quality audio back downtown, where they still transmit from the top of the John Hancock building, they bought a T-1 circuit. Original analog signals are converted to digital using the AES-EBU format, and sent to the transmitter which converts it over to modulated RF. They have managed this long signal path without too many problems, and the ones they did have were primarily inside the studio building. Gordon repeated his warnings that many architects are simply not tuned in to audio and electrical design issues. In one example he talked about different combinations of light switches causing varying hum levels. He said the swapped ground wires could have been easily noted if a contractor simply checked and noted the 15 amperes of current running along the conduit! However, despite a few war stories, it is clear that Gordon's mission was a success. This is evidenced by repeat customers like American Grammophone, who come back every July to record their famous Christmas albums here! Congratulations, Gordon on a job well done.