And We`ll Be Right Back After A Bark From Our Audience

Chicago Tribune  April 21, 1988 | By Barbara Brotman.

These are the sounds of classical music: The contrapuntal intricacies of a Bach fugue. The rich tones of a Liszt piano rhapsody. The barking of a German shepherd-Doberman pinscher mix.

Do you prefer cats? WNIB (FM 97.1) also has for your listening pleasure seven cats, although the one with the really dramatic yowl was spayed on Wednesday and should quiet down.

WNIB is the smaller rival to WFMT (FM 98.7). WFMT operates its own classical music national satellite network. Its local programming is distributed nationally by cable TV systems. Through a syndicated network, it supplies fine arts programming to more than 400 radio stations nationwide-among them, WNIB. This weekend, it will broadcast the 13th annual Chicago Symphony Radiothon.

WFMT is owned by a not-for-profit corporation. WNIB, on the other hand, is owned by Bill Florian, whose wife, Sonia, is the general manager.

It is a mom and pop kind of radio station. And mom and pop happen to love animals. That is why three dogs and seven cats, former strays, roam the carpeted halls and offices of WNIB`s small, modern building at 1140 W. Erie St.

That is why the listener occasionally hears a dog bark or a cat meow while an announcer is speaking-never during the music, Sonia Florian assured. Sometimes people call to ask why there is barking or meowing on their FM dial. "Most people seem to like them," she said. "I think a lot of people are animal lovers. I think more businesses should have animals."

All the animals except two of the dogs live at the station. They have 24- hour-a-day companionship, water bowls beneath the humans` drinking fountain and full run of the premises. One of the kitty litter boxes is next to the weather wire and AP machines.

Announcer Miller Peters was once speaking into the microphone when something jumped up and he found himself speaking into a cat`s tail. Sometimes the dogs bark while Sonia Florian is on the telephone with business associates. "I cover the mouthpiece and hope they don`t hear," she said.

Cats have scratched the edges of record album sleeves. They have knocked over stacks of compact discs. "Cat hair gets all over the records," complained announcer Jay Andres.

Peters has favorites: Priscilla, a snow-white cat, and Tux, a white-bibbed black cat. "You can play with Tux," he said. "I`ve ruined shoes. I put my foot out and he grabs it and I drag him along."

Office manager Wendy Rozenberg enjoys sharing her chair with a cat, especially in cold weather. She likes to see Lucy curl up on the warm air exhaust of her electronic typewriter and does not mind retyping work when a cat walks on the keyboard.

Station employees tend to be animal lovers. "I think that goes without saying," Peters said.

Have the station pets been properly introduced?

There is Sandy, a German shepherd-Malamute mix sleeping beneath Sonia Florian`s desk. There is Amos, a German shepherd-beagle mix, visible at the moment as a strip of brown fur beneath her desk. There is Chadwick, the German shepherd-Doberman, at present twitching in his sleep on the floor. Chadwick is a full-time resident dog. The Florians take Amos and Sandy home every night.

We take a deep breath for the cats.

Charlie, an elderly gray cat, is atop one of Florian`s file cabinets. Priscilla is resting on a chair cushion in the big storage room. Abigail is darting behind a large spool of coaxial cable. Lucy is lying above the opera shelf in the record library. Gilbert, at about 18 the senior cat, is sitting in program director Ron Ray`s chair. Tiffany is curled up in a box next to a paper cutter.

They are company for the announcers. "It`s just me and one dog and the seven cats," said Bruce Duffie, who works late-night shifts. "It`ll be real quiet, and then I`ll hear a couple of cats chasing each other."

The animals, Ray said, "have heard more music probably than the average music-lover. It goes in one ear and out the other, I`m sure." Indeed, Duffie has watched a cat sitting right in front of a radio monitor during Haydn`s Surprise Symphony. "There`s a sudden bang," he said. "The cat is completely oblivious."

All this makes WNIB a casual place to work. "It`s informal, but it`s not slipshod," said Duffie. "People would not confuse us with `FMT if we were not professional. We`re a good competitor."

Indeed, the Arbitron ratings for January, February and March give WFMT a 1.3 share, or 1.3 percent of the radio audience. WNIB has a 1.2 share. WFMT`s audience in a typical week is 329,200, while WNIB`s audience is 293,200.

WFMT does not, it is true, offer pet sounds on the air. But a frequent visitor to the station was receptionist Sandra Myers` Yorkshire terrier, the late Lady Tashi, who before passing away portrayed a carry-on dog in two Lyric Opera productions of "La Boheme."

And the Radiothon, a fundraiser for the symphony, traditionally has a pet theme. "People pledge in the name of their dog or cat," said WFMT spokesman Susan Namest. "It is a fierce rivalry." Last year, pledges were given in honor of bears, duck-billed platypuses and a spider. Can WNIB match that?

Duffie, personally, thinks WNIB holds its own just fine, in pets and in music. "A lot of people pull for the underdog," he said, and he did not mean Chadwick.