To generations of listeners, Jim Unrath was a familiar voice on classical music WFMT FM 98.7. To the legendary Studs Terkel, he was his right-hand man in the studio.
Unrath, whose career spanned 40 years at Chicago’s fine arts station, died Sunday in Stockton, California, at 78. He had been recovering from surgery to remove his spleen when he suffered heart failure, according to Lois Baum, a longtime friend and colleague at WFMT.
Calling Unrath “a treasured member of the WFMT staff for 40 years,” Steve Robinson, executive vice president and general manager of the Window to the World Communications station, said in a statement: “He always brought a high degree of professionalism, mixed with humor, to every position he held at the station. . . . His contribution to WFMT will never be forgotten.”
Days after he joined the station in 1959, Unrath became technical engineer and producer for Terkel’s daily talk show and documentaries. “It was a wonderful, unique collaboration,” Baum said of the radio partnership that lasted for decades.
“It was magical,” Unrath recalled in a 2011 interview with author Sydney Lewis, Terkel’s former assistant. “I didn’t know the magic as we were doing it; we just did it. I thought every genius is like Studs. What the hell? Nothing unusual. We just did it, and it worked very well. And then afterwards, when I thought about how we worked together, it was astonishing. To this day I find it incredible.”
In addition to his work as an announcer and producer, Unrath served as operations manager, music director and morning host over the years. When WFMT expanded to 24-hour broadcasting in the late 1960s, he was the first host of the overnight show.
WFMT afternoon host Kerry Frumkin remembered Unrath as the station’s chief announcer who hired him. “He was a very interesting guy – by turns charming and curmudgeonly – and an incredibly creative broadcaster,” he said. “He could put together a mix of musical ideas like nobody else – his programming sense was amazing.”
Of Unrath’s collaboration with Terkel, Frumkin recalled: “He was the one who made Studs’ ideas come to fruition technically in an age when all you had to work with were multiple tape recorders, when you had one chance to get it right.”
Before joining WFMT, Unrath sang as a boy soprano in the Texas Boys’ Choir and studied acting at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.
He is survived by a sister, Marilyn Kerlikher. Funeral arrangement are pending.