WTTW CEO Dan Schmidt announces retirement

Dan Schmidt

Dan Schmidt, the controversial president and CEO of the parent company of public television WTTW-Channel 11 and classical radio WFMT FM 98.7, will retire at the end of the year, Window to the World Communications Inc. (WWCI) announced Thursday.

Schmidt, 62, joined the company as senior vice president of WFMT and its radio network in 1991 and was promoted to president and CEO in 1998, succeeding the late William J. McCarter, the visionary architect of public broadcasting in Chicago.

“I cannot imagine a greater privilege than leading WTTW and WFMT during a time of tremendous change and opportunity,” Schmidt said. “I believe now more than ever in the essential role public media plays in serving the educational, informational, and cultural needs and expectations of our community. Today, our powerful brands are poised for the future, and I look forward to supporting WWCI and its new leader in the coming years.”

During his tenure, Schmidt was credited with leading the digital transition of the company’s broadcasting operations center and spearheading a $50 million capital campaign. Critics argued that he spent more time managing his board of trustees than fulfilling the mission of serving the community.

Shortly after he replaced McCarter, Schmidt stumbled with an ill-fated initiative called Network Chicago. He squandered a reported $22 million on the venture, creating programs no one wanted to watch (such as the aptly named “Cheap Show”), publishing a weekly newspaper no one wanted to read (called CityTalk), and building a marketing campaign no one could understand (symbolized by a ubiquitous blue easy chair).

Schmidt was able to survive a near-mutiny in 2003 when it was disclosed that the company paid for the Lexus he drove (and the cars of three other top executives) shortly after they’d laid off 56 employees — one-quarter of the station’s workforce.

Later that year, Jim Kirk, then a media columnist for Chicago Tribune, reported in a Sunday magazine story that Schmidt was “running WTTW into the ground” and had brought the station “to the brink of calamity.” Noting that it was “on the verge of a financial meltdown,” Kirk wrote: “Many at the station were beginning to believe that they were not watching an executive with a vision for public television’s future, but one who was presiding over the financial unraveling of one of the gems of public broadcasting.”

In 2014 a citizens group called Fix Channel 11 protested the renewal of Schmidt’s contract, saying that under his leadership the station “has not lived up to its potential as a local player for a long time,” and calling on management and trustees “to commit to changing directions and their assumptions about its future.”

James Mabie, board chairman of Window to the World Communications, has appointed a committee of trustees to oversee the search process for Schmidt’s successor.

“Dan has skillfully and passionately steered WTTW and WFMT to significant success during his tenure,” Mabie said in a statement. “His sharp understanding of the rapidly changing media landscape has been instrumental to the organization’s strength and evolution.”

Schmidt joined WFMT from Minnesota Public Radio, where he worked from 1979 to 1991, rising to general manager of a five-station group. He began his career in 1977 at WHA, the public broadcasting radio and television stations in Madison, Wisconsin.

Here is the text of Schmidt’s email to staff:

I am pleased to share the news that I have decided to retire from WTTW/WFMT at the end of the calendar year. In any creative and dynamic organization, the time comes when it is desirable and healthy to bring new perspectives and ideas to the CEO’s chair. I believe that time has come for WTTW/WFMT and for me, personally.

Please see the attached press release for details.

I am proud of what we have accomplished over the past twenty-six years together. I am putting this transition in motion confident that I will leave WWCI in a position of strength with a bright future.

 It has been a privilege to be your colleague all these years!

Dan