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Producer, Host Jim Unrath Dies at 78

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Jim Unrath,  a longtime WFMT program host and producer, died this past Sunday in Stockton, California of heart failure. He was 78 years old.

Jim served at various times as operations manager, music director, and morning program host. He was the first host of the station’s overnight show when WFMT went to 24-hour broadcasting in the late 1960s.

Jim was with WFMT from 1959 through 1999. He was a boy soprano in the Apollo Boys Choir and studied acting at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre before turning to radio.

  • Bernard H Holicky

    What I will always treasure – Jim’s spoken word World War I poets programs he hosted and produced with Lois Baum, and his Profile programs. And his sense of humor back when Wfmt hosts weren’t to have personality, e.g. “Mozart’s 21st piano concert composed
    for the movie Elvira Madigan”

  • Mark Travis

    Jimmy was an integral part of my time at what I fondly dub, the “WFMT finishing school.” Equally at home in front of the announcer’s mic as he was at the producer’s desk, his sense of humor and deep love of music were readily evident in everything he did. I count myself so very fortunate for the experience of having worked closely with him in the late 90s and early 2000’s on programs like The Berlin Philharmonic and International Konzert. Though I was 37 years his junior, he treated me as an equal from the start—expecting nothing but my best…and kindly, but firmly letting me know when I delviered less than that (usually over a bite of sushi at Midori’s). He encouraged exploring new tools and techniques, but never at the sacrifice of good taste and he was a model survivor in a very challenging career path. My condolences to all who knew and loved him, both near and far. May he rest in peace.

  • Tony Macaluso

    In recent years, I’ve had the immense pleasure of listening to many of the programs Jim Unrath produced with Studs Terkel. His work as an editor and co-creator is remarkable. It’s complex, witty, profound, full of surprises and charts its own path. His role in expanding the possibilities of radio as an artistic medium is tremendous.

    Here’s one celebrated favorite program that he helped create, the program “Born to Live”:
    https://www.popuparchive.com/collections/938/items/17863

    And here’s a marvelous interview with Jim from Transom by Sydney Lewis:
    http://transom.org/2011/jim-unrath-born-to-live/

    And perhaps my favorite, the program “Come in at the Door” based on the writings of Nelson Algren:
    https://www.popuparchive.com/collections/938/items/36581

    Consider taking a moment to listen to some of Jim’s remarkable work.

  • Walter Shalda

    I treasured the time I spent listening when Jim was on. Some of the lighter things I still remember as though yesterday. How about his 8:30 morning news cast almost always being at 8:33? You could take a longer shower knowing he was on duty and still not miss the news. Or the time, about 4:30 AM when he went down the hall to the restroom and the studio door locked behind him. Never did get to the other side of that record before the Morning Program began. We loved Jim and we still love live radio. Thanks for all the wonderful work.

    • Martin Halacy

      Back when Jim Unrath was doing the all-night show he was able to react instantly to developments in the news because he did the show live. I remember the night in 1969 when Kenny Holtzman pitched a no-hitter for the Cubs. Jim played Bruckner’s Symphony Number Zero “Die Nulte” in Holtzman’s honor.

      In 1970, when Judge Julius Hoffman convicted five of the Chicago Seven defendants and sentenced each of them to five years in prison, Jim played Mahler’s song from Des Knaben Wunderhorn “Lob des hohen Verstandes” (In Praise of High Intellect), in which the cuckoo and the nightingale have a singing competition and ask the donkey to be the judge. Jim introduced the song by saying, “Here’s a song about another judge who was an ass.”

      When Jim Unrath was one of the rotating host of the Morning Program, my wife Karen and I always felt that his shows were the best.

      We also loved the seasonal montages of music and spoken word that Jim produced with Lois Baum. We still have cassette recordings of the Spring, Summer and Christmas montages.

      Jim Unrath’s many gifts are greatly missed.

  • Sonia Csaszar

    His programming was exquisite. From playing the last movement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony at 2 AM Easter Sunday, to one of the Leonora Overtures right after Generalísimo Franco’s death was announced. Rest in peace, Jim Unrath, and thank you for the wonderful years you gave us! My condolences to his family and colleagues.

  • Ray “Jesse” Blatt

    I met Jim in 1958, when he was an announcer (he may have been program director, too) at WNMP in Evanston. I was a 19 year old student at Northwestern and landed a part-time spot as a transmitter engineer and Sunday afternoon announcer. Jim was my mentor at WNMP and was very forgiving the time that I mis-read the log and signed off an hour early on Sunday, and a little less forgiving the time I decided to change the sign off music from the National Anthem to “Oh God, Save Thy People,” the Russian hymn that opens Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. But when he moved to WFMT, he generously endorsed my application for a studio/transmitter engineer at WFMT in 1960, where we worked together for the next two years. I am grateful for his spirit, his deep knowledge of music, and his warm humor. I am in his debt. RIP Jim.

  • William Edwards

    I learned of Jim’s passing this afternoon while listening to Kerry. What can I say? Jim was a true WFMT ambassador in all of his programs, productions, passions. In particular, being in Milwaukee for most of my non-Chicago years – his being the producer/voice of the MSO syndicated broadcasts that I heard thru WFMT & Wisconsin Public Radio. That was so classy that Kerry (and fellow announcers) had their own acknowledgements & personal dedications to Jim. When listening to Kerry, he specifically played the MSO performing Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” which as he pointed out – so well appropriated for our veterans. Going well back to late 1950’s when just a toddler in Skokie, that I do remember my mother tuning in the old WNMP where undoubtedly Jim’s voice was heard. This has been such a last tough couple of years, losing current (and past 98.7 alumnus) that have so contributed to WFMT’s vibrancy & integrity. I take comfort in that Jim’s work, as well as Rita & Bernie, Norm, Ray, Studs, Andy & Andrew are brilliantly emulated and growth-nurtured under Steve, David and stellar programs hosts/performers, behind-the-scenes, administrative, friends, etc. etc. No other radio station in the universe celebrates & remembers its own the way WFMT does. G-dspeed Jim and know you are still reviewing thru airchecks upstairs. You are missed & treasured.

  • William Edwards

    Postscript, thoroughly moved by everyone’s posts & sentiments for Jim. Thank you for sharing them!

  • Valerie Smith

    So sorry to hear the news. He was excellent on WFMT.

  • Sharron Andresen

    Thank you for playing music that Jim Unrath would have enjoyed. I remember listening to his voice on WfMT for many years.

  • Jean Olsen

    When I was growing up in Chicago 50s and 60s, WFMT was my listening choice. W hen we lived in West Lafayette IN ’72 to ’75, we got WFMT on cable. When we moved back to Des Plaines in ’83, WFMT was my listening choice. Now I live in Utah, and occasionally listen to WFMT on my computer. I also get to listen to “Through the Night” on one of the university radio stations out here. I remember Jim Unrath as an announcer ,and I hope he is now enjoying heavenly music in Paradise.

  • Bill OConnell

    In addition to Jim’s work on radio, he is a member of the Drum and Bugle Corps Hall of Fame. As a adjudicator, instructor, corps manager and musical director, he had a great influence on what I listened to growing up. When I was 16 and rock music took over the air waves, Jim turned me onto Gustav Holst “The Planets”, Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Simple Gifts”, and the great works of Leonard Bernstein. Periodically on his overnight shift, we would drop into the radio station and he would tell us about the music and then blast the speakers in the control room then cut to a commercial by Talman Bank a long time supporter of his show. Jim’s great smile typifies what a true gentleman he was. He will be missed.