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 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.”