Before 1961, there was little classical music on the radio in central Indiana. In that year, a group of research chemists at the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company decided to pool their resources, form a corporation, and seek out a broadcast outlet for classical music on the air. They agreed to terms with WAIV-FM, Indianapolis, and on May 13th the group’s classical music offerings joined the station’s “Lively Arts” format. The station broadcast a variety of classical music, jazz, poetry, interviews, folk music, discussions of religion, and editorials from studios in and a tower on top of the 10-story Dearborn Hotel in the 3200 block of East Michigan Street.
WAIV struggled financially and only became profitable in 1967 when the program format became exclusively classical. Programs were chosen by station staff and were presented in their entirety without interruption. This was the first completely classical music format on radio in Indianapolis. The owners of WAIV decided to sell the station, which became WTLC (and now is WYXB), but Society co-founder Norbert Neuss was not going to give up. With the help of his friends, he purchased the 2,500 classical record library from WAIV’s new owners, packed them up, and stored them in the Lilly Pavilion of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He hoped to use them on the air again soon.
Neuss’s friendship with Frank P. Thomas, founder and owner of the Burger Chef System of restaurants, turned out to be a decisive factor in fulfilling Norbert’s goal to revive classical music on the radio. Norbert, F. Bruce Peck, Frank P. Thomas and Willis K. Kunz collaborated early in 1968, and The Fine Arts Society of Indianapolis, Inc. was formed as a public charitable trust under the laws of the State of Indiana. The Society was granted exemption from taxes under Section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue code.
Upon hearing that the Indianapolis Public School System was constructing a new radio/television center, the Society approached school officials. After discussions between Norbert and the staff of the school’s broadcast center, the Board of School Commissioners and the Society arrived at an agreement whereby the Fine Arts Society would augment the instructional programs on the IPS station, WIAN-FM, with a “second programme” of classical music during prime evening hours.
The Society was to supply its own announcing and engineering staff and formulas were set so the Society would assume the increased operating costs resulting from the increased broadcast hours. The formal agreement was signed late in 1968 and the School Board announced a completion date of September, 1969. The partnership of The Fine Arts Society and the Indianapolis Public Schools’ WIAN, represented a totally unprecedented and unique approach in financing a radio program without any tax subsidies. WIAN was able to expand its broadcast hours by more than 100% at no cost to taxpayers.
In May, 1969, the Fine Arts Society mailed its first solicitation letter to 2,500 individuals known to be interested in the arts, explaining the origins of the Society and its intended broadcast service, and inviting contributions. More than 400 people immediately responded. On July 15, 1969, a special financial commitment from the Burger Chef System enabled the Society to hire an Executive Director, Kenneth Lawless, Jr., who began preparing for the initial programming. Lawless, a graduate of Eastman School of Music, served both as announcer and Program Director. He was also a host of the morning drive program, known as the “First Programme” and continued as Executive Director until 1988.
During these years, more than 20 different broadcast services provided the “Second Programme” with concert materials from the entire spectrum of worldwide musical activity. The Society was also able to bring to the Indianapolis radio audience selected student and faculty concerts from the School of Music of Indiana University in Bloomington.
The Society suffered a serious loss on November 5, 1973, when the “Grant Fire” also destroyed the Thomas Building to its west, in which were housed the the Society’s offices and its collection of hundreds of classical albums and recorded operas. Click here to read an account of the “Grant Fire.”
Due to the expansion of total program time on WIAN, thanks to the Fine Arts Society’s programming, WIAN was able to qualify for affiliation with National Public Radio and in the 1970′s began receiving grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. WIAN now had the financial resources to expand its own operations and programming originating from NPR, which resulted in increased restrictions on broadcast time for the Society. This prompted the Society to seek another outlet for its programming.
Fortunately, the University of Indianapolis was in the process of upgrading its campus radio facility both in signal strength and stereo broadcast mode. The contractual agreement between the Society and the University of Indianapolis was negotiated and went into effect on January 26, 1983, when the Society broadcast its First Program on WICR-FM, 88.7 MHz. The contractual agreement between the University and the Society continues to this day. The Society is WICR’s primary syndicated broadcast program producer and provider.
In 1986, to insure the Society’s permanence, the Vice President of the Board, American States Insurance Companies executive Paul Pitz led a drive to create the Norbert Neuss Endowment Trust. The drive’s initial goal of $125,000 dollars was realized in December, 1987 and was matched by a grant from the Krannert Charitable Trust. The Society now has more than $1 million dollars in its reserves. Only a small portion of the interest earned annually on the fund’s principal is put towards the Society’s annual operating needs, thus ensuring the perpetuity of the fund, and the Society for the long-term.
Certainly the most rewarding and significant event in the Society’s history happened in 1987, when the Society received the most coveted George Foster Peabody Award. The 1986 awards were given to only 28 of over 800 entries and the Society’s was only the fourth ever received by an Indiana broadcast entity in the then 48-year history of the award, administered by the University of Georgia School of Journalism and Mass Communication. What impressed the judges most was the manner in which the Fine Arts Society was able to finance its operations exclusively from private sources.
In 1989 the Society celebrated its 20th year of uninterrupted service. To give this anniversary special meaning, the Society inaugurated a special award for civic and corporate leadership known as the “Diploma of Honor”. This award is given occasionally to individuals who have made a significant contribution to the cultural life of Indianapolis and central Indiana.
In 1991 Meredith Granger signed on as the announcer/host of the Society’s “First Programme.” In 1993, the Society and WICR began broadcasting live Saturday matinees from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, broadcasts that continue to this day (approximately November through May). 2001 saw the retirement of the President of the Board, Norbert Neuss, after 32 years of volunteer service to the organization. He was appointed President Emeritus. Laura Mendelsohn became the second Board President in 2002 and Dr. Michael F. Hunt became Executive Director, a position he held until 2008.
In the summer of 2005 a massive loss was felt throughout the Society when its co-founder and longtime treasurer, Dr. F. Bruce Peck, passed away. A year later President Emeritus Norbert Neuss passed away. The Fine Arts Society’s 8,500 audio cd library is now the the F. Bruce Peck Library and one of the production studios is the Norbert Neuss Production Studio in honor of their memory and contributions to the Society.
Megan McKinney served as Executive Director from 2008 to 2010. In October of 2008, Michael Toulouse was hired as Program Director. His position is now partially underwritten by a gift from our charter board member, P.E. MacAllister and his wife, Fran. Ms. P. Lynne Goodin became the Executive Director in 2010. Her title was changed in 2012 to President/CEO and the title of the head of the Board of Directors was changed from President to Chairman.
The Fine Arts Society continues as an independent, local, non-profit organization producing syndicated classical music radio programming for WICR-FM/HD 88.7. Our mission is “to inspire passion for classical music across central Indiana through broadcast programming and education outreach.”