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May 22nd, 2002

What Happened to Radio?

Chicago has been blessed with roughly two good radio stations. One is public radio, and the other (WXRT) has been exhibiting a slow, slow decline into mediocrity. But it seems that things are just bad all around the dial.

I’m not going to whine and moan about it, though: I’m part of the problem. I listen to CDs in my car, and tapes on occasion, too. If I could listen to my MP3 collection, I would. So, in essence, radio has started to give consumers what they “want”: radio stations that are the same in multiple markets, right down to the DJs. Songs and playlists don’t vary much. DJs are recorded in one city and local drop-ins are added now and then to give the illusion of a local personality. Thus, the music is what’s important. After all, that’s why we listen to our own stuff.

The side effect of this practice is that it tends to remove all sense of personality from the radio. Very few stations have knowledgeable DJs, and even fewer have DJs with genuine interest and care for the audience. XRT has been blessed with great DJs, and although the programming is falling off a long cliff, they keep people listening. Other stations? They don’t seem to matter much – the people could be swapped out weekly for all listeners know. And don’t get me wrong here; I’m not talking about syndicated DJs or talk shows.

Radio is moving more and more towards being a product, because the record labels and radio stations think we want products. Is that what we want, in the end? Does the station not matter? What about personalities? I kind of like the idea of being able to go into another city and find unique, different radio. Most of it’s been relegated to college radio, now – and satellite radio is growing in popularity.

Posted in Television, Movies, and Music

FROM: Robert [E-Mail]
DATE: Wednesday May 22, 2002 -- 12:09:25 am
This stuff is getting popular because a lot of people are buying into it. I ignore radio almost entirely these days now that I'm out of range of decent shock jocks. It suits me fine.

FROM: Matt
DATE: Wednesday May 22, 2002 -- 12:19:50 am
Speaking of which, I started my internship at XM radio today. I'm doing stuff on one of the talk stations, which is kind of cheesy since my specialty is an ear for good hip-hop.

FROM: Tina
DATE: Wednesday May 22, 2002 -- 8:48:50 am
You're kidding, right? Radio still exists? Wow. Thanks for the heads up.

FROM: jim
DATE: Thursday May 23, 2002 -- 12:51:05 am
All the commercial stations seem to play the same 40 songs over and over again. It doesn't seem to matter what the station's format is--top forty, 70's and 80's, country, etc. To avoid the dreck, I've gotten hooked on NPR. Lots of interesting programs - Performance Today, Mountain Stage, Echoes, Fresh Air, and (of course) Prairie Home Companion.


FROM: Marcus Mackey
DATE: Thursday May 23, 2002 -- 9:20:28 pm
The problem is even worse in Chicago. The reasoning is simple, in most areas your listener base is tied to some demographic. For example, I tend to like to listen to the harder styles of music (some pop-oriented, some very much in the more eclectic harder core range of the spectrum, and some that pushes the boundaries of both like a U2 or Radiohead). In college towns, there's "MANY" excellent stations that play a larger variety of bands, genres, and have better on-air personalities than Chicagoland is saddled with.

Even in non-College towns, the listening base of youths that make up these markets tends to provide a "less watered down" station that tries to be what it is to a larger base and appeal to the eclectic harder core as part of it's image, as well as appease the softer side too. They balance things out with the younger adult crowd giving you a balance of everything of non-sellout Metallica and 80's hard rock/hairbands, all the way to modern Alternative and Rock. It might not be the broadcasting or songs you love all the time, but at least there's variety. In Chicago, there's no variety at all. It's the same bands hour after hour, day after day, pretty much no matter where you flip the dial. Some are better than others, some are about as bad as you can expect. Yet there's no holy grail in Chicago, at least in my eyes. Then again, it's impossible to please everybody too. I'd at least like to see a station that left me 50% satisfied. I'm like if there's one that hits 10%.

In Chicago you have 2 Alternative stations (closest to the genre or type of station I prefer), and neither of their programming wavers much from the other. In fact, many of the on-air personalities of 94.7 (The Zone) are ex-personalities from the other station, 101.1 (Q101) that left after the station became Mancow radio (an idiotic shock jock in the ilk of Howard Stern, only far worse) and turned into a "Freak" show (pun intended, as Freak is an on-air personality ont he station). Both have pretty much played garbage since Alternative overran it's course and turned into a replacement for the then popular, hard rock. What once was an alternative to overcommercialized rock is now... commercialized rock. How touching. Seems like we defeated the purpose, doesn't it to you?

Yet, when you flip on a station and it's not only constantly repetitive, slammed chock-full of advertisements to the point that music is rarely played, and you deal with on-air personalities that aren't personal as Paul notes, it really makes the radio experience very ungratifying. I admit that if I don't have a CD on in my car, the other % of the time I don't have the faceplate with me to listen to it period. In fact, I vow that my next car will either have XM or Sirius, and likely a 6-12 disc changer and/or a head unit that plays MP3 CD's (probably a Kenwood Excelon). If I can fill my car full of everything I like, then I won't have to wait for some radio station to wake up and tickle my tastebuds, I can kick them all out.

Personally, I've always liked the non-commercially driven nature of WXRT, as well as it's homey flavor with it's knowledgeable DJ's that don't overhype or act like morons trying to draw attention. Even if I might like 1% of all of the content played (some of it is a bit out there on the eclectic sides of jazz/blues that are out of my league [I like both, just not some of the more bizarre stylings] or a bit more elder, rooted in contemporary fan followings of the 30-40+ set; slightly outside of my tastes), I have continually respected the station for having a character and also for the traditional variety they've tended to play, and for not having a "freak" show (pun once again) of ignorant DJ's that have no character or charm whatsover.

I like The Loop (WLUP 97.9; older well-known station in Chicago) for having it's own character, even if it's mildly up the scale from WXRT in commercialism. I respect it because it has it's genre and place and doesn't waver much from this segment. It's been this way for years, it's stayed this way for years, and it continues to survive and thrive behind the same people that made it what it is.

I've even grown to be fascinated with 97.1 (The Drive) and it's almost blatant lack of commercialism (they have maybe 10-12 commercials in the span of an entire day, tops; and very little DJ intervention) while playing broadcasting that few other stations play. Granted the artists might be the same as you hear on "The Loop" or "WCKG" (105.9) or any other 70's/80's Rock station, but the tracks chosen are often the unplayed or underplayed tracks few choose to air. There's a lot of protest songs from the early 70's, and a lot of hits that got lost in the shuffle of the modern playlist picker at other antennaed radiowave riding conglomerates.

When I visit my buddy in Decatur, I get to hear all kinds of music that you don't hear up here, and I sorta' relish the drive just to catch-up on a lot of what I miss up here in Chitown. Even highly commercial bands that you'd expect on a Q101 or The Zone get omitted. The most idiotic or ironic part is, there's a band I saw at a Q101 show called "From Zero" that I was very impressed by (sort of an edgy hard rock band) when I saw them at The Metro (along with Swidden, Lennon, and Stereomud). For one, they never get played on Q101; two, they are "FROM" Chicago; and finally they got more play on the deceased-MTV X (was their best station because it bucked the trendiness and would play almost anything from The Doors to Slipknot and Pantera to Radiohead) and other radio stations than they do here in their hometown.

The reason this happens, as I see it, is you have a large base of youths, yet you also have a large base of Gen X'ers and young boomers that sway these stations to play a bunch of pop filth, and commercial junk. To try to please "EVERYBODY" you end up with a station that doesn't please anybody, and would be better served by 3 separate stations that split the demographic, or two rival stations that attack specific areas of the demographic. Instead we have two stations vying for much the same range of listeners. One seems only mildly more "adult" than the other, the other is rooted in the "shock jock" mentality of it's morning show, and basically brands the entire day in this fashion from one dj to the next.

It is nothing to flip on Q101 and get nailed with one modern punk wannabe band after another, from your Blink 182's and Sum41's and 311's and beyond. In a way I think this is more youth targetted programming than anything, but it is pallatable to the 20's-30's adult that appreciates a more pop-oriented happier spin on modern rock.

Yet there's no variety when you get kludged with repetitive crap all day, and what might be a decent song gets droned through you in the worst of ways. To spin something else into the mix would benefit the area radio greatly, to broaden the playlist, expand it to include a greater mix. Yet the marketers and bean-counters continue to think and demand otherwise, much to the chagrin of listeners like myself who are put-off by it all.

It'd be nice if they'd balance this with even a more-pop rock influenced array of bands like Sevendust and/or Cold and other bands of their ilk, maybe even play more of the modern Radiohead (they've not played anything since "Creep" by them really) or U2 (mostly older Joshua Tree type stuff, or an occasional lambasting of one or two tracks without sifting the rest of the CD) tracks to change the moods some, bring in some variety.

I could even do to hear an occasional influx of harder stuff like Slipknot and Mudvayne, a Nonpoint, From Zero, Flaw, or Stereomud. It's sad when in Chicago, a band like "Coal Chamber" gets an astronomical following but no air play.

Yet what we get is the quintessential Smashing Pumpkins (which you have to play if you're a Chicago alternative station, I love 'em but... it's a bit out of proportion in fairness to other area talent that gets overlooked, even Local101 is a bit of a snore by the poppiness of what they elect to market and play themselves) tracks, mixed in with the same punk wannabe bands, the hip-hop rock Limp Bizkits and Linkin Parks (both overplayed), and a bunch of RIAA pushed crap that makes me think back to what was done way back in music history. You can almost tell that album sales drive the stations broadcasting more than fanbase, as a lot of good broadcasting gets omitted.

Let's face it, broadcasting based on demographics and sales and marketing figures and statisticians and bean counters, sucks. What the world needs now (is another... folk singer) is for internet broadcasting to take off, and someone like an XM or Sirius to open the pathways to allow people like Paul or myself the opportunity to upstage local radio via online streamed stations. Granted, with royalty fees you'd have to be commercial, but to keep the commercial side away from the content scouts; would benefit radio greatly. It needs balance. Hell, radio needs more "taste".

FROM: Marcus Mackey
DATE: Thursday May 23, 2002 -- 9:30:01 pm
"I'm lucky if there's one that hits 10%."

Sorry, typo.

Also wanted to post an aside too. I was recently called by a telemarketer (imagine that) and they were having a sort of get-together for people from the area to come voice their opinions on the state of Chicago radio. Anyone that went was to get paid $40. I basically shrugged it off because it would've required a bit of a drive, and into a neighborhood that wasn't exactly "friendly" (even though dumb me forgot to think about $40, I musta' been half asleep if not 3/4). I guess after you get hit with a few telemarketing calls, they kinda' bleed into your mind into this "how do I get off the phone as quickly as possible" mentality.

If you allow yourself to get lulled into that sometimes you overlook a genuine opportunity. The more I think on it, the more I should've gone. Que sera...

Why can't stations just have an online balloting system where we say exactly how bad/good their programming is (rate them) and offer suggestions for improvement? I mean, it'd be beneficial to them and the entire area to hear it, and I'd think that they'd want to know this sort of stuff rather than assume that they know best over the people that actually listen. Then again, maybe that's the point on all of them "The Drive" (97.1) ads... they do ballot, but they don't listen to their results and do what they want anyways.

FROM: jonny-oh-shit
DATE: Friday May 24, 2002 -- 12:07:45 pm
the radio stations around here in baltimore suck. there all stuck on that sissy ass pop music bullshit. we need bands back like nirvana, hendrix blind melon.... ya know the good music that stood for something not some cheesy ass pop love song just to sell records. i havent listened to the radio in about a year.

FROM: Robert [E-Mail]
DATE: Friday May 24, 2002 -- 12:42:19 pm

98 Rock still plays all that crap. Where have you been?

FROM: Jizz
DATE: Thursday June 6, 2002 -- 5:18:57 pm
Internet radio, baby. Get on to the BBC, or even improve that language you were forced to take in highschool. Listen to the news straight from Berlin, France, London, Madrid, Rome, Lisbon, etc. But by God don't listen to european pop!! I listen all day. On the downside, if you think you will escape the influence of the US, you are wrong. Big entertainment stories about the US (the Oscars and the Hollywood walk of fame is one recent example) are big stories everywhere.

FROM: King Random
DATE: Saturday June 15, 2002 -- 10:26:22 pm
Hear Hear. I love NPR. They have some really cool shows, and some very interesting topics. I am not into pop music, as I prefer choral or instrumental. Since that is rarely on the radio, I usually listen to NPR or just turn off the radio and just hum.

FROM: Paul [E-Mail]
DATE: Saturday June 15, 2002 -- 10:49:46 pm
Marcus, an excellent comment as always.

Why can't stations just have an online balloting system where we say exactly how bad/good their programming is (rate them) and offer suggestions for improvement?

Because it simply doesn't matter. The vast majority of commercial radio today is there to do one thing: sell other things. Sell CDs, tickets, and station merchandise.

It's funny that you mention the stations you do, as I listen to very few other than NPR now - but generally stick to XRT and The Drive. XRT has been woefully disappointing as of late - they've changed their mix a bit and are now getting Very Very Repetitive with hot new singles (Nora Jones... good jazzy song, overplayed) and, oddly enough, Steve Winwood!

The Drive is oddly appealing because of the lack of commercials and the pretty well-programmed music. There's also almost no personality at The Drive, or at least none that sits with you; the format is so successful that, in fact, The Drive is launching (or has launched) in San Fran. Exact same station.

I think that if The Drive is successful, as the Kiss format has been, it'll just be Uber-Classic-Rock for the whole nation. It's the McDonaldsization of Radio, and so long as radio's purpose is to sell things, it'll march on.

FROM: Dave Walls
DATE: Tuesday July 9, 2002 -- 11:09:25 pm
As someone who has worked in raido for the last 7+ years, it's easy to see why radio sucks (and it does).

#1: Everything is computerized. 75% of the time, the DJ you here on the air is pre-recorded..I'm on a station 5 days a week in my hometown of Philadelphia..problem is, I've lived in Virginia these last 3 YEARS!

#2: Clear Channel. This communications group keeps buying up station after station, to the point that it's nearly impossible to get a job anymore, when everything is consolidated under one roof.

#3. Who needs radio? In it's glory days (before cable, the net, etc.), radio could be your hookup to the entire world. Programs, news, talk, music, sports. Now, radio is just the thing you turn on for the weather while you're driving to work.

Good thing I'm moving to TV. ;-)

FROM: Zack Schnyder [E-Mail]
DATE: Tuesday July 16, 2002 -- 8:39:10 pm
I agree with you all. Radio is slowly becoming... automated. I own a radio station on the internet. T94.5. I am not always on there talking on it unless I am in the studio, but when I am there... I want to know my listeners and play the music THEY want to hear. It is one of the most fun experiences I can get just because I love what I do... It is not just another job for me. If my listeners want me to take a song off of my playlist, I do it because I don't have big pushy companies following me around and telling ME what to play. I am my own boss and I do what my listeners and myself want. I take all the requests I get and take care of what the people want.

T94.5's format is "Hit favorites from the 70's, 80's, 90's and today."

I you would like to listen to T94.5, the website is:

I am sure you will like us and, send me a request.

FROM: bob
DATE: Tuesday January 7, 2003 -- 9:46:08 pm

FROM: Paul Irwin Feinman
DATE: Saturday February 8, 2003 -- 1:47:16 pm
After 36 years on radio I was forced to retire. Why? Because of just what you stated. Indiana Today dealt with Arts and Entertainment in Indy for 11-and-a-half years. I was a personality. My other program, "A Mixed Bag of Jazz" dealt with nostalgia. It was not only Jazz oriented but also included music from around the turn-of-the-century through the 20's, 30's, 40's and 50's. My fan base was growing and then, kaboom, a new G. M. came in and I was gone. So what can we do about it? I need an answer. I give presentations to older adults who truly appreciate it. In fact I was doing research when I cam across your site. Thanks for the forum.

Paul Irwin

FROM: semperfi2010
DATE: Sunday April 4, 2004 -- 5:27:48 pm
I'm not from Chicago, but I am very disgusted with radio these days. As many of you have already mentioned, it is repetitive and without personality. I haven't heard any good variety in radio for the longest of time. Hell, I have a twin brother who predicted this would happen three years ago. He has stopped listening since.

FROM: Mike E
DATE: Sunday October 10, 2004 -- 10:15:46 pm
What happened to London Did I miss something

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