The Ever-Changing World of Chicago Radio

It took about a year for the plug to be pulled on an ambitious (or some would say ridiculous) project: FM News 101.1. As of today, you will hear music on 101.1 FM instead of talk.

The CEO of the station’s owner cited “lack of audience engagement” as one of the reasons: that’s doubletalk for “people weren’t listening.” Here’s a link to Robert Feder’s play-by-play of the demise of the station.

When I first wrote about the station last year I indicated that I actually wanted to see the station succeed. They seemed a little light on substance and resorted to a bunch of hackneyed gimmicks but my hope was that station management would learn that Chicago radio audiences were more sophisticated, and that the real opportunity for News 101.1 was to fill a niche between WBBM and WBEZ. They opted to swing in the wrong direction entirely.

I did tune in to the station occasionally, mostly when I missed WBBM’s Traffic and Weather report, because News 101.1’s reports were now on the Ones.

101.1 now plays a mixture of 80s and 90s music in kind of an odd mishmash of styles designed to appeal to 30-35 year-old-women (correction provided by my wife, who’s in that demographic).

And so we keep spinning the dial…

Christmas Airchecks

Here’s an early Christmas present for all of you: a pair of archive files that each contain 90 minutes of somewhat innocuous holiday music.  The real bonus, though, is hidden in the recordings:  between the usual bits of Nat King Cole, Kenny G, and 101 Strings are little snippets of Chicago media history.

These are recordings of two Chicago radio stations’ nonstop Christmas music programming, recorded on Christmas Eves in 1984 and 1988.    In those days, some radio stations would put their normal programming on hold on December 24 and play holiday music through to the evening of the 25th.  This way you’d have a nice musical background to whatever festivities you had going on.  (This contrasts with the more recent approach of going all-holiday the week after Halloween.)

While digging around the house for holiday music, I found a cache of cassettes that contained all sorts of fun that I pulled from the air over the years.  The two 90-minute programs attached below are from WLOO (FM100) recorded in 1984, and WNUA in 1988.   

FM100 was the primary Beautiful Music station in Chicago (under its various ownerships) from the early 1950s through the late 1980s, and their format consisted of soft instrumental versions of pop songs with the occasional light vocal.  The attached recording is very typical of what FM100 sounded like– just replace the Christmas tunes with non-holiday songs by the same artists.  You’ll also hear a couple of weather forecasts, and learn how it was a very cold night that Christmas Eve.

WNUA was a Smooth Jazz station from the late 1980s through the late 2000s.  It’s not coincidental that FM100’s demise came around the time of WNUA’s rise: they both served the purpose of providing background music.  Beautiful Music formats were being dropped all over the country at that time, and WNUA’s brand of “Smooth Rock, Smooth Jazz” was just a little more hip and rhythmic (and less sleep-inducing).   The recording presented here isn’t quite representative of the typical WNUA broadcast day: they went a lot softer here, plus they interspersed audio snippets by on- and off-air staff and their families.  They also included station jingles that sound like ringing bells, with a little “hourly chime” effect at the top of each hour. You still get Kenny G, though.

Just download each file, unzip, and load the resulting MP3s into your favorite music player.  There are two MP3s in each archive.

Click on the WNUA logo to download the archive of the 12/24/1988 Christmas recording:

Click on the FM100 logo to download the archive of the 12/24/1984 WLOO Christmas recording:

(FM100 image from the Radio Timeline at Zecom Communications.)

Download and enjoy– and maybe you’ll blow the mind of someone who actually remembers these stations.

Happy Holidays!

From Nirvana to News

As expected, the former Q101 (WKQX) changed formats this past weekend to become “FM News 101.1” (WWWN).

There was a lot of lead-up to this change, beginning with rumors in June that the classic-alternative rock station was up for sale, leading through the announcement of an air staff with rather impressive credentials.   Time Out Chicago‘s Rob Feder has devoted a lot of column space to the station’s startup, as have several other online sources.

I had the chance to listen to the station most of the day today as I was telecommuting, and my first impression is that they’re still feeling their way through the new format.  It’s not bad and certainly not unlistenable– FM News 101’s air staff takes a much more casual approach than their more tightly-formatted competitor, plus they’re not compressing or “optimizing” the audio or using beds of noise under the air staff,  which gives the new station a similar feel to WBEZ‘s, or at least a step in the direction of the all-news days of the former WMAQ.

The station offers “Weather and Traffic on the Fives,” which is in direct response to WBBM’s “Traffic and Weather on the Eights.”   The segment is signaled by the sound of a gas station bell, which became annoying after a while. They also offer minute-long segments about shopping, technology tips (e.g. how to save battery life on your cellphone), and health.    The air staff also throws out questions to the audience and solicits responses on their Facebook page, reading the comments on the air.  Network news and features are provided by ABC Radio.

I’ve been a regular WBBM listener for many years, and my clock radio is still tuned to that station.  That said, I’m going to give FM News a chance to find their voice.

Speaking of WBBM:  once WWWN’s owners announced their intentions,  rumors started flying about WBBM’s simulcasting their programming over CBS’ floundering WCFS-FM (I blogged about their “Fresh” format here). In mid-July WBBM started running spots that said that starting on August 1 you’d be able to hear them on 105.9.  And sure enough:

It’ll be interesting to see what happens– stay tuned!

It’s Back To Basics For The Lot of You… *again*

I opened this morning’s Daily Herald to read coverage of the storms that blew through the Chicago suburbs yesterday. On the front page there was a teaser for Burt Constable’s column that read: “And I Feel Fine?”

Of course, this was a meta-reference to the R.E.M. song “It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” And it made me sigh.

A few years ago in this blog I wrote about how using rock lyrics as a headline– especially that line from that song– is a sign of laziness on the part of the writer. I quoted Orwell and his advice against using “dying metaphors,” and admonished the writers of several articles, including these:

“It’s the end of Windows as we know it, and I feel fine”
“It’s the end of Geekcorps as we know it, and we feel fine”
“It’s The End Of Capitalism As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
“It’s the end of Testing as we know it, and I feel fine”
“It’s the end of democracy as we know it??…. and I feel fine!”
“It’s the end of baseball as we know it, and I feel fine”
“It’s the End of QA as We Know It, and I Feel Fine”

Despite my call for a stop to the madness, it has only spread. A search performed today (filtering out REM and Harold Camping) yields:

“It’s the End of Social Media as we know it (and I feel fine)”
“It’s the End of Planning as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)”
“It’s the End of AdSense as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
“It’s the End of the Marketing As We Know it and I Feel Fine”
“It’s the End of Stock Photography as we know it, and I feel fine”
“It’s The End of SXSW As We Know It…And I Feel Fine”
“It’s the End of the Cinema, as we know it (then and now) ….And I feel fine.”
“It’s the End of the Book as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
“It’s the end of space-time as we know it, and I feel fine”
“It’s the End of GM as we Know It, and I Feel Fine”
“It’s the End of IPv4 as We Know It, and I Feel Fine.”
“It’s the End of the Summer As We Know It.. …And I feel fine”
“It’s The End of the Tequila World as we know it.. and I Feel Fine”

…and a very timely reference to the end of The News of the World.

I also found references to the end of Star Trek, squirrels, the internet (a couple thousand of those, I reckon), Saddam, Skype, the year, the Euro, Usenet, Bonnaroo, the kilogram, judo, school, the thread, organized atheism, and Morocco. Wait, Morocco?

I still hold my position that this is an overused device. It’s not clever, it’s certainly not edgy (the song was released in 1987), and only exposes the laziness of the writer. After all, why bother coming up with something original when you can automatically plop in 13 of someone else’s words and include only one of your own?

After I published my original rant, I received a very cordial e-mail from Kenneth Hass, the author of “It’s the End of QA as We Know It, and I Feel Fine.” He blamed his use of the phrase on the fact that readers are no longer able to be ensnared with humble phrases as “On the topic of virtue in modern America…” and writers are “forced into such deplorable acts as ‘I’m talking de-Nile, and that ain’t no river, baby!’ to ever hope to gain readership.” Mr Hass certainly has a point, and I agree that in a way readers are somewhat to blame.

But let’s not blame the victims here. I once again appeal to the writers out there: knock it off. I think even Michael Stipe would agree with me.

And lay off Morocco.

TV Geekery From The Past

Stock Market Observer WCIU

Among the negatives I recently had digitized at ScanCafe, I discovered the results of a former hobby of mine: photographing TV screens.

When I first discovered 35mm photography (using my dad’s Kodak Retina IIa fold-out camera) I got interested in all the things you could do by messing around with the shutter speed and aperture. While visiting a camera store I found a publication from Kodak called “Photographing Television Images” and I decided to give it a try, as it brought together my newfound hobby of photography with my already-embedded Radio/TV hobby.

The photo above is one of my very first attempts at shooting a TV screen: this is an image taken in 1976 of WCIU-TV’s “Stock Market Observer” program. This show was a precursor to services like CNBC, and created a whole generation of financial market-watching geeks. This was shot on Ektachrome slide film. (To see more of what the show looked like, click this link to a clip on the Fuzzy Memories site.)


This is WCIU’s test pattern, taken earlier the same day. The station’s transmitter was on the top of the Board of Trade Building, and their signal was weaker than most of the other Chicago TV stations at the time. These were the days when stations would go off the air during the night, and WCIU would come on around 8:00 am each day.


WCIU Stock Market Observer

Here are two more shots of the Stock Market Observer, this time from 1990. The improved TV signal, graphics, and interesting Dow Jones Industrial Average are all noteworthy. The lady in the photo is Linda Marshall, the previous generation’s Maria Bartiromo.

These were also shot on Ektachrome, this time with a Pentax K1000. I went through a phase where I was processing my own transparency film, and these were part of that collection.


Back to January, 1976: NBC just introduced their new logo (which turned out to be already in use by a public TV network in Nebraska), and they were splashing it everywhere. This photo was taken using Kodak Verichrome print film in the Retina IIa, and as you can see the colors on the negative didn’t hold up well over the years. That “N” is supposed to be red and blue, and the “5” should be white. (I chose to present these the way they were scanned rather then correcting them with PhotoShop.)



In the summer of 1976, WCFC came on the air as an all-Christian-programming station. This was the first new TV station in Chicago in many years, and now there was a stop as you spun your UHF dial from WFLD (channel 32) to WSNS (channel 44). This is one of their first test patterns and program cards for their locally-produced nightly show Chicago. This was shot on Tri-X film with the Retina IIa.



In 1983, another new station came on the air: the City Colleges of Chicago started WYCC on channel 20, and I caught these early test patterns. The camera was a Pentax K1000 and the film was 400-speed Kodacolor.


One of the neat things about growing up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago was that we could swing the antenna on the roof to the north and if conditions were right, we could pick up Milwaukee TV stations. This is another 1976 photo, showing a title card for WTMJ’s local morning news segment during the Today show.

It’s interesting to see these after so many years.

Valley Voices

I just finished re-reading Valley Voices by John Russell Ghrist. This is a 1996 history of radio stations that were based throughout the suburbs of Chicago, with a primary focus of the towns in the Fox River Valley.
There are all kinds of interesting tidbits in the book, including the histories of Chicago stations WGN, WMAQ, WBBM, WLS, and all sorts of suburban stations like Elgin’s WRMN, Aurora’s WAUR, and Arlington Heights’ own WWMM.
There are sections about WFVH (Forest View High School) and WHCM (Harper College), two stations that carried the dulcet tones of my voice. There’s also a brief section on Zenith’s radio station and the twin antenna towers that once stood at the corners of Rand, Central, and Mt Prospect roads in Mt Prospect. (I saw those towers almost every day when I was growing up.)
This was truly a labor of love for the author, given the level of detail that appears in the book. It must have been difficult to collect all this information, given the fact that most of it was compiled in the days long before Google and Wikipedia.
I had an e-mail exchange with the author recently, in which he told me he received many upper-level credits from Indiana University for his work on the book, resulting in the degree he’d been working on. He also said that updating the book– even bringing it from 1996 to the present– would be a monumental task, and that radio stations don’t care about their history and “want to tell you about the junk they are playing these days.” Excellent points.
Mr Ghrist is currently the host of Midwest Ballroom on WDCB in Glen Ellyn, and occasionally speaks at local libraries on the history of Chicago radio.
Two versions of this book exist: the version that’s linked above is a softcover, and there was an earlier comb-bound “manuscript” version which contains significantly more detail and many more photos of the people, stations, and station logos and advertisements. This earlier version was self-published by Mr Ghrist in 1993 and, while it has more of an “amateur” feel to it, gives the reader an idea of how tremendous this effort truly was.
If you’re a fan of radio, especially Chicago radio, and you happen to run across a copy of Valley Voices, be sure to pick it up.

A New Spot on the Dial For Your Dentist to Tune In

We were listening to WCKG, the former “Free FM” talk station at 105.9, just before 5:00 pm today and they were simulcasting WBBM-AM on their frequency.
I’ve always been sort of fascinated, in a geeky way, at how stations handle format changes, and this was an interesting stunt: WCKG played simulcasts of WBBM and other CBS-owned radio stations in the hours leading up to the new format’s introduction.
Anyway, I wanted to hear how they would identify themselves at the top of the hour, and right at 5:00 pm there was a “whooshing” jingle and the introduction of the new “Fresh 105.9” followed by a U2 song.
Yup, 105.9 is now a “lite rock” station, perfect for listening while you’re having a root canal. U2 was followed by Kelly Clarkson, and later by Gwen Stefani. Wow. Edgy.
Since WLIT 93.9 switched over to all-Christmas music last week, this is clearly an attempt by WCKG to snatch away any listeners who miss their KT Tunstall and John Mayer.
The thing is, WLIT stopped playing that music months ago. For some reason, they now define “lite rock” as the worst music of the 1970s: think KC and the Sunshine Band and Gloria Gaynor. You know, the stuff we’d rather forget about.
Will WCKG be successful with their target demographic– Women, 25-54? I know at least one member of that demographic who’s already rolled her eyes at the whole thing.

Übercaster Review Published

My review of the Übercaster podcasting software package has been published in the August edition of Blogger and Podcaster Magazine. Click on the magazine cover under “View Current Issue,” and you’ll find the Ubercaster review on page 41.
You can also hear the dulcet tones of my voice reading the review at the magazine’s site. Click “Reviews” under “B&P: Podcast Edition” and then hit the Play button.
The review encapsulated: Übercaster is an okay program, but it has a bit more growing to do.


I had an interview tonight with a producer from WTTW’s Chicago Tonight. They are doing a piece on podcasting, and they may use some of my thoughts and possibly mention our 4th Time Around podcast on the air.
The show airs Thursday at 7:00 pm CST. If you’re in the Chicago area, be sure to tune in!

Oldies are New

Yesterday at noon, WZZN-FM (“The Zone”) dropped their “Alternative” format and became “Chicago’s True Oldies Channel,” thus filling a hole in the formats of Chicago’s FM stations.
I find it unusual that they chose this time of year to make the change. Typically, people want to hear the Beach Boys and Motown hits while cruising around with the windows down. Maybe they would have made a bigger splash had they launched in June or July, when tempers were still high over WJMK’s replacement with “Jack FM.”
In any event, this is yet another in a looooong series of format changes for the 94.7 spot on the FM dial. Check this site to see everything it’s been.
I wish them luck– they’re the only oldies player in town with a decent signal (I usually have trouble picking up WRLL-AM 1690, the other oldies station here), so they can’t munge this up too badly. According to Robert Feder’s column they intend on having a wide playlist, so that’s a good thing.
Now maybe they can lure Fred Winston and Dick Biondi away from WJMK online.