Tryin’ To Anaesthetise The Way That You Feel

Yesterday, someone said to me “radio should be free.” I agree with this sentiment.
I’ve had a bunch of people ask me when I’m going to get an XM or Sirius receiver. These suggestions come from people who know that I have a long-standing affection for radio (see Exhibit A) and my tastes in music are pretty eclectic (see Exhibit B), so it would seem a good choice for me.
On top of it, every time I’m in Trader Joe’s, they have XM playing overhead, and I think “Wow, I haven’t heard that song in a long time,” or “Hey, that was an interesting transition.” I have few concerns about the quality of programming on these services.
I dunno. I just have this internal block that prevents me from dropping $10 a month to pick something up that’s floating through the air. At least with cable TV, there’s tangible evidence of what you’re paying for: that piece of black RG59 coming out of the wall (and yes, I know that ultimately the signals come out of the sky and my theory falls apart, but just go with me on this for a second). And there’s the thing about how the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon keep the Pixie Chicks busy.
It just seems to me that if anyone in the radio business really loved the medium, they could do it right. When I tune across the dial in Chicago, I hear commercials, dance music, commercials, talk, commercials, commercials, something I can’t define, and commercials.
Part of this has something to do with the fact that most of the major stations here are owned by Clear Channel, Infinity/CBS, Bonneville, or one of the other big corporations. And nobody’s taking any chances.
When I was growing up, you listened to either WLS or WCFL, the two Top-40 stations. And as we all know, when you listened to these stations you would hear Stevie Wonder, followed by Led Zeppelin, then the Partridge Family… okay, so I’m showing my age. The point is, there was a mix.
When you graduated to FM, we had WDAI and WSDM, the true album-rockers, and WBBM-FM which started out as another album-rocker but then they softened up a little. If you were a hard-core progressive radio fan, you’d listen to WGLD or WXFM’s Triad Radio, which even as a kid I knew was totally cool. Take a look at the bands they played.
By the time I was out of high school, the landscape had changed to the point where the only decent station on the air was WXRT (born of the ashes of “underground” WGLD), and maybe the college stations at Northwestern (WNUR) or Northeastern Illinois (WZRD). The rock stations, especially WLUP (“The Loop”) played a steady stream of Zeppelin, REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Journey (and by the way, why aren’t any of these guys on the “Worst 50” list?), and nobody else was doing anything interesting.
Fast-forward to April, 2004: WXRT is now owned by Infinity and has teetered dangerously on the edge of becoming a parody of its old self. Fortunately, they still retain some of their edge, and is probably the only ‘rock’ station I listen to anymore.
The one that’s truly a parody, though, is WDRV, the “classic rock” station. They took over the frequency of a long-respected classical station, WNIB, in 2001. When they announced the station, their ads said “We listened to you: we created a station that you want to hear.” What I didn’t realize was that the “station I wanted to hear” had exactly the same format and playlist as WLUP had in 1978. (No, not interested.) Styx-Journey-REO-arrrghhhh.
I had a point in all this. Oh yeah, “radio should be free.”
My point is that I like the sounds I’ve heard on XM and Sirius, but I don’t want to have to pay for that level of quality. Radio is such an easy thing to do right that we shouldn’t have to pay for it beyond listening to an acceptable number of commercials per hour.
As a postscript, I will say that I support my local NPR station, so I guess on some level I am paying for quality.
On the next page you’ll see the latest Arbitron ratings for the Chicago stations. I’ve added a couple comments.

Early ’04 Arbitron Ratings for Chicago Stations
1. WGN-AM (720) 5.8 [5.9] (Talk-News-Variety-Cubs)
2. WGCI-FM (107.5) 5.6 [5.5] (Urban)
3. WBBM-AM (780) 4.9 [5.0] (News)
4. WLS-AM (890) 4.5 [4.8] (Talk-News)
5. WVAZ-FM (102.7) 4.1 [4.9] (“Dusties”– soul tracks from the 60s & 70s: great stuff)
6. WOJO-FM (105.1) 4.0 [3.5] (Latin)
WBBM-FM (96.3) 4.0 [4.0] (Top-40-or-whatever: thump-thump-thump stuff)
8. WNUA-FM (95.5) 3.7 [4.4] (Smoooooth Jazz: “Grandma Music” as Brown-Eyed Girl calls it)
9. WLIT-FM (93.9) 3.5 [4.0] (Dentist’s Office Music: Celine, Kenny G)
10. WLEY-FM (107.9) 3.3 [3.4] (Latin)
11. WUSN-FM (99.5) 3.2 [3.5] (Country– the only country station in Chicago, btw)
WJMK-FM (104.3) 3.2 [2.9] (“Oldies”– if you can call a playlist of 50 songs from the 60s and 70s “oldies”)
13. WPWX-FM (92.3) 3.1 [3.3] (Another Top-whatever-thump-thump-thump station)
14. WDRV-FM (97.1)/
WWDV-FM (96.9) 3.0 [2.4] (WLUP’s format in 1978. You’ll hear a lot of Dark Side of the Moon here.)
15. WTMX-FM (101.9) 2.9 [2.3] (Inexplicably popular mix of ‘today’s hits and the best of the 90s.’ Big with soccer moms.)
16. WXRT-FM (93.1) 2.8 [2.1] (See main body text above.)
17. WKSC-FM (103.5) 2.5 [2.5] (thump-thump-thump again)
18. WCKG-FM (105.9) 2.1 [1.9] (Talk, some classic rock. Home of Howard Stern, Steve Dahl, and a few more hosts to interrupt the steady stream of commercials)
WFMT-FM (98.7) 2.1 [2.2] (Classical)
20. WLUP-FM (97.9) 2.0 [1.9] (Still rockin’, almost identical to WDRV, only now they play hair bands from the 80s and stuff from the 90s and beyond that I can’t recognize)
21. WNND-FM (100.3) 1.8 [1.9] (See WLIT at #9 above.)
22. WSCR-AM (670) 1.6 [1.3] (Sports)
WZZN-FM (94.7) 1.6 [1.9] (“Alternative” rock – I hate that term. It doesn’t mean today what it’s really supposed to mean.)
WKQX-FM (101.1) 1.6 [2.0] (“Alternative” rock – ain’t it funny how the two stations with the same format are rated the same? Maybe people are finally tired of Kurt Cobain.)
25. WSRB-FM (106.3) 1.3 [1.1] (Latin)
WGCI-AM (1390) 1.3 [1.4] (Urban/Talk)
27. WMVP-AM (1000) 1.1 [1.2] (Spoorrrtsss)
28. WIND-AM (560) 0.8 [1.0] (Latin)
WVIV-FM (103.1) 0.8 [0.7] (Latin– actually the station that plays the liveliest Hispanic music)
WVON-AM (1450) 0.8 [0.7] (Urban/Talk)
Note about the term “Urban:” This is what the radio industry defines as “radio for Black audiences.” The truth is that these stations have pretty significant numbers of non-black listeners as well.