Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Radio Dazed

Since I last unloaded my thoughts on current events, an already tense summer has boiled over into a tumbleweed of controversies. The acquital of Casey Anthony and the reduced charges on Dominique Strauss-Kahn have made observers ponder how the media determines and goads one's guilt before the accused faces a jury. In turn, the phone-tapping scandal that has rocked the Scotland Yard, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, and nearly every level of the British government has stirred a debate about the right to privacy and the limits of gathering information. ("Vast left-wing conspiracy" my fanny.) However, there's a third prong to this communication pitchfork that pricks too close to my comfort.

On Thursday July 14th, the on-air personalities of WKQX 101.1 FM in Chicago signed off for the last time. WKQX, known more commonly as Q101, and its sister station WLUP 97.9 FM "The Loop" were sold by its parent company to Randy Michaels' upstart Merlin Media in early June. Michaels, a man celebrated by the Chicago media for his strides in female enpowerment, bought the two struggling stations with the intent to convert at least one signal into a news/talk format. Even though The Loop --a station whose once-stalwart '70s/'80s hard rock format has seen better days-- seemed far more vulnerable, Michaels' henchman dropped the ax on Q101.

The last alt-rock station in the market, Q101 was a brand that had annihilated every direct competitor it had faced in its 19-year existence. Alas, since the economic downturn three years ago ad revenue had plummeted and never quite recovered. My friends and peers here in Chicago grew up with Q101, the "cool" station that mixed '90s grunge with today's alternative rock; the whole format was a thumb at the nose at other CHR stations that played increasingly samey hip-hop and autotuned, overproduced pop songs. In the last five years of Q101's run, their on-air staff had neither overpaid local luminaries nor canned voiceovers from LA, but a group of dilligent, serviceable, locally bred DJs that knew how to connect with an audience. They were one of us.

Well before Randy Michaels (real name: Ben Homel) was creating overtime opportunities for his female underlings, he was a highly controversial and much-derided figure in Chicago radio. His first stint here in the early '90s is the stuff of legend. When billionaire Sam Zell saved the Tribune Company from bankrupcy in 2007, he appointed his golf buddy Michaels to run broadcast operations, which included flagship WGN 720 AM. In promising a "fun, nonlinear creative environment," Michaels proceeded to run a station of immense history, pride, and tradition into the ground. Like a South American revolutionary Michaels went from savior to totalitarian overnight, firing top personnel and longtime on-air talent at WGN with cronies, hacks, and brown-nosers. When he was finally axed late last year, it seemed like Michaels' days in the Windy City were at long last over. Now he's back for a third spin.

Upon making the switch official, the competition jumped into action. WBBM 780 AM, the longtime alpha dog of Chicago news/talk, announced that their struggling sister station, WCFS 105.9 "Fresh FM," would drop its lite-rock format to become a Newsradio 780 similcast effective August 1st. It was a chess-like strategic move first and a cutting of losses second. It also meant that two music-format FM stations were kaput and over a hundred people were out of jobs. Sadly, this trend is not limited to Chicago; in the advent of mp3 players and iPods, the younger demographic has grown bored with listening to music that they can't personalize; no matter how broad a programming director can cast that big net, the kids are tuning out. As a result, music radio formats are dying and talk formats --politically biased manna for middle-aged reactionaries-- are rising. The impact in which a radio determines a hit song is at an all-time low. At this rate, I almost feel like I'll be forced into buying an iPod just so I don't have to choose between Michael Savage, Sean Hannity, or Rachel Maddow during drive time.

Other notes:

+ The ongoing budget wars have been both compelling and difficult to watch at the same time. What happens now is more than just capping the national debt, it's a make-or-break moment not only for President Obama but the credibility of the "Tea Party" congress. Public opinion has a tendency to shift with mercurial abandon --hey, remember when Obama kinda-sorta killed bin Laden?-- and the budget breakdown could be either a watershed moment or the end of at least one young, promising political career. The partisan war on the economy will be the topic that tilts the 2012 elections, and the budget battle is Fort Sumter. Sadly, no compromise will satisfy everyone and more people will come out losing no matter what happens between now and next week.

+ This past weekend marked my completion of the iO writing program. I held a reading of the final draft of my sitcom pilot "Pushing Air" Sunday afternoon at the theater, and I thought it went pretty well. (Why yes, it is a satire about the radio industry-- how'd you guess?) On the improv side of things, my team Ladies & Lumberjacks has four shows down and three to go, and personally I think we've hit our stride. We have collectively grown so much over the past 15 months. Maybe I'm speaking too soon, but when all is said and done I will genuinely miss working with these people.

Next week: when bad songs happen to good people (i.e. yours truly).


  1. What, no mention of Mancow? lol

    That was basically what I used Q101 for - tho for years I dabbed after his program to see what the hipsters were listening to. I think you kids had holes in your heads ;)

    Wait, that's right... I can't personalize what I listen to on the FM... well the hell with that! Radio's going right into the trash can! Definitely what killed radio was that you couldn't listen to a particular station more than once a week, or more than an hour at a time - and the highly predictable time slot block of commercials doesn't help either. You've never seen people so angry & quick to hit the pre-set buttons.

    So how's this heat treatin' ya, Stu? You like it all nice, hot and humid like the air is on fire? Don't you just love how they keep finding ways to close beaches? Blech.

  2. The commercial clock has always been like that, actually. Plus, I forgot to mention the option of satellite radio; my mom's car came with Sirius/XM, and the prospect of listening to music sans interruption for a nominal fee is becoming more and more tempting.

    This Chicago weather is getting more and more ridiculous; typically, you'd have to out in the Plains (i.e. Kansas City) to experience 100 degrees daily, plus five thunderstorms a week.

  3. Did you see we went from like the 2nd driest July ever to the wettest July ever? Tho there's some fallacy & bullshit to be said for that. I'm including a link to the WGN Weather blog:


    According to that graphic, it was an extremely isolated area of extraordinary rain which *happened* to hit the recording station. Note that in most of northern Will County, which got only a few inches at the most in July. Joliet got nowhere near 9" of rain.

    They really need to change the way they forecast weather here - it can be anywhere from 15 to 30 degrees warmer or cooler based whether you're in the city, near the lake, western suburbs or Kankakee. This crazy shit this year is all La Niña's fault (which falls into that consistent pattern).