Life Is a Rock (but Y107 Can Still Roll You)
The only pop station in Chicago that indiscriminately plays music by whites and blacks side by side is a silly, calculated, artificial, and wholly pleasurable new operation that went on the air just after the new year. The station's call letters are WYSY, it goes under the nom de radio of Y107.9, and its shtick is to play hits from the 70s and only hits from the 70s. There are those who will quail in the face of such a broadcast threat, and not entirely without reason: Y107 (let's drop the .9) doesn't shy away from the decade's rough spots, from "Nights in White Satin" to "I Really Want to See You Tonight." But what gives the station its punch are the high points: the 70s were the decade of Al Green, and the Spinners, and Donna Summer, remember. The hits of these classic soul artists are mixed in with hard-rock gems from Elton John ("Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting") or the Doobies ("Long Train Runnin'"); pop nirvana by everyone from Badfinger to Hall and Oates to Fleetwood Mac; dollops of cool disco; and this or that bit of weirdness ("Taxi," "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"). While the station may be downplaying the new-wave end of the decade (I haven't heard "Heart of Glass" or "My Best Friend's Girl" yet), it's delighting connoisseurs with extended dance mixes on the Saturday Night Dance Party and otherwise goes out of its way to do justice to the time (by programming the scorching, seven-minute version of "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," for example).
The station is brought to you by the folks at white-bread classic rocker WCKG, specifically by Mike Disney, VP and general manager of both stations. Y107's approach, he says, shouldn't be confused with the new "arrow" format--rock hits from the 60s, 70s, and 80s--that's all the rage nationally. Cox Broadcasting--the 13-station chain that owns 'CKG and Y107--pioneered the strictly 70s way of life at one of its Tampa stations, WCOF. (A non-Cox outlet, KABL in San Francisco, is now trying it as well.) With the relaxation of FCC ownership rules (chains may now own two FM and two AM signals in one market), Cox snapped up WYSY, which before the end of last year was playing adult contemporary by day, heavy metal by night. Disney says the company considered going with hard rock and even country. But either of those two formats would have precipitated a radio war (with the Blaze and US99 respectively). The all-70s format gave Cox a niche.
"Over time, the oldies format--the moldy oldies--left a lot of space for a new kind of radio station," Disney says. "The 70s gold approach appeals to a younger audience that wanted music that they weren't hearing on the radio anymore."
Why is it, I asked Disney, that Y107 is the only station in Chicago--including 'CKG--to program color-blind? "It's certainly not by design," he says. "Chicago is such a big market. You get niched out so far you have to go in and hyperserve a particular demographic or psychographic." That may be true, but it's also a euphemism for the fact that radio research says white radio listeners generally don't want to hear black music. Ironically enough, when Cox investigated audience reception for the format in Chicago, the researchers found something odd. "We really can't take that much credit--the listeners screened for it," says Disney: "Black product tested very strong here." Cox's Tampa 70s station is very rock-oriented, Disney says; but in Chicago the soul and R & B stuff--even the dreaded disco--got the thumbs up. "There's a real emotional kick to it," Disney says. "The letters and phone calls we get are tremendous." Indeed, after playing a song like Thelma Houston's apocalyptically libidinous "Don't Leave Me This Way," jocks will come back on the air to say so-and-so just called from such-and-such a suburb raving about how great the song was. Whether it's made up or not, you believe it--because you were about to call to say the same thing yourself.
Y107, Disney says, attracts and intends to attract whites, blacks, and Hispanics of a particular age: "Your thirtysomethings and fortysomethings. We're getting some young people too: They say they had an older brother or sister who wouldn't let them touch the radio when they were growing up."
Y107 is such a fun station to listen to that it's difficult to think about rationally. War-horses like "Maggie May," AOR crap like Foreigner's "Feels Like the First Time"--even these sound great when they're programmed next to "Let's Stay Together," or Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe." The one weird thing I've noticed about the station is that at any given moment it's impossible to remember the last song they played. Did I just hear "Drift Away"? Or was it "Sister Golden Hair"? The songs immediately fade back into the past.
Is Y107 really so special? One could make the argument that MTV has given us a 90s version of that long-gone interracial pop utopia that the Y107 programmers have at least temporarily captured, but the upcoming explosion of the cable market seems likely to fragment even music television. Until some MTV nostalgia format pops up in the first decades of the next century, we may never hear anything like Y107 again.
Liz Phair (number 1), Smashing Pumpkins (number 11), and Urge Overkill (number 16) all score nicely in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critic's poll, on the stands next week. Albums produced by Steve Albini come in at number 2 (In Utero) and 3 (PJ Harvey's Dry).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Philin Phlash.