Chicago radio thrives at the left of the dial

Corporate consolidation has flattened out the big commercial outlets, but low-power and college stations still have plenty of personality.

BOBBY SIMS
  • Bobby Sims

Last year I moved from Evanston to Albany Park, and serendipitously my radio options changed. For decades I've appreciated the wide-ranging, unconstrained programming on local college and community stations, but I never spent much time actually listening to them, even during the years I hosted an international-music program on Loyola University's WLUW. Maybe I couldn't hear one station because I was too far from the transmitter, or missed out on another because I lived in a signal shadow cast by tall buildings. Maybe my home stereo just wasn't configured right.

Thankfully the situation has improved in my current digs. In my kitchen the only way to play music is a stand-alone radio, and though I can plug my iPod into it and play my own stuff, a couple of lucky experiences switching between stations at the left end of the FM dial persuaded me to stick with what I can pick up on the airwaves. I've spent time listening to WLUW (88.7), Northwestern's great and often challenging WNUR (89.3), Northeastern's defiantly free-form WZRD (88.3), and genre-agnostic oldies station WRME (87.7), which is run by Chicago-based rerun-driven television network MeTV. (It's a sad state of affairs when a TV network that's proud of airing old episodes of Alf also operates the most satisfying commercial radio outlet in Chicago, but that's another discussion.) My radio has an actual physical dial, not a digital tuner—no preset buttons here—so once I realized that all four of these stations fell within 1.6 MHz, I took advantage of their proximity to channel surf. With the smallest nudge in one direction or the other, I could find another good song every time things got slow.

I have my issues with the student DJs on college radio—they're sometimes maddeningly inarticulate and sometimes ridiculously self-indulgent, whether they're trying to entertain themselves or affect some sort of detached cool. But I still love the stations where they work, because the programming there has the potential to be so open-ended. Depending on the station and the hour, you could hear indie rock, noise, jazz, international music, or even a hyperlocal news show.

WRME boasts about building its playlist from an "active library" of more than 3,000 songs, but that's a meager number compared to the bottomless options available to college stations. All the same, I've gotten a lot of pleasure out of WRME since I discovered it a couple years ago—it veers wildly among 50 years of pop styles, including 60s Merseybeat, 70s hard soul, and 80s R&B, with such a complete lack of rhyme or reason to the transitions that I suspect a computer program makes the choices. Within its relatively mainstream territory, it can feel just as free-form as college radio—and the jumps in genre happen from song to song instead of from show to show.

When WRME plays a song I detest (about one tune in three), I switch to one of those other stations. Sometimes I stay there for an hour or more, if the DJ strikes my fancy and doesn't yammer too much; sometimes I leave after 30 seconds. It's fun and informative—you can never learn so much about music that you can't be surprised.

Chicago has other great community radio outlets, of course—but CHIRP has yet to launch its terrestrial broadcast at 107.1 FM, and in my kitchen I can't pick up Lumpen Radio's signal at 105.5 FM. So I spend almost all my radio time at the left of the dial, with WRME, WNUR, WZRD, and WLUW. Those four stations have become one of my favorite things about this often maddening city.  v

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