It's 4:30 on a sweltering late-summer afternoon, and WXRT program director Norm Winer is worrying about everything but programming. He's just returned from watching a shoot for the station's second round of TV commercials in a year. The first--an elliptical, gnomic series featuring psychedelic lizards and bowling balls rolling backward, with suggestive slogans like "Think for Yourself" and "Move Someplace Cooler"--was the crown of an extraordinary promotional campaign that has the 18-year-old rock 'n' roll station flirting with its highest ratings ever. The new spots debut in just a few weeks; Winer has spent the afternoon in an un-air-conditioned north-side studio watching experimental filmmaker David Wild film a plate of spaghetti. That's the only detail Winer will vouchsafe about the new campaign--that and a hint that the station is thinking of beckoning advertisers to a special showing of the spots with an invitation that reads: "If you liked our lizard, you'll love our lobster."
Now, back in his office, Winer is dealing with plans for two rock concerts. The first is the station's annual "Concert for the Kids," a December event put on to raise money for Children's Hospital and promote the station into the bargain. Past participants have been the BoDeans, Robert Plant, and the Smithereens; this year the station is looking at John Hiatt, the Indiana-born singer-songwriter whose rather checkered 13-year career has produced consistent airplay on exactly one radio station in the country--WXRT.
Winer, 42, friendly-faced but intense, inhabits a windowless chamber in the depths of the station's West Belmont studio, decorated in the unpretentious school of Late Twentieth Century Radio Station: bare walls, with floor and desk covered several feet deep in CDs, cassette tapes, posters, trade publications, and an unobtrusive stack of gold and platinum records. (The latter are regularly bestowed upon radio stations by an ever more cynical record industry; plaques for artists the station is proud of having promoted--Sinead O'Connor, R.E.M., and so forth--adorn the WXRT hallways; others, like one for Bay Area progressive dunderheads Journey, get stacked in offices.)
Winer takes a call from Hiatt's manager and gives him the lowdown on local venues and ticket prices. "One thing we can do," he says, "is keep the ticket price relatively low and ask for canned goods or toys--last year we asked for toys and people went all out, really took it as a challenge.
"Once we get a sellout," he continues, "we can turn it into a broadcast show as well, which we've found has worked really well in the past."
He listens. "Uh-huh. Now," he says, with just a hint of discomfort crossing his face, "what sort of nut are we talking about from your point of view? Is this something that you're going to be needing your usual fee, or . . .
"Good, oh great." He finishes and puts the phone down. "It looks like we got it; they'll do it for expenses, and we'll turn it into a really big deal."
His assistant, Pam Buddy, comes in. Jam Productions, the concert promoters, have called, she says: "Robert Cray is confirmed as an 'XRT show"--meaning that WXRT's logo will appear in ads and the station will promote the show vigorously on the air.
"Actually, that's not right," Winer says. "It's not an 'XRT show yet." His face takes on a conspiratorial gleam. "The deal is that as soon as we say it's an 'XRT show, which it is, the Loop will boycott the record and won't add it. So what I'm trying to convince Jam to do is not to say that it's an 'XRT show, and let the Loop be tricked into adding the record. Then we'll say it's an 'XRT show, and they'll be too embarrassed to pull it back off.
"Right now, Jam is talking to Cray's manager. He may say, 'Fuck the Loop, we don't care.' But the first single is probably his best shot." The Loop--WLUP--is the biggest album-oriented rock station between the coasts; any number of conservative midwestern stations watch its playlist and follow its lead, Winer explains; if the Cray people don't go along with his little deception, they're probably kissing a lot of airplay good-bye. "I think they should at least give it a chance," he says.
This interest in Cray's career is a bit proprietary, but the bluesman, like Hiatt, is a quintessential "'XRT artist." So ingrown is the phrase that station personnel use it as a discrete musical category. ("Oops, I just did something illegal," confides DJ Frank E. Lee one afternoon. "I just played a Madness record right after a John Hiatt record--that's two 'XRT artists in a row.") Time has constricted rock radio; classic rock, and the audience's evident inability to tolerate new music from anyone besides Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, and very few others, have turned radio stations' decisions about what new songs to play--"adds"--into a highly stylized gavotte that increasingly commands the interest of record companies. Over the years, WXRT's relatively enlightened add policy and interest of the sort that Winer demonstrates in Cray's welfare have produced close relationships with an impressive array of artists--from now-pantheonic figures like Elvis Costello and Talking Heads to now-megastars like U2, R.E.M., and Midnight Oil to now-fairly commercial acts like Los Lobos and the BoDeans to current cutting-edge types like the Pixies and ex-Husker Du-er Bob Mould.
'XRT people can get precious about it--"Norm acts like he invented Elvis Costello," cracks a local radio veteran--but their self-conscious bluster is understandable. The radio industry's conservatism and homogeneity have become so pronounced that 'XRT has become a rarity: a decent rock outlet with an open attitude toward new music now qualifies as something of a freak.
Of course the station does have a certain lengendary quality about it. Of all the free-form progressive stations of the late 60s and early 70s--Boston's 'BCN, San Francisco's KSAN--'XRT may be the only station of significant size left that carries the torch at all. The prestige of WXRT is perhaps the station's most important asset; this, after all, is probably the only rock 'n' roll station in history to model itself, quite self-consciously, after a classical station, WFMT. Where 'FMT was "Chicago's Fine Arts Station," WXRT was "Chicago's Fine Rock Station." Respect for the music was paramount, a tradition, almost a raison d'etre, that pretty much continues, within much more stringent commercial confines, to this day. (DJs never talk over the music.) Like 'FMT, WXRT had to put up with a slew of complaints when it started using prerecorded commercials.
'XRT has to be given credit merely for being around at all: radio stations are worth too much these days to be playing anything but the most grossly broad-based programming. Evergreen Broadcasting, the owner of the Loop, just shelled out $30 mil for KKBT in Los Angeles. 'XRT, which is worth at least as much, is owned by a guy named Danny Lee, who grew up on the northwest side, inherited the station from his father, and likes it just fine the way it is. Other stations change formats, DJs, program directors, music directors, even call letters almost at will; 'XRT has had something approaching the same format for 18 years, and the staff, almost without exception, have been there a decade.
Of course, such constitutional consistency creates a consistency of listenership as well--one that has given the station, over the past five or six years, flat ratings. But beginning last year, possibly worried that such an extended situation did not bode well, 'XRT began doing something about it. The daily "featured artist" component--possibly the station's most distinctive programming element, apart from the music itself--was summarily dismissed. At the same time Winer began to tighten up programming, banning some softer and older music from the evening hours and letting more of the harder stuff creep into the days in an effort to make the station more contemporary sounding. And then there were the promotions--a slick new logo, for one, and then the TV commercials, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth, the largest and most daring move the perennially cautious station had ever made.
The result? Nearly a year of increased ratings. In the Arbitron ratings system, "share" is the percentage of radios available that are listening to a given station. While there was a time when certain stations in metropolitan areas could command a share in the double digits, most successful commercial stations today reside somewhere between a 1 and a 5. (In Chicago, only WGN and black pop WGCI do consistently better than that, each frequently reaching an 8.) WXRT had been stuck in the mid to upper 2s for about five years. In the summer of 1988, it fell to a 2.3, this in rather sharp contrast to the Loop's consistent 4-plus share. For the important fall book--October, November, and December, roughly, of 1989--'XRT rocketed up to a 3.4. For the winter 1990 book it dropped back down to a 2.5, but that was evidently due to an anomalously low showing in one month. And in the spring book, the station roared back up to a 3.3, including a 4.1 rating in the month of June.
All of which is impressive, but not conclusive: 'XRT is currently in the middle of one of the most crucial ratings periods it has ever faced: the fall Arbitron, the most important of the year. And there are some internal challenges as well. Music director Lin Brehmer, the station's pride and joy, one of the most respected people in American radio, recently left to become program director of KTCZ in Minneapolis. Seth Mason, the sole survivor of a cadre of entrepreneurial hippies who conceived of the station in the early 70s, kicked himself upstairs last month, leaving day-to-day operations to new station manager Harvey Wells. Meanwhile Winer is about to install a new computer system to help with the programming, a symbolically touchy move at one of the last stations in the country that actually allows its DJs to choose what records they play. Over the next few months the full force of the programming and promotional changes will have a chance to work; the result will either consolidate the station's gains, culminating a startling revivification, or confute them, suggesting that while extensive TV advertising could bring listeners in to sample WXRT's wares, the station could not, in the end, keep them.
The burden of most of this falls on the shoulders of Winer. As program director, he's in charge of the on-air personnel and the music, the ostensible reason people listen to radio at all. He reports to new station manager Wells and to the benevolent owner Lee. To Winer report the station's DJs, news director Neil Parker, and new music director Paul Marszalek. Winer's been at the station 11 years.
He is smart and funny; he's also a natural obsessive who pays very close attention to details, sometimes extraneous ones, and who doesn't seem interested in delegating authority. He's involved in almost every aspect of the station's image, and he's the author of its legendarily complex music-programming system, which, while far removed from anything approaching the "progressive," is relatively sophisticated for an AOR station in the third largest radio market in the country. A typical album in the main studio's wall of records will have one to as many as seven or eight songs available for airplay. A sticker on each album jacket lists the permissible cuts, and beside each title are boxes in which the DJs note the time and date of every play. Some of the cuts are "asterisked" in red marker--these are the relatively big hits or airplay favorites. Unasterisked titles are less familiar but also playable. In most cases DJs are supposed to alternate asterisked and nonasterisked songs when playing a particular album.
There are other considerations as well. Certain songs may be restricted to morning play ("-12," for before noon), others evenings ("+6," after six). There are also special green asterisks for the evening hours--these indicate cuts that are "familiar" only in the context of the station's harder-edged nighttime sound. And of course some songs are "plagued": these are the mega-hits--Springsteen's "Born to Run," say, or O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," or Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy"--that the station played early in their lives but are now banned on grounds of overexposure.
Winer wants his DJs to have their freedom, but he also wants to control the station's overall sound. The procedures he has devised to achieve these contradictory goals can become almost baroque in their complexity. Here, for example, is the text of a memo posted in the studio earlier this year:
Effective immediately, catalog classics and asterisk cuts by certain core artists will now be available for airplay after a minimum of 15 calendar days (i.e., 11 weekdays) have elapsed since the previous same weekday shift; please note, however, that other criteria regarding repetition must also be applied, e.g., 3-day separation, 8 days (shifts) separation, if played on an adjacent weekday shift, 3 spins maximum per two weeks, etc.
More than anything else, Winer obsesses about repetition: increasing it, decreasing it. The point of the memo is merely to increase the frequency with which certain familiar asterisked cuts may be played: Winer is saying that DJs must now let 15 days pass, rather than the previous 28, before repeating the cut during their shows. For example, if late-morning DJ Tom Marker, say, grabs U2's Joshua Tree, and plays an asterisked cut like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," it can't be played during the same shift until 15 days later. In addition, Winer doesn't want U2 played again for at least four or five hours. And the next time U2 is played, he wants a cut from a different album. And when The Joshua Tree does get chosen again, he wants a lesser-known, nonasterisked cut played--and after that he wants a different asterisked cut.
Not all music is subject to the same strictures, of course. The station does "emphasize" a constantly changing selection of current music. But with 'XRT's audience there's a fine line to walk between promoting the new stuff and hyping it. Brehmer, before he left, described the problem this way: "People say to me, 'Gosh, you must be playing that song ten times a day,'" he said, with heavy sarcasm. "I say, 'Yeah, that's right, must be--once every two hours.' That's the sort of stuff we're most careful about. 'XRT gets into trouble because our "time spent listening' [an Arbitron category] approaches that of a classical station. Our listeners will tell you about repetition that no radio consultant on earth can tell you that they can hear: [hip consultant's voice] 'Oh, you don't have to worry about that sort of repetition, people don't listen that long.' So Marker plays 'Metropolis,' a great new song by the Church. Johnny Mars plays it ten hours later. Someone calls up and goes [dull listener voice], 'Hey, I just heard this song.' You heard it ten hours ago. Stop listening! Get a life!"
"One of the most fundamental things about WXRT is unpredictability," says Winer. "I don't want people to be able to guess what's going to happen from one song to the next. But I also want people in retrospect to be able to say, 'OK, I can see why they played that.' I don't want us to be out of reach. I want people to figure us out.
"One of the things I say is, think about the song you're playing. Think about the least positive aspect of it: the vintage of it, the tempo, or the length, say, and then compensate for that with the next song you play."
One of the highest-rated stations in Chicago right now is WCKG, a classic rock station with an active library about a tenth the size of WXRT's--maybe 700 songs (roughly 100 of them versions of "Won't Get Fooled Again"). 'CKG and the Loop operate the way most other rock 'n' roll stations in the country operate, whether Top 40 (now generally called CHR, for "contemporary hits radio") or AOR ("album-oriented rock"). Their music or program directors progam the shows in advance, carefully constructing a measured, balanced mix of the most familiar songs from the Who, the Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Heart, and so forth along with a very small sampling of certain contemporary artists--U2, Eric Clapton, Heart, and so forth.
'XRT deserves credit for its relatively enlightened policy. How the new computer system is going to change things, however, remains up in the air. Because so much of Winer's programming is based on "feel," the skill of the DJs takes on great importance--it's been said around the station that the real secret to WXRT's programming is carried around in the heads of only about eight people: Winer, the now-departed Brehmer, and a half-dozen jocks with a decade or more tenure. The computer system, while it will not command the disk jockeys to play anything, will present a pool of available songs, taking into account what has already been played on that shift. The idea is to create greater consistency, Winer says.
Lacking megaratings and the large-scale promotional budgets that go with big corporate ownership, WXRT has had to develop a creative, somewhat scrappy approach to promotions. "We always thought of ourselves as playing 'Billy Ball,'" says a music director from the early 80s. Winer's other big concern, besides the programming, is promotional events that provide a lot of bang for the buck; more than that, they have to be in keeping with the station's image of respectability and good taste.
Hence Winer's interest in concerts. This year the station booked and promoted the Earth Day extravaganza starring Michelle Shocked, a concert at Navy Pier with the Church, a raucous Fourth of July show in Grant Park with the Smithereens and Los Lobos, and, to finish off the year, a huge Santana show at the 25,000-seat World Music Theatre. All of the shows were free for the audience, but none of them came easy to 'XRT--with the exception of the infrequent charity event, like the Concert for the Kids, artists demand their usual fees. In such cases Winer does his best to negotiate and then goes back to the station and its sponsors--Old Style for the Fourth of July show, Budweiser for most others--to come up with the dough. Every show presents its own problems. Shocked, who was due to be in town that weekend anyway, wasn't interested in doing an extra show on Earth Day until the station offered to turn her already scheduled concert into an 'XRT show, which generally means a sellout. "Suddenly Earth Day became a priority for them," Winer says dryly.
For Los Lobos and the Smithereens, Winer had to deal with some egos--the Smithereens used to open for Los Lobos, but by last Fourth of July their status had reversed. And the Santana show was a crap shoot, plain and simple: plans with the Kinks and Squeeze had fallen through, sponsor Budweiser wanted a more contemporary group, and dinosaur band Santana was scarcely in keeping with the station's new, hipper image. Yet the ticket giveaways were enthusiastically accepted by listeners, and the show, by all accounts, was a success.
Things don't always go so well, of course; the Loop, with its bigger ratings, can, when push comes to shove, pack more oomph with the industry, which is how WXRT lost a promotional hookup with the Scottish band del Amitri.
WLUP adds many fewer records than WXRT does, and often the ones they do add are from warhorsey groups that 'XRT tends to eschew. But Loop music director Dave Benson (an 'XRT DJ in the mid-80s), caught Winer off guard last winter by adding del Amitri's "Kiss This Thing Good-bye" and telling the band's label, A & M, that the Loop would help sponsor their Chicago show.
Winer fumed: while 'XRT hadn't played del Amitri's first record, which had come out years before, he was used to having his way when it came to young bands. He tried, but couldn't wrest the show away from the Loop, and retaliated by dropping all mention of A & M records from the station's reports to the radio-industry trade magazines for a couple of months. (Though "'XRT artists" John Hiatt and the Neville Brothers weren't affected.)
"I heard the record, I liked it, and we played it," says Benson with some satisfaction. "We're not idiots over here. Norm thinks that any band that he plays first owes him."
To add insult to injury, the Loop-promoted show was held at Cabaret Metro--'XRT territory--and was billed as a "budget show," the phrase that 'XRT uses to promote its own $6 concerts. "Norm called up Jam," says Benson, "and said that he'd invented the term 'budget show' and that we couldn't use it. I told Jam to tell Norm that I invented the word 'concert' and would he please stop saying it on the air."
Winer was born in Brooklyn, one of five children of a New York one-man ad agency and his wife. "You know how some cigarette machines have buttons in the shape of cigarette packages? That was my father's idea." He grew up in a jazz milieu--three of his four sisters either married or lived with jazz musicians. "When I was growing up I listened to the Columbia University jazz station. One night I heard the guy on the station say, 'Well, it's been neat going to Columbia for the last four years and doing the show every Tuesday night, but now I'm going to law school, so thanks for listening.' So I said, 'That's what I'm going to do: go to Columbia, go to law school, do a jazz show.'"
Actually, he ended up at Brandeis, spending his time hitchhiking between Boston and New York, studying sociology--and doing a jazz show. First the show was called "Some Jazz"; then they changed the name to "Out of the Norm."
"This was 1967," Winer recalls. "I was doing a midnight shift four nights a week; I was on until four or five--I would just lock up the station when I went home. That's when I discovered tastes in music were changing, to the point where if I'd already played John Coltrane, or Billie Holiday, they'd be happy hearing Cream, or the Jefferson Airplane. There really was a cross-fertilization of influences that was making the arbitrary categories very hazy."
WBCN had just gone on the air in Boston and was raiding the local college stations for talent. "When they came to me, I laughed at them: 'I'm going to college, I don't want to be a DJ.'" He got his degree and wound up working for them a year and a half later: "I needed a job." He never really left radio; he did time at 'BCN and eventually became program director; then he was a DJ at a late, much less innovative version of KSAN in the late 70s. He moved to 'XRT in 1979, to be the station's first "outside" program director.
At that time WXRT was in a period of musical stasis. The previous program director, John Platt, had been one of the station's founders. "There was a power struggle to see who would eventually take over, and the music director at the time wasn't adding any records," says an employee. Winer, a big fan of the punk and new wave movements, came in to find a playlist built around the singer-songwriters of the early 70s--Jackson Brown, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills and Nash. He started adding records like crazy, records from groups like the Dead Boys and the Clash.
The DJs remember the period with some fondness. "I had only two admonitions from Norm," says John Mrvos, now head of artists and repertoire for Giant Records. "No bluegrass and no opera, and I managed to get around one of them. I played the 'Ride of the Valkyries' one night, and segued it into [Led Zeppelin's] 'The Immigrant Song.'"
Listeners--who set their alarm clocks expecting to hear Joni Mitchell and woke up to the Sex Pistols--voted with their fingers on the dial. "Our ratings went into the toilet," sighs Winer. The playlist was readjusted, though not to the extent of tossing out everything new: Winer jumped on the mini-British invasion of the early 80s--bands like Human League and Eurythmics--and also paid close attention to some of the more serious synth dance music as well, beginning the station's long support for such groups as Depeche Mode and New Order.
The station also played some of the more outre music of the time. Mrvos ("It's a weird Yugoslavian name; I hope someday to be able to buy another vowel"), who by this time was Winer's first music director, says one of the high points of his career was an 'XRT-sponsored ChicagoFest show by King Sunny Ade and his African Beats, an extravagant Nigerian "juju" ensemble that could hardly get its music played on college stations in some towns.
But by this time WXRT had a few more things going for it. It started broadcasting from the Hancock Center, which improved reception in some parts of town. A new logo--a blue diamond and the words "Chicago's Finest Rock"--freshened the image. WLUP, meanwhile, though it was garnering some of the highest ratings ever achieved by an album-rock station anywhere, was doing so by proclaiming itself the home of "kick-ass rock 'n' roll" and reveling in a street hoodlum image. This left a significant market niche--people who liked rock 'n' roll but weren't into, say, vandalizing cars--wide open. WXRT garnered some of its highest ratings from 1983 to 1985.
But the Loop eventually grew out of its kick-ass phase, and, in one of the rock radio industry's more noted repositionings, transformed itself into a "personality"-based station aimed at adults, with extraordinary success. Since 1986, the Loop and classic-rock WCKG have divvied up the greater part of the Chicago rock audience, with steady 4-plus shares, while 'XRT tagged along in the high 1s and mid 2s.
No disaster, certainly--the station, in the assessment of industry observers, was pulling in significant numbers all through the 80s--but stagnation was on the minds of 'XRT's management. A fine industry tradition would have been upheld if Mason and Lee had simply sacked the programming staff, but WXRT has always done things slowly and cautiously. What was decided, late in 1988, was that the station had to do something.
Daniel Lee is a self-contained but evidently magnanimous man of 48. While he's only a few years older than the founders of 'XRT's rock format, they are a crucial few years; he was never a hippie. "I saw rock 'n' roll start," he says. "I was there with the rolled up T-shirt and the pack of Luckies up my sleeve." He's unanimously liked by his employees both past and present, and seems to be genuinely proud of his radio station. His wife, he boasts, was once at an optometrist's office in Aspen; it turned out that the guy was from Chicago, still had a brother, a podiatrist, close to Belmont and Cicero. Lee's wife told him that she and her husband owned a radio station at that corner. Lee beams. "The guy pulls out a stack of cassette tapes of WXRT that his brother had made for him, he misses the station so much."
Lee grew up in various places on the north and northwest sides. His father ran an appliance business. "He was running a store that still had Louie Lee doing the warranty work: 'If your toaster breaks, bring it in and I'll fix it,'" Lee says. "But this was in the 50s, post-Korea; the discounters started coming in, factory warranties started coming in. 'Hey, if it breaks, send it to GE.' But my dad had a relationship with the people he'd been dealing with for 30 years; he couldn't say, 'Send it to GE.' The woman would say, 'Hey, my toaster's broken, I need it for my kids in the morning.' He'd take it in the back and fix it."
A friend of the family was the attorney for a sturdy little radio station on the west side. "He said to my father, 'Hey, you fix radios, would you be interested in looking at a radio station?'"
As it turned out, the station in question broadcast not music or news, but foreign-language programming, and on a brokered basis--that is, the station would sell time by the hour to industrious ethnics who would then produce their own shows, with the station's engineer assisting. "It was a real cast of characters," Lee recalls. "The programs could be as little as a half-hour long. The Greek would go out and the Lithuanian would come in, the Lithuanian would go out and the Czech would come in. Very often current events around the world would affect the different programs; for a while, the Serbians and the Croatians were at odds over a split in the church, and we had both Serbian and Croatian programming at the time. For a while it got very heated. Those guys had no love for each other whatsoever."
In the 50s, of course, ethnicity was something the FCC--and the government generally--was a bit concerned about. "At the time," Lee says, "the FCC was very, very cautious about brokered programming; they were paranoid as hell. They were very wary and wanted controls everywhere, background checks, all that stuff. Of course, they didn't want to do it, they wanted us to do it. So we did, as best we could.
"Now, of course, the FCC encourages minorities and ethnicity on the air: it's wonderful, it's great, it's diversity, it's serving the public. Brokerage is now looked back upon as a fond thing."
Since it was the 50s, it goes without saying that the Lees' radio station was on the AM dial; people at the time who were unlucky enough to own an FM station merely did their best to lose as little money as possible. As WSBC-AM trundled on, however, it found that it was having to turn away business. "There were only 24 hours in a day," Lee says. The family looked into the possibilities of FM.
"This was before FM was a household word," Lee says. "But some of the Europeans who'd had FM in Europe were familiar with it. They were a lot more used to it than we were; they took to it really well."
The Lees found that getting an FM station was as easy as asking for it. They called it WXRT. "'XRT was a set of call letters in Chicago back in the 40s, on the old FM band," Lee says. "I've still got some literature on it in a closet somewhere. The logo used the X as part of a windmill. I have no idea what the letters stood for, but it was a nice set of phonetically sounding call letters.
"We filed for the last FM license in Chicago. It didn't cost us anything."
The original offices of WSBC-AM and WXRT-FM were on the west side, near Madison and Western. A key factor in the events that eventually created the rock station was the move to Belmont west of Cicero. "We had new studios and a neighborhood you could go into at night," Lee says. Young Daniel, who'd begun to share control of the station with his father, had had some talks with concert producer Aaron Russo (who later became Bette Midler's manager and went Hollywood) about broadcasting shows from a venue called the Kinetic Playground at night. This idea never got off the ground. But sometime in 1972, Lee was approached again, by a couple of counterculture types who wanted to play rock 'n' roll. "They were OK, nice guys, I wasn't falling in love with them. They wanted to do something at night. There would be no money to speak of, but anything that came in they'd give us a cut off the top. It was an experiment. We never expected to get rich off of it."
The pair were Don Bridges and John Platt, veterans of Chicago's progressive radio scene, such as it was. They arranged to take over six hours a night, from midnight to 6 AM, and went on the air in August of 1972. They sold some ads, and Lee didn't boot them off the air; it helped that both WGLD and WDAI, the two other nominally progressive outlets in town, were beginning to wimp out on their free-form convictions.
When Platt and Bridges went on the air, Seth Mason was in Europe, more than a bit discouraged with radio. He'd grown up in Nassau County, New York, his father an Avis exec. He went to the University of Pennsylvania and eventually got a degree in economics, but not before he looked around one morning and realized all his classmates were wearing suits. He worked at the college radio station and decided he'd rather be a disc jockey.
He got three job offers when he got out of school, from stations in Cincinnati, Long Island, and Chicago. He liked the blues, and had gone to school with a couple of people from Chicago; that, and the fact that the Chicago offer gave him time for a month's vacation, brought him to the midwest. He worked at WGLD, where he met Platt. But the guy who'd hired him got fired eight weeks later; Mason and three others got the boot just before Christmas.
"The business side there just wasn't together," he remembers. "They were broadcasting from Oak Park; in New Town you could hardly hear the station, and that was a big part of our audience. The ownership was frustrated that the format wasn't working, and they off-loaded the heat onto programming."
Mason landed a job in Cleveland, as an evening jock and eventually music director as well. Six months later, however, the spring ratings came out, the station fared poorly, and the management handled the situation much as WGLD's had. "The PD was a friend of mine," Mason says. "He called me into his office and said, 'Look, I have to fire you.'"
Mason had friends at a station in Windsor, Ontario, just over the river from Detroit. His friend the PD said he wasn't happy in Cleveland anyway. "He said, 'Let's both drive up there and see what we can do.'" It turned out that they both landed jobs.
"The Canadian version of the FCC didn't have as many rules as ours did," Mason recalls. "We pretty much had free rein; we were putting callers on live all the time, all sorts of things people weren't generally doing back then.
"We did it for three months, and then they fired the entire staff. There were armed guards. They said the progressive era was over."
It wasn't, of course, but there were some problems. "Looking back on it," Mason reflects, "the FM stations weren't making it at all; the idea was just to hope the thing would grow. People didn't want programming types around who would lose them their license on top of everything else.
"But at the same time I kind of realized that--I guess I thought that I kept being fired by managers who had no idea what they were doing; they had no understanding of the format, no understanding of how to make the format commercially viable. They had no idea what went into the radio, what went out of it, how people used it. They were all from sales--they could have been selling anything. I went off to Europe not being sure that I wanted to be in an industry where most of the management didn't understand programming."
He stayed in Europe until he got a letter from his pals who'd started at WXRT. "They said that both 'GLD and 'DAI had changed format to where no one was really serving the audience; they had a station from midnight to 6 AM, and they had either just got or were about to get a 10 PM starting time, and could I come back? I don't remember if I called them or what, but I remember being in the Canary Islands one day, and Madrid the next, and New York the next and Chicago the next."
Mason came back and met with Platt and Bridges, and agreed to join the team. Bridges quickly became the odd man out. "He was definitely not a manager type," says Platt, now promotions director for WNEW-AM in New York City. "He had the foresight to see that there was a niche that 'XRT could fill, but he really didn't have the sensibility to be in a position of responsibility."
Bridges's time came when an argument with Platt got ugly. "It didn't quite come to blows, but it was physical enough for us to say, 'Whoa, time out.'" Mason took Platt for a walk to calm him down, and Lee had a heart to heart with Bridges.
Then he sat down with Mason and Platt. "I think he realized that Seth and I had our feet on the ground," Platt says.
"Danny told John and I that he'd be willing to make it a go with us," recalls Mason, "and that we'd have to form a company. We came up with a company called Minor Miracle, Inc. We thought that if we did make a go of it it would be a minor miracle."
The pair, with Bob Schulman joining as a third jock and music director, got to work. "We just plugged away at it," Mason says. "We went back to some of the advertisers who'd been with us at 'GLD, record stores, small clothing stores, and slowly put together a small group of advertisers."
Another line of attack was the station's 10 PM starting time. They persuaded Lee to push it back gradually, to 8 PM at first. The ratings shot up--Mason recalls that 'XRT was leading the city's rock stations in men aged 18 to 34 in the evening hours at this time--and in turn Lee kept rearranging his faithful foreign brokers, transferring them to the AM station or finding them spots on other local brokered stations.
Lee, by this time, had developed more than a mild interest in the format. "It was contemporary, and I thought it had an upside," he says frankly. "Whereas foreign language brokerage, how far can you go? A hundred dollars an hour up to a hundred and fifteen? There's a limit. But the rock music was getting bigger every year. So that's when we started putting the station's resources behind it."
Soon the rock programming was starting at 3 PM each day; but Mason and Platt were looking over their shoulders. "We were number one with men 18 to 34 from 3 PM on," Mason says. "It became apparent that if we didn't go 24 hours someone else was going to do it."
From Danny Lee's point of view, format changes were sticky. "Listener groups were very active," Lee says. "Classical music stations were bailing out and people were screaming and yelling. What we did was find places on other stations for virtually every program we had. I had nice relationships with a lot of other stations in town, so they'd take a Sunday morning program or a Friday evening program. We never had one grumble, not one person gave us a hard time. We sent in the documentation, and the thing went very smoothly."
On April 26, 1976, WXRT went on the air as a full-fledged, 24-hour-a-day rock station.
From the start the station had credibility, an adamant insistence on the preeminence of the music, and an almost quaint pride in itself--hence the close identification with 'FMT.
"It was a place where a jock's imagination could run wild," says John Mrvos, who watched the station from the beginning and later was a DJ and ultimately music director. "The record library was huge, it was ridiculous."
"The DJs at WXRT very much considered themselves artisans," says Harvey Wells, who joined the station in 1975. "They viewed putting the music together as a craft."
Shortly after 'XRT's start as a 24-hour-a-day operation, Chicago entered an extended era of radio wars. The first invader was WKQX, a well-funded NBC affiliate that began with a phenomenal promotional budget and boasted as program director a young Bob Pittman, a rising broadcasting star who would go on to help found MTV and is now a top executive at Time Warner in New York. 'KQX was a strange bird. The jocks recorded their song intros and comments beforehand, which cut personnel costs immensely. "I could do a six-hour show in 30 minutes," says Pittman. An engineer would put on the tape and do his best to match the intros with a list of corresponding songs--with intermittent success. "It totally destroyed their credibility," says Mason. "The engineers didn't know the music, so the DJs would be back-announcing the wrong songs."
Pittman remembers a worse incident: one evening he got a call informing him that an array of tape decks that had been set up to play sequentially had malfunctioned and were all playing at the same time.
But WKQX was probably the first rock station in town to use TV commercials--they featured a flannel-shirted Pittman talking about the programming. More important, the station broadcast no commercials for its first few months, and used its corporate backing to pull off promotional coups like broadcasting hot artists--Foreigner, say, or David Bowie and Iggy Pop--live from a rehearsal studio.
Credibility destroyed or not, the station blew 'XRT out of the water. "They just tore into our ratings," Mason recalls. "We went from a 1.7 to a 1. At one point in 1978, I think there were four stations competing: 'DAI threw their hat back into the ring, and the Loop came on the air as well. With the four of us, it got really crazy; but at the same time, it was a benefit to us, because it carved up the audience so much; we were the ones who had the most loyal audience, and we could persevere."
Harvey Wells worked for a time with the enemy; he was at WKQX when it gave up. Wells, now 40, is boyish and bespectacled; he got into radio in college, at a small station in Murphysboro, Illinois, near Carbondale. The town was so small the DJs could go by their first names. "I'd say [folksy voice] 'Hi, this is Harvey,'" Wells laughs. "When I came to 'XRT that was the one thing they said to me: 'You're going to have to have a last name if you work in Chicago.'" Wells did well enough at WXRT to replace music director Bob Schulman when he left, in November of 1976; but given an opportunity to take over for Pittman at 'KQX, he took it. "I wanted to see how the other half lived. It was very hard to leave; I remember pretty clearly thanking Seth and Danny for giving me my shot. I also remember Seth saying, 'You'll be back,' and those were prophetic words."
Wells found out how the other half lived, all right: before two years had passed NBC was getting antsy about the future of what came to be known as album-oriented rock, or AOR, which is what most of the progressive stations were by now turning into. "They thought the demographics for album rock weren't going to be good, so they changed to adult contemporary, and literally overnight I went from playing Led Zeppelin to Barry Manilow.
"I did that for"--Wells thinks for a moment--"about a week, and Seth wrote me a note that said you might like playing Barry Manilow, and if you do, it's fine, but we have a weekend shift open, and I think you can sell." Wells came back as a part-time DJ and ad sales rep, and went on to become the station's sales manager through most of the 80s.
One thing that hampered the station during the radio wars was its unreliable signal. Lee's move to Belmont had included an upgrade to a first-class, 50,000-watt signal, but it was broadcast from a 500-foot antenna behind the studio; the antenna looks imposing out there on the west side, but it was not big enough to compete with the downtown stations. "We were putting a better signal into Old Town than the old 'GLD was, but we still had a lot of problems downtown," Mason says. "You could get us on one side of a building but not the other."
The place to be broadcasting from was the Hancock building. "We found some empty space on the mast, and convinced the Hancock to lease us the space."
First the station had to make some tests to satisfy the FCC; these involved getting a transmitter and a temporary antenna on top of the building. They rented a surplus, non-solid-state transmitter--very heavy--and Mason and an engineer carted the thing up a narrow stairway the last few floors to the roof--"They didn't have an elevator that could get us where we needed to go," he recalls.
All of this was happening after midnight, during "experimental hours." Mason and Lee drove out to Midway Airport, where they taped measuring antennas onto the struts of a helicopter. "We flew around the Hancock in a one-mile radius," Mason says, "taking readings of the output from the antenna. And we filed that with the commission and applied for our license.
"I remember the night we made the switch. I still lived in the De Paul neighborhood, and I had one of those old Marantz receivers with a signal-strength meter. I always got us at about a three with a fair amount of static, and you'd always have to play with your antenna. I was sleeping, and I got a call from the chief engineer; he said he was going to switch over to the Hancock in about five minutes. So I went downstairs and I put my headphones on and I just sat and stared at the Marantz, waiting for it, and all of a sudden it just pinned, went from three to five, and I just thought, this is incredible."
The WXRT studios are pleasant and low-key: no ostentatious logo adorns the front. (Indeed, above the station door, WSBC-AM, still going strong after all these years, is listed first.) Even the location, far from the downtown studios of the Loop or 'CKG, bespeaks a lack of pretension.
The location, however, is also a metaphor for the station's insularity. WXRT has never been an institution that welcomed change or outsiders. The staff is extremely stable: the main air staff--Terri Hemmert, Tom Marker, Frank E. Lee, Johnny Mars, Marty Lennartz, and Wendy Rice (who's married to Winer)--has been virtually unchanged for more than five years. Lin Brehmer was there five years when he left. Winer's been there 11 years, Wells 13 of the last 15.
Where other stations looked out, to conglomerates or consultants, WXRT did it in-house--Winer and Mason, for example, wrote the station's TV commercials (except for the long-running spots with Michael Palin). But in September of 1988, two issues were nagging the station's management. The first was of course ratings. Lee's characteristic caution was eventually overcome by the concern that 'XRT's longterm ratings lethargy might turn into something more serious. And secondly, programming--in the form of Norm Winer--felt the station simply wasn't getting the notice it deserved. Winer felt that Chicago was taking WXRT for granted.
The station advertised for, and got, a new promotions director, Christie Nordheilm, who conceived and oversaw the execution of a new promotional campaign. The new logo was a brightly colored "93" with a vertical "XRT"--it was hip and sharp, even witty: if you looked close, you could see the good old diamond perched at the top of the X. The TV commercials--the lizard, the earth and the moon swirling around each other, the bowling ball rolling backward--hit, the ratings soared, and a few months later Nordheilm, a forceful personality, was summarily fired, the loser in a clash of personalities with Mason.
She went back to teaching marketing at Northwestern, but she's still livid about her experience at 'XRT. She says Mason resisted the campaign from the start, and then took credit for it, particularly in a full-page article in Crain's. "There was Seth Mason, the man who did everything to stop the campaign, and the article didn't even mention my name."
Mason says that he was primarily concerned about the campaign's spiraling costs. "There was a philosophical difference between her and the station," Lee says. "No one's trying to take credit for the campaign away from her--she spearheaded it. We didn't write the Crain's story."
The new promotional posture, in any case, was accompanied by some fine-tuning of the format, most noticeably the potentially controversial killing off of the station's "featured artists." The practice of featuring one or two acts every day went way back to the station's beginnings and was one of its programming trademarks. The feature itself might not have been too original, but the station's method of publicizing it was; inspiration for this came, incongruously enough, from Richard Daley via Mike Royko. "When I found out I was going to Chicago," Seth Mason says, "I read the book Boss, and I learned that this was a city of neighborhoods, a city of wards. In order to get the vote out for our radio station, we would need to penetrate the wards, and put literature into the neighborhood. Our headquarters wasn't the Democratic office, it was the record store; so I thought that we needed to get something into the ward headquarters on a regular basis to get out the vote.
"We were already doing the featured artist every day, so I said why don't we put it on a card and deliver it to our ward headquarters?"
Mason himself drove around to a hundred or so major record stores, patiently explaining what the featured artist cards were all about, and promising the proprietors that the station would send them a new set of cards by UPS each month. "The people behind the counters were very supportive of us. They liked new music and they liked the station," says Mason. "They were our"--he laughs--"ward committeemen."
(Most were supportive: Mrvos, during this time, was on an extended respite from radio and was working retail, at a store that was too cool even for WXRT. "I remember Seth coming into the store with those little cards and I just said, 'Get the fuck out of here,'" laughs Mrvos. "It was a moment he was kind enough to remind me of when he eventually hired me.")
The featured artist was an 'XRT standby for 15 years. Most famously, as a brand of the station's eclecticism, once in a great while Beethoven or Mozart would be featured, and the jocks would play snippets of this or that symphony. By the 1980s, however, the entire concept had become something of a burden.
For one thing, it was a great deal of work finding 30 or so artists each month (two a day, four days a week, with Thursdays reserved for new releases) who had produced the 15 to 20 playable songs the feature demanded. "It had become something like a 16-hour-a-day job," says someone who worked at the station in the 80s. "Norm would be bringing in Linda Hopkins records from home to find that one song Ray Davies wrote to fill out a feature on the Kinks."
"It was taking up hours and hours of my time," Winer concurs. "To devise the card, figure out what we're going to play over the day, just to make sure one disc jockey didn't take all the good songs of a particular artist.
"So we'd do research on this every year, and it was very much in my self-interest for the research to tell us [fan's voice] 'Oh, we hate featured artists, whatever you do, don't give us featured artists.'
"But they always said, 'I like it, you're going to feature the Rolling Stones next week, Talking Heads, we love it.'"
In 1988, however, the station asked two other, more crucial questions: how often do you hear a featured artist you don't like, and what do you do then? "More often than we would have liked," Winer says, "once or twice a week, I forget, they said they didn't like the featured artist. And the other response was basically, I don't listen as much."
And, ironically for a station that prided itself on playing new music, the very demands of the form--15 to 20 playable cuts--militated against a lot of 80s artists simply because their careers weren't long enough.
"As a result," says Winer, "it's May, it's a Tuesday, and we've got Billy Joel as a featured artist because we had to have someone to fill up the month, anyone with enough albums to do it with, and we were finding that people would listen to the station significantly less. And the result was lower ratings." The daily featured artist went in early 1989; it remains in vestigial form as the "Friday Feature."
Winer also had to make the station sound brighter, more modern, hipper. For starters, he and music-director Brehmer insisted that DJs put one "new" song or artist in each three-song set. They also instituted "After 8"--not really a program, just a marker to the audience that hipper, brasher stuff will be played in the evenings.
In conjunction with this, major artists who had something of a dated feel about them--the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger--were banished entirely from the evening hours, and a lot of newer artists previously considered too advanced for daytime were slipped down--the Replacements, the Cure, and the Smiths are now frequently heard before dinner.
It will be interesting to see how much changes with the departure of Lin Brehmer. Unpretentious and bemused, sharp-tongued but good-humored, he was astonishingly well liked, both at the station and nationally, and one of the most influential figures in Chicago rock radio, for both his trenchant remarks in the trade papers and his genuine sensitivity to new talent, from Tracy Chapman to Peter Himmelman. Along with DJs Johnny Mars and Marty Lennartz, he was the 'XRT person most likely to be seen in local clubs and concert halls, occasionally playing an extravagant and unselfconscious air guitar.
Paul Marszalek, the new music director, started at the beginning of the month. Everyone and his brother have been telling him he's going to be filling some big boots. "Lin left me a note saying they were only a nine and a half, and not to worry about it," he laughs. Something of a wunderkind at 25, Marszalek grew up in Downers Grove and worked at 'XRT for a few months at the end of 1989 as a weekend jock, even while he was program director of a small station in Madison. But he left both jobs earlier this year to be a DJ at KBCO, Boulder's respected progressive station. Like many WXRT jocks, Marszalek grew up listening to the station. (Though it's interesting to note that he grew up with the 80s version rather than the 70s.) "I was very fortunate to be able to come back," he said on his first day in the job. "I think of WXRT as being the absolute state-of-the-art radio station. We treat adults like adults; and jock for jock, we have the best DJs in the city." Asked if he was going to continue 'XRT's daring in supporting new groups, he replied, "That's what they hired me for."
While WXRT is by far the commercial station in Chicago most open both to new and upcoming acts and to quality artists deemed "uncommercial" by mainstream industry thinking, it is still a commercial station, one that unapologetically concerns itself deeply with ratings. To the minds of the station's managers, they are constantly pushing the edge of the envelope: broadcasting, that is to say, unfamiliar music in the face of the unarguable fact--empirically demonstrated in each and every ratings period--that the one thing people want to hear when they turn on the radio is familiar music.
Most staffers at the station worry about this most of all. "One school of thought," says Mars, who gets to play the largest part of the station's newer and rougher music, "is that people have more responsibilities now, they have a mortgage, or kids, and so they don't want to hear anything new. But that doesn't really make sense. They're willing to see new movies, right? They don't want to go to the show and see an old movie."
To others, however--to, say, music critics and bands on the make and record company promotion people--the station isn't pushing hard enough, and nothing sets Brehmer or Winer off more quickly than complaints about the station's conservativism.
"I go to conventions all the time," Brehmer says, "and all these people say [dullard's voice] 'Well, why don't you play more new, uh, alternative stuff?' I hear it all the time, and the answer is that, in any given city, only about one-point-five percent of the available listening audience"--he rises out of his chair in mock furor--"WILL EVER LISTEN TO IT!
"The only people who complain that WXRT is playing too much old music are people who live between North Avenue and Irving Park Road and Ashland Avenue and the lake. When you sit down with people from all over the Chicago area they're much more likely to say, 'I just don't recognize enough of the stuff they play.'
"Take the station I used to work for in Albany, New York. I did afternoon drive, I played Captain Beefheart, I played McCoy Tyner, it was music for music's sake, it was purity, and it was a commercial disaster. It's now a commercial rock station and doing just fine, thank you."
It's a very complex, even frustrating issue for the 'XRT people. On the one hand they are criticized for not taking enough risks, and on the other hand they see the inexplicable success of a classic rock station like WCKG with younger people. "Rock 'n' roll is supposed to be music that your parents don't like. Why do kids want to listen to the music of their parents?" asks Winer. (WXRT has an almost nonexistent teenage listenership.)
"Take a big artist for us," says Brehmer. "Ian McCullough, or Sinead O'Connor, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What do people between the ages of 18 and 24 say? 'Uh-uh. We want to hear Cream. Thanks very much, we want to hear Cream.' I was in Michigan one weekend and I walked into a Stop and Shop. There are two girls there listening to 'CKG. They had to be 16 years old. I said, 'What are you listening to this for? This has nothing to do with your lives!' And they said, 'Oh, everyone at our high school listens to classic rock. Classic rock is the best.' And my eyes just kind of spun in little circles."
This is not to say that all complaints about the station are trivial or groundless. WXRT is conservative in certain ways. It has always been a big supporter of the blues ("It's our civic responsibility," says Winer), and certain other older black music, but like every other album rock station in the country it is glaringly deficient on contemporary black artists (Tracy Chapman and Robert Cray don't count). It's difficult to take seriously a station that doesn't play Prince. ('XRT used to play him, and heavily, but recent research told them that the audience didn't want to hear him anymore.) 'XRT's daytime and weekend airplay, even after Winer's tinkering, is pronouncedly tame; much of the newer music is ghettoized to the evening and night hours (though not all of it; WXRT is possibly the only commercial station in the country that will play the Young Fresh Fellows in afternoon drive time). And while the station does have a fairly enlightened add policy, and has made a marked effort, in recent years, to give local artists airplay, there's always twice as many worthwhile artists begging for the station's attention than it will make time for.
Winer argues that the station does the best it can, and that his primary job is to keep the station solvent--but of course that's the bone of contention. When listeners complain about what a radio station plays or doesn't play, they're arguing from a dimly held contention that they have a right to complain--and of course they do. The airwaves, unlike, say, hardware stores, are not private property; radio stations are supposed to be diverse and serve the public. Some programmers would argue that the station with the highest ratings is de facto serving the public; but Eric Clapton, the Moody Blues, Genesis, and Robert Palmer--to name just a few of the lamer AOR acts past and present that WXRT still plays frequently--are hardly being denied airtime. From radio's inception, American popular music stations have been little more than promotional arms of the major record companies. WXRT is somewhat less cynical about the business, and as a consequence makes somewhat less money at it and deserves somewhat more credit, but it's not surprising that the station still gets criticized. It goes with the territory.
Norm Winer tends to wear his heart on his sleeve on this issue: he doesn't think 'XRT gets enough respect. It drove him up a wall when a newspaper review of the station's Fourth of July concert this year failed to credit WXRT for putting the thing on for free. He hints darkly at a media conspiracy and offers to show a visitor a file filled with 'XRT's negative press. While the station has been the subject of surprisingly little press over the years, what there was in this file, ironically enough, tended to be rather positive. What disturbs Winer are the small digs--a record review, for example, that takes a swipe at the station for not playing that particular artist--by people who never give the station credit for playing what material it does play. "My basic complaint is that WXRT has never gotten the credit that it deserves from the local media. I really honestly feel that the only way anyone would support us in print, or champion our cause, is if we were to be shut off, to go off the air."
Nothing like that seems likely. Daniel Lee seems content: "The station is not for sale," he says. He and Mason have been keeping busy. During the 70s, Lee formed a Muzak-like business that pumped preprogrammed music into stores and restaurants. Musi-Call eventually became the largest such outfit in the midwest before finally being bought out by Muzak in 1988. Around the same time, Lee began looking into outside properties, and eventually bought stations in Oklahoma City and Memphis. Mason's time has been increasingly focused on those concerns--his new title of vice president merely reflects the status quo. It's not a bad time to be in radio, but the pair will be, as ever, cautious. "I told Danny that we would absolutely never overextend ourselves," says Mason. "WXRT will never be put at risk."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.