If you've found Chicago's latest rock alternative it's likely because you sneezed while trying to adjust the dial.
87.7 FM ... Most older stereos only descend to 87.9. My car doesn't get it. My tiny digital walkman does (if I hold it really high and there's no air traffic).
I like radio -- AM or FM -- and I was glad when an alternative station sneaked back up on Chicago. The kids need one.
I've always been hip to the sense of community and immediacy that live radio (sports, life) brings. I want to hear DJ's being weird, I want to shake my head with everyone else after the latest "Cub occurrence" and, sometimes, I want to hear new songs break live. Not eventually worked into some list programmed by a computer trying to imitate my brain.
We forever remember where we are when we hear a great new song drop -- last summer I was alone in my car when I heard "Pumped Up Kicks" and my head simultaneously went "WTF?/LOVELOVELOVE". At the next red light I texted the station "What the hell was that?" (unfortunately, one must text "song" to actually get an answer back).
Also unfortunately, that station was WXRT, 93.1. Over the past few years, XRT has become a bastion of new indie music, classic rock songs (not LOOP classic; "Heart Shaped Box" classic) and weird, live Sunday shows hosted by a guy you'd never leave your kids alone with. And, as rock music has gone small label and self-release, this has been the place where new music goes -- Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem and Alabama Shakes whipped into one tasty batter.
I used to say Q101 was the spot to hear "anything from Jewel to Tool." Unfortunately, as the demographic narrowed, music once labeled "alternative" pigeonholed itself as a haven for emo-screamo. I've been listening to Q87.7 for several weeks now and they seem to have a pretty tight playlist of this kind of stuff down. Also, weirdly: I've heard Stone Temple Pilots' "Big Empty" five or six times. Great song, but... Why?
What's really bothersome is that Q87.7 has quickly run towards some of the habits that lead to the demise of Q101.
When Rock 103.5 died out, Q101 responded by adding one (ONE) mildly-alternative metal band to their rotation -- Metallica. The thing about Metallica is that everybody has their albums. And we can listen to them anytime we want. Anywhere. Us Q-heads did just fine never hearing crotch rock on our alternative station; Q101 gathered a huge following never playing it. And yet, as increasing numbers of phone calls came in against playing the stuff, Q101's DJ's developed this weird, insistent devotion to Metallica and their status as the greatest band on Earth, never once recalling that when the Nirvana bomb blew, the best part was that these three guys in flannel rocked harder and scarier than any big-haired, high-heeled, shredders in the biz. That's WHY it was alternative. Q87.7 has already popped its Metallica cherry. And that's a problem.
Second: I'm on the out..side. I'm lookin in. Fred Durst sees through you. Sees the real you.
It was the summer of, say, 2000-01. I'm home from college working a carpentry job. The station that defined my teenage years, the concerts I went to, the friends I made and more than half my wardrobe is blaring in the background as I prime some wood planks. And then that insufferable Staind/Fred Durst song comes on for THE THIRD TIME during my work day. I put the brush down, walk to the radio and change the channel. I didn't listen to Q101 for a full five years after that day (it was Dave Grohl that eventually drew me back). It had gone beyond Top-40 -- it was Top-5 with an occasional Cure song. Q87.7 has also already popped their Staind/Fred Durst cherry. REally... What would cause them to play a song we were all well done with a decade ago? THAT is a problem.
I can't say it's all bad. It's good to hear some of the music that was popular when I was a teen. Everybody loves that. And there have been a few new tunes, too (I've learned that I like that dude Rome more when he's not trying to impersonate Bradley Nowell (or at least not doing it in Bradley's old band)).
The thing to remember (and I assume all radio program directors read me by now) is that "alternative" doesn't always have to mean hard or even angry. It can be spacey, quirky, chill or even a little self-deprecating.
And until you get that -- and can plant your own roots instead of standing on the past's shaky legs (double metaphor score!) -- I'm not sure you deserve the label "Underground" just yet.