I was driving down Lake Shore Drive yesterday and I saw the vanity plate -- WXRT. Really? Who had that plate? Which one of the personalities at 'XRT managed to snag that? I can't believe I was even questioning who would be the owner of that plate -- maybe because the car wasn't as fancy as I might peg for the personality that I've heard so much about over the years -- but I sidled up next to the car to confirm that of course, it would be Norm Winer, Program Director and figurehead for WXRT for as long as I can remember.
I laughed a little, because I don't know many people who could recognize the man (1). I also don't know many people who turn UP the radio to listen to DJs, pay attention to their patter, whether or not they "hit (the) post", and WHY ARE THEY TALKING OVER FLEETWOOD MAC ANYWAY!?!?
I love radio. I have loved it from the get. My dad probably helped matters along a little, since he was/is always listening to music, especially in the car. Back then, you didn't have a lot of options. You had vinyl, which my parents weren't really into; you had the radio, which was free and in abundant supply; and my sister and I had cassettes as we entered into the 80s. So, for the most part, radio it was.
I can't tell you the number of hours I spent, waiting by the radio for my favorite songs to come on, so we could tape them onto a waiting blank cassette, and *praying* that someone didn't come in or call us for dinner. And even if said song was already taped, just waiting (im)patiently until we could hear the song again, not really having the money or the agency to buy the record or the cassette for ourselves -- the true crack factoring of a song was predicated only on the later ability to own a personal copy of a song and play it on repeat until some part of my brain has been satiated -- or not patiently waiting, and calling up the request lines to ask that the hottest hit of the day be played. Again.
I liked to think that my requests were being heard, but I was to learn much differently later on. I was also to learn the harsh truth that the sweet, cute voices of the jocks on the radio were not to match the sweet, cute faces I had often paired them up with. Some faces are meant for TV, some are meant for radio.
I was an avid devotee of Reitman and Mueller in the mornings on WKTI, 94.5 FM, in Milwaukee. I would call in to discuss various and sundry items during their morning show before school -- my tiny, little voice made it sound like I was much younger than I was -- but even so, I was only 11 or 12 or something, and my opinions were quite firm for someone of that age. I have one of their routine "Happy Birthday" calls that was made to me on some cassette tape somewhere, I'm sure. They referred to me the "child prodigy."
WKTI was my Top 40 go-to, and my dad always had the oldies on. My strangely developed sense of romanticism and harrowing crushes led me to listen to WMYX -- The Mix-- on Friday nights, where I called in to "Love Notes" once to give a shoutout to my crush, Brett, as is documented in this terribly embarrassing blog post.
One of my long-lasting life regrets is that I only applied to one college -- the college I went to. For all my hopes and dreams and talk, I never even *applied* to Northwestern or Cornell or Harvard or Yale or University of Chicago. I never threw an application to the other colleges that were rapidly sending me catalogs and applications -- Bradley, Drake, Knox, Carroll, Carthage and the like. I just decided that North Central College in Naperville was it, and that was that.
However, for all the regret that I wasted the opportunity of being young and smart and involved -- I don't regret going to a school where I was able to be involved in a very skilled, very disciplined, very well-oiled machine of a student-run radio station from the first week I attended classes. I remember that being a selling point to attending college there, and now it might be my only point of pride in having gone there.
WONC, 89.1 FM, was where I got to BE radio. Useless as it is now, I still have the small, manila paper license issued to me by the FCC -- then, a permission slip by the government to say things over the radio waves. I learned how to (and have since forgotten) take transmitter readings. I learned how to (and once coached a friend through) do a "test of the Emergency Broadcast System." I learned that sometimes there really are times when the person running the board just needs to kill your microphone because despite all your best efforts, you are just NOT going to be able to stop laughing through a newscast. (2) I learned about music rotation. I learned about PSAs and "safe harbor" and that people's radios can pick up a frequency even when you think the transmitter is off. I learned about venturing out and creating something that was brand new. I learned about questioning authority and challenging the status quo.
I also got a music education there. To this day, I am thrilled that I got an extensive music foundation of rock and roll, including obscure cuts of doo-wop and girl groups and one-hit wonders of the 50s and 60s from growing up listening to the radio with my dad. I furthered that education in a broad, superficial way during the magical time period of the 1980s, where Top 40 truly was a melange of pop, glam, new wave, classic rock, burgeoning alternative, metal lite, and whatever else -- Axel F was #1 in 1985. My mom's contribution to my music love came in the way of Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Billy Joel, James Taylor and the 70s FM scene. And I also was BFF with a Pentecostal Christian in high school, so I was full up with Michael W. Smith, Sandi Patti, Amy Grant, Degarmo and Key, Twila Paris, and various and sundry other artists that were deemed okay for us (we listened to a lot of the "light" station).
Needless to say, I still had a LOT of holes in my understanding of music. WONC and my tight-knit group of friends (we actually got called "The Clique" at one point) were invaluable in teaching me about all the music I missed. Van Morrison, Grateful Dead, Lou Reed/The Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones beyond their hit singles, Warren Zevon, The Beach Boys beyond their hit singles, ELO/Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan beyond his "popular songs," Dire Straits, The Who, Crosby, Stills, Nash, Neil Young ... the list is quite endless, actually -- and that's just the classic rock/historical stuff.
We were also coming of age in the early 90s. Alternative was a "thing" at that point. So I also got to learn about newer bands --Fountains of Wayne, Del Amitri, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Matthew Sweet, Jellyfish, Trip Shakespeare (I'm a sucker for power pop) -- but I was also exposed to the rest of the bands I had missed out on that preceded them. R.E.M, The Cure, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smiths, Teenage Fanclub, Big Star. And don't forget the loud -- Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots, Pearl Jam.
We played it all. I learned about everything. I got constant history lessons and learned about a ridiculous amount of new music. I was a sponge. I soaked it all in and just wanted more. I practically lived at the station. (3) We did everything there -- ate, slept, created our futures, fell in love. Honestly, it was something out of a movie, and the weird thing was -- I KNEW IT AT THE TIME IT WAS HAPPENING. I don't know that many 19 year olds know they are in the midst of their salad days, but I did. I knew I eating some bad ass kale and romaine and baby spinach and that it wasn't going to last forever, but how do you stop time from ticking? Dear Einstein, you can't.
But it was the bar from which everything will be set, I'm sure, and left me hopelessly in love with radio ever since. Years passed and I got the opportunity to become a volunteer for CHIRP Radio, and have worked with them for several years -- I was on the air for two years, and it was really quite lovely. There's something about picking songs and ordering them up and throwing them out into the universe for the world to hear that can't quite be explained or matched.
I know everyone says radio is dying. The iPod, satellite, the Internet, Spotify/Pandora, etc. The radio stations themselves aren't helping with voice tracking and automation and playing the same 20 fucking songs over and over and over and over ("Get Lucky" was a pretty great song the first 100 times I heard it, jack). Congress and the FCC have fallen down on the whole letting people not have monopolies on our press, radio and TV sort of thing and all.
But there IS something about being able to hear a radio "personality" and connect with them. Your Johnny Mars, your Lin Brehmers, your Terri Hemmerts (oh, just list the lineup at XRT), your Dick Biondis. There's something in knowing you've heard those voices telling you about songs and news and information in your city for years (4), and you come to count on them and get to know them. They're a part of the fabric of the city and of your life. That's important, and it's cool. I hold out hope we don't lose that.
That's forever going to be me, holding out hope for print and radio and real mail. Nerding out all the way.
(1) Actually, I know a ton of people who could recognize Norm Winer, but my general sample pool is WAY skewed.
(2) It happened once, and only once. And I can't even tell you what exactly triggered it. I don't know if this ever happens to you, but have you ever been doing something that required your attention (including reading out loud) and thinking a completely different thought at exactly the same time? I think that was part of the problem here.
(3) Actually, I did live at the station for a week. After my first winter break home, I never lived at home for any extended amount of time again. You could pay to stay in the dorms over the summers and after 1993, I had my own apartment. But one summer, there was a week's worth of time between when you could go back to the dorms (early -- my friend was an R.A. so she could get in early) and when you had to be out of summer housing. Neither one of us wanted to go back to our respective small towns, so ... in some crazy sitcom plan, we lived in this classroom attached to the station on the 4th floor of Old Main. Long story short, we got caught toward the end of the week, but managed to eke out a few more days anyway. I'll have to tell that whole story at some point.
(4) I know it's because I'm a nerd, but for instance, whenever I hear Brian Peck on a station, I'm always glad to hear him and glad he still has a job here in Chicago.
Keep up with my head ... type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. You will NEVER get anything else from me (no SPAM, and you can opt out at any time).