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The problem with Chicago radio: the songs remain the same

Chicago is radio nowhere: How did our music radio get to be so static?

This town, it turns out, is radio nowhere. Or at least it is music radio nowhere.

Why do I make this assertion, borrowed from one of the better latter-day Bruce Springsteen songs?

Because Springsteen's 2007 lament over an inability to find rhythm, "pounding drums" or a "mystery train" on the dial — to be able to find a sense of soul — pretty much describes the void I'm hearing in Chicago radio.

There are many music stations out there, I know, playing musical styles ranging from "hot adult contemporary" to "urban contemporary" to "pop contemporary hit radio" to "classic hits" to "adult hits."

But I can't find one that's widely available and ventures outside of the tightly programmed, not-so-distinct-sounding formats that its corporate overlords have decreed from the home office somewhere in not-Chicago. Indeed, I like to lump all those formats together into one uber format I'll call "obvious music," the songs you've heard before and expect to hear again from yesterday, today and, soon enough, tomorrow.

Musical curiosity and keening eclecticism, like I've found in a couple of great stations from Tucson, Ariz., and Boston? Ha.

As I drive around the city and its suburbs I can barely muster the energy to program all of the buttons on my car radio. I do it, but I'm only begging for disappointment, in the same way that I court masochism in trying to come across a current country hit that doesn't mention a beautiful woman ("girl," in the lingo), one or more days of the weekend, alcohol and a truck.

You can keep your button assignment, WDRV-FM 97.1, because there are times when predictable chestnuts from Led Zeppelin and Manfred Mann's Earth Band still sound good. And WXRT-FM 93.1, you're there, of course (much more about my complicated relationship with you later, you almost-answer to my wishes).

But all of you should know that my favorite car-radio music station remains 88.7 FM, the one that tunes to the cable connected to my old iPod Touch. And know, too, that if my car were modern enough to let me easily pull in Web stations or even satellite radio, you'd probably all be out on your obvious-music keisters, like you are in my at-home listening.

Big potential music news came when a new country station debuted in the city at the start of this year. Would it play artists associated with Austin, Texas, instead of Nashville? Would it dip into the classic stuff, old Willie Nelson or George Jones?

Alas — letdown alert — WEBG-FM 95.5 has turned out to be a mainstream country station playing pretty much the same music as the existing mainstream country station. That's great if you really want to hear Florida Georgia Line when the other station is currently playing Jason Aldean. A lot of people apparently do: "Big 95.5" has made a pretty big ratings splash pretty quickly. Otherwise, it's not so great and, to my ears, a missed opportunity.

A caveat: I can really only come at this from my own cultural biases, which will become apparent as you read the article. Think SPACE and Old Town School of Folk Music seasoned with a little Lincoln Hall and know that cutting-edge hip-hop is not in my wheelhouse.

So what's going on here? Why is the City of Big Shoulders the Hamlet of Mainstream Tastes when it comes to music radio?

"For the most part, music radio has lost its edge as one of the leading cultural outlets for the impact of music on society," says Michael Harrison, who puts out the trade publications RadioInfo and Talkers. "A lot of it comes from corporate consolidation. Programming music requires as much guts and taste as it does research. They try to play it safe."

Meanwhile, radio advertisers shun the older demographic — who wants to reach people with disposable income, after all? — and so "the people who know how to use radio, love radio, are in the habit of radio, are not getting the music they want other than classic rock and classic hits (formats), which are incredibly tightly programmed," Harrison says.

"The other problem — it's a personal peeve — is the lack of DJs, the lack of musical gurus, of curators who turn the interested listener on to what's happening. The loss of that over the years has severely hurt the appeal of music radio."

But Harrison is a tough one to talk to about this. He'll agree with you that "the problem exists in all of the major formats. It exists in country. It exists in what we used to call R&B, which is now called hip-hop. It exists in pop music …"

But he'll also tell you that "as a matter of fact, compared to some markets Chicago is one of the better ones."

Gulp. Followed by a kind of quiet internal shudder over how homogenized things must be elsewhere.

Not in Boston, though, where I've traveled frequently enough to discover one of my dream stations, WXRV-FM 92.5, billing itself as "The River."

A run of River music between noon and 3 p.m. on a recent weekday included "Into My Arms" by one-time local faves the Lemonheads, "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" by British folk guitar god Richard Thompson, "Fool for Love" by contemporary indie folksters Lord Huron, "Team" by Lorde and "Sugaree" by Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

It bills itself as "Boston's homegrown, independent radio station," emphasizing the local connection at virtually every turn, and it boasts that "every hour the River plays tracks rarely heard on radio, as well as many new songs heard only on the River."

Says a piece of slightly precious, but illustrative, promotional literature on its website, "Laboratory tests at M.I.T. have demonstrated that most FM deejays are either napping or dead. The River's on-air personalities must be alive, and they must be awake. Our station manager insists on spot checks."

The River fights with the big commercial stations for ad revenue and holds its own. More eclectic still — and even more enticing to my ears — is KXCI-FM 91.3 in Tucson, which I've come across because my parents retired to that area.

KXCI is like a college radio station, but professionalized so that you don't lose patience. It's like a public-radio station, but applying the principles of inclusiveness to music instead of to reporting stories on Third World infrastructure.

"What we try to do is keep the spirit of free-form radio and then have a structure," says Duncan Hudson, the program director for KXCI, which has a public-radio model: pledge drives and advertising underwriters.

Weekdays is the mix format, which emphasizes new releases and core artists, but the current new releases include music from, Hudson reads, Alabama Shakes, Allison Moorer, Beth Hart, Bill Frisell, Brian Wilson, Brides, Buena Vista Social Club, (Tucson natives) Calexico …

Here, folk lives with old R&B alongside flamenco and classic rock, plus jazz instrumental. The recent midday list had, in 75 minutes, tunes by Trisha Yearwood, Bonnie Raitt, John Lennon, My Morning Jacket, David Sanborn, Flatt & Scruggs and the Bee Gees.

"We want to play the best music that's around of any genre," Hudson says. This, apparently, is what passes for a radical concept in contemporary radio.

KXCI DJs are mostly volunteers, some who go back to the station's founding three decades ago, and nights and weekends the shows become more topic specific: blues or contemporary Native American music, for instance, on a show called "Rez Radio."

These two stations are playing to my tastes, of course. If I could find a station that would play Nirvana, Robert Earl Keen, early REM, Aimee Mann, Alejandro Escovedo and, say, "Mr. Big Stuff" from Stax Records, with maybe a smattering of Louis and Ella on Sunday mornings, I'd give it every button on my car radio.

The stations I'm holding up here are also taking risks, mixing it up. Especially in Tucson, there's some twang and some clang. The Clash and the Cash family, Johnny and Rosanne, plus maybe Rosanne's ex-husband Rodney Crowell, who recently partnered up with Emmylou Harris, who made a terrific album with Mark Knopfler, who has a nifty current duet out with Van Morrison, who made a great, near-jazz album in "Astral Weeks." It's good music, instead of obvious music.

For some readers, of course, even talking about terrestrial radio elicits a shoulder shrug. There are so many options for music, from streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify to radio via the Web to Sirius/XM satellite radio that what the legacy stations do just doesn't register. The people who are really passionate about their music have simply moved on.

And, yes, when I'm listening at home, I'll pull KXCI in through the Internet sometimes, along with WWOZ in New Orleans and KUT in Austin, public radio stations that make local music part of their signature, as well. There are many others around the country.

Some in Chicago have access to a low-powered college station, a WNUR at Northwestern or WLUW-FM 88.7 at Loyola, to name just a few places where the music reflects the taste, personality and, one hopes, curiosity of the DJ.

But the signal of those stations fades in and out, and the great majority of cars remain traditional-radio territory. Here in Chicago and across the country, over-the-air radio still does the lion's share of the music streaming business.

Plus, Pandora, which gets most of my home listening, is very far from perfect. Listen to it enough and you'll discover some of the same weaknesses as regular radio: an over-reliance on certain artists, a numbing repetition of certain songs. After putting up with this for a while, I've decided to start actively clicking "thumbs down" on songs that I do not dislike, just to force Pandora to find something different to play. I've had enough Lumineers and Head and the Heart for a while, thank you.

Could a station like KXCI, or even the more commercially focused WXRV, start in Chicago? It probably couldn't even start in Tucson anymore, Hudson says, because it couldn't afford to buy its own frequency.

So instead the new kid on the block here is WEBG, the country station that iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), decided to convert from a Latino format.

To differentiate the new station from WUSN-FM 99.5, program director Steve Stewart says, "there are songs we are more apt to play a little earlier on," such as from Brothers Osborne or Old Dominion.

But "at the end of the day both radio stations are in the business of playing the big hits, the Luke Bryans, the Jason Aldeans," Stewart says. "We were just coming in to put on a great country station and see if it would catch fire. It certainly has."

In the May Nielsen ratings book, it had a 2.4 percent overall audience share, compared with 3 percent for WUSN.

I have not, to this point, discussed WXRT-FM 93.1. That's probably not fair, because WXRT disappoints me less than anyone else. The DJs are real people who've been around the city, and they sound like it. The station, in between, say, pretending that Jack Johnson is something special, sometimes manages to remind listeners of its roots in the FM radio revolution of the 1970s.

It's not The River or KXCI, but it's not half bad. The half of it that is bad, though, is the one that is a cog in the CBS Radio machine and that can too often seem stuck in the past. Case in point was this wonderfully self-negating promo on the WXRT website last week: "Hear Tom Petty, Neil Young and More on New Music Thursday."

But occasionally you'll catch an XRT DJ on an absolute roll, mixing a new tune with something half-remembered with a great surprise. This usually happens, in my experience, on a weekend or at night when the reins seem to loosen, and it usually seems to happen when Marty Lennartz or Jason Thomas is the DJ.

I like you OK, WXRT. I really do. You disappoint me a lot with all the predictable plays — with mediocre, overplayed tracks from The Who, say. But I know that intellectually you are much better than most of the stations that most of the country has to endure. I know some of the time you are actually radio somewhere, even if that somewhere is not quite where I'd personally like you to be.

Of course, WXRT does pretty well in the ratings: a 3.1 share in May, and those other Chicago stations that I find so woefully unadventuresome do pretty well, too, suggesting that my ideas about a more free-form radio may be a one-way ticket to the poorhouse.

The big country stations had more than 5 percent of the audience. The two main classic rock stations, WDRV and WLUP-FM 97.9, drew 5.6 percent together. If you add up the urban and urban adult contemporaries you get a whopping 13.1 percent. That's a lot of people who like the mainstream stuff.

But, as for more far-reaching programming, "you cannot say it can't work because most people are afraid to try it," says Harrison, of RadioInfo. "Back in the golden days of music radio, the things that worked were things that were arrived at by accident. You have to take chances.

"I'm a very strong advocate of radio retaking ownership of the music culture," as it has done in sports and political talk, he says. "That means diversity, DJs actively involved in finding new music and taking a chance on formats not currently being done. Radio has to believe in itself; it has to stop being spooked by the fear it has of digital."

Sooner rather than later, digital will be as easy to get in cars as traditional stations are, and if the legacy stations don't offer people something compelling, we will just stop pushing those buttons.

sajohnson@tribpub.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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