Reflecting on WKQX, Q101

Q101 was one of only two stations that I regularly listened to in Chicago. Admittedly, I wasn’t an avid listener. I tuned in during my Hyde Park years from 1997-2002, took a hiatus during the Mancow period (where I switched to WZZN), started irregularly listening at nights later in the decade, and then reconnected in full force as a loyal listener when I started working at home in September 2010. I never thought I’d care about the loss of a radio station, but more and more I lament the departure of Q101 from the FM dial. This particular station meant something to me.

As I reflect on my experience with WKQX, the music got me to listen, but it was the announcers that made me stay. Without a doubt, Q101 hired some of smartest and most passionate on air music-talent in the Chicago market and quite possibly, some of the best alternative music DJs on air today. James VanOsdol, Sherman, Chris Payne, Electra and others did more than pick songs, they brought the music to life. Shows such as the “Retro Lunch,” “Local 101,” and “The Last Letter Game” demonstrated smart ways to connect with the listening audience; in fact, I learned something listening to the shows. How many times can one say that about a music-oriented radio station? Heck, even how many times can you say that about the dreck airing on talk radio? About the only other place one can “learn” is via an NPR station and that’s just not me.

I believe that the Q101 announcers truly knew and cared about what they put on the air (even when they hated it). When I DJ’ed at a radio station out on the prairie, I didn’t take the time to learn the backstory of the music — I simply put the programming on the air or at times, based on the playlist, told a story with song selection. Beyond that, I kept the station on the air. For Q101, the announcers did more and that, above anything else, is the loss I feel. I can still find alternative music, but the people who put that music into context are no longer there.

Ultimately, radio is a business and clearly the format change of WKQX is one based on a business decision, not one tied to the opinions of one listener. Ratings drive radio decision-making and in the Chicago market, the ratings were just not there for supporting a major alternative station on a prime frequency. So after 19 years, WKQX has gone away and someone else will try to make something of 101.1 FM. I don’t know about an Oprah-audience format, but we’ll just have to see how that goes.

So with the demise of Q101 as a broadcasting entity, I can’t help but feel sad for the air staff, producers, engineers, sales team, and all others who cared about the station, its music, and what it meant to Chicago. Yes, Q101 lost its way and the music programming suffered in recent years. I agree, the music was too managed, too formulaic, and too old (when I tuned back in as a regular listener in October 2010, I immediately thought I was listening to an updated version of an “oldies” station). However, the staff made the best of it and as many have already said, the last days of WKQX as “Chicago’s Alternative” went out as it should — playing the best in alternative with the best talent on the air. The last days may have been its greatest days.

With that, to the staff of the former WKQX, Q101, thank you. You did make a difference — one listener at a time.

One Reply to “Reflecting on WKQX, Q101”

  1. In the early 1980’s, WKQX changed from a classic/album rock format to ‘adult/pop’. I still remember what happened as I was listening at the time, though not aware of what was about to occur. I tuned in WKQX in my car and they were playing Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’, a song which many listeners regularly requested in letters to the station read on the air. I was a bit surprised that at long last I was hearing them play the song – the long full version, one whole side of an LP.

    The song ended. After a moment an announcer said ‘This is WKQX-FM in Chicago, and the music must change.’ Then there was another pause, then the sound of an enormous explosion. More silence… and then Barry Manilow launched into ‘I Write The Songs’. It was one of the most unusual things I can remember hearing on the radio.

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