Here in Chicago, we have a radio station that has not just stood the test of time, but helped define it. Back in the 1970s, WXRT started as an FM radio station that put playlists together featuring song messages. The DJs were witty and insightful. There appeared to be very little corporate interference between the air personalities, the music and the audience.
Things have necessarily changed over the 40+ years the station has been in existence. It is corporatized now, rife with advertising that pays the bills. A station cannot exist without that. Yet several of its air personalities remain even from those early days. One is Terri Hemmert, who is currently off-air at this point, working through some form of cancer treatment.
To that, I can certainly relate. Having ushered a wife through eight years of cancer treatment, it is certainly understandable why Terri would not want to be on the air. Depending on the treatment, there are days when you would rather not get out of bed, much less stay vibrant and interested while music plays over the radio.
At one point when I lived in the city, my then-girlfriend and I attended a trivia night hosted by WXRT at a pizza place, Giordano’s I think it was, a couple blocks up from my place 1764 Clark Street. The theme was the Chicago Cubs, who the next year would make a charge for the World Series, and fail. Such is life in Chicago.
But XRT has stayed loyal not only to the Cubs, but to the Sox and all the sports teams in Chicago over the years. The on-air personalities have fun at the expense of teams during bad years, and cheer them on in good years. That’s how it should work.
Yet the more important facet of the radio station’s existence is the music it plays. The standard joke about being the “soundtrack of your life” holds very true with WXRT. Through all my hard training, running through Chicago in the early 80s, the station would provide introductions to new music and send me to the record store to purchase albums by the Talking Heads and even the Tom Tom Club. Without that music, I’m not sure the full motivation to run so many miles would have been there. Those songs held me through many cold miles on the lakefront.
I’d also listen to the radio while sitting on my bike trainer in the second story flat on Clark Street. That MagTurbo trainer still sits in my basement thirty years later. And it still works. I was ahead of my time using that Schwinn to pedal miles and get in an aerobic workout when it was twenty below zero outside. The combined humor and music of XRT made those rides tolerable.
There were late night DJs that still got to be playful with the music as well. One strung together the songs Jungleland by Bruce Springsteen and a Supertramp song whose orchestral sound aligned perfectly with the big interludes played by the E Street Band. My best friend and fellow runner called me that very night and said, “Did you hear that?” Yes, it was 80s epic radio. And yes, it can seem trite in retrospect. But it was real. And that’s what counted most. I still own one of the classic “Diamond” XRT tee shirts representing “Chicago’s Finest Rock.” Yes, I do.
In fact, my friends and I have shared many XRT moments and concerts and events over the years. There was humor too, such as the night a DJ had just finished listening to the traffic report which concluded with the street name of “Wacker.”
“You whack’er, you brought her,” he jested.
And that started years of jokes similar to those of Michael Scott (The Office) and his famous line “That’s what she said.” To us the Wacker jokes didn’t mean anything. None of it. Just wordplay.
All this popped into my mind because while getting ready for work this morning, I turned on a radio that I keep in my bedroom. It is a refugee from simpler times, a “boom box” with an actual antenna. And each time I walked between the radio and the direction from which the radio waves were coming, the sound got hazy and interrupted. It dawned on me: I have a physical effect on whether than sound reaches me or not!
It works both ways. A few years back I heard this song by Modest Mouse in the record store, and fell in love with the band. Yet I wasn’t hearing their music on the radio at WXRT. So I called the station and left a message for them. “Hello WXRT,” I said. “I’ve been a listener since the day you went on the air, and I’ve relied on you for years to find and play new music. But there’s this band Modest Mouse that you’re not playing on the air. And that disappoints me. The song is “Float On,” and I hope to hear it on the station soon.”
And the very next day, while driving around with the car radio on, that song was played on WXRT. Could well have been a coincidence. Would not be the first time in life something like that has happened. And likely won’t be the last. But whatever the circumstance, it felt real.
And the station is still real. Listen to the feature “Lin’s Bin” by on-air morning personality Lin Brehmer, if you don’t believe me. The man has all the ethos of a true radio veteran, yet keeps it fresh. These days I stream the station through my computer and play it through speakers while doing chores around the house. The delivery methods may have changed, but XRT is still XRT.
In sum, that little radio station by the lake has been changed by the years, yet unchanged in many ways. And that’s the connection between me and XRT.
And Terri Hemmert, Queen of Sunday mornings with The Beatles on XRT, get well soon. Cancer is just one of life’s tarsnakes, and not a fun one. We all hope you can kick it.