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Becoming “Chicago’s Alternative”

Q101’s leap from dentist-office tunes to alt rock wasn’t immediately music to everybody’s ears.
 (Photograph: Nicole Radja)
Photograph: Nicole RadjaJames VanOsdol
VanOsdol interviews the Cure�s Robert Smith at Twisted 4 in 1997.
VanOsdol, right, with the Foo Fighters� Dave Grohl at Twisted 6 in 1999.
By ames VanOsdol |

Before Q101 launched as an “alternative” station in 1992, it was a struggling adult-contemporary outlet known more for morning host Robert Murphy (a.k.a. Murphy in the Morning) than the tightly rotating “lite rock” songs on its playlist.

Bill Gamble, program director 1988–1997 We were in an adult-contemporary battle with “Clear” [WCLR FM] and “Fire” [WFYR FM]. All three radio stations were following the same strategy: We all had morning shows, we all spent literally a couple million dollars a year on television [commercials], and we were all sitting with about a two share [rating, meaning each station captured roughly 2 percent of all radio listening between 6am and midnight]. We knew we had to do something different.

Brooke Hunter, programming assistant 1989–1994, on-air 1994–1999 None of us were big fans of [Q101’s adult-contemporary format] because we were all twentysomething kids working there in programming and research.

Mary Shuminas, music director 1986–1993, assistant program director 1993–2004 Bill [Gamble] said, “Corporate would never go for [the alternative format]; the demographics would be too low.”

BG So we did a research project. As I remember it, [our researchers] didn’t see an alternative point of view, but saw that there was some modern music that could be mixed in with what Q101 was playing at the time that might be a format. [They] said, “What would this format consist of?… Well, maybe you play the Cure, but you also play Phil Collins.”

MS There was a decision that we were going to go in that direction. In the process, I remember corporate saying, “It’s not going to sound anything like [Los Angeles–based alternative station] KROQ, is it? You’re not going to be playing ‘Detachable Penis’ [by King Missile]?” We’re like, “Oh, no, no, it’s not going to be anything like that.” In my mind, I’m thinking, Yes, I hope it’s just like that.

Carla Leonardo, on-air 1985–1995 Bill calls me into his office, and under penalty of death [if I tell anyone] says, “We’re switching formats.” I had to get pronunciation guides together for our jocks who were adult contemporary, to let them know that it was the La’s, not the L.A.’s.

BH I still remember the very first song ever played, “Friday I’m in Love” by the Cure. Carla Leonardo kicked off the format. She was totally, totally nervous.

CL Unbelievably nervous. It was crazy. It was a massive switch; there had been lots of anticipation. All the big muckety-mucks were there; all the big people from [Q101 owner] Emmis.

MS I think the hardest song on the playlist at the time was Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy.” We were still playing John Mellencamp, Don Henley….

BG [The audience was] pretty quick to say, “It’s pretty cool that you’re playing Depeche Mode and R.E.M. and the Cure, but if you play Don Henley, I’m going to put a stake through your eye.” The music mix kept getting refined and refined, and ultimately it led to being Q101. It was a rapid evolution.

MS For [the audience] to put up with listening to Don Henley for three months or six months, they were very forgiving.

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