WXRT’s Brehmer looks back on 20 years of good mornings


It’s impossible not to like Lin Brehmer. No, really, I mean it.

Sure, the guy is smart, witty, talented and easy-going. But more than anything else, I think it’s his undeniable likeability that accounts for his impressive 20-year run as morning personality at WXRT-FM (93.1), the CBS Radio adult/alternative heritage station.

To his legion of listeners, Brehmer, 57, may seem as if he were destined for the job. But when WXRT programming guru Norm Winer was seeking a successor for Terri Hemmert (before moving her from morning drive to a midday slot), the decision to bring back the station’s onetime music director was hardly a snap. Over the years, Winer had approached a young Howard Stern (after he’d lost his gig in Detroit to a format change) and Michael Feldman (a refugee from WGN who’d later become a star of public radio).

Only after those talks and others went nowhere did Winer turn in late 1991 to Brehmer, who’d left WXRT the previous year to become program director of a station in Minneapolis. “I offered him the morning show job, with the belief that his intelligence, humor, knowledge of Chicago, and insatiable appetite for music and food would provide suitable entertainment for XRT listeners,” Winer recalled.

“Initially, we were deluged in hate mail. How could this person — this ‘Johnny B. wannabe,’ as some called him — possibly be allowed to replace Terri Hemmert in mornings?” Winer said. “Terri’s willingness to give Lin her blessings, and Terri’s appreciation for being rescued from working those ungodly hours, eventually appeased her fans and followers. And Lin, who endeared himself to every listener and client he has ever met in person, eventually redeemed himself by doing a radio show — founded on the music philosophy of the station — that sounded like nothing else in Chicago. Twenty years later, who’s left?”

Others have fonder memories of Brehmer’s early reception, including Chicago attorney Todd Musburger, who was an admiring listener before he became Brehmer’s agent. “I was a huge fan, and I’d always thought to myself: ‘He sounds like such a great guy. Wouldn’t it be nice to know him?’ Then, as luck would have it, he calls and we’ve worked together for years,” Musburger said.

“Lin has an unassuming way of performing his job with such incredible skill and humor and intelligence. He is such a gentleman, such a joyful guy. I think that’s been one of the secrets to his longevity on the air. There’s nothing put on. He’s a natural performer, so easy to listen to, so easy to enjoy. And because that’s genuine, all of us who have been listeners of his show through the years get that, and we love to laugh with him and love to hear what he has to say,” he said.

Starting at noon Saturday, WXRT will air Great To Be Alive: Celebrating 20 Years of Lin Brehmer’s Morning Show on XRT, a live, two-hour special hosted by Radio Hall of Famer Hemmert, morning co-host and news anchor Mary Dixon and colleague Marty Lennartz. On the eve of the tribute, Chicago’s “best friend in the whole world” reflected on his tenure as the longest-running morning host at any music station in town — and much, much more:

 

Q. Twenty years is an amazing run for a morning personality. What’s that in dog years?

A. In our Kardashian culture, 20 years is measured in geological time. However, at XRT 20 years is nothing to boast about. Terri Hemmert started in 1973, Frank E. Lee, Tom Marker, Johnny Mars were all there in ’79. Norm Winer took the reins of this runaway milk wagon in ’79. Until Jason Thomas joined the staff a few years ago, I remained the rookie.

Q. Is it true you broke out in hives on your first day?

A. I broke out in some strange rash. I consulted one of my hypochondriac friends who said, “It’s probably just nerves.” As soon as I acknowledged the psychic strain, the hives disappeared.

Q. When did you finally get comfortable and realize you'd made it?

A. Last Friday.

Q. The one complaint I hear more than any other is that XRT’s format isn’t as innovative and daring as it used to be 20 or 30 years ago. True?

A. The apocryphal story regarding XRT’s history is this: After our first week on the air in 1972, a DJ ran into a listener who said, “I still listen, but you guys aren’t as good as you used to be.” The easiest answer that seems to please the most people is the admission that we’re not as innovative as we were 30 years ago when we were playing Linda Ronstadt and Wham. Today when that question is asked, we reflect on the reality that we are the only commercial rock station in Chicago playing new music.  I mean any new music. Doesn’t that make us revolutionaries?  Think of how much radio has changed. Think of how many listening options people have now that didn’t exist even 20 years ago. The great heritage rock stations that played new and old music in other major markets have all died. WNEW-FM in New York.  WBCN in Boston.

When the legacy of WXRT is set down, we will all have to admit that the station’s growth has been nothing short of miraculous. The people at the top of CBS Radio cannot understand how a major market radio station in 2012 can tell its DJ’s to choose songs from the music library and program their own show. “Freakish” is the word they use. Our first priority is to entertain our listeners and we believe we can do that without insulting their intelligence.

Q. Is Mary Dixon as wonderful as she seems?

A. Mary began as a street reporter when she was surrounded by the legendary journalistic curmudgeons of the time. I think that toughened her up at a tender age. With the notable exception of Kathy Voltmer, you’d be hard-pressed to find rock stations that offer morning news anchors who actually studied journalism.

I love Mary’s voice. I love her nerdy attachment to literary classics. I love the way she reports on Wimbledon results because her study of Russian makes all those names easy for her. When Mary was pregnant with her first child, she had morning sickness. I would watch her in the news booth read a news story, turn off the mike, bend over, throw up, turn the mike back on, and continue as if nothing had happened.  Mary is the little sister I never had to tease so I try to make up for lost time.  She’s a brawler. I guess she’s O.K.

Q. It’s a shame you haven’t published a book of Lin’s Bin. You must have written, what, a thousand of those by now?

A. A simple segment where I would answer a question from a listener quickly grew into an elaborately produced radio essay that would have been impossible without the assistance of production savants, Joe McCardle (now at AM 1000) and Pete Crozier, who continues to play a major part in the way Lin’s Bin sounds. A book? That is an excellent idea. Close to a hundred essays a year for nine years? I would have to whittle down those 1,800 pages I’ve written. There is nothing I’ve ever done that has occasioned more positive feedback than those labors of love.

Q. What’s your philosophy about the ratings?
 
A. I share the same philosophy of every other DJ in America.  When they’re good, their accuracy defies the imagination.  When they’re mediocre, they must be exposed as a statistical travesty. I would love to hear what an M.I.T. math professor would have to say about the sampling of radio ratings. It wouldn’t be pretty.

Q. Present company excluded, who’s the best DJ ever?

A. When I met the late Dick Thyne in 1977, he had already worked at 11 stations in six years. A gonzo Dr. Johnny Fever character, Dick had straight black hair down to the middle of his back and eyes like Rasputin. He had been a rock and roll drummer in Detroit in the late ’60s and his rock and roll taste was spot on. There was a certain fearlessness in his approach.  He said things that shouldn’t be said. He played things that shouldn’t be played. He got fired. A lot. He died in a car accident two years ago. I’m not sure he’s better than the people I work with now, but he made a lasting impression.

Q. How have you managed to shine all this time while so many other radio stars have faded?

A. Work cheap and don’t take yourself too seriously. A million-dollar contract is always a career-limiting move. And in spite of what you’ve heard, I’m really a pretty nice guy.

Q. Does your success prove there's hope for English majors?

A. The person who can read and write will become as precious a commodity as a bio-chemical research scientist.  The blog is mightier than the sword.

Q. When’s quitting time?

A. Radio has a tendency to place its venerable veterans on an ice floe and push them out to sea. We are spared the painful decision of when it’s time to quit. It’s made for us. I keep a warm hat and a pair of gloves nearby.

Q. Seen any good shows lately?

A. The last three shows I saw in 2011 were all magnificent.  Wilco at Lincoln Hall featured one of Chicago’s greatest rock bands in an intensely personal show. Jeff Tweedy has surrounded himself with a musical dream team. Ryan Adams captivated a sold-out theater with just a mike and a guitar. A double bill featuring Florence and the Machine and Laura Marling was a study in contrasts. Florence Welch is a performer whose approach is “Go big or go home.” Laura Marling opened the show as a solo acoustic performer whose stage persona bespoke charm and depth.

Q. Still love to listen?

A. The most frustrating comment I ever hear is, “There’s no good music being made these days.” That’s just lazy. There are so many brilliant musicians out there recording and touring.  You just have to know where to look. XRT is a good place to start. You’ll hear me some mornings playing a stretch of songs I love where I’ll just have to turn on the microphone slightly so I can holler. I would suggest that we take nothing for granted. “It’s great to be alive.”

Q. Will rock and roll ever die?

A. WXRT, WLS-FM, The Drive, The Loop, The Mix, K-Hits and countless college stations all play variations of rock music.  Hard to make a thoughtful case for its demise. Little Richard still sounds as powerful today as he did in 1958.


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