Friday, July 15, 2011

The Time I Punked Chicago's Q101 (RIP)

Chicago's "alternative" station Q101 (WKQX) debuted at the end of my freshman year at Northwestern in 1992. The whole Nirvana-led modern rock and grunge movement had just taken foot, and the station's owners decided to flip Q101's adult contemporary format to take on a sound that emulated Los Angeles' veteran alternative outfit KROQ.

The station got off to a decent start, but soon got bogged down by a heavily repetitive playlist. By my senior year of college, Q101 was a bit of a joke. They had embraced Pearl Jam so whole heartedly that their station slogan, "This is Not for You," was even a riff on one of the band's songs.

In more recent years, Q101 has struggled in the ratings. The station was never able to maintain listeners for its morning show (other than the period of time when Mancow Muller hosted, but he wasn't a good fit with the station) and was rumored to be dead many times. Q101 was finally scrapped on Thursday, by new owner Randy Michaels -- yes, Tribune folks, that Randy Michaels -- who now plans to launch an FM news/talk format on the frequency.

In memory of Q101, here's a post from 2004, when I recalled the time a couple of us pretended to flip our college station to an insipid Q101-like format on April Fool's Day:

Back when I ran WNUR in college (yeah, I know, another college radio story -- Mike, it's been almost ten years! Move on!), we freaked our listeners out on April Fool's by yanking our regular programming (you know, the usual college fare-- indie rock bands that you've never heard of) and pretended to flip the station's format to mainstream alternative.

We called ourselves "Q89.3" -- a dig at Chicago's big time commercial alternative station, Q101 -- and played nothing but Pearl Jam for an hour (another dig at Q101, which was so obsessed with the band it actually had adopted as its slogan "This Is Not For You," the name of a Pearl Jam song).

A friend and fellow DJ, Maura Johnston, pretended to be Samantha James, the station's hyperactive British DJ -- a staple of alternative stations back then -- while I played the clueless DJ ("Fisher Stevens," a play on Q101 jock Steve Fisher) who thought everything was ooh, soooo alternative while rattling off obvious trivia ("Did you know that Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of Nirvana?!" I pointed out after playing the already-burnt-to-a-crisp "Smells Like Teen Spirit").

Some listeners called in and freaked out, wondering what happpened. Others were wise to the parody and played along: "Hey, you know that Red Hot Chili Peppers song you just played? Could you play it again in about 40 minutes?"

It was a proud moment. Illinois Entertainer magazine called our prank the best of the year.
Q101 will attempt to live on, as a web-only radio station -- but that strategy rarely succeeds for dead radio stations. It's a shame, but a common one, as modern rock stations continue to disappear across the country and the format struggles to figure out what it should be.

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