By Cara Jepsen

It’s gotten easier to forget in recent years that radio programming isn’t about music but about delivering a demographic to advertisers, and that what’s been carefully packaged as a revolution for listeners–the modern rock radio format–is the simple result of the corporate world’s long-overdue recognition of the consumer bloc we all now know as Generation X. Lately, though, reality’s been about as easy to ignore as a T-rex in the backyard.

“We’re four or five years away from something revolutionary happening again,” says former Q101 program director Bill Gamble, who has consulted for modern rock stations across the country. “At this time, people tend to revert to what they know. There’s not a Nirvana, Clash, Bruce Springsteen, or other icon type coming on the horizon.” What radio people know is that the safest, most lucrative demographic is white men aged 25 to 54, and that the surest way to their wallets remains classic rock. And so in the last few months, the number of FM stations in town that might bust out “Immigrant Song” at any given moment jumped from three to five. That’s one for each preset button on my car radio: WCKG, WXCD, WXRT (technically an adult album alternative station), WRCX (technically an active rock station, which basically means it adds new material to its classic rock repertoire), and WLUP (which has just returned to classic rock but won’t admit it).

The granddaddy of classic rock radio in Chicago is of course WCKG, which has been serving up a Stones ‘n’ Skynyrd smorgasbord at 105.9 FM for the past 12 years. It’s a talky rocker, with Howard Stern in the morning and Steve Dahl in the afternoon drive-time slot. Enter ABC-owned WXCD (94.7 FM), which booted the not-so-hot “Kicks Country” format this spring to go after WCKG with promises of “more music, less talk.” It hired Q101’s Gamble to program the station and give it instant industry credibility. One of his first moves was to lure DJ Joe Thomas away from WCKG; he also brought old-school WLUP jocks Bob Stroud and Mitch Michaels into the fold.

The format switch went down a full month or so before the sale of WLUP, the Loop, to the Mormon church-owned Bonneville International was finalized. When that happened, Bonneville management, whose veep of programming is former Steve Dahl lackey Greg Solk, dropped the station’s foundering hot adult contemporary format in favor of something that sounds a lot like the Loop in its heyday: once again you can hear Billy Squier’s “Everybody Wants You” in close proximity to Styx’s “Renegade.” The new Loop refuses to bill itself as a classic rock station, and every so often the DJs do throw in an occasional current hit by someone nonthreatening like Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots. But I wish I had a nickel for every time jocks remind us that we’re hearing “the legendary Loop, where Chicago rocks–again.” (Unfortunately most of the original Loop’s staff is scattered along the dial. WXRT has Bobby Skafish, WCKG has Dahl and Patti Haze, and WMVP has Jonathon Brandmeier, whose contract wasn’t part of the Bonneville deal. Michaels, who used to welcome in the weekend on the Loop in the late 70s, worked for a year at the Natalie Merchant-era Loop before moving to WXCD last month.)

There are slight differences in the stations, though in general choosing between them is still like choosing between three dull dates who pay for everything and drive. WXCD thinks it’s in touch with its feminine side, indulging in 70s pop acts like Fleetwood Mac and Elton John. The Loop is a handsome meathead, specializing in cock rock like George Thorogood and Jimi Hendrix. And WCKG just plain talks too much: in reaction to WXCD’s arrival, the station teamed longtime midday host Haze with pal Mary Pat LaRue for a total of 12 straight hours of talk. On a recent morning scan, while the Loop was just putting on Foreigner, WXCD was in the middle of Billy Joel and Howard Stern was finishing up for the day on WCKG.

Another way the stations hope to distinguish themselves is through promotions. WXCD has been tagging concerts, like the recent Who performance, that once upon a time were the sole province of WCKG. (Gamble did the same thing to WXRT with alternative acts when he was at Q101.) And this summer there’s a three-way race to attach call letters to the dinosaur parade at Star Plaza and Skyline Stage–including Thorogood, Ted Nugent, Kansas, Molly Hatchet, and Pat Benatar. But the listeners have grown older, and it takes more than a few free tickets (the equivalent of flowers and candy) to win.

“How important do you think it is for anyone over 30 years of age what name is attached to a concert?” Gamble asks. “Our assumption is that if our listeners want tickets, they’ll go out and buy them. We have to do things that are different for our listeners. When the Who comes to town, we’ll make arrangements for them to meet Pete Townshend. When Boston comes maybe we’ll give them a chance to meet Tom Scholz and talk computers. At this point it’s not about money–it’s about access.”

But if it’s not about money on our end, cash is certainly foremost on the station owners’ minds. In the wake of the recent telecommunications legislation, which allows one company to own up to eight radio stations in a single market, the listening landscape in Chicago has been shifting like mad, with two companies–CBS and Chancellor Media–snapping up 80 percent of the market’s major stations. CBS now owns most of the white male market, with a finger (or a pending finger) in all the right pies: news/talk (WMAQ and WBBM AM), country (WUSN), contemporary hits (WBBM FM), adult album alternative (WXRT), sports (WSCR), and classic rock (WCKG). Chancellor has wrapped up the African-American market with a portfolio that includes urban adult contemporary (WVAZ) and smooth jazz (WNUA). By the end of the year it should also own Gannett’s WGCI, which does urban contemporary on the FM dial and dusties on AM.

“The strategy a lot of radio groups are taking is to own a franchise,” says Dennis Constantine of Constantine Consulting, a Boulder-based consulting firm that helps programmers “image” rock stations. “They know there’s a certain amount of advertising spent on [a certain category of] stations, and they know if they own that market they can guarantee that amount or project it to the bank and say, ‘We’re going to make this much money without a doubt.'”

You’d think this meant radio stations would start targeting more and more specific niches, sort of like magazines did in the 80s, but so far it sounds like they’re all just aiming for the lowest common denominator, making for increasingly bad radio in Chicago (and everywhere else). I’m holding out hope that one day the research will tell the few broadcasting companies left that listeners would like to be thought of as people with particular tastes rather than as members of a demographic.

Meanwhile, though, it’ll be fun to watch the classic rockers duke it out for listeners–and to take advantage of the competitive atmosphere. (Hey, I’d buy Pete Townshend a Remy Martin if given the chance.) But you can’t date three guys forever–it takes too much energy. Even Nola Darling, in She’s Gotta Have It, finally settled down with one of her lovers. The bad news is that it wasn’t the one with the most personality, or even the one with the most money. It was the one with the most persistence–the boring one who just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.