Jill Hopkins is a Chicago broadcaster, DJ, writer, musician, and storyteller. After an eight-year stint at Vocalo Radio, Hopkins kicked off 2022 by joining the Metro family of venues (which also includes Smart Bar and GMan) as their new media and civic events producer.

As told to Jamie Ludwig

I was always a big radio and music-video fan—when we got MTV at my grandma’s house when I was a kid, I wanted to be Downtown Julie Brown so much. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Chicago’s radio landscape was so diverse. I always had WGCI in my life, and I’m glad that there’s still legacy stations like that around, but I listened to all sorts of music, so I was always bouncing around the dial: I listened to a hard-rock station called the Blaze. The Loop was a big deal for me, but so was B96 and Z95. 

In the 90s, I kind of rested on Q101 because I was an alternative-rock head. Every time I talk to [former Q101 DJ] James VanOsdol these days, I make sure to let him know how much I appreciate what he did on the radio when I was in high school. I guess I hadn’t put two and two together that regular people could have those jobs—I don’t know how I thought you got those jobs—but he just seemed like a guy that you would know who just happened to know a lot about music. 

So I’ve always been interested in broadcasting, but I didn’t really have a path to it until I was in my 30s. The gold standard for me in local radio as a kid was Herb Kent, who had like a 60-year broadcast career. I lived with my mom and my grandma, so you’ve gotta find media you can all agree on sometimes. Herb would play a lot of old soul music, and that really stuck out to me. Then there were the morning shock jocks: B96 had Eddie & JoBo forever. Eric & Kathy was on for a really long time. Mancow was on in the mornings. But the shock jocks were really difficult to listen to if that wasn’t your style, and there weren’t a lot of choices. 

Folks like JVO and Herb Kent did a lot for making radio more about the music than about the large personalities. I’m not saying that these guys are personality free—Herb Kent was dripping with charisma—but they weren’t yelling in your face at six in the morning about God knows what, and I appreciated that very much. 

That was an attitude that Silvia Rivera at Vocalo and I shared—I kind of stepped into a preexisting vibe and ethos at Vocalo that valued music, and culture, and storytelling over self-promotion via large personality. It was a pleasure to just be my passionate self about music and not be expected to bounce off the walls. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s not who I am and it’s not who I ever wanted to be as a broadcaster, so I was really glad they accepted that about me.

When I was in broadcasting school, they only offered a few silos. I didn’t want to work for a Clear Channel or iHeartRadio type of thing, and I didn’t want to do sports radio. So I had to really think about what I wanted to do and where in the city I could do it. I didn’t want to move anywhere else—especially anywhere smaller than Chicago with less entertainment options—so I really had to think about how I was going to stay here and work within the preexisting parameters of radio. 

Jill Hopkins hosts the podcast The Opus, which looks at the legacies of legendary albums.

Then I remembered that CHIRP existed. I was jazzed to be able to do a weekly show with them for a year and some change. I’ve been a club DJ, and I really like figuring out how to get from point A to point B—let’s say point A is Janet Jackson and point B is Slayer. With their open format, CHIRP was a perfect station for that. At Vocalo you’re not given as much freedom as CHIRP, for a variety of reasons, but with their urban-alternative format there’s still a lot of wiggle room to play with. I’m glad Chicago has at least two stations that go out of their way to stand out from this kind of stale, corporate radio landscape. And I’m not even talking about the college stations—those have always been about freedom and creativity for young people.

[My broad taste] has helped not just in programming music, [but also] in the conversations and the interviews I’ve been able to have with people, especially with a lot of younger artists who’ve decided to be genreless. I’m able to hear what somebody’s influences are in their music, pick them out, bring it back to them, and have them be relieved that somebody understands what they are trying to do. It’s also been super helpful in relating to other people. In the public-radio space, you’re asking people for money a lot, so it’s been helpful in talking to donors or people from the parent company about things that they might be interested in, as opposed to having a very narrow scope of reference. It’s helped me navigate all sorts of spaces. 

A lot of people in music broadcasting and in music journalism have a very broad spectrum of knowledge, but we’re not always given opportunities to flex those muscles. Being able to flex my muscles in spaces like CHIRP and Vocalo means they don’t atrophy. I haven’t forgotten the things that I’ve taken time to learn about music over the years, and that’s going to serve me well in this new endeavor at the Metro where we deal with legacy artists and up-and-comers from across space and time. Some of these kids sound like they’re from the future—it’s wild.

[Starting this job] is equal parts more exciting than I can express and stomach-churning terrifying. Getting to carve your own path is a dream, and getting to work for this venue is a dream. Me, [owner] Joe Shanahan, [talent buyer] Joe Carsello, and the marketing team are working together to make something special that other clubs may not have. We’re making video content, we’re making podcasts, we’ll be doing a lot more nontraditional events on the campus. And we’ve got the Metro’s 40th anniversary coming up in July. 

This project isn’t just my own, but our own, because I’m roping everybody into the weird stuff that I’ve planned. I want to curate audience experiences that feel special and inclusive, and to help people who may not be comfortable yet going to shows feel less like they’re missing out. The Metro has been my favorite place to see a show for a very long time, and getting to share the history of the place with everybody—because so much has happened within those walls—and getting to speak to artists who have graced the stages there and will continue to grace the stages there . . . I keep saying it’s a dream come true, but it really, truly is. 

The role is so new that things aren’t necessarily set in stone just yet, but initially our goal is to drum up anticipation for the anniversary and make sure folks have a good time leading up to that. Once the anniversary year kicks off, we’ll have bigger things to share. I’ll be talking to not just artists but audience members. If you’re standing in line to get into the building or to buy tickets or something like that, I want to hear from you. I want to hear why you’re in love with this band, why you got here early to ride the rail in the front row. 

I’m especially interested in speaking to very young music fans, and especially young women. I feel like nobody really asks young women about their thoughts, especially about music, and they’re not given nearly enough credit for the things that they like and why they like them. If anybody had put a microphone in my face when I was 14 and I was standing in line outside the Fireside or something, I would’ve been so stoked. I would’ve had so many opinions about Screeching Weasel or whatever. 

Was it last year when that Linda Lindas video dropped where they’re playing in the library? I almost threw my phone across the room, I was so hyped for them. And then to hear the subject matter of that first single, I was just like, “Oh my God, this is everything! Somebody’s gonna see this video and start a band.” I was in a band with a bunch of women who were instructors at Girls Rock! Chicago, and it was one of those things where I was just like, “Ooh, if I knew how to read music, I’d be [volunteering with them too].” The model of that organization, the mission of that organization . . . I wish they had been around when I was younger. I could have used a little more guidance—we were all just kind of twisting in the wind as fledgling musicians. It’s such a great thing; it teaches you so much about teamwork and yourself, and music is just the vehicle for so much more. 

COVID aside, it’s an exciting time in Chicago to be a young musician. I’m low-key very jealous. I’m showing my age here, obviously, but the technology available—to not just make music but to produce it and to share it as a finished product without leaving your home—is amazing. That’s so wild to me, thinking about saving up for a four-track back in the day and hoping that you have some blank cassettes in the house, and that your friends can come over, and that you’re not grounded. There’s just so much that young musicians can do inexpensively and individually. Even if they are stuck at home because of COVID, they can still make and create and share music in a way that was previously unthinkable. I’m honestly envious. To have the youthful exuberance . . . a lot of us lose that when we get older because life gets in the way or whatever. To have the time and energy to create so easily is a great thing, and we’re getting so much great music out of it. 

There are indie labels in the city making sure that this music gets promoted and gets heard and gets appreciated. Nobody’s dropping the ball in COVID times if they can help it. I’m really impressed by folks like Tasha, Nnamdï, Kaina, Ric Wilson, and Matt Muse. The list goes on and on and on. Your brain wants to categorize things, so when you hear somebody like Ric Wilson, your brain might want to silo him into hip-hop, but he’s making dance music, he’s making pop music. Tasha is singing us lullabies sometimes, but she’s also very funky. The whole lineup that Sooper Records has going—I cannot stop listening to that Nnamdï album [last year’s Are You Happy]. It is so incredible. I once listened to it all the way through on the wrong speed and it was still really good. There’s just so much talent in this town.

I absolutely see this job as an opportunity to remind people—and I’m not trying to be hyperbolic here—of the majesty of live entertainment. It’s magical. In the building where I now work, I’ve seen Prince play while Common and Macy Gray sang backup. I’ve also been on that same stage playing music with my feminist rock collective. I’ve seen Sinead O’Connor bring an entire crowd to tears after David Bowie died, but I’ve also seen a hip-hop rock band from New York that doesn’t exist anymore but that I was obsessed with for two years in the late 90s—2 Skinnee J’s. We’ve thrown shows there for the radio station. I’ve seen people get engaged there. I’ve made out in the photo booth at Smart Bar. I’ve had every kind of experience you can have there. 

For the people that miss live shows and everything that comes with them, I want to remind them that it’s still going to happen. We’re gonna get there again. And to remind them about those times that maybe they forgot about. Maybe somebody got to see that first show at the Metro with R.E.M. in 1982 and their memories are a little fuzzy, so we’re gonna help jog their brains. There’s a lot to remember about a good rock show, but if it’s a really good time, you’re probably forgetting some things as well. So we want to bring that back to the forefront, and remind folks that we’re here when they’re ready.