Q101 Presents ‘XRT Lite: What Girls Want?

“We think ‘XRT is a really good radio station,” says Bill Gamble magnanimously. He’s the program director at the newly reconfigured “alternative rock” WKQX, which goes under the nom de airwaves of Q101. The station has paid WXRT the ultimate compliment of taking a big chunk of its playlist and going on the warpath. Q101, or “‘XRT lite” as one local programmer has dubbed it, works where it matters: after six months on the air, the station tied ‘XRT with a 2.9 share of listeners 12 years and older in the fall Arbitrons.

Those figures are a bit misleading. Advertisers look at ratings for adults from 25 to 54, where ‘XRT remains comfortably ahead. Also, part of ‘XRT’s ratings dip was attributable to one uncharacteristically disastrous month. But they do indicate that a major shakeout in Chicago radio is continuing. Chicago’s radio airwaves are somewhat twisted (there’s no true top-40 outlet here) but historically conservative: classic rock (‘CKG) or rigidly formatted hard rock (WWBZ, the Blaze) or AOR (the Loop) has ruled the city. In that context, the diversely programmed WXRT made a niche for itself with new music, blues, and slightly-out-of-the-mainstream “‘XRT artists.” But in recent years a successful promotional campaign and the sudden commercial appeal of alternative rock have combined to give the station its highest ratings ever. That ended the Loop’s rock-radio dominance; concurrently, the bottom dropped out of classic rock, and ‘CKG saw half of its audience evaporate. Suddenly ‘XRT was the number-one adult rocker in Chicago, and that meant competition was on the way.

Its challenger was somewhat predictable. WKQX is one of those faceless corporate radio stations that dominate American airwaves. Originally an NBC outlet, it’s been everything from all-news to a manufactured “progressive free-form.” In the mid-80s the station ran up some impressive ratings with morning man Robert Murphy and a very light “adult contemporary” format. But this appeal waned, and after Emmis Broadcasting took the station over in 1988 it couldn’t get back on top. With the help of consultant John Parikhal, WKQX hit on a sort of hybrid adult-alternative format that went on the air last July. It’s ingredients: “New music,” a la ‘XRT; generally soft sounds, to keep female listeners; and heavy repetitions, a bow to top 40.

The station’s fun to listen to: It plays dollops of R.E.M. and U2, heaping mounds of Morrissey, the Cure, and Tori Amos, and 10,000 Maniacs enough to drive Natalie Merchant’s mother out of her mind. (Suggested slogan: “All Natalie, all the time!”) Many listeners will like the format just for itself; others will find it an ideal station-surfing point. Indeed, the hybridization factor means that Q101 will maintain impressive ratings simply by being a second choice for B-96, Loop, and ‘XRT devotees.

But it seems that perhaps the station’s canniest positioning is in its careful nurturing of female listeners. Adult contemporary is a euphemism for a female-heavy listenership. Q101’s ratings burst includes a remarkable number of youthful female listeners, who shy away from harder rock sounds. “We’ve been trying to eliminate some of the male attitudes you hear on rock stations,” says Gamble. (That means no guitar solos, not that Murphy in the morning will be leering less.) While he recoils from the notion that the station is “soft” (“The idea that women don’t like anything loud and abrasive is insulting and wrong”), you won’t hear Nirvana or Pearl Jam on the new Q101. Since the station refuses to emulate ‘XRT’s somewhat problematic devotion to the blues, you could also call it “‘XRT white.” But Q101 also turns its nose up at the Michael Boltons, Steve Winwoods, and Phil Collinses of the world. (No Eric Clapton either!) Most of its music is both new and hip. “I use the Las Vegas rule,” Gamble says. “Can you foresee this act playing Las Vegas at some point? If you can, it’s not right for the format.”

Short Hitsville

Michael Jackson, interviewed by Oprah last week, looked like that guy on the el with his face burned off: his eyes moved and his mouth enunciated words, but nary another muscle twitched. Oprah, who seemed to have prepared for the biggest interview of her life by reading a special issue of People, blew it by refusing to ask even the most elementary follow-up questions. Still, the opportunity to actually look at Jackson for several minutes at a time was unnerving and unprecedented. The show’s best line came from Liz Taylor: “He’s the least weird man I’ve ever known,” a staggering claim….With major changes in cable service impending, Trib writer David Ibata provided us with a long story and chart last Friday. If you were wondering where channels like CNN, MTV, VH-1, and A&E were going to end up, neither story nor chart vouchsafed that info. Both, however, included a variation on this sentence: Customers will continue to get satellite programming plus specialized services such as Chicagoland Television, the 24-hour local news channel. But you knew already that CLTV was a Tribune Company undertaking….Another press note: At the “On the Beat” conference in Columbia, Missouri, which I wrote about last week, one of my pet subjects was the aging of the alternative newspaper and magazine industry. I came back last week to find in the Reader an advertising insert from Rosehill Cemetery & Mausoleum. You can debate, if you want, the aging of the alternative press and its audience, and the implications of each. But would you put money on your opinions? Rosehill Cemetery did….Lindsey Buckingham plays March 18 at Park West; at a recent Center Stage taping, an explosive five-guitarist, four-drummer band awesomely essayed tunes from the Buckingham catalog, “Tusk” and “Go Your Own Way” included. Dont miss it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.