What’s Up at the Loop (Part 1)

Howard Stern spent his first few days on the local airwaves calling Steve Dahl, his new morning competitor, a “big fat pig.” If you were curious, that’s about as clever as Stern gets–and as close to the bone, for that matter. Dahl’s problem isn’t that he’s fat, it’s that he’s witless–though he’s a regular Dick Cavett compared to Stern. Stern got a lot of attention for his appearance on the MTV video awards show as a character named Fartman. There his flatulence was the digestive kind; on radio the gas collects in his head and he farts with his brain. Of course Dahl and Stern are “competing” only in the personal sense, if at all: since the stations they’re on, WLUP FM and WLUP AM respectively, are owned by the same company, their “feud” is more than a bit convenient–it’s the Loop making the best of a tough situation. Perennial ratings king Jonathon Brandmeier, simulcast on both AM and FM, finally tired of the grueling morning shift and asked for afternoon drive time. The station complied (his contract was nearly up) and moved Dahl to FM mornings. On the AM side, for those listeners (A) for whom Dahl is too sophisticated and (B) who don’t mind listening to a show that originates in New York City, there’s Stern. I gotta say that B is the one that kills me: I mean, Dahl’s a dope, but gosh darn it, he’s a Chicago-based dope.

The Stern-Dahl antics, in any case, distract from the real Loop news: the station’s ratings plunge, which has thoroughly discombobulated what used to be one of the most formidable radio operations in the U.S. The most recent Arbitron ratings show that the Loop is now running a stagnant third in what has become a five-way rock-radio race in Chicago. Leading is the hard-rock WWBZ, or “the Blaze,” but that station’s hoodlum demographic doesn’t exactly thrill advertisers. WXRT is next, continuing a year of dominance in adult rock listenership. The Loop is third, with the once formidable classic-rock ‘CKG and upstart adult-alternative WKQX (“Q101”) bringing up the rear.

In response to the bad ratings news the Loop did what radio stations do in such circumstances: fired the management. Last week was the last for veteran music director Dave Benson. Benson used to manage Pat Metheny tours. He went into radio, wound up at ‘XRT in the early 80s, and grabbed the music director slot at the Loop in 1986. “I’m disappointed, but not bitter,” Benson reports. “It’s a function of the uncertainty of the business. Any time a music director can survive in a top-three market under the ownership and management changes I did, you have to feel good about it.”

The Loop FM’s music station was a hybrid: a cross between a classic rock station and the worst sort of restrictive album-oriented-radio blandness. Benson’s add policy was tight even by AOR standards, with no room for even Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which dominated stations from top 40 to alternative. But Benson was always a sharp-tongued defender of the Loop’s policies: to him, “serving the audience” meant getting the most listeners, and by that criterion the Loop was indeed a “good” radio station for some time.

For the record, however, by any other standard it wasn’t. Benson chose all the music, which made the jocks basically robots, with little to do but endlessly repeat the station’s clunky slogans: “Where Chicago rocks.” “Playing all the classics and the best new rock ‘n’ roll.” No radio cliche was beneath the Loop; this month, inevitably, was “Rocktober.” And the station’s restrictive playlist–the Petty-Seger-Springsteen-Collins-Mellencamp-Clapton merry-go-round–was a crime. Ultimately, with the Blaze siphoning off metal heads and ‘XRT the more adventurous adults, this conservatism did the station in.

Benson’s going to take some time off to watch the shakeout. The most vulnerable local station? “‘CKG,” he says. “What can happen at a place where you play 400 songs more than five years old over and over again? They need to broaden their concept of what constitutes a classic library, and they also need to become a much more community-involved radio station.” The station to watch? “‘KQX,” he says. “I call it ‘XRT lite. It’s the first time ‘XRT has had a direct competitor.” Still, he says, “‘XRT is the most stable station right now.”

Benson’s also going to listen to some music. “The toughest part of being a music director is how little you can listen to music you like. If I want to go on a six-month Thelonious Monk jag, I can do it now.

Next week: The new regime.

We Do Not Want What Will Make Us Think

The backlash against Sinead O’Connor–media revilement from Saturday Night Live on down, plus being booed off the stage of the Dylan tribute at Madison Square Garden–demonstrates yet again that celebrities in America can say any damn thing they want to as long as it doesn’t actually mean anything. Typical of the reaction was the New Republic, which invented a wave of tolerance for “anti-Catholic bigotry on the left” before castigating O’Connor for vilifying a “symbol” of the church. Well, that smiling symbol is the scary right-wing leader of a moneyed international cult whose discrimination against women and gays and campaigns against abortion and birth control make it one of the half dozen or so most powerful worldwide obstacles to social progress of the most basic sort. “Fight the real enemy,” O’Connor said. She wanted people to think. That’s why her attackers are so vociferous.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Luthringer.