Tune In, Turn Down, Cool Out
G. Michael Donovan’s ears throbbed to the beat of rock radio and the screaming hype that went with it for 17 years. Leaving the old days at WKQX and WLS behind, he says, is like “breaking out of jail.”
Now he’s station manager at WNUA–Chicago’s first “new age” radio station–and slowly becoming more, uh, mellow.
“I’m a lot calmer,” said Donovan, who can talk as fast as Phil Georgeff. “Somebody told me this was gonna happen.” We were in his large new office on Michigan Avenue. “A couple weeks into this format, you’re not quite the ‘A’ personality you normally are–hard-charging, aggressive, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, getting the job done. It loosens you up a little bit, relaxes you, and yet energizes in a certain way. Like the detox thing that happens when you’re off caffeine. This music is kind of that way.”
This music. We’ve heard it described as “modern Muzak” and “classy Muzak.” We’ve also heard people say, “I found this great new station . . .” To us, there’s too much whiny alto saxophone on WNUA. Give us Ben Webster.
“I don’t know who plays bass on Dizzy Gillespie’s third album,” said Donovan. “I like light jazz. I like new jazz.
“They’re very quiet and moody kinds of instrumental pieces. You could call that jazz. Weird sounds. A couple whale noises thrown in there for good measure.
“It’s almost a marketing phrase more than anything else. You know, you can’t throw up a billboard ‘We’re new-age, light, contemporary jazz, certain rock and roll artists, but they gotta sound just right otherwise we won’t play ’em. It’s gotta be melodic.’ So, we’re just gonna say ‘We’re music for a new age’ and let them define it.
“Most of the new-age artists hate to be called new-age artists. Andreas [Vollenweider] hates to be called new-age. He likes to be called a musician.”
WNUA has heard from hundreds of listeners since Pyramid Broadcasting bought rocking WRXR, at 95.5 FM, and changed call letters and formats August 3. The letters are taped to the walls. “I have found in your station an oasis for my mind,” wrote one listener. “A very hip and mellow sound had caught my ear,” wrote another. Lots of them say “Fantastic!” Their addresses are law firms, colleges, ad agencies, a church, the Navy, an insurance company, a makeup studio, Merrill Lynch; and there’s private stationery from Chicago and suburbs like Country Club Hills, Palatine, and Arlington Heights.
“We’re so new we don’t have any ratings,” said Donovan. He says he’s never seen so many letters sent to a radio station before. “Never. Are you kidding me? This doesn’t happen.”
There are noisy commercials, though Donovan told us that load will remain light. His listeners, he says, understand. “They know how business works.”
WNUA ignores the cult of personality so popular in Chicago. Its disc jockeys aren’t even allowed to identify themselves over the air. “We say we have no deejays. They open the mike three to four times per hour. They will tell you what the weather is and they’ll even tell you what time it is. But we don’t tell you anything else.”
Deejays were hired on a tryout basis–to see if they could work with suppressed egos, said Donovan. “Interestingly, ‘the Wave’ in Los Angeles [the first such station–it started in February] has no announcers. And we think that’s too sterile.” We’d noticed a lot of those letters on the wall liked WNUA’s anonymous deejays.
Besides “the Wave,” or KWVE, in Los Angeles, there are new-age stations in San Francisco and San Diego, but none yet in New York. “There’s one in Washington, D.C. I love these call letters–WBMW,” said Donovan. He cranked up the office stereo, which piped in WNUA. “You and I can talk over this. It’s a lot better than having nothing at all.” He thinks new-age is the right accompaniment to just about anything, and that WNUA belongs in the office, at the store, in the car, and at home. The station advertises itself as dinner music, too.
We scanned Donovan’s desk for energy crystals, but there weren’t any. His harmonic convergence, he said, is golf. He still wears a conservative suit and tie to work, though he said his boss “would probably prefer if I wore some $1,200 Italian thing from Ultimo.” He’s still fighting those old blast-yak impulses from rock radio, but WNUA brought in consultant Owen Leach–who worked on “the Wave”–to keep him in check.
“He keeps us from falling into the radio box. That box that says you gotta tell ’em what you are, you gotta promise them the world, you gotta tell them you’re the most important thing in their lives. Our listeners have homes and careers and families and important decisions in their lives we can play accompaniment to.”
School is beginning again, which made us think of a stack of notes we had buried in our file cabinet. A schoolteacher gave them to us last year–she’d found them in a book in a north-side public school.
They were written in pencil on lined notebook paper and decorated with hearts by the two third-graders who’d passed the notes back and forth. What impressed us was the completeness–from beginning to end–of a swell love story. We’ve changed names to protect the innocents.
* * *
to my buitful Carrie
I love you very much and I will never stop loveing you and I have the deepest cruch on you then you ever had before and I love you more than John how do you love better. Michael or John
(Carrie circled “Michael.”)
* * *
I haden’t been writeing to you because I diden’t think you liked me because I stil like you very very very much and I love you good by
I never stopped liking you. I thought you liked Charlen-Pulte.
I love you.
I never loved them I only like them for frends.
I love you
* * *
Why do you write john notes and you do not write me notes I love you
I love you too. I just wrote him one note Ok.
* * *
Maybe if I be the girls body gurd then maybe Charlene will let you be my girlfriend pleace ask her and I love you
I am your girlfriend ok
* * *
me and John want to know if you stil like us and I am sury for what I did yesterday pleace for get me pleace answer
you made me lose my friend. I like you a little.
and How much do you like John
* * *
I love you very much and I have the deepest cruch on you then you ever had before and I am glad that you like me to and I rember When you is why do I Love you I Love you because of your Brown eyes and because you are smart and intelluchint and Buitful and because I love you and I care about you very much pleace answer on back
I feel the same way about you. And I love you too!
* * *
I no that you hate me but can we stil be frends pleace I hope you had a good time when you liked me because I had a good time but I will all wase Love you deep in my sole and can I get a nother girlfrend.
Going to California
We’re moving to California. We don’t know who will be taking our place at Hot Type, so we can’t make an introduction, but we would like to say good-bye.
We thank the snitches we referred to as “a veteran journalist” or a “staffer,” when we referred to them at all. We thank the people who gave us hours and hours of their time. We thank our editors. Bye bye.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.