Arts & Entertainment

Chicago Radio Station WXRT Proves Radio is Still Fun, Relevant and Loved

Creative CommonsEven though it might seem like radio is a dying industry, the DJs at 93.1 WXRT in Chicago disagree.

Pandora. iTunes. Spotify. iHeart Radio. These are four of the most popular music streaming services, and they make it easy to purchase, listen to and store music. All listeners need to access their favorite songs is a few dollars a month and an internet connection — sometimes, with services such as Spotify, money isn’t even necessary.

With services so accessible to any internet user, is there still a place for terrestrial radio — that is, AM and FM stations — in this new technological age?

The answer is a resounding yes. According to the 2017 State of the News Media Report by Pew Research Center, terrestrial radio stations reached 91 percent of Americans in a given week in 2016, with talk news radio being the most popular genre.

However, some genres aren’t as mainstream as others. Classic rock stations are in seventh place for popularity. Progressive rock stations, characterized by DJs who have almost total power over what songs they play, don’t even make the top 10.

The last handful of significantly successful stations of that format in the country includes 93.1 WXRT-FM in Chicago. The station has been on the air in its current format for 45 years, and it’s broadcast from Two Prudential Plaza (130 E. Randolph St.) under the slogan, “Chicago’s Finest Rock.” WXRT is unique for its eclectic music collection, beloved on-air personalities and quirky customs — such as April Fool’s Day hoaxes and special songs played only once a year. Indie rock band Dawes, singer-songwriter Steve Earle and eccentric actor and singer Lyle Lovett are some artists rarely heard beyond WXRT’s airwaves.

The PHOENIX sat down with Franklin “Lin” Brehmer and Mary Dixon, the co-hosts of WXRT’s 5:30-10 a.m. weekday morning show, to talk about the state of rock music and rock radio and how it may potentially change for the better.

Rachel StobMary Dixon (left) and Lin Brehmer are the beloved voices of WXRT’s morning show.

Dixon, who was born on Chicago’s West Side and is also the station’s news anchor, has been part of the morning show for 22 years. She said some of the challenges WXRT faces are similar to those of other kinds of radio stations.

“Things have gotten a lot more diffused, because people can have music in their pocket and they can get it from so many different sources,” Dixon said. “But that just makes it important for us to maintain a certain taste level, to continue to look for new artists that are congruent with the older artists we play. And that’s a real challenge.”

Still, Dixon maintains that WXRT has its unique challenges.

“The geniuses who run this industry … look at the numbers and the demographics and what people listen to, and it’s hard for them to make that work,” Dixon said. “Our issue is we have people who depend on us, who rely on us, and those are the people we work for. We’ll do it until they tell us to stop.”

The “people” Dixon referred to are WXRT’s loyal listeners. Some listen because this station is the only one that plays their favorite songs, while others simply enjoy listening to the DJs themselves. Michael Limon, a journalism professor at Loyola’s School of Communication, is a frequent listener.

“I think the DJs are on top of things,” Limon said. “Even in the age of Spotify … there’s just something about having that live back-and-forth and energy that XRT brings.”

According to Nielsen ratings, a majority of WXRT’s listeners are over 25 years old. Dixon has a simple solution to get college-age and younger Chicagoans to listen to the station — and to radio in general.

“Buy a radio. You can find one for $20. They’re cheap, they plug in, they play for free,” Dixon said. “You can have all the devices you want. You can listen to satellite radio if that’s your bag. But if a tornado’s going to come and tear your house down, the non-people on the non-human services are not going to let you know. And I will, if I’m here [in the studio].”

Brehmer is the other half of WXRT’s morning show. He’s been at the station for 30 years and has become a staple personality in Chicago radio during that time. His career in the industry began in his hometown of Albany, New York in 1977, and he’s seen firsthand how music, radio and entertainment have changed since then.

“I’ve seen the music business at its most grotesque and biggest, and I’ve seen it now at what would have to be its lowest end,” Brehmer said. “I’ve seen the difference between the music industry fueled by expense accounts and the music industry fueled by people getting their music for free … Radio as an industry used to print money. Now they still make a lot of money, but it’s not the wild profits they used to make.”

Despite this, Brehmer is confident radio isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

“There’s always going to be music [and] there’s always going to be people who want to hear it,” Brehmer said. “It’s a matter of figuring out the best way to deliver it.”

Brehmer maintains there’s an element to FM radio that can’t be replicated on Pandora or Sirius XM — a human element, a connection between DJ and listener that will always be desirable. WXRT, he says, is a radio station where listeners “get to know the people [they’re] listening to.” He also said he believes the streaming services which cost money to access may end up helping traditional radio stations in the long run.

“I’ve always said, ‘Never underestimate the apathy of the American public,’” Brehmer said. “If you tell them they have to pay something extra or they have to jump through any hoops to get something, then the presence of free terrestrial radio will always be a draw for them because they just have to turn it on.”

Not only is free radio beneficial to the general public, it also benefits the bands whose music populates the airwaves. There are some artists — such as folk rock band Dawes, guitarist Ryley Walker and singer-songwriter Jason Isbell — whose only airtime in Chicago comes from WXRT.

“There are countless bands that come to Chicago that can fill up a room they could never fill up in another city, just because they have a history … at this radio station,” Brehmer said. “I took my family to see [folk singer-songwriter] Steve Earle … and he essentially said onstage, ‘If it weren’t for WXRT, I would not have this career.’”

Brehmer said his work at the station has also benefited him personally. Besides co-hosting the morning show, he also writes a four-minute segment called “Lin’s Bin” in which he answers questions from listeners every Monday morning. This segment, Brehmer said, is the focus of many conversations he has with listeners.

“I would say the most rewarding thing [about my job] is meeting and talking to listeners,” Brehmer said. “I feel a connection with these people even if I’ve never met them before … When I meet somebody one-on-one who has listened to WXRT, it gives me great faith in the future of humankind.”

The face of radio has changed dramatically in the last decade alone — a new threat to it seems to appear every year or two. But Dixon and Brehmer are confident in the industry’s future, despite opposition that may occasionally arise.

“For the last 40 years, people have been telling me rock ‘n’ roll radio’s dead,” Brehmer said. “I’m used to people telling me that there’s no future in what I’m doing … Until such time as I get an inkling that they’re right, I’ll just smile and nod.”

To listen to WXRT, tune a radio to 93.1 FM or stream it live on radio.com.

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Jamilyn Hiskes is a senior Journalism major at Loyola. She is the assistant A&E editor for the Phoenix and hopes to get a similar editing or reporting job after she graduates.