This year has been, by far, the year that almost everything has changed for every member of the family, drastically. There’s a lot I could talk about, and a lot that I can’t at the moment, but one thing that caught me completely off-guard was the death of the Chicago smooth jazz station WNUA Friday morning. At 9:55am, WNUA became an automated Spanish-language pop station, ending a 22-year run.
Before you start looking at me quizzically, let me clarify that I am not a rabid fanboy of smooth jazz. I dislike that term; I figure “adult contemporary jazz” might be a better name since there’s very little jazz in “smooth jazz”. But WNUA represented something very important to me that saved me from myself, and that was the station that inspired it: KTWV, also known as The Wave. And for those of you wondering what the point of this little ramble is, I’ll spare you the suspense: Both of these stations, mostly The Wave, prevented my teenage suicide. That, and The Wave was a neat experiment in radio that we’ll never see again.
Now the background.
Try to imagine 1987. Try to remember contemporary media of that time like thirtysomething, Miami Vice, and Bright Lights Big City (and Alive from Off Center if you knew where to look). Pop culture was just starting to drop out of the New Wave, skinny ties, Patrick Nagel, Memphis furniture phase. The hip computers to own were the Macintosh, Amiga, and Apple IIgs. This was the world I grew up in as a teenager.
I turned sixteen in that world, along with all of the angst and depression that goes with that age, no matter how shallow and unimportant the time was. Fully convinced that I would amount to nothing and never find love, I would spend hours in my room, depressed about the world and my future. I would play long-running, moody computer adventure games into the wee hours. It got so bad sometimes that computing couldn’t keep my mind off of it, and I became depressed, so incredibly distraught, that I considered (and, on one occasion, attempted) suicide. Technically, I wasn’t alone in the world, but our family was strained due to financial problems and I’d just broken up with my first girlfriend (quite badly on my part, I’m ashamed to admit), so it felt like I was alone. How much of this was hormone/development-related, I couldn’t tell you, because I was at the center of it. But it was real, to me.
One of the things that helped me keep it together was The Wave, a Chicago radio station running under the call letters WTWV. The Wave was a New Age radio station with a small broadcasting radius; on a clear day, it came in really well. I would put it on my boombox and record any songs onto cassette tape that I enjoyed while I was computing; eventually, I amassed quite a few tapes that helped my mood on days when reception was bad. It was a legal relaxant. Mental bubblegum that diverted my head away from suicidal thoughts.
The Wave, Circa 1987
The Wave, formerly WPPN in Chicago, was actually a satellite-fed KTWV from Los Angeles, formed on Valentine’s Day in 1987. New Age was (and still is, in what I guess is now called “World Fusion”) a strange “hip” new format that most major markets were giving a try because it was the fastest growing music genre for young urban 30-something baby boomers. They imported it where they couldn’t create it. WTWV was our local repeater, on 106.7. I found it quite by accident, simply scanning the dial one day, as 106.7 until that time had been a thrash metal Z-Rock affiliate.
If you ask me today if I like new age music, I’ll say what I’d say about techno, or thrash metal, or (heaven forbid) country: I like it if it’s good. Good = composed brilliantly and performed at least adequately (and not the other way around). Not much of New Age is good, at least not to me, but it was what I needed at the time. The type of music that KTWV/WTWV played encompassed all sorts of stuff, like Acoustic Alchemy, Shadowfax, and Special EFX. You’d also hear from artists like O’Hearn, Ciani, Hearns, Harriss, Lanz, Arkenstone, Vollenweider, Cusco, Osamu, etc. I don’t listen to this music today; my musical tastes shifted violently when I went to college, but that’s another story altogether. I still listen to my old tapes about once every eight years, though, for nostalgic warm fuzzies.
The music wasn’t the only “edgy” thing about the station; the way of presenting the format was too. The Wave wasn’t big on talking — there were no DJs. Other than vocal songs, the only ways you’d hear someone using language was during three types of elements:
- To play a little pre-recorded outtro from the artists themselves.
- To announce the time.
- To sing the station’s call letters, always with the same jingle but in dozens of vastly different arrangements.
The way they announced the time deserves special attention: It was very cleverly done, and was sometimes funny in a dry, thirtysomething sort of way. They would play a little 60 to 90-second sketch, and whenever someone announced the time (only once in the sketch) a “beep” would go off. It was pretty accurate; even though the time synchronization “beep” was mentioned at different points in each sketch, you could still adjust your watch to it.
WNUA, the station whose format change prompted this little essay, was essentially a copycat. The troubled station (which had gone through four different callsign and format changes in five years) decided to try New Age after a regular short evening show of the music proved to grab as much listeners as the entire broadcast day. (This occured about six months after The Wave was playing in the area.) They had almost exactly the same music lineup, the same variations-on-a-theme singing of the call letters, a similar pop art logo (pictured at right, although the “smooth jazz” lettering was added later as they mutated formats), and no DJs. They even renamed the station in the call letters WNUA for “NU Age”.
Like all fads, it passed. In 1989, both stations weren’t doing well with an all New Age lineup any more, so both stations slowly altered their formats towards contemporary jazz, then added vocalists, then older midtempo pop. While WNUA survived another 20 years, WTWV was slower to adjust and, with worse ratings, was dropped completely without warning from the Chicagoland area, sold to Salem Media (an ancestor of today’s Salem Communications). Back then, I always wondered why I barely heard commercials on The Wave; in hindsight, it’s because they were never able to get any advertisers.
In retrospect, I’m glad I was spared the slow transformation to what the original KTWV is today, which is smooth jazz. Those first two years, the ones that held my interest and streamlined my thoughts, were an innovative experiment in what was probably the last era radio could be experimental. I was very sad to see The Wave go, even though I didn’t need it anymore. After the sale to Salem Media, 106.7 quickly and predictably became right-wing fundamentalist bible-thumping homophobic antichoice hate talk in the guise of “Family Radio” WYLL. (I guess that sold well, because they had a chance to upgrade the transmitter after the format change; the 50kW transmitter is located in Des Plaines, and for those who lived anywhere in the north or northwest Chicagoland suburban area, you got treated to this stuff full blast when you skimmed past it on the dial. Today, it’s a spanish language station — just like WNUA became on Friday.) So the Wave disappeared from the midwest, and WNUA slowly transmogrified their format into “smooth jazz”, dropping new-agey stuff in favor of Basia and Kenny G. They used to have a syndicated show of New Age on Sunday nights called Mystical Starstreams (ugh), but I don’t know how long that lasted.
I don’t know why I feel like I’ve lost something; my need for radio has been dead for a while, as the signal to noise ratio is through the floor (pun not intended). To paraphrase Steve Jobs: When you’re young, you look at [radio] and think, “there’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down.” But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. (Which is a far more depressing thought.)
Besides, the last decade has completely changed the way people discover and acquire media. The only reason I listened to the radio Friday was because I was driving my 16-yr-old car that only has a radio. When that car dies, I’ll have a personal media player, online music stores, and free open content to browse through, probably all while driving in said new car. The entire world of media is open to me, and everyone.
But I still have my tapes.
UPDATE: I’m elated to report that Chicago still has a Smooth Jazz option — the people behind WNUA started up on another spot on the dial, and they even kept the musical callsigns that don’t directly mention “W” “N” “U” “A” (because they’re WLFM now).