Is Radio Dead? WXRT Says No

In an earlier post I wrote about my bliss over having discovered Pandora, an online radio station service. A big attraction is not having to listen to annoying commercials and even more annoying DJ’s. The goal of today’s digital music formats is to eliminate the business of music and get right to the music itself. Hard to argue with.

But when done right, radio can be a great experience, and dare I say it, even an art form. I have been listening to WXRT Chicago’s Finest Rock since I moved to Chicago in 1985. They are by far the best radio station I’ve ever heard. They give you an engaging, enriching experience. What makes it stand out are the personalities. Some have come and gone, but the staples at XRT are, Lin Brehmer, Terri Hemmert, Marty Lennartz, Frank E. Lee, Tom Marker and Johnny Mars.


They know music. Not just the songs, the music. The lyrics, the riffs, the roots, the meaning. They lived it, having grown up during the time when rock music exploded onto the American scene. Most importantly they are friends and neighbors. Here are two real life, first hand examples to illustrate my point.

One of my favorites is Lin Brehmer who anchors the morning show. So smart and funny. Such a great way to start the day. Lin sprinkles in movie and TV dialog clips into his show to punctuate a news story, or heap yet more misery on another Chicago Cubs losing year. He also has a bit of a twisted sense of humor. When Oliver Stone’s film, Natural Born Killers was released on Laser Disk, it included some scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Yes I had a Laser Disk player. It still works and I have over 300 films on the LD format. One of the deleted scenes was of Denis Leary ranting to the camera about who is to blame for anything and everything. Classic. Oliver Stone said that he left it out because it slowed down the film (oh really). I recorded the clip and sent it in to Lin along with this letter.


Although I never got a direct response from Lin, he occasionally plays this same audio clip on air when it fits. I think I’ve heard it 4 or 5 times. I attribute that to me, even if it’s not true. Want to know more about Lin, and who doesn’t? Here’s a slice of a day in the life of Lin Brehmer.

Here’s another. XRT has a twice weekly segment called Going to the show with A Regular Guy. I won’t reveal the radio personality who plays A Regular Guy. But the character is all Chicago, right down the the accent. “Bak it up and leev the kez in da carrr.” He also has a good working knowledge of film that can deliver a hilarious and at times insightful movie review. I was really obsessed with archiving the segments, so I set-up an audio cassette player and recorded them for years. One time I was out of town, traveling for work just as he was going to review JFK, oddly enough another Oliver Stone film. I missed it and was distraught. Upon my return home I left him a voice mail and asked if he would be so kind as to send me an audio copy of that review. This was before Internet streaming, or podcasting, etc. Essentially the stone age. A few days later a package arrived and in it was an audio cassette with his review, along with a nice note.


At the time I was in the video distribution business, so I would send him screeners of films before they were out. One day my assistant let me know that The Regular Guy was on the phone. He thanked me and we had a great conversation about film and music. You can hear A Regular Guy’s reviews via the web here.

So don’t give up on radio. The good ones have embraced the web and are taking advantage of the ongoing technology convergence. As a result many have expanded their audience. Used to be if you moved away from a city you had to leave your radio station behind. No longer. Give XRT a try by clicking here.


Pandora – Radio From Music’s DNA

For the last four months or so I have been exploring the Pandora music service from my computer (via the Internet) as well as my Sonos music system. Pandora uses the phenomenal work done by the Music Genome Project to serve up individual songs in a radio station format.

In case you are unfamiliar, the Music Genome Project is an attempt to organize music into over 400 attributes via a complex mathematical algorithm. They have developed musical genes, each corresponding to a specific musical characteristic, then applied the math to tens of thousands of songs. What you are left with is a genetic map of the “body” of music. It ignores lyrical content, band members, lifestyles, etc., which one could argue drains the passion. Kind of the opposite of what music stirs in us. But the idea is so intriguing I had to check it out.

Pandora has developed code to allow consumers to select a favorite artist, composer or song and set up radio stations on their web site. Pandora then plays music, one song at at time (like radio) that matches what you selected; all driven by the Genome Project. If you hear a song you don’t have but want, a simple click will allow you to buy it from iTunes or on CD from Amazon (as available).

The User Interface is very clean and simple. As songs are played, the album cover art, song title, album and artist glide into view. You can get around the site easily within minutes.


I must say I was a bit skeptical about what would would be played, but I was quickly hooked. The gene thing works amazingly well. All throughout my stations they mange to play songs that are familiar as well as some things I have never heard. Great way to learn about new artists. You guide them as you go along by voting on each song (not mandatory) like this.


This helps the Pandora engine refine the playlist so it delivers more of what you want to hear. There are a number of controls that allows you to customize by bookmarking songs and artists, launching other music, or opening windows that give details about the artists album and song. When you add a station Pandora politely provides a brief summary of the attributes established by the Genome Project for the artist you selected, like this.


Lately they have been spending a significant amount of time building community. Within the main interface you can click on Fans and see other Pandora users who also like what’s playing, as well the stations they have created. You can click into their stations, add them to your list, learn where they live, drill down to other Pandora listeners in that city, even an individual company. Nicely done.


You can take Pandora with you on your mobile phone if you have AT&T or Sprint as your provider. For the home, it’s available for Sonos, and Slim Devices (Squeezebox and Transporter). There are some frustrations. When you hear a song you can’t go back to listen again. You can only skip a set number of songs within any given hour. Pandora claims this is do to music licensing limitations. You get it all free as long as you are willing to put up with annoying ads. The ads go away when you subscribe. Sonos users must pay once the trial period ends; no free option.

There are so many ways to experience music in this highly converging world, that it’s hard to believe there will be a clear winner. But the Music Genome Project makes this one unique and worth checking out.