Some things are so ubiquitous that no one notices them until they are gone. And when they go, it leaves a hole so great that gratitude for the good times is little solace, especially when you know deep inside the party was over a long time ago. I had such a moment myself recently on the unexpected news that a legendary radio station of my adolescence, WLUP 97.9 FM “The Loop” in Chicago is no more.
It’s not possible to overstate the importance to Chicago lore The Loop had, and by extension American culture. On air since 1977, it almost immediately became the Mecca of hard rock radio. Disco was the big deal in 1977, and The Loop was built –literally– on a foundation of “disco demolition”. From there it became a key player in changing musical tastes not just in the local market but nationally as well.
On July 12, 1979 WLUP personality Steve Dahl, one of the original “shock jocks,” hosted a “disco demolition” night between games at a Chicago White Sox doubleheader baseball game. In this publicity stunt, he blew up a huge stack of disco records, and I don’t mean metaphorically. The crowd, 50,000 strong and more than double the expected attendance, went completely berserk. Chaos broke out and riot police had to clear the park. The second game of the doubleheader was cancelled. The event sealed The Loop’s place as the home for kick ass rock & roll and is still regarded as the moment disco fell off the cultural map.
Publicity stunts aside, The Loop delivered on its promise day after day to hundreds of thousands of devoted listeners. Morning personality Jonathon Brandmeier pioneered a clean comedy legacy worthy of an entirely separate discussion and was one of the first to be successful at a talk/music format. The rest of WLUP’s lineup became household names: Patti Haze, Bobby Skafish, and all the rest were familiar voices to young people all across the city and suburbs. As a student at Naperville North High School in the 1980’s, I could walk through the student parking lot on a warm spring day and hear WLUP blasting from pretty much every car in the place. You weren’t cool if you didn’t listen to The Loop. Even the dorks and nerds were dialed in.
The weekend lineup was tastefully seasoned with programming such as the highly innovative Headphones Only (featuring songs with elaborate stereophonic production effects) and the Dr. Dimento parody show. Back when I was persuing a career in broadcast radio, WLUP was the holy grail. I’d listen to Bobby Skafish every afternoon and think to myself, That lucky bastard! I want his job!
In the years since, The Loop’s vibe was dulled by corporate takeovers, play lists compiled by algorithms and not actual rock fans, and scripted jocks. The music became repetitive and predictable. WLUP was no longer something special. All the compelling programming that made listeners beg for more was chopped and The Loop became just another generic classic rock format that had nothing to distinguish it from all the rest. At the very end, WLUP’s owners were facing bankruptcy.
The devoted listeners, including me, left because the product started to suck.
The practical part of me says it’s not sensible that a top ten radio station for over forty years in a market as big as Chicago cannot make money. But the emotional part of me –the music fan– knows damn well why they bit the dust: The Loop lost, or rather, sold, its soul. The captivating voices and sincere concern for putting out a great product 24x7x365 were gone.
Many will blame it on internet streaming, SiriusXM radio, podcasts, or whatever. The truth is, The Loop could have remained successful if it had stayed with what gave it a huge cult following in the first place. In that regard, WLUP hasn’t been cool for at least twenty years. Media critics largely blame it on my demographic: White males, 18-54 years old with disposable income who have largely blown off traditional radio because they are willing to pay for a commercial free product, even if it is a product that lacks creativity.
These hypotheses are not entirely wrong. I haven’t regularly listened to broadcast radio in years, and neither have any of my friends. And why should we? They aren’t offering anything I can’t get by hitting the “shuffle” button on my smart phone. If broadcasters expect me to listen to banal commercials half the time, the least they could do is make the other half, the programming, good enough that I don’t mind sitting through the commercials!
Maybe if I had not been an “early adopter” of SiriusXM. Maybe if my smart phone wasn’t loaded with Rush and Steely Dan records. Maybe if I didn’t have three music streaming apps, two of which I am gladly paying for. But for all this, I’d still be listening to classic rock radio. And but for classic rock radio sliding into a pit of clueless mediocrity, none of these new technologies would have ever grabbed my attention, much less my money. I’m not going to let the critics guilt trip me over a hypothetical chicken-or-egg theory. The devoted listeners, including me, left because the product started to suck.
I would feel much worse about losing WLUP if it was still cool, but like the elderly rock god who long ago lost his gritty edge and is making a fool of himself trying to keep his legend alive, The Loop in its latter days was a pathetic empty shell of its former greatness. It should have gracefully went out on top when it had the chance. Yet there is nothing empty about what the original WLUP meant to me and my peers. The Loop of yore helped define who we are. It was a reason to be excited and engaged about radio and music and being young & alive. That’s The Loop I will always remember.