Lamenting The Loss Of Local Rock Radio

Nov 17, 2011
Originally published on November 18, 2011 11:59 am

Rock music on FM radio faces more competition than ever. With iPods, satellite radio and online streaming, many station owners have given up on rock music to boost ratings and revenue.

But former Q101 Chicago DJ Christine Pawlak says there will always be an important role for rock on the radio — especially when played by DJs rooted in their communities, not voice-tracked elsewhere and piped in.

In a piece she wrote for Slate, "We Won't Rock You," Pawlak says that, in spite of our many options for music listening, traditional radio has an advantage. "Technology will change," she writes. "The need to connect with each other through stories and songs won't."

Pawlak stresses the importance of terrestrial radio in creating a sense of community specific to a place. She tells NPR's Brian Naylor that iPods and streaming radio aren't as universally accessible. Plus, she says, "There's something really wonderful about being able to share and experience with your community through local FM radio. Music is a great unifier."

As a DJ known as Electra in Chicago, Pawlak says she functioned as sort of an "unconventional educator" during her shows, connecting listeners from various backgrounds with one another through the FM dial. Plus, the Chicago-area bands she featured on "Local 101," including Rise Against, benefited from the exposure they got on her show.

"It played a lot of bands that got their starts in small clubs, like the Fireside Bowl here in Chicago, and went on to the national stage," she says. As their national appeal grew, so too did their air time, in time slots outside "Local 101."

Though she expresses nostalgia for lost stations like Q101, which still exists as an online-only "station," Pawlak sees a role for newer music technologies, combined with social networking on sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

"Instead of fighting it," she says, "if we embrace it, we can make that local community connect on all kinds of different levels while still staying true to our local roots."

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Rock music on the radio faces more competition than ever. With iPods, satellite radio and online streaming, a number of stations have given up on rock music altogether. FM stations in Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington, D.C., recently switched from alternative rock. In an article on, former Q101 Chicago D.J. Christine Pawlak argues that rock music isn't ready to vacate the airwaves. While technology will change the way we listen to music, she wrote, the need to connect with each other through stories and songs won't.

Where do you go to listen to rock music? 800-989-8255 is our number. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website, go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Christine Pawlak joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Nice to have you with us.

CHRISTINE PAWLAK: Hi, Brian. Thank you so much.

NAYLOR: So with so many other options out there to find and listen to music, as we said, iPods and satellite radio and streaming, is there still a role for FM radio to play rock music?

PAWLAK: I think so. I think that we are able to build a community because radio is so accessible. Some of those technologies that you mentioned - iPods, satellite radio - they're not as universally accessible as some people would think. I believe they're still a ways off from being in everyone's homes and in everyone's cars. And there's something really wonderful about being able to share and experience with your community through local FM radio. Music is a great unifier, I believe.

You might not have anything in common with someone, but if you share a love of the same band, you're connected. And so I like to think of myself as an unconventional educator during my show, connecting these people with these various interests from these various backgrounds who had the ability to listen to FM radio in common.

NAYLOR: And one of the things you mention in your piece is that local stations can feature and introduce local bands, turn people on to local music.

PAWLAK: Yes. We had a great long-running local music show on Q101, which did exist in Chicago for almost two decades. It was called "Local 101." It aired on Sunday nights. It played a lot of bands that got their starts in small clubs, like the Fireside Bowl here in Chicago, and went on to the national stage. But then, as those bands grew, so did their exposure on the radio station during all hours of the day. And they're great people. And in lot of cases, these local bands feature people who grew up listening to Q101 because of its longevity in the market, because of how influential it was on young musicians.

In fact, Tim, the lead singer of local band Rise Against, was in the station during our last week or so, and we were talking about whether or not the loss of Q101 would affect young local musicians, what would they aspire to do, where would they aspire to be heard, because obviously, when you're talking about the Internet, you, as a listener, can listen to a whole bunch of different bands, but those bands are jumping into a vast ocean instead of a small pond.

NAYLOR: Yeah. You write that curiosity can make a listener tune into a radio station. Loyalty will make him stay. And loyalty must be earned. So how did you, Christine, on Q101 Chicago, give listeners - how did you earn that loyalty?

PAWLAK: Well, I have to admit that a lot of them are listening now. I was able to connect with them through Twitter and Facebook over the last few hours to let them know. And they know me primarily as Electra because I had a silly...


PAWLAK: I had a silly radio pseudonym because a lot of us like to hide behind those.


PAWLAK: Well, I have to admit that a lot of them are listening now. I was able to connect with them through Twitter and Facebook over the last few hours to let them know. And they know me primarily as Electra because I had a silly...


PAWLAK: I had a silly radio pseudo name because a lot of us like to hide behind those.


PAWLAK: But I think that another reason why radio is so successful is because there is a human element to it. We're not scripted. We have the ability to react immediately to things that are happening in our community, whether it's sporting events or concerts. Obviously, that's something that Q101 and Rock Radio has a real feel for.

So one of my co-workers at the former Q101 once told me, get them where they're at. Meaning, wherever our listeners are at, whatever they're doing, whatever technology they're using, embrace that. And so I learned to view technology as just one tool in my tool box as a music deejay. So, I could communicate with these listeners through text messages at the radio station, through email, through Twitter, through Facebook. And then, when I would meet them at station events or see them at concerts, we'd established a relationship. And I was very fortunate to be Q101 in the same day part for six years. So there were people graduated from high school, went away to college, came back to the Chicago area and would call or text or email and say, oh, my gosh, you're still here. This - now I know I'm home. And that was such a gratifying feeling.

NAYLOR: And do you think, though, that using that social media is not as good a way as being on the airwaves to sort of make that connection with the local community?

PAWLAK: Well, I think it's - like I said, it's a tool.

NAYLOR: Part, yeah.

PAWLAK: It's one part of a large puzzle. I think that it's become common to view the options on the Internet as competition for radio. I think they can enhance the experience. I think, instead of fighting it, if we embrace it, we can make that local community connect on all kinds of different levels while still staying true to our local roots.

NAYLOR: Let's take a call here. Herb(ph) joins us from Highland, Illinois. Herb, are you listening to rock on the radio?

HERB: Oh, yeah. Believe it or not, I actually listen to it on an actual FM band radio. I don't have satellite. I actually go through - I drive a truck for a living. When I get near a town, I hit the radio. I hit scan until it finds a radio station that I want to listen to - old rock, classic rock, Seger and the rest. And, yeah, I don't have an iPod, iPad or anything else. I listen to it on a, believe it or not, radio.

NAYLOR: Well, have you found your choices diminishing, though, as you drive across the country? Are there fewer stations playing the kind of music that you want to hear?

HERB: No, really, there aren't. I mean, I run all 48 states, so, you know, the only time I ever have trouble finding my kind of music is up in the New York area, up there. They eliminated the only country station that they ever had, so...

NAYLOR: All right.

HERB: ...when I got a tad taste for country, I can't listen to it up there.

NAYLOR: All right. All right. Thanks, Herb. And let's join - this is Casey(ph) from Nashville, Tennessee. What's going on on the radio in Nashville?

CASEY: I actually - since I've moved here, I don't think I've actually on the radio besides listening to NPR. Not to (inaudible) you guys on anything.


NAYLOR: Well, that's good news and bad news, I guess.

CASEY: Yeah. I mean, there's...

NAYLOR: It's good for us but not for rock stations.

CASEY: Yeah. I don't even know what the rock station is around here. There are so many good - you guys were just discussing local bands. There's so, so much talent here. It's ridiculous. So any given night of the week - I mean, you got 15, 20 bands playing out. And with things like Pandora and Grooveshark and Zune Pass and stuff like that, where you can get a plethora of good music without paying for it, and you can run it - technology is great - you can run it through your car radio just by hooking it up and everything like that, auxiliary, that there's - the need is diminishing. And it's a good way of taking out a lot of the middlemen and the vultures. You're getting musicians who are gaining fans just because they like the music, not because it's on the radio.

NAYLOR: All right. Thanks, Casey. Christine, do you agree with that? I mean, the advent of services like Pandora sort of an FM radio-on-demand, does that remove some of the middleman, some of the need for folks on radio stations?

PAWLAK: I want to promise you, Brian, I am not a vulture.


PAWLAK: I have never picked a flesh out of the dead bones in the desert. I think a lot of the options that we've discussed - again, Pandora, Grooveshark, running something through the auxiliary in your car, these are not options that everybody has. And there is still a need - yes, it is a diminished need, but not for everyone. And the first caller was mentioning that a lot of his tastes when it comes to classic rock, he can still find those on the FM airwaves. I think that Q101's target demographic, for example, and a lot of rock stations that are younger-leaning, tend to talk more to 18- to 34-year-old who, yes, might have greater exposure to technology than someone who's older or might be more interested in using those technologies. But that doesn't mean that they all have access to them and that they don't still value being turned on to a song.

I mean, I own an iPod. I made a Spotify playlist earlier today. But I think there's still value in, maybe not the middleman per se, but a trusted voice with tastes that are eclectic, to be able to help you put that song on your iPod or your Spotify playlist.

NAYLOR: Let's go to Ryan(ph) from Pensacola, Florida. Ryan, what are your thoughts about rock radio these days?

RYAN: I was talking to the screener. She asked me what I liked about going online to listen to my music. And the problem that I found down here is that most of the stations are playing what it feels like a repeated, you know, track cycle, like, I'll hear Ozzy Osbourne like four time a week. And it just gets old. I have so much new music that I love, you know, coming out right now or in the last 10 years that's, you know, rock. And they don't play any of it.

NAYLOR: All right. And that's a good point, I think, Christine, that a lot of the stations that do play music, that the playlists are so tight these days. That you do tend to hear the same songs over and over. Is that turning listeners away?

PAWLAK: I think so. I mean, it certainly made me frustrated over the course of my career because I do have fairly eclectic taste. And we do have a playlist, we did. It's only been four months, so sometimes I forget that Q101 is gone. But I was fortunate to have programming staff that allowed me to host an actual request hour, which is kind of unheard of in this era of commercial radio, and it was noon to one. It was completely request-driven. And that was a venue for me to play and listeners to request songs that were what a consultant might call an, oh, wow, song, or out of the box or what have you. But it really brought some of that immediacy and honesty back to this commercial rock radio station. And I really appreciated being given that opportunity. I think it's pretty rare now.

NAYLOR: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, well, I'm going to do a request here. We've got a couple of song queued up I thought that we might be able to drop in here in an opportune moment. This is a song that's been all over rock and classic rock since - and we hear a lot about this since the 20th anniversary of the band, Nirvana. This is from their first album "Smells Like Teen Spirit."


KURT COBAIN: Hello, hello, hello, how low? Hello, hello, hello. With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now...

NAYLOR: Christine, did - is that a song you played much in Chicago?

PAWLAK: That would be an understatement, Brian.


NAYLOR: You write that the consolidation of these radio stations made financial sense even if it sacrificed the medium's humanity. What kinds of commercial pressures are there on stations now to maximize their bottom line? And is that one of the things that's driving them away from rock music?

PAWLAK: Well, having not been on the management side of things, my input is going to be pretty limited here. But - I mean, it's a lot of cost-cutting measures. And when it comes to the music side, at least, having been in the programming department at a couple of different radio stations, I can tell you that when you're talking about a bottom line - and radio is a business, no matter how passionate I might be about it or my listeners might be about it's loss, it's still a business. So that makes it financially risky to play songs that have been pretested through different kinds of research.

There's all kinds of different ways that you can play someone a 10-second clip of a song with no context, and ask them what they think about it. I don't think that's necessarily indicative of whether or not a real, honest connection can be made between the listener and that song, but it's about risk-taking. And then, when it comes to consolidation, you have stations where - I can think of one off the top of my head. A friend of mine who does mid-days in Washington, D.C., for your rock station there, DC101. And she voice-tracks in several other stations across the market, and that's part of her job, to keep her job in this industry that I know she loves, she has to do that. But then, in those other stations, those other markets, they're getting a watered down product, and I don't think that that's fair to the listener, to our consumers, to give them a product that's a shadow of its real self.

NAYLOR: Jonathan(ph) - let's take a quick call here. Jonathan from Tulsa, Oklahoma, you're still listening to the radio.

JONATHAN: I'm sorry.

NAYLOR: You're still listening to the radio in Tulsa?

JONATHAN: Yeah. Actually, we have a couple of different rock stations here. One of classic rock and one of also current alternative rock. As a matter of fact, the band Korn actually just played here last night. And I believe they did a remote, which is a...

PAWLAK: Oh, ho, ho.


NAYLOR: So it was broadcast nationwide, or it was just broadcast live from the concert hall?

JONATHAN: Well, it was actually - it was broadcast live. And I believe they did a simulcast as well, so it was available online. But that's one thing I really wanted to bring up really quick, is that I think, you know, one thing that we lose - I mean, I'm a big fan of, you know, on-demand services, but one thing that I think you lose is the ability to, you know, have somebody doing a remote for a local band or a big concert. And, I mean, you just don't get that on on-demand stuff. If you're not able to get a ticket or you can't make it for some reason, you know, you still miss out.

NAYLOR: All right. Thanks, Jonathan. Thanks for calling. Do you think that might be one way for stations to survive, Christine? Well...

PAWLAK: Can you clarify just a little bit?

NAYLOR: Well, just being able, you know, offer a lot of different options to people, whether it's in the music mix, whether going to concerts, playing concerts - is that something that might be a little bit more commercially viable?

PAWLAK: It's possible. I mean, I think what Jonathan was alluding to is that even in the biggest concert venue with the largest capacity, not everyone has the means to get to these shows. I mean, we are talking about a time when a lot of people are out of work, when they don't have the disposable income that they might have had before, where purchasing concert tickets might not at the top of your priority list. But you still want to be able to feel like you're part of something, like you're plugged into your community, to the music that the people around you love and to be part of something bigger than yourself.

NAYLOR: Thank you. Christine Pawlak is the former mid-day deejay for Q101 in Chicago. Her article, "We Won't Rock You: The Sad, Unwarranted Decline of Rock Music on FM Radio," ran on And you can find a link on our website. Go to and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Brian Naylor in Washington. Neal Conan will be back on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.