Look who's talking: Radio's best at word of mouth
The following originally appeared in the 2012 Time Out Chicago Student Guide:
Believe it or not, Chicago used to be a great radio town. We invented the sitcom in the 1920s and the soap opera in the ’30s. We perfected Top 40 in the ’60s and progressive rock in the ’70s. We put the first CD on the air in the ’80s. Then came corporate consolidation and cost cutting. Now, of course, radio sucks.
Today there’s no reason to put up with predictable playlists, voice-tracked DJs and 20 minutes of commercials an hour when you can download your own music and play it any time, anywhere you want.
But there’s one thing radio remains good for: hearing people talk. When it comes to news, sports, weather, traffic or just having a live human voice keep you company when you’re alone and up at 3 in the morning, you can still count on radio to deliver. You can even call in and become part of the show.
Here’s my critical guide to Chicago’s major AM and FM talk stations (listed alphabetically):
WBBM-AM (780)/WCFS-FM (105.9) (simulcast) Format: news. There’s good reason this is Chicago’s No. 1 radio station in revenue (and usually in ratings). It’s a professional news machine that knows its business and does it well. Star attraction: Chicago Bears broadcasts during football season.
WBEZ-FM (91.5) Format: news, talk, NPR. The noncommercial public radio station that gave the world Ira Glass and This American Life is home to some of the finest, most intelligent news and public affairs broadcasts on the air. Star attraction: Steve Edwards, host of Afternoon Shift (2–4pm weekdays).
WCPT-AM (820)/WCPT-FM (92.7) (simulcast) Format: progressive talk. Chicago’s antidote to right-wing venom elsewhere on the dial, it’s an oasis for left-wingers and fellow travelers. Star attraction: Dick Kay, host of Back on the Beat (1–4pm Saturdays).
WGN-AM (720) Format: news/talk. One of radio’s last full-service powerhouses, it’s the flagship of the Chicago Tribune (boasting call letters that stand for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”). With its parent company in bankruptcy and Cubs broadcasts declining in popularity, WGN has seen better days. Star attraction: Jonathon Brandmeier, morning personality (5:30–9am weekdays).
WIND-AM (560) Format: conservative talk. More than three years into Barack Obama’s presidency, you can still hear some of this station’s hosts and callers insist that his birth certificate is a fake. Enough said. Star attraction: Steve Cochran, afternoon personality (5–7pm weekdays).
WLS-AM (890) Format: news/talk. If you’re a fan of Fox News Channel, you’ll feel right at home. Ditto for Rush Limbaugh. Star attractions: Roe Conn and Richard Roeper, afternoon personalities (2–6pm weekdays).
WMVP-AM (1000) Format: sports/talk. A savvy hybrid of ESPN’s golden brand and local sports wise guys. Star attractions: Tom Waddle and Marc Silverman, midday personalities (9am–1pm weekdays).
WSCR-AM (670) Format: sports/talk. An all-local hometown favorite marking two decades on the air, Chicago’s original sports talker is hotter than ever. Star attractions: Mike Mulligan and Brian Hanley, morning personalities (5–9am weekdays).
WVON-AM (1690) Format: urban news/talk. Don’t let the old-school call letters (which stand for “Voice of Negroes”) fool you. This longtime agenda-setter remains a vital force on Chicago’s African-American political scene. Star attraction: Cliff Kelley, afternoon personality (3–7pm weekdays).