Remember rock radio? James VanOsdol sure as hell does. The former DJ and writer of the new book "We appreciate your enthusiasm", which chronicles the history of Chicago's Q101, which left the airwaves in 2011.
Ernest: Excited about the book! Burning through it right now. A lot of people were talking when you launched the Kickstarter for this book after the station closed. Did you find it easy or hard to raise the funds?
James: It was a case of great timing The station had announced that it had been sold and that a format change was inevitable. When that became clear, the funding accelerated. I was really lucky to have the right idea at the right time and the right audience.
E: One of the more interesting chapters is the one about the arrival of Erick “Mancow” Muller and how he changed the culture of the station. With the advent of big personalities like his and programmable playlists dictated from giant conglomerates like Clear Channel and Emmis, one of the biggest complaints from radio listeners is the death of stations actually being programmed by DJs themselves. Even specific niche stations like KDAY out in Los Angeles are exceptions, rather than norms. Do you think we’ll ever see a radio station where the songs aren’t on a specific playlist or is that era gone the way of those AOL discs you used to get in the paper?
J: I’d like to say it’s coming back. I don’t know if it will though. I’d love to say, “Oh yeah!” But intellectually, I don’t think so.
E: Well, damn. So we kind of brushed over how important a station like Q101 was for Chicagoland listeners. For those who didn’t grow up here, can you summarize what the station and it’s importance to the city meant?
J: So the book is about Q101. It’s exclusively about Q101. Honestly though? My motivation was to write a book about radio. Q101 is the perfect vehicle, but I really felt like nothing had been written (extensively) about radio. I’m hoping to attract the people who didn’t grow up in Chicago or only have a basic knowledge of the station. I hope they can (by reading this book) understand what that industry was, er, is like without having to know all the names and players. Specifically answering your question though, when Q101 was doing it right, it was truly a ground-breaking station. It turned a lot of people onto music, and it was there for some pretty watershed moments, a couple of which were named in the book. Example: Kurt Cobain. When he killed himself--this was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter--and people found out about his death from media outlets like Q101. I was there for it and the moment of seeing all these listeners call in and the moment became this community outreach thing and a place for discussion. The guy on the air at that time, Steve Fisher I believe, called Cobain a coward for taking his own life, and it sparked this firestorm and dialogue that couldn’t happen now. Point being, it was a moment in time and in certain cases it was able to make a meaningful connection with its listeners. Did they make mistakes? Sure! A ton of them. But it was a station that broke music and connected with people.
E: Switching gears for a second: Do you think Chicago doesn’t pay enough homage to our home-grown cultural institutions? I’ll be that guy and put Q101 into that mix by the way. You look at stuff like Bozo the Clown and other Chicago-created things that became part of the national consciousness that aren’t as readily embraced by natives. Then you look at things like the “Superfans” sketch, which has become how some people perceive all Chicagoans. We embrace that but ignore the other stuff. Do you think that’s accurate?
J: I don’t really have a cynical feeling about it, honestly. I think Chicago honors it’s cultural institutions. I mean, there’s a life cycle to everything but our support is still pretty reverent (when it comes to Chicagoans supporting Chicago-created culture).) To your other point, being honest, I don’t know if Q101 was a cultural institution. I think a station like WXRT kind of fits that bill more for music, but that’s my belief.
E: Interesting. So you did three shifts at Q101(TK), right?
J: Right, I was there through December 2000.
E: This is a weird thing to ask, but how were the late ‘90s? When the whole nu-metal thing kind of started happening, I was becoming conscious of the music around me. I remember hearing a lot of “Last Resort” by Papa Roach. A whole lot of that kind of stuff. As someone who kind of enjoys classic rock--well, not classic rock, more like the music people think of when they think of “alternative rock” and Q101 during it’s halcyon days--did you wince when all that came out?
J: To be fair, I was born in Chicago and I grew up around rock ‘n’ roll. Chicago’s a rock town. Coming up in the 1980s, I was weaned on what we call alternative rock, think the Smiths or Husker Du, The Minutemen, Echo and the Bunnymen, all that. I had a good concept of what that word meant, and to me, popular culture changed what that word meant in the early ‘90s. I truly never felt like Pearl Jam was an alternative band. They had the swagger, the attitude and the integrity closer to what you would imaging a classic rock band having. As far as the name “alternative” is concerned, I don’t bristle or wince when people call bands alternative that I don’t think are in the truest sense of the word. It doesn’t bother me at all.
E: OK. Can I be honest with you?
E: “Last Resort” is not a bad song at all. I like that song.
J: Honestly, if you don’t hear it for a couple of years? Not so bad.
E: It’s like when you have a weird uncle and you don’t see him for awhile.
J: Yeah. Wait, what?
E: Uh, never mind. So anyway, it’s kind of weird to think about, but the first time I ever heard modern rock was on Q101 at my friend Elise’s house in Homewood. With the rise of niche being the new mainstream and people having these iconic albums being presented to them without any context, can you give me three songs that you think define what alternative rock is?
J: Oh noooooooo, just three? Oh my god.
E: I was going to ask for five but I felt greedy.
J: Jesus. Wow. The rest of this was easy. How dare you?
E: Maybe this can inspire you. This question was asked of me and I only had one: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and that one Husker Du song … uh, the one about sense?
J: “Makes No Sense at all”?
J: Well, the Joy Division is perfect. Hold on. I’m going to look at my phone. This is bothering me and I don’t want to get this wrong. OK. Let’s go “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths, “Rat Patrol” by Naked Raygun. … God, this is hard. I hate when people ask questions like, “What’s the last great album you listened to?” I don’t know!
E: Know that my answer to that is always “No Jacket Required.”
J: Phil Collins at his slow-jam best!
E: OK, no ducking the question. What’s No. 3?
J: Damn, um, let’s do “Rid of Me” by PJ Harvey.
E: See! I knew you had it in you!
J: Man, that was the hardest question I’ve ever been asked.
E: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the book?
J: Go grab it. I hope you like it. It’s an entirely self-published affair. Flawed yet beautiful.