Melody, music too ‘poppy’ for WNUR’s taste (Bolicki, column)

Jason Bolicki

I set my alarm clock to “radio,” waking up every morning to the delightful voice of WXRT’s Terri Hemmert playing anything from 10,000 Maniacs to Crowded House. This week I decided to mix things up and set my station to Northwestern’s own WNUR-FM(89.3).

At 9:15, I awoke to the sound of disjointed instruments and a raging — some might say insane — piano. It couldn’t have been right, I thought. Surely I was just getting poor reception in my apartment.

Then the disc jockey’s voice came on clear as day, rattling off the name of some unknown jazz musician who deserves to remain anonymous.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know much about jazz. But the jazz I do know sounds, well, jazzy. There’s usually something resembling a melody and a song present.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find that on WNUR.

Station manager and Weinberg senior Laura Weinstein admits that WNUR DJs might be the only NU students who actually listen to the station.

The target audience of WNUR is “definitely the underground music-loving community in Chicago,” she wrote in an e-mail.

“I think people will find if they tune in that a lot of the music played on WNUR is very much like what they listen to,” Weinstein said. But with a student body that’s more likely to watch American Idol than check out a hot band at the Fireside Bowl, there’s good reason the station is lacking in student listeners.

What good is it that Spin magazine named WNUR “the best college radio station” in the country if it’s not playing music that’s even listenable?

I was a WNUR freeform DJ for three years and was looked down upon by the rock DJ deities because my music was too pop-centric and mainstream. Even though ’80s favorites The Pointer Sisters are dancy and fun, I’d bet that nobody has played “Twist My Arm” on the radio in about 15 years.

The DJs should recognize that just because something sounds mainstream, it doesn’t mean it’s a product of corporate evil.

Sara Nelson, Weinberg ’02 and former co-host of the ska and punk show at WNUR, pointed out that the station is able to give airplay to bands before they make it big. She played The Strokes on her show several years before they became popular. But she also agrees that most of what constitutes the show’s “rock music” is unbearable.

“The measure of how ground-breaking a station is is if other college and alternative DJs are listening to your station,” Nelson said. “But if you’re a WNUR Rock DJ, then you probably just throw rocks on the ground and listen to that.”

WNUR DJs have made the admirable commitment of bringing new artists to its audience. But to tune in to WNUR, you’d think that all independent artists are unlikable experimental guitarists with a disdain for melody.

The fact that the station calls itself “Chicago’s Sound Experiment”couldn’t be more fitting. If you turn your dial to 89.3 FM, you’re more likely to hear sound than music.