The Launch (And Return) of Q101

Q101 101 WKQX Chicago“It seems appropriate enough to play the very first song that launched Q101 30 years ago. Here’s the Cure,” said WKQX (Q101) Chicago’s Lauren O’Neil before the station launched into “Friday I’m in Love” on Wednesday afternoon. WKQX announced its return to the Q101 name two weeks ago, then relaunched it on Tuesday night, after eight years of not owning the rights to the name.

“Friday I’m in Love” was also on an aircheck sent to me recently of Q101 on August 18, 1992, about a month after its switch from Hot AC. Like many of the Alternative launches of the time, Q101 began as a hybrid under GM Chuck Hillier, PD Bill Gamble, and Joint Communications’ John Parikhal, Liz Janik, and her late husband, Peter Goodwin, whom she credits for coming up with the positioner “Chicago’s New Rock Alternative.” 

On that 50-minute tape, there wasn’t any grunge. There were still some heritage rock artists of the sort more associated with rival WXRT. There were a lot of songs that were eclectic in overall feel, but AC in texture — not so unusual for Alternative at that moment. But the sound was different from stations like WNNX (99X) Atlanta or KWOD Sacramento, Calif., that had recently segued from Top 40. 

Q101’s imaging was mostly straightforward at that point. There were a lot of agency spots that sounded like leftovers from the previous AC format, including one Ford ad with a soap-opera announcer delivery, one of those ad tropes I thought was over by 1992. There wasn’t yet any of the filtered “police radio” sarcasm that Alternative would become famous for in a few years, but there was one great promo with writing and delivery that recalled the deadpan absurdity of Dick Orkin, whose influence would have still been felt in Chicago radio at the time.

The promo begins with a network ID-style chime, then declares, “Yes, you’re absolutely right. You’ve noticed. We can’t get anything by you! You’ve deduced that Q101 has changed. We’re a different radio station than we were a month ago. We’ve changed the security code on the front door so Cher can’t get in anymore. Michael Bolton is also locked out, and we gave the new code to Tom Cochrane and INXS and R.E.M. and Toad the Wet Sprocket.

“We are Chicago’s New Rock Alternative, and we know you know that, but we just had this nagging feeling that you’ve kept it to yourself, and we would take it very kindly if you could just clue in a friend of yours, too. I know I always like being the first person to know something and then telling someone else about it, and in fact people are always telling me how annoying I can be as a result.”

Here’s Q101 on Aug. 18, 1992 with Carla Leonardo, courtesy of Chip Kelley. The aircheck begins in the middle of a backsell, so it’s possible there may have been other titles between U2 and the stopset. 

  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under the Bridge”
  • U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name”
  • Morrissey, “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”
  • Cure, “Friday I’m in Love”
  • Robert Palmer, “Simply Irresistible”
  • Cracker, “Happy Birthday to Me”
  • Jesus Jones, “Right Here, Right Now”
  • Eric Clapton, “Help Me Up”
  • Rembrandts, “Just the Way It Is, Baby”
  • Annie Lennox, “Walking on Broken Glass”
  • Beautiful South, “We Are Each Other”
  • E, “Hello Cruel World”

By the time I moved to Chicago in 1993 to program R&B Oldies WGCI-AM (Dustyradio 1390), Q101 had jettisoned its hybrid elements and become one of the Alternative format’s leaders. By that time, grunge was center stage, and the format was rocking harder, but my memories of the station in that era include “Rubberband Girl” by Kate Bush, so there was still a quirky pop component. With no major mainstream CHR, Q101 was where I went for any sort of pop/rock in that era. 

When I left New York, Alternative was on WLIR/WDRE’s fringe signal and just starting to infiltrate WHTZ (Z100). In Chicago, by 1994, it was front and center. I remember less about what was between the records on Q101 in 1993-94 than its ripples. The not-so-rock-and-roll-looking guy at the next restaurant table raving to his date about discovering the Offspring. Telling a friend at a party about Green Day’s “Basket Case,” which was then brand-new. She didn’t recognize it by name, but by the time I could get out “do you have … ” three other people at the table were finishing the first line with me. 

Working in R&B radio, I didn’t have rock record service. Every few months, there would be a “Cannonball” by the Breeders or “Headache” by Frank Black that would send me on a bus to Tower Records in Lincoln Park, where I would pay $14.98 for one song on a CD, since even the biggest Alternative crossovers weren’t on singles.

I’ve been listening to WKQX over the last few weeks, waiting to hear if it had made the change yet. When I went back two weeks ago, there were already 2-4 ‘90s songs an hour, but they’re certainly more noticeable now. There was also a pop/Triple-A component then that remains now, but as with the recent relaunch of XETRA (91X) San Diego, there’s definitely an energy to having Q101 back that gives everything more impact. Despite similar attention to the relaunch, Q101 is not doing the same thing as 91X; it’s still a recent-based Alt station with gold, instead of the inverse.

When I heard Q101 on Wednesday it was promoting a special Coldplay performance for Q101 listeners backstage before its upcoming Soldiers Field show “from the station you first heard Coldplay on in Chicago.” There’s a smart-speaker promo where the device announces, “I’m so glad it’s Q101 again” and recalls listening because “I was just trying to be one of the cool kids.” Another sweeper declared simply, “Q101 is home.”

Here’s the reloaded Q101 as heard at noon on Wednesday, May 4, during its first full day back:

  • Cranberries, “Zombie”
  • Imagine Dragons, “Follow You”
  • Rise Against, “Savior”
  • Head and the Heart, “Virginia (Wind in the Night)”
  • Cure, “Friday I’m in Love”
  • Foo Fighters, “Love Dies Young”
  • Cold War Kids, “First”
  • House of Pain, “Jump Around”
  • All Time Low, “Monsters”
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dani California”
  • Cannons, “Bad Dream”
  • Green Day, “Holiday”
  • Edward Sharpe & Magnetic Zeros, “Home”

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