The rise and fall of Chicago's 'new rock alternative' Q101

A radio vet and music lover publishes an insider’s oral history

December 4, 2012

“We won.” With those two simple words, rock critic Gina Arnold summed up the feelings of many music lovers in the ’90s.

Long since soured on the tired but unending repetition of classic-rock stations and the narrow play lists of the AAA “adult album alternative” format, an entire generation confined itself to college radio and the left of the dial or simply threw Marconi’s little box out the window starting in the mid-’80s. That is, until 1991, “the year punk broke,” to borrow another famous characterization of the era that followed the stunning success of Nirvana’s Nevermind. In many major American cities, everything seemed to change overnight, and suddenly there was actual exciting and bona fide good music once again streaming over the airwaves.

Of course, in retrospect, we can see the rise of the alternative or modern-rock format as the last gasp of sometimes daring and creative music programming on the mainstream airwaves—a final sign of life toward the end of the long, slow and painful decline that began when corporate media stifled the anything-goes spirit of early free-form FM radio, and which ended with the digital revolution and nothing but ghostly echoes of music-radio’s proud past remaining today.

Now, even at the time, most listeners were sharp and cynical enough to know that it all was fundamentally compromised at best and a big-money con at worst; those insightful cultural critics at the University of Chicago had charted out the whole scam in The Baffler, in pieces later compiled in the immortal anthology Commodify Your Dissent. But, hey, it sure was fun while it lasted, especially in the early days, when a typical set might give you Nirvana into PJ Harvey into Veruca Salt, with a big finish of Beck, the Flaming Lips and Radiohead—a significant number of those acts that the station had “discovered,” or at least popularized to the point where they’d risen from playing 150-capacity clubs to filling amphitheaters.

Here in Chicago, it all came to us courtesy of 101.1-FM, better known as Q101. And now, James VanOsdol, a veteran through all of the station’s sometimes invigorating, sometimes ugly permutations, who climbed from the lowest rank of photocopying and coffee-fetching to having a significant say in programming, has given us an engaging, self-published, Kickstarter-funded tome entitled We Appreciate Your Enthusiasm: The Oral History of Q101.

Before you read another word, and in the interest of disclosure, allow me to note my own history with the station and Van Osdol. Sound Opinions originated with me and Bill Wyman, then the rock critic at The Chicago Reader, during the Loop’s transition from classic rock to “adult talk.” A poor fit from the start, we knew the match was doomed when that station’s program director excoriated us for spending five times longer discussing Pearl Jam’s Ten than we’d spent reviewing Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell II. When Q101 came calling, we jumped at the chance to move, and we stayed for about two years.

As Wyman observed at the time, not only was this new station playing music we actually liked and listened to, but it was much cooler to work at a place that sponsored a float in the Gay Pride Parade rather than regularly sending its “Loop Girls” to awful bars like the Cubby Bear to peddle Fuzzy Navel Jello shots.

Appointed as our producer and tasked with upholding the professional standards of two writers merely dabbling in radio, “Young James,” as we always called him, proved to be instrumental in shaping the Q101 version of “the world’s only rock ’n’ roll talk show.” VanOsdol knew and loved music as much as Wyman and I did; he was almost as cynical and fond of biting the hand that fed him, and he became and remains a valued friend—though that never has stopped me from criticizing him, and the fact that he accepts that makes me love him even more.

Bearing all of that in mind, We Appreciate Your Enthusiasm is a quick-paced, grin-inducing blast of entertaining nostalgia for anyone who to any degree listened to and admired Q101 from 1992 until it began to lose the plot early in the new millennium. The title, in the proper alternative spirit, comes from an infamous incident at the station’s fake-Lollapalooza “Jamboree” in 1999. Finishing his set with an idiotic incitement to riot, the lead vocalist and primary moron in the Offspring started a frenzied storm of garbage being hurled at the stage of the old World Music Theater in Tinley Park. Drawing the short straw of trying to calm things down, all a hapless jock named Sludge could think of saying was, “We appreciate your enthusiasm... but if you don’t stop throwing garbage, the Red Hot Chili Peppers won’t be able to come on.” And that, needless to say, only made things worse. (I nearly suffered a concussion when I was hit in the head with a metal trash can.)

This tale, which serves as a metaphor in about six different ways for what alternative-rock radio became, is one of countless amusing reminiscences stemming from dozens of interviews by VanOsdol with all of Q101’s main players, related in the classic oral-history format of George Plimpton and Jean Stein’s groundbreaking Edie: An American Girl, or any number of more recent Vanity Fair and Spin accounts of less worthy subjects. And, coming at the mid-point in the book, it marks the shift of the station and the story from an inspired tale of a fly-by-your-pants attempt to bring a bit of the old free-form spirit back to rock radio (albeit in a much more supervised and confined way), via unlikely voices such as Sound Opinions, VanOsdol (who’d eventually helm the station’s invaluable local music show), and memorable jocks likes Robert Chase, Samantha James, and somebody or something named Zoltar, to a calculated usurpation of the boneheaded, testosterone-crazed, GHB-fueled spirit of Chicago’s Rock 103.5, complete with the short-lived but soul-crushing presence of Erich “Mancow” Muller and his stomach-turning posse of porn stars, strippers, sideshow geeks and freaks (though Freak himself, known to his mom as Walter Kozielski, I always respected and liked).

Mancow was the one subject who refused to converse with the author like all the others; he deigned only to grant sketchy and hardly forthcoming comments via email, which are set off in an unsatisfying chapter all their own. “I was happy that Mancow was in the book at all,” VanOsdol told me when I asked about that. “I knew that the book would be a tough sell for him.” (Mancow eventually was canned from Q101, pretty much marking the end not only of his prominence on Chicago airwaves, but of Q101 itself.) “But yeah, in a perfect world, I would have loved to have done a traditional interview with him, and been able to have him speak more directly about his time there.”

Another hole in the book: A lack of insight into the ugly, corrupting forces of advertising, the last days of big major-label money and for-hire “hitmen”/radio consultants on the music. How is it that the name of notorious local Jeff McClusky doesn’t appear even once? “There were a lot of different directions I could have steered the book in,” VanOsdol said. “But I decided to keep the focus more on the culture of the station than the business of the station.”

From the perspective of someone seeking an inside-baseball account of the birth of a promising format, its cooptation and its eventual death, that’s a disappointment. But that’s all the grief I’ll give the author, since it’s hardly a let-down to get what VanOsdol does give us: a fan’s up-close and personal look at a station that many loved, and which for a time made listening to music radio a heck of a lot of fun again.

That giddy sense of fandom, unquenched by its ultimate betrayal at the hands of a soulless industry, is what makes We Appreciate Your Enthusiasm such an impressive accomplishment. And it remains alive and well in the no-longer-quite-so-young James. Though he’s now working a non-radio day job, VanOsdol continues to host a music-heavy interview show via Steve Dahl’s podcast “network.”

As the interstitial material in this book and his occasional other scribblings about town prove, VanOsdol is a fine writer, too, and it is nothing short of a tragic sin that his years-in-the-making, epic oral history of the real stars of the ’90s—the alternative-rock musicians—remains unread and unpublished in the wake of an unjust dispute with what was to have been that book’s publisher. “I’ve totally abandoned the oral history on Chicago alt-rock,” the author says. “I can’t even look at it at this point.”

Hey, James: Don’t give up the fight! That remains a book well worth reading, just as this one is.