Editors’ note: Since the publication of this article the smooth jazz format has returned to the Chicago airwaves. Read this December 31, 2014 update for more details.
My post about the demise of Chicago smooth jazz station Smooth 87.7 two weeks ago continues to gather comments lamenting the station’s passing. Many of the commenters express a sentiment like Sandy Kowalski, who writes,
I searched all the chicago (sic) FM stations for another jazz station, I can not find any.
Anyone know of a station in chicago (sic) with similar music?
I would like to bring some hope to many of these forlorn jazz fans by letting them know that, yes, indeed, Chicago still has jazz on the radio.
It is true is that there no longer is a full-time analog FM station featuring the subgenre of smooth jazz. But there are several noncommercial stations in Chicago that have been loyal purveyors of jazz programs for longer than Smooth 87.7 or its spiritual predecessor WNUA were ever on the air. There is also a new HD digital-only channel with a 24/7 satellite-fed, and non-local, program feed.
Now, finding jazz on any of the noncommercial analog stations requires paying a little more attention to a schedule and the clock; none airs jazz 24/7. It should also be noted that none of these stations play much music that would be considered mainstream smooth jazz; you won’t hear any Kenny G or Dave Koz. But you likely will find a decent helping of straight ahead and classic jazz artists with plenty of melody, depending on when you tune in.
While I have listened to all of these stations, I haven’t necessarily heard all of their current jazz programs. So, aside from reading program descriptions, I can’t comment accurately as to whether any individual show leans more traditional or out and avant garde. I also should admit that my tastes run more more to the avant, free and experimental end of the spectrum, though I also enjoy plenty of trad, bop and straight ahead stuff, too.
For each station I’ve noted where it can be received most clearly. I’m using the FCC’s primary service contour and my own experience as a guide. Using a car radio you may get better distant reception, whereas you may have a harder time with a clock radio inside a brick building. Your results may vary.
But FM radio is still free, so it costs nothing to tune in and try a new station and several shows yourself. If you find something you like, make a note of the day and time, then tune in again. If what you hear isn’t quite your cup of tea, then try a different station or program. The joy, and challenge, of listening to these stations is the thrill of the hunt and the discovery.
Listener-supported public station WDCB features the most jazz of any station in Chicago, with a solid block weekdays from 6 AM to 6 PM, in addition to specialty jazz programs late nights and weekends. The station also features the most straight ahead and melodic mix of tunes. Broadcasting from Chicago’s West Suburbs, WDCB is heard pretty well into Chicago’s West Side as well as in part of the Northwest Suburbs, but it can be a challenge to pick up in the Loop and other parts of Chicagoland.
WHPK broadcasts from the University of Chicago in the South Side’s Hyde Park neighborhood, and can be picked up pretty well in the Loop and South Side. The station has had a commitment to jazz since going on the air in 1968, and currently has jazz programs from 7 – 9 PM Monday through Thursday, along with several more programs on the weekend. These shows cover the gamut of styles which are described pretty well on WHPK’s jazz show page and DJs make a point of featuring Chicago artists. So it should be easy to find a show that appeals to you.
I found only one obvious jazz show on Loyola University’s WLUW, called Jazzcast on Thursdays at 6 AM. But on college radio shows often come and go, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there are ones I don’t know about, or new ones coming on board for the summer semester. With a transmitter in the far North Side neighborhood of Rogers Park, WLUW is heard most clearly down to the North Loop, as well as up into the North Suburbs.
Full disclosure here: I am the advisor to this college station. But that doesn’t mean I can’t tell you about its jazz programming. WNUR has jazz every weekday from 5:30 AM to noon. Like WHPK nearly every style of jazz can be heard, though I should warn the hardcore smooth jazz aficionado that ’NUR is well known for its focus on avant garde, experimental and free jazz. However, the station’s DJs also dedicate quite a bit of time to Chicago musicians, past and present. Broadcasting from the first suburb north of Chicago WNUR has a strong signal down to the Loop, out west to O’Hare and into the North Suburbs.
WLUP HD–3 97.9 FM – Chicago
Perhaps to atone for its sins, Merlin Media has brought smooth jazz back to the Chicago airwaves, but only for the handfull of HD Radio listeners in the area. Beginning last week WLUP’s HD–3 channel starting airing the satellite-fed Smooth Jazz Network. As a bandwidth-constrained HD–3 signal the fidelity isn’t great, but might be better than some streaming internet stations. HD signals broadcast at a lower power than analog FM, so the HD–3 signal won’t come in everywhere the analog hard rock signal can be heard. But it comes in pretty well in my far North Side neighborhood, some seven miles away.
There may be programs or stations that I’ve missed therefore I welcome recommendations from readers on jazz that can be heard on the radio in the greater Chicagoland area.