Two of our most enduringly popular “long-tail” posts are about the demise of Smooth Jazz radio in Chicago. This April, 2012 report about the changeover from the format to alternative rock on the FM backdoor station 87.7 FM and my July, 2012 followup detailing where to find other jazz programming on the Chicago airwaves consistently rank highly in our Google Analytics. This, along with the many plaintive comments to these posts, indicates that many Chicagoans desperately miss Smooth Jazz radio.
There’s some qualified good news for these listeners in the announcement that Smooth Jazz will return to the Chicago dial via the HD2 channel of 101.9 FM WTMX, as Robert Feder reports. Rick O’Dell, the former programmer for Chicago’s 25-year Smooth Jazz station WNUA and the short-lived WLFM on 87.7 FM, launched the online SmoothJazzChicago.net when the latter station went alt rock. Starting today that stream is now simulcast on WTMX-HD2.
Of course, being HD-only means that a large percentage of Chicago listeners will not be able to receive the station on their analog radios, though they can tune in online. While it is true that a growing number of new cars come with HD-equipped radios, my experience using them shows that it’s difficult to seredipitoulsy encounter an HD2 signal by scanning the dial as one would do with analog FM. Rather, dedicated listeners will have to specifically seek out the station, hoping that they’re within the smaller service radius of the HD signal transmitting from the North Shore suburb of Skokie.
At the same time, going HD2 offers the format a better shot at longevity than if it had remained on 87.7 FM. That’s because the signal isn’t actually a radio station, but rather a legacy analog low-power TV station operating on channel 6. The audio portion of the signal bumps up against the bottom end of the FM, able to be heard at 87.7 FM, which otherwise is not an officially licensed radio frequency.
LPTV stations were given more time to convert to digital than full-power stations, which made the shift in 2009. But in 2011 the FCC ruled that these low-power stations have to go all-digital by September 1, 2015, despite the pleadings of these FM operators on channel 6 to keep their back-door radio business models alive. So, Smooth Jazz’s former home on 87.7 FM in Chicago will disappear by the end of 2015, anyway.
There’s also news that 87.7’s current alt rock format will get a longer lease on life past the stations 2015 expiry date. After the demise of the commercial alternative pioneer Q101, fans cheered when the format reappeared on 87.7. They have further reason to be sanguine with the announcement that the nation’s second-largest radio owner, Cumulus, plans to bring alt rock back to its old 101.1 FM home as it takes over operation of WIQI-FM, currently owned by Randy Michaels’ Merlin Media. WIQI had been the Chicago site of Michaels’ failed FM news experiment, which replaced Q101 in the first place.
All indications are that Cumulus is renting WIQI and another Chicago station, WLUP-FM, from Merlin in a run up to buying them outright. Merlin doesn’t own the 87.7 signal–it operates it under a lease agreement–so one would guess that it will simply fade away once the rejuvenated Q101 goes live.