By Jon Graef (MA’12)/Photography By Drew Reynolds (BA ’97)
For nearly 40 years, iconic radio station 93WXRT has ruled the Chicago airwaves with the same format and same core staff–many of whom got their start at Columbia. This is their story.
Talk to veteran staff at “Chicago’s Finest Rock” station 93WXRT about their time at Columbia College Chicago and a common theme emerges. Before finding Columbia, they were unsatisfied with their scholastic or professional paths, and by making a change, they would together ensure the legacy of one of Chicago’s most distinctive radio stations.
Just as Columbia College Chicago started humbly, as a small oratory school, so did radio station WXRT. In 1972, WXRT began as a brokered block of programming on frequency 93.1, a foreign language radio station by day, broadcasting from the far West side at Belmont and Cicero Avenues.
From midnight to 6 a.m., DJs played an eclectic roster of artists ranging from Frank Zappa to The Velvet Underground to Bob Marley—all with a helping of the Chicago blues, which no Windy City station could do without. The station was also among the first to embrace punk and new wave, then burgeoning art forms.
“XRT was really the way I thought radio should be done,” says Johnny Mars, who would become a WXRT DJ years later. “It was intelligent and diverse, and the DJs were doing their own work, picking a wide range of songs.”
In the mid-1970s, however, a teenaged Johnny Mars had no way of knowing he’d become a key part of what was then a fledgling rock station. Back then, he thought he wanted to become a teacher, so he enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University––but eventually dropped out.
After spotting an ad in the Chicago Reader advertising a five-week broadcasting course at Columbia taught by legendary radio announcer Al Parker, Mars enrolled. With Parker’s encouragement, he began attending Columbia full time in fall 1976.
Mars soon met fellow radio student Frank E. Lee in a class taught by ABC television broadcaster Buddy Black.
Lee, who had previously attended a more traditional liberal arts college, was seeking a more practical education. “I knew that a lot of professionals worked [at Columbia],” Lee says. “I wanted to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could to get a job.”
Mars and Lee interned together at 97.9 WLUP when it was transitioning from adult contemporary to what is now classic rock. “We both went and got the internships, and our friendship grew from there,” Mars says.
The two went on to host Sunday night programs at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s radio station and also work the closed-circuit station at Columbia. They both even got their first professional radio jobs at KPAS-FM in El Paso, Texas, because the programmer at WLUP was also a consultant at that station.
By the late 1970s, WXRT’s progressive rock format had taken over 93.1’s programming 24 hours a day—much to the consternation of the station’s original loyal foreign language audience, who picketed in protest of the format change.
When a position opened up at WXRT in 1979, Mars jumped at the opportunity to work for the station he’d admired for so long. After supplying demos to program director Norm Winer for months—“an anxiety-filled time,” Mars says—he was hired to DJ the night shift. Mars then encouraged Winer to listen to a tape Lee had made.
“He liked what he heard,” Mars says, and WXRT hired Lee as a DJ, too.
By the time Mars and Lee arrived at WXRT, Terri Hemmert was already well established there—and at their alma mater.
A 1970 graduate of suburban Elmhurst College, Hemmert came to WXRT in 1973 after being fired— along with nearly the entire air staff—from WCMF in Rochester, New York. A former colleague from defunct Chicago station WGLD invited Hemmert to serve as the public service director and part-time overnight DJ at the fledgling new station.
Two years later, in 1975, Hemmert also took a teaching job at Columbia College at the request of Al Parker. Thirty-six years later, Hemmert still DJs at WXRT and teaches at Columbia. In 2010, she was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. And although she didn’t know it back then, she would go on to influence countless future radio professionals who learned their craft at Columbia.
As a teenager in the ’70s, John Farneda idolized Terri Hemmert. In high school, he says he often cut class in order to go listen to WXRT in his car. In 1981, unsatisfied with studying computer programming at Cicero’s Morton Community College, Farneda transferred to Columbia to pursue his passions for music and radio.
The eager student says he had to “beg and beg and beg” Hemmert for an internship. Not only did he eventually get it, he did the job so well that Hemmert asked him back for another semester. He never left. Over the past 28 years, Farneda, now operations manager/music director, says he has held nearly every title at WXRT except on-air DJ.
Although he didn’t have to plead, Marty Lennartz also found his way to WXRT through Columbia College. He enrolled as an arts and entertainment management major in 1980, but he soon discovered he wanted to break into the radio business.
During Hemmert’s “History of Rock and Soul” class the following year, Lennartz so impressed the professor with a paper he’d written about soul dance crazes that she hand-picked him to produce her morning show (she was the first woman to host a morning-drive program in Chicago).
By the mid-1980s, Lennartz had worked his way up to on-air DJ, a position that also allowed him to create “The Regular Guy,” a folksy Chicagoan who earnestly enlightens listeners with his “Going to the Show” movie reviews. In 2008, he took on a new role as creative assistant to programming.
Thirty years after starting his career, Lennartz credits Hemmert for his longevity in the business.
“Terri’s been my mentor,” says Lennartz. “I learned a lot from her from being her producer for many years.”
Although she was instrumental in shaping many young careers, Hemmert remains modest.
“I share what I know in order to make [students’] dreams come true,” Hemmert says. “But I didn’t make Marty and John [Farneda]. They made themselves.”
On the tenth floor of Two Prudential Plaza in downtown Chicago—a long way from the corner of Belmont and Cicero—WXRT DJs research artists for the station to play, prepare for interviews, and program their own shows—a rarity in the industry, where preprogramming is the norm, says Lee.
“XRT is kind of a unique station in that they put a lot of responsibility on the individual DJs to come up with delivery, music, and [writing] promotional announcements,” Lee says. “Columbia was great training for this. They trained you to be a broadcaster, and not a certain niche-type announcer. They made you a more rounded broadcaster with a capital ‘B.’”
In addition to teaching students essential radio mechanics such as speaking into a microphone properly, running a control board, and writing and improvising commercials for broadcast, Columbia professors such as Parker and Art Hellyer “prepared us to do any possible type of radio there was,” Lee says.
Lennartz agrees that Columbia’s approach helped train him to think creatively. As a student DJ working at what became Columbia’s student- run station WCRX in the early ’80s, Lennartz says he invented and pitched his own radio format: a combination of then-current funk acts like Parliament-Funkadelic and emerging new wave and post-punk groups like New Order and Gang of Four.
Lennartz’s integrated format was a success with station managers and helped usher in a new era of creative programming at the college station. Lennartz credits Columbia with giving him professional focus and confidence that he did not have before.
“Columbia is such a wonderful training ground, and such a jewel in education,” Lennartz says. “It just got me out there. If you haven’t done [radio broadcasting before], you’re like, ‘How could I even start doing that? Where do you begin?’ And Columbia certainly told you where to begin and how to do it.”
Still the Same
Though it started as an oddball progressive rock radio station nearly 40 years ago, WXRT has carved out its status as an unstoppable force in Chicago radio.
In January 2011, WXRT was the fourth (out of 20) most-listened-to radio station in Chicago from 6 a.m. to midnight among ages 25 to 54, according to marketing and research firm Arbitron. The previous year, WXRT ranked ninth.
More recently, WXRT was voted third best station in Chicago by readers of the Chicago Reader. The station has won awards from Billboard magazine, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the Association of Independents in Radio.
While much of radio has changed over the decades, WXRT has not—and many staff say this is why the station has succeeded for nearly 40 years. In addition to maintaining the same frequency and same core staff of DJs, the station has evolved with its primary audience by adopting an Adult Album Alternative (AAA) format, a spinoff from the station’s early roots in progressive and album-oriented rock.
Many also credit the work of Hemmert, renowned Beatles expert and barrier-breaking radio personality, as their inspiration for wanting to work at WXRT in the first place.
Hemmert, in turn, credits WXRT’s nearly 40-year relationship with Columbia as a key ingredient to the station’s success. Since the 1970s, one of the vital threads connecting the two institutions has been an internship program.
As promotions, programming, or newswriting interns, Columbia students are responsible for researching and preparing for artist interviews, writing behind-the- scenes blogs, monitoring breaking news, and compiling data about music the station plays.
WXRT staff say that, compared to students from other schools, Columbia students have a more hands-on, active learning approach to working at the station.
“For the most part, they’ve been consistently dedicated and willing to do what it takes to learn at least my perspective on the business,” Lee says. “I’ve always had good luck with Columbia students.” (See sidebar.)
In addition to providing valuable experience for budding radio professionals, WXRT gives back to Columbia through sales of its onXRT: Live From The Archives CDs, which feature live recordings from top artists. A portion of the proceeds go to the Al Parker Scholarship, named in honor of the radio professor who spent 54 years at Columbia, where he was chairman of the Radio Department.
Also, in February, Hemmert hosted an ’80s dance night fundraiser at Neo for Columbia alumni in collaboration with the Office of Alumni Relations; all proceeds went to the Parker scholarship.
“I owe Al everything,” Hemmert says. “He was my mentor and got me my first teaching job. I learned about my passion for Columbia from him.”
WXRT Operations Manager/Music Director Farneda echoes Hemmert’s sentiment that, without Columbia’s guidance, he would not be in the professional position he is today.
“I could’ve been a computer programmer, but I would’ve been bored to tears, and I would’ve hated it,” Farneda says. “Columbia opened doors for me. If I hadn’t walked through the doors of Columbia, I wouldn’t be as happy in my life as I am right now. That’s a fact.”
Adds Hemmert, “Columbia attracts creative people who want to think outside the box. It’s a well-rounded education. We’ve been good to it, and it’s been good to us.”
The Spirit of Radio
WXRT DJs Reminisce About Their Favorite Radio Moments
On The Ramones:
“They were just the sweetest guys. They were going to go on and do an interview, but Dee Dee [Ramone, the group’s bassist] wasn’t anywhere to be found. I ran out of the studio and found Dee Dee. He said he wasn’t really into interviews because he had a bad experience before [with another DJ]. And I said to him, ‘Don’t talk to me. Talk to your fans. Talk past me.’ We had a really great time. I was at the show at Park West afterwards, and he brought over his wife and said, ‘This is the DJ I was telling you about!’”
On Why He Became A DJ:
“When I was a kid, I was a rock- and-roll radio fan with an AM transistor radio. I would try to pick up stations from faraway big cities. By the time I was in my late teens there were really cool radio programs on the FM—not cool stations but cool programs. One was at a college within walking distance of a friend’s house. We went over one evening, walked right in, and sat there as the DJ did his show. It was an eye opener. I told myself I could do that. A couple of years later, I enrolled at Columbia College to take the radio courses.” (Editor’s note: Marker’s son, Dan Marker- Moore, attended Columbia in the late 2000s.)
Frank E. Lee,
On Jerry Seinfeld:
“I got to interview him once, when he appeared after Catch a Rising Star. He was a little upset that I didn’t laugh at every one of his jokes. One of the appealing things about being a DJ is meeting the stars. You can’t get too starstruck because it makes for bad radio. It’s a very difficult thing to do, to have an intelligent conversation with
a complete stranger. I think there’s very few people who do it consistently well.”
—Jon Graef (MA ’12) and Rea Frey (BA ’04)
On the Radio
WXRT interns move on to airwaves careers
Interning at radio station WXRT has helped many Columbia students gain valuable real-world experience in the industry. Just ask Russ Mitera (BA ’93), now production director and director of creative services at WSCR, The Score, and Eric Pribramsky (BA ’11), writer, editor, and producer at FM News 101.1.
DEMO: Can you talk about your time as an intern at WXRT?
Mitera: The Score was in the same building, and it was a brand-new station [in fall ’92]. [Diamond Broadcasting Company] told me that I would be doing work for both WXrt and The Score. I got a lot of experience from things you cannot learn in school. The guy I was working under [Tom Couch, production manager] let me observe...how he would edit and write, and all the talent would come in to read things. We had lots of famous musicians come in, and I got to work with them and record them. As time went on, I built up a great relationship there, did two semesters at XRT, and upon graduation, [the company] hired me.
Pribramsky: I was there in spring 2011 working with Mary Dixon on the morning show, writing news for her. I was responsible for writing news, sports, and weather. She would assign me other stories, stuff that came across the wires or something that was breaking that she couldn’t address right away. Then it was my role to write about 30 seconds of copy to insert in the segment. I would end up blogging for the station about entertainment or music news, especially artists the station played or our listeners were interested in.
DEMO: Was your internship vital to your future success?
Mitera: Absolutely. I tell students all the time that they really need to get internships. But it’s not just any internship, you need to get a good one. XRT was a good one because they allowed me to do things—they let me take some initiative. I had some ideas for promos, asked if I could do them, and they said OK. They liked them and ran them. There is just so much more that you can get out of an internship than just being in the classroom. You get the nuts and bolts of how to do things in the classroom, but it’s not until you get into the real world when you can start to apply that stuff. That is definitely key.
Pribramsky: Being at XRT helped me to get my full-time job because I was able to have a chance to write news and learn how to write it for broadcast, and, when I was submitting all my writing samples with my applications, it really came across.
DEMO: What else was memorable about the internship?
Mitera: XRT would do these elaborate April Fools’ bits where they would try to fool their audience for an entire day. We told listeners that XRT was going to be a pay-per-listen radio station, where they could buy certain levels of services, like XRT silver, gold, and platinum. There were a lot of angry people, and actually some who were excited about the new level of service they thought they’d have the opportunity to have.
Pribramsky: Just being able to work with Lin Brehmer and Mary Dixon. That right there was the best radio time that one could spend in any market. Just being around them gave you a total appreciation for what they do, and being able to be behind the scenes and seeing how much skill is there as well. The rest of the talent at the station are also truly some of the best people in the business.
–Benita Zepeda (BA '11)