The death of iconic WXRT-FM disc jockey Lin Brehmer not only left a hole in Chicago’s once mighty rock radio landscape, it’s a further reminder of the slow fade of the age when big personalities dominated radio and influenced the musical tastes of millions.
Brehmer, 68, who died Sunday after battling prostate cancer, was part of a pantheon of esteemed DJs who ruled local radio and launched the careers of untold artists by simply playing their music on the air. Brehmer, who once earned the nickname “The Reverend of Rock ’n’ Roll,” combined an encyclopedic knowledge of music with heartfelt personal commentary.
A day after his death, social media was flooded with online memorials from musical acts including Wilco and Los Lobos, along with actor John Cusack, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Brehmer was “the voice of WXRT,” Cusack tweeted.
Brehmer’s arrival at the rock station in 1984, first as a music director and later as WXRT on-air talent, came during the time of big local radio and even bigger radio stars who shook off the front office formality of old radio for a new style that blended musical knowledge with personality and personal story and more profound messages.
Television fans recently heard a sample of Brehmer’s confident, reassuring dulcet timbre to start off an episode of the hit Chicago-based FX TV series “The Bear.”
Brehmer’s time on radio hearkened back to simpler times when a trusted DJ was like a member of the family much in the same way as local TV news anchors. During radio’s golden age, through the 1950s and 1960s, Chicago was full of popular DJs from Dick Biondi and WLS’ stable of young disc jockeys to Herb Kent and his fellow “Good Guys” deejays on WVON.
“Whether it was R&B radio or a progressive rock station, the success of those stations was tied as much to the personalities of the people playing the records as it was the records themselves,” said former Tribune rock critic and author Greg Kot.
“Radio was the primary way that people found out about new music and that’s no longer the case — it hasn’t been for 20 years now,” Kot said. “People don’t need the radio to find new music. It’s a click away on their cellphone.”
Industry insiders say terrestrial radio DJs will likely never reach the heights of earlier eras following the corporate takeover of radio during recent decades, though local DJs can still thrive and turn people on to new artists despite radio’s overall shrink. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that deejaying and radio announcer jobs will continue to decline, with jobs slated to sink by 4% through 2031.
By the 1970s, influential DJs gave way to more comedic on-air personalities who not only had less say over what music was played on the air, many also prerecorded their segments for play at another time.
Voice-tracking, or prerecorded segments were “not live,” said Dave Plier, weekend talk show host on WGN-AM 720 and board chairman of the Museum of Broadcast Communications. “It’s made to sound live. You don’t know if that host is local or not. Somebody might just be listening to that station because of the genre of music they’re playing when people used to tune into music radio to also listen to the personality.”
While radio eventually fell to a secondary medium behind television, terrestrial radio — and its larger-than-life DJs — continued to shape the musical taste of generations of listeners. As a small example, Steve Dahl’s infamous “Disco Demolition Night” served as the death knell of disco worldwide.
“By the time the 1980s arrived, you had people on air — Jonathon Brandmeier, a Steve and Garry (Meier), a Kevin Matthews — they weren’t disc jockeys, they were radio personalities,” said Plier, host of “The Dave Plier Show” and “The Sinatra Hours.” “There was good conversations happening and yet music was just a piece of that.”
“Local DJs will probably remain present because radio is still a local medium, but the amount of national DJs that feature on stations has increased due to corporate consolidation,” said Daniel Makagon, program chair at DePaul University’s college of communication and an expert on the radio industry. “It seems like the big personalities are used for morning shows. Beyond that, the notion of an influential radio DJ is probably a feature of radio in the past.”
An ominous sign of this was radio giant iHeartMedia’s pivot toward using artificial intelligence instead of human radio programmers. The change was believed to be responsible for the firing of hundreds of radio station workers across the country, according to The Washington Post.
In 2017, the head of New York University’s Steinhardt Music Business program wrote a report that predicted the fall of terrestrial radio unless executives adapt to the changing industry and younger listeners, who have superior ways of accessing music.
“If radio broadcasters aim to maintain relevance if not dominance of listenership on new and rapidly evolving platforms like the connected car and smart speakers, they will have to out-innovate and outcompete digital-born disrupters for hearts, minds and ears in a way they haven’t since the birth of their industry,” Larry S. Miller wrote in his report.
“Because DJs don’t select music or rarely select music on corporate radio, the influence has also diminished. DJs as tastemakers is definitely a thing of the past,” Makagon said. “But radio is unique because the medium has an interpersonal feel that is often missing from other media. DJs feel like they speak directly to us as listeners.”
Plier foresaw corporate stations hiring engaging morning and afternoon personalities to appeal to listeners. “On the music side of it, you’re going to have to have some great drive-time shows with people you can relate to; people you know and who you’re familiar with and they’re your friends and they’re driving with you,” Plier said.
“I see very corporately owned radio stations going down a path to save money … will that be successful at the end of the day? I don’t think so, because radio is local, I mean that is what radio is all about — it’s about local.”
Kot predicted that the world of podcasting could revitalize music radio if changes in copyright law allow podcasters to play music without paying large licensing fees.
He also said local personalities will always have a better chance of forging connections with listeners than corporate stations. “I think people yearn for the human connection at the end of the day. I think people get sick of numbers and you’re already starting to see it with younger people gravitating back to vinyl records. They want something a little bit more … a digital connection isn’t satisfying.”
“The art of storytelling is never going to go away. People always want stories to be told to them. They don’t want just cold facts. They want stories and that’s as old as humankind,” Kot said.
Makagon, the DePaul professor, has some lingering hope of wise and knowledgeable DJs returning to the airwaves, though trends suggest otherwise. “As someone who loves music and has always been drawn to DJs who preach a love of music and music community, the idealist in me would like to think that what is old will become new again,” Makagon said.
“Unfortunately, the realist in me believes that we are seeing a shift toward DJs with less connection to music and general entertainers who could be on the radio or hosting a show for E! Entertainment Network.”