Programmer Emeritus (aka Free-Form Norm) Charts the Evolution of Progressive Radio

As the PD at WXRT for the past 36 years, Norm Winer has earned his status as a radio legend. Brilliant, candid, opinionated and forever challenging himself and his staff, Norm’s passion for WXRT, Chicago and breaking new bands is why WXRT has radio’s most loyal audience. Why the Windy City Wonder agreed to appear in this windbag magazine remains a mystery.

KG: You’ve been at WXRT for how long now?

NW: This summer will be 36 years. That looks so weird on a résumé. 

KG: Have you ever even had a résumé? 

NW: No. But if I had one, I would be laughed at. 

KG: What? 36 years at one place?

NW: Yeah, it looks like I have no ambition. I was known for late-night radio in college, but I vowed that I’d never go into radio.

KG: What did you think you were going to go into?

NW: Sociology. I was a sociology major.

KG: What was the goal at the time? What did you envision yourself doing?

NW: I was doing some of the early sociological studies of contemporary music. I did one of the early, really tiresome and tedious studies of the history of rock & roll. Because I’m so old, there wasn’t that much rock & roll to talk about in the early days. My first job was at WBCN in Boston as the news director. I also did a part-time show, later became the overnight DJ and was eventually asked to be the program director at a station in Montreal, CHOM, because the head of the company met me at the Alternative Media Conference in Vermont in 1970 and took a liking to me. 

KG: So you went to Montreal and were there for how long?

NW: I went to Montreal and had to straighten out the station. A commune—maybe 12 people—hosted the afternoon-drive show, and I had to fire them all. Our numbers skyrocketed within a few months. They didn’t have as many rules there as stations that were run by the FCC, so they hired a sales manager from Los Angeles who was starting to sell hours of time on the radio station to record companies.
KG: Oh, that’s good. I like that.

NW: I was the odd man out. I went to Boston for the weekend and convinced the owner of WBCN, who was threatening to sell the station, to give me one last chance to control Charles Laquidara, and he did. Of course, I didn’t control Charles; why would I? I went back to Boston and I was really the first program director who, strictly speaking, knew how to read ratings and was not just running the commune. That was 1971. I remained the PD at WBCN until 1977, and then I went to KSAN in San Francisco.

KG: KSAN is a legendary station. And WXRT was after? 

NW: Yup. At KSAN, I invented a quiz show parody called Mystery Melody, which I became known for. Literally, I hosted the show as “Mister Mystery Melody.” We’d play three notes of a famous recording and people had to guess what it was. Before that, we’d talk about life in general in those days, and when we did it live, we had special guests.  

KG: One of the things about your station that’s singular is the vast age range of your audience that calls XRT their “home station.” They’re the original listeners who grew up listening to XRT, and their kids, and their kids… 

NW: Right, which is unusual.

KG: It’s very unusual. I don’t see it at any other station. 

NW: Well, my definition of rock & roll—and remember, I’m a retired sociologist—has long been that it’s music to which your parents will object. My youngest daughter, Becca, grew up in a home where every form of music was listened to—except probably bluegrass and opera—and needed a form of music that she could call her own. One night, when was eight years old, she proclaimed at the dinner table that she found her form of music and it is smooth jazz. We were horrified.

“We’re a coalition of elements because we’re dealing with an audience that’s multigenerational, multiracial, multiethnic, and that has a vast number of tastes and musical backgrounds.”

KG: [Laughs] You just started drinking, saying, “Where did I fail?” At some point you went from being the observer to being the sociologist to being the leader, and it seems that transition was natural for you. 

NW: Well, you’re giving me a lot of credit. How did I lead?

KG: Well, you’ve run radio stations. You’ve become the force in a market. Are you knighted by the city of Chicago? Is that what’s happening?

NW: This fall, I’m receiving a Fifth Star Award. I thought this was a gag at first. They just started it last year. These awards celebrate Chicago’s creativity while honoring exemplary Chicago artists and arts institutions that have made significant contributions in art and culture. As a New Yorker by birth, and former resident of Boston and San Francisco for many years, I can’t minimize the significance of succeeding in creating and maintaining a radio station of this caliber for this many years in Chicago, where people will not accept anything that’s not substantial or genuine. To have been able to have this team intact for so long and succeed on the level for the duration that we have, that’s something that we’ll always be proud of. 

KG: You work for a corporation, and if that doesn’t translate itself into ratings, it doesn’t matter. 

NW: Right. Then I would have to start working on the résumé. The fact is that the company has always been supportive of us from the time they bought us.

KG: Is there anyone who is programming at the moment that you admire?

NW: No [laughs]. Because everybody does a different job. Lauren McLeash is a phenomenal program director who ruled KTCZ and Minneapolis for many, many years. Scott Arbaugh still manages to run a radio station that is the #1 or #2 ranking radio station 12+ in Denver, a miraculous feat given the limited amount of resources he has now. That is mind-blowing to me. I love the work that Bruce Warren does, Jim McQuinn too. Rita Houston of WFUV is my sister and a great PD, among other things. Sky Daniels does a phenomenal job at KCSN. Those are very different situations than what we have because they don’t have corporate ownership, they don’t have to play 12 minutes of commercials an hour, or more. It’s a totally different structure for them, competitively. Of course there’s Kevin Weatherly too. No one’s better.

KG: You’ve been at XRT for 36 years, and one thing that you’ve always been clear about is that WXRT is not a Triple A station. You bristle at that. What is it, then?

NW: I don’t know. It’s a station that we’ve built to do well in Chicago, and it doesn’t adhere to any traditional—or even nontraditional—formatting line. We’re a coalition of elements because we’re dealing with an audience that’s multigenerational, multiracial, multiethnic, and that has a vast number of tastes and musical backgrounds.

KG: What I’ve always found with you is that once you decide that you like a band, you’re loyal to that band. I think that’s the reason why Chicago has been one of Arcade Fire’s absolute biggest markets from day one. Same with Spoon, because it’s beyond single to single. You’re just in. 

NW: Well, what I’ve been saying for the last few years is that our determination of which artist to support is based on artist-centric criteria, not so much one song to the next. We’re looking at a body of work or the entirety of an album. When we dive into supporting a new artist’s career, it’s because we really think they have the goods. We go to see them live, listen to the entire album and we know this is really a band capable of something. A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting around with Bono and Larry Mullen Jr., and Bono thanked me for being so perceptive in discovering U2’s talent early on when they played a $5.00 budget show for XRT. 

KG: Have there been any on your radar recently?
NW: Sure. Wolf Alice is a band we were very excited about from the start. We heard Courtney Barnett when she first came to the United States a couple of years ago. She was thoroughly impressive, and so is her album. St. Vincent is one of the greatest artists of our time, and radio hasn’t figured out how to play her yet. What a fabulous presentation she does, what a great show, what a great vision.

KG: For those that don’t know, Becca, your daughter, is now going into her sophomore year at Oberlin, and she’s working at WOBC, where I was Music Director for four-plus years.

NW: She’s overseeing something called Live From Studio B.

KG: We used to do that. It started in ’79 [laughs]. 

KG: Your DJs, like Terri Hemmert and Lin Brehmer, have been there with you forever. They’re not just DJs but celebrities in Chicago. Everybody just loves them. Lin is always posting photos of him signing autographs, and everyone thinks that he’s their brother. I mean, he’s that kind of guy. I think Terri is like Meg Griffin. She’s an icon. 

NW: She’s remarkable. She’s probably the nicest person in the world. Sorry, Karen. You’re #2.

KG: Oh, please. I’m nowhere close.

NW: Except for your grudges.

KG: Yeah, except for that and my outward hostility. Is there a way to cultivate that kind of talent now? Do people have that open a heart? When you talk to someone who wants to be in radio, can you see if they understand their value to the community?

NW: I’m trying to do that, and honestly, within the last couple of years, there are a couple of personalities that I’ve cultivated that way. I just try to share with them the frame of mind that I think you need to have. Part of it is humility, which is essential. Part of it is not putting yourself above the audience and really speaking to them about them. You know, we’re not egocentric lunatics, but most DJs are. Most DJs reflect that and only talk about celebrities. Talking about the people is one of the ways to make that bond and build that connection. It’s also important to show how much fun you’re having. We’re so fortunate to have this job, and we need to share our joy and gratitude.

KG: You don’t do research, do you?

NW: We do when we can.
KG: For songs or for audience perception?

NW: The last project we did was music.

KG: The library or has it been currents?

NW: Library. We don’t do ongoing callout. 

KG: So how do you know a song is a hit for you? What do you use to gauge it?

NW: It’s very unscientific. It’s the gut. Do you notice how much more gut I have in recent years? It’s a matter of hearing it. One day that ability is going to be gone, but for now I feel confident in my ability to hear a song that’s appropriate for us.
KG: Have you missed songs? 

NW: Definitely. I missed “Radar Love” by Golden Earring [Laughs].
KG: But there are things that you just aren’t going to like.

NW: Right, and sometimes I just cave. Sometimes I say, “This is just not my style of music,” but the fact is that we’ve created a system here. I used to solicit the DJs more, but they can always weigh in when they want to. There are many ways that people can access music now. I want people to give me feedback because I don’t want to miss anything. I’m looking at 15 different radio station’s playlists. I literally print them up every single week and see what’s doing well for people, and my hope is that I’m not going to embarrass myself by missing something. Often, the songs that record companies point out to me that are near or at the top of the charts are either recurrents, because people are so conservative nowadays, or songs that I think sound dreadful and wouldn’t sound good on WXRT.  Having Kelly Ransford as my MD, who has a totally different background and set of musical and cultural reference points, is a great way to freshen up our perspective.

KG: So for the first half of the year, what has emerged that you think will be the #1 WXRT Listener Poll record?

NW: That’s a very good question. Well, Death Cab For Cutie was really good. Alabama Shakes’ “Don’t Wanna Fight” was really good. And Will Butler’s record is one of my favorite records. I’m very impressed by Mumford & Sons. I like Houndmouth a lot. Beck’s “Dreams” is likely the Song of the Summer.

KG: You’ve known me for well over 30 years now. I think I met you with the Dream Syndicate when John Mrvos was your music director.

NW: I think you have clung to a personal, selective, critical and highly engaging perspective that doesn’t match up with anyone else in the entire world. I mean, you are demanding, you are convincing, you are discriminating, you’re very particular and idealistic and your standards are extremely high. You’re extremely honest, which is, I think, one of the best traits of all. And you’re very, very funny. And you make people think—In this business, that’s extremely difficult. Without fail, you are all of those things almost constantly on a regular basis. 

KG: Thank you! You’re infinitely too kind. Where will you be in five years?

NW: Me? Oh jeez… Alphabetizing? Or at a baseball game. 

KG: A baseball game. That’s where you’re going to be, because that’s your other great passion. 

NW: True. It’s the only hobby I have time for, because it moves so slowly.

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