Last fall, at the end of October, I missed a minor milestone: 10 years since the radio company I work for pulled the plug on 93.1 The Lake, the coolest place I ever worked.
Back in 2004, I ran into a college classmate of mine who was doing afternoons on the station, and he suggested I apply for a part-time gig, but apart from making a call to the program director (and leaving one of those convoluted voicemails you regret), nothing happened. I ran into my classmate again a couple of years later and he urged me to apply again. This time it went a lot better. There was a new program director, we hit it off immediately, and it didn’t take long before he offered me a job. Breaking a drought of something like eight years without doing a music show on the radio, I started working weekends in the summer of 2006. It wasn’t long before my gig-economy lifestyle made me the main weekday fill-in guy also.
It was a joy to be on the air at The Lake, and to listen to it when I wasn’t. It was a deep-cuts classic rock station, full of “holy smokes I haven’t heard that in years” musuc: the first time I got to play “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta, Haynes and Jeremiah, it was a religious experience. But after I’d been there a while, the program director who hired me got fired. He wasn’t replaced, exactly; the operations manager with responsibility for the station took over the programming of it. He rebranded us—most of the deep cuts were dumped, especially from the 60s and 70s, and they were replaced by mainstream stuff from the 80s and even the early 90s. It was still cool, and still deeper than many classic-rock stations, but it was never quite the same to me.
The original format was based on a Chicago station called the Drive (which still exists today), a thinking fan’s classic-rock station, and we were encouraged to talk about the music like experts. But that positioning wasn’t as appealing as we hoped, apparently. It was explained to us that we were perceived like the person at a party who thinks he’s too cool for the room. So it may not have been a coincidence that one aspect of the rebranding kept us from talking to anybody for a while—the station ran jockless for a period of weeks.
(After I’d worked at the Lake for a while, I was traveling in Chicago and listened to the Drive. It really was remarkable how closely we’d cloned them. All except for the jocks. Top to bottom, the Drive’s lineup of brand-name Chicago rock-radio legends didn’t sound as good as ours.)
In both of its incarnations, The Lake played great music, ran attractive promotions, and encouraged us to both have fun on the air and serve our audience with stuff worth caring about. But nothing lasts forever. One day in October 2008, I got a call from the operations manager saying that The Lake was no more. It was being replaced by the rhythmic CHR format that was already running on another, weaker signal in the building, a format that remains on 93.1 in Madison today.
I had started working for another station in the building by then, so I had a place to go after The Lake was gone. Its studio stayed empty and silent for several months. The memos and the artwork stayed on the walls, and I’d go in there from time to time and think about how it was like a neutron bomb had hit the place, taking out the people but leaving the infrastructure intact.
Just as every radio jock has stories about working at the badly run station in the nowhere town, we all have stories about the most fun we ever had, the best place we ever worked. The Lake is mine. Over a decade since its demise, its imaging liners and music library are still on the company servers. I’m told that one of the engineers used to fire it up and listen to it downstairs in the shop. And why not? It’s what I’d do.