It’s half past eight in the evening and we’re still waiting for the orchestra. I’m in the studios of WZRD, Northeastern Illinois University’s student radio station, with Alejandro and Rick, the producer and chief engineer of “Thursday Night Live”, a weekly studio jam. Alejandro and Rick don’t want to give their last name, to preserve the mystique of underground radio. Also, it’s Tuesday night, not Thursday, but that’s okay too. WZRD’s motto is “freeform radio”.
WZRD’s studios are, literally, underground: in the basement of NEIU’s Student Union, an institutional educational building from the 1960s or 1970s. Painted on the cinderblock wall, a fantasy castle sticks out its tongue. The door is covered in decades of musical memorabilia, from KMFDM to Naked Raygun. And sitting on a scuffed piano are three plush wizards, a nod to the resort’s nickname.
WZRD is a 100-watt station, whose terrestrial signal can be heard from O’Hare to the Lake and Evanston to the Loop, but it played an important role in Chicago’s musical history as the first local station to broadcast punk rock. In the 1970s, the station’s musical director, Terry Nelson, “brought punk rock to the city,” says Alejandro. “It was the only station that would touch him. It took another ten years before they played it.
Nelson recorded a live broadcast of Gang of Four and aired it on his “Sunday Morning Nightmare” show. His 1979 tapes of England’s The Only Ones were recently released as an album. The Wizard was also plugged into Chicago’s alternative music scene. The Smashing Pumpkins showed up at the NEIU on March 16, 1989 – before signing a recording contract, before Billy Corgan shaved his head. They played a cover of “Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground. It’s on YouTube.
The band we expect tonight is Outronaut, which Alejandro describes as “instrumental surf rock”. In the meantime, the Wizard is streaming its usual eclectic playlist. A skronky Art Ensemble of Chicago jam might be followed by a Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl ballad, which might be followed by an Etta James torch song. The magician does not play ear candy.
“It’s a bit of metal, a bit of jazz,” says Alejandro, who started working at NEIU as a student and remained a volunteer after graduating. “Back then, we had the Mongolian monk stuff before it became popular. There’s no Top 40. If we’re playing Black Sabbath, we’re not going to be playing “Iron Man.” If we play the Ramones, it won’t be “Blitzkrieg Bop”.
Thanks to the Internet, the Sorcerer’s reach extended from the North Side of Chicago to the entire world. The station even has a fan in Poland. It remains, however, a rather trendy pleasure. Since WZRD isn’t a commercial radio station, it doesn’t track viewership, but when a “Thursday Night Live” group asked how many people were broadcasting the show, Alejandro checked the meter: 100.
“Wizard has always tried to program curious people, not just people who listen to what they want to hear,” says Rick, a retired NEIU staffer who has been involved with the station since it first aired in 1974. , debuting with “Kick Out the Jams”, by the MC5.
Outronaut finally arrives around nine, an hour before the show. Alejandro and Rick help the band set up in front of Pepsi and Aquafina machines in an empty student break room, unroll multicolored cables, connect guitars to amps. Although WZRD is officially a student station, everyone in the room is a Gen Xer or a Baby Boomer. The youngest member of Outronaut is 47 years old. That seems to be the Wizarding demographics though.
“It’s my all-time favorite radio station,” raves Outronaut guitarist Steve Gerlach. “I’ll hear free-form lectures and eleven-minute space jams and all sorts of things. I started listening in 1988, and played on the station with Phantom Helmsman in 1995 or ’96. We’re all old enough to have been in a million bands.
Outronaut jams for 40 minutes. Coming off the air, they are promoting two shows this Sunday, one at Lakeview Fest in the afternoon, the other at Liar’s Club in the evening. That’s why bands do live radio. I’m no music critic, but I would describe their sound as Dick Dale meets the Grateful Dead. Listen and draw your own conclusions. One thing is certain: there was nothing else like it on Chicago radio last Tuesday night.