Friday, September 18, 2009

Let's Do Brunch . . . Again

"The Sunday Brunch" is back . . . at

I'll never forget the day: February 22, 1987. Eight o'clock that morning. "The Sunday Lite Brunch" made its debut on WCLR 102-FM to the strains of Chuck Mangione's grand tune, "Bellavia." For the next 22 years, listeners in Chicago were able to begin their Sunday mornings with the paper, a cup of coffee and the mellow music of "The Brunch," as we at the station liked to call it.

Little did any of us working on the show know it that day, but "The Brunch" would be the start of a remarkable relationship between listeners in Chicago and Smooth Jazz music. The show would be the first in Chicago to showcase contemporary instrumental music and vocals in a blend we know as the Smooth Jazz radio format today.

If you weren't around, listening to beginnings of the Brunch in early 1987, allow me to give you a little history. The "Sunday Lite Brunch" was born out of a gut feeling on the part of two radio executives at then-WCLR, General Manager and Program Director, Chet Redpath and Dave Ervin, respectively. Quick aside: do you remember WCLR? Perhaps a TV commercial from the time will refresh your memory.

(These days, WCLR is known as WTMX. Incidentally, when they changed call letters from WCLR to WTMX, they canceled the Brunch and turned me into a free agent. Fortunately, I was able to sign on at WNUA, where I continued the Sunday Brunch until 2008.)

Chet and Dave had heard about a new radio format about to hit the air in Los Angeles, and they wanted to be the first to bring it to Chicago. Rather than risk converting WCLR's entire format--which had been very successful--to something still unproven, they decided to take a chance on Sunday morning. Their idea made sense: what better time of the week to test a show featuring mainly mellow instrumental music? Since I was the host of the 8:00 am to noon time slot on Sundays, they came to me with their idea--of trying out a show comprised of contemporary jazz, New Age music and an eclectic assortment of vocals, just as KTWV would be doing in Los Angeles.

In early February of 1987, I was making frequent trips to record stores in search of music for the Brunch. I'd scour the Jazz and New Age sections of the store and grab the entire catalogue of the few artists I already knew (Grover Washington Jr. and George Benson, for example). Then I'd ask someone in the store to point me in the direction of some of their own favorites in those categories. That's how I first learned about the great old Windham Hill and Narada artists of the middle '80s. In an hour, I'd be back at the station with a stack of albums (yes, vinyl!) that WCLR Music Director Suzy Mayzel and I would listen to, track by track, on the turntable in her office. It took a couple weeks, but we had the makings of our first Brunch playlist--nearly a hundred tracks.

The Wave, KTWV in Los Angeles, made its debut on February 14, 1987. One weekend later, "The Sunday Lite Brunch" premiered in Chicago, on February 22. Chet and Dave opted for a quiet launch, something unheard of today. There had been no promos leading up to that moment, so we took the audience completely by surprise at 8:00 am that day. And surprised they were. Pleasantly surprised. By the time I got through with my first on-air break, where I welcomed listeners to "The Sunday Lite Brunch, a brand new program on WCLR," all my phone lines were ringing. I answered the first call. It was a woman saying she liked the idea of the new show. I took a second call. Another encouraging, positive comment. I took a third. Same thing. On and on it went, call after call. As I played more and more music, listeners continued to call in. Around 9:00, the hotline in the studio rang. It was Chet Redpath, asking what kind of reaction we were getting to the Brunch. I couldn't get it out fast enough: "It's unbelievable, Chet--people are LOVING the music!"

Through the spring and summer of 1987 the warm reaction we were getting each weekend grew into a white-hot buzz. Positive calls and letters to the station numbered in the hundreds without a single complaint. We offered a free program guide to the show ("The Sunday Lite Brunch Menu"), and we had a thousand requests by the end of the summer. Ratings on Sunday morning were rising. Clients were lining up to sponsor the show. Dan Miller of Crain's Chicago Business and Robert Feder of the Sun-Times surprised us with positive reviews in the paper that were most welcome for a fledgling program. When Mr. Feder described the Brunch as "being as close to perfect as any radio show," I felt that we had arrived. The entire WCLR braintrust and I agreed: in all our years in the business, we'd never seen a reaction like this to any new show we'd been part of. When WNUA finally hit the air August 3 with their full-time format of the music we'd been playing on Sunday morning, they would be trading on the unprecedented amount of goodwill that had been built up toward the format in the listening community the past six months. If Sunday morning was any indication, Chicagoans adored the format. And they have--for 23 years and counting.

Over the years, the mixture of music that both the Sunday Lite Brunch and WNUA started out with evolved, as radio formats always do. What began as a blend of 30% contemporary jazz, 30% New Age and 40% pop/rock/folk/R&B vocals in 1987 was nearly a 50-50 blend of contemporary ("smooth") jazz and pop vocals by 2009. The New Age content and the eclectic vocals had all but disappeared. A certain segment of the listening audience that had been drawn to the Brunch and WNUA in their early days because of the rich variety of sounds, textures and colors became disenchanted with the direction the format had taken. Sadly, there was no longer a radio show or station in Chicago catering to their musical preferences. I heard early and often from this part of the WNUA audience while I was working for the station, and I sympathized with them because of my affection for the music that had made the Brunch so popular during its early days. There wasn't much New Age music on WNUA anymore, but I was still enjoying listening to it at home, just as they were. I harbored a wish that someday there would be a place where I could bring back all of those wonderfully unique tunes that were missing on commercial radio.

Fortunately, with the arrival of the internet, variety has returned to the listening landscape. With over-the-air radio being forced to play it safe because of economic concerns, the internet has become home to music that would never see the light of day on the AM and FM dials. Our new Sunday Brunch channel, at, is a good example. In creating the new Brunch, I went back to my original playlists from 1987 to 1993 to build the musical foundation. I then added material that, had we been able to keep to the original concept of the Sunday Brunch with New Age music, we would have automatically added to the playlist along the way.

It is a great pleasure to be able to resurrect the Brunch. I hope you get as much enjoyment out of listening to it as I did gathering up all the old songs from the original show. And, as was always the case with the Brunch, if you have personal favorites you think would be appropriate for our channel, please let me know what they are. List them in the Shoutbox, or drop me a note ( anytime.

Whether you're a former listener from the WCLR days (I know at least a few of you are still out there!) or someone who's just now discovering the Sunday Brunch, thank you for listening. It's a little bit of Chicago radio history I hope will never go away again--at least not if I have anything to do with it.

Rick O'Dell

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