CHICAGO LOST THEIR BEST FRIEND IN THE WHOLE WORLD
For Lin Brehmer (August 19, 1954 – January 22, 2023)
By Mike Tomano
© 2023 Michael Tomano / Fossil Entertainment Group
Lin Brehmer began working as Music Director at WXRT in October of 1984. He left for a Minnesota Program Director gig in 1990, but returned a year later to replace Terri Hemmert as Chicago's Finest Rock’s morning host when she moved to a more sleep-friendly midday shift.
WXRT is a Chicago institution that I grew up listening to. My high school years were spent studying the delivery of its jocks, especially Bobby Skafish, Johnny Mars and Frank E. Lee. Driving to school, Terri Hemmert was our companion, playing the music that formed the soundtrack to our lives. The anxiety of the Algebra test awaiting us was eased by a Neil Young or Talking Heads tune introduced by Terri’s calming voice.
By 1994, I had been in the radio game for two years with short stints at two stations under my belt. My first job came at the end of ’92, spinning the hits in a cinder block station, WDND, off I-55 near Coal City. I got in trouble immediately for breaking the playlist, with the beer-guzzling owner barging in the studio asking me why I was playing Frank Zappa and Tom Waits records. My first “warning.”
A few weeks later, I was reprimanded for “breaking” the format again. My friend Chip sent me an advance single from his band Enuff Z’Nuff’s forthcoming album, Animals with Human Intelligence.
“Listen to this song!” I pleaded, as Mr. Radio Station Owner shot lightning bolts at me from his eyes. “It’s a hit and we could break it,” I continued. “They were on Letterman!” (For the record, the tune, “Right By Your Side” is a killer that, like so much of that band’s output, should’ve been huge.)
“Stick to the playlist or get the hell out of here,” were his final words on the subject. So, back to Captain & Tennille it was, and would be, until I walked in one day and found that he was “promoting” me to salesman.
So I left.
I had a bag full of demo cassettes and drove around Illinois and Wisconsin dropping them off at every radio station dotting the state maps. I would get up early and drive to the likes of Madison or Springfield, Champaign or Kenosha, listening to Lin Brehmer’s morning show on WXRT for as long and far as the signal held out.
Damn this guy is good. I wish I could do a show like he does.
I took mental notes.
He was naturally funny. No forced humor, no cheap shots, no shock-jock stuff, no ego trippin'.
He had an encyclopedic knowledge of music and would introduce or back-sell songs with personal anecdotes about the artist or tune.
He was unpredictable. A snippet of a Firesign Theatre bit, a recital of poetry or a relevant movie drop would be worked into a musical segue.
He was real. If he was exhausted from staying up all night watching the Cubs or rockin’ at The Metro, you could hear it, but rather than drag the show’s momentum, it added to its authenticity.
He was a real guy. No fast-talking, snappy patter. Everything Lin said into the mic was in the moment, sincere and real.
During a time when the frequency landscape was littered with shock-jocks mining lowest common denominator yucks, and hyper-active Hot Hits DJs spewing and sputtering nonsense, Lin was just being a guy on the radio. A really intelligent, informed, humorous guy communicating from a purely honest place.
My daily radio job seeking road-trips were wearing me out.
I met with John Perry at Kenosha’s legendary WIIL. He listened to my tape, gave me some advice, and encouraged me to check back in the future. I met with Chicago icon John Landecker, who spent an hour with me, dissecting my demo, boosting my confidence while being honest and direct. Most of the stations' Program Directors were unavailable, and my demos were left at the front desk, doomed for the trashcan or bottomless box of demo tapes that PDs accumulated, most of which ended up being used for salespeople to record spec-spots for hopeful clients. I met with Marv Dyson, the legendary Urban Contemporary radio exec, who listened with a smile as I pitched myself as the next big WGCI jock.
I was naïve. I was green. My ambition outweighed my objectivity by many a ton.
I visited radio stations all summer, with Lin Brehmer at my side...or, rather, in my ear. Cool, hip, creative Lin, rallying Cubs’ fans, talking about great meals, spontaneously reciting Dylan Thomas and playing the “Greatest Song Ever Written!”
I would be like Lin. I would find a place where I didn’t have to adapt to the traditional trappings of the radio announcer. I would find a place where I could relate to the audience without affectation. I would be like Lin. I would interact with my newsperson in a fun way like he did with Mary Dixon. I would make my audience feel like I was speaking to them, not at them.
With prospects shrinking and optimism waning, I found WKDC, an AM station above an appliance store in downtown Elmhurst. The PD was Rob Quarles, who lived in Ernest Hemingway’s former home in Oak Park. He listened to my demo and told me that, though he had an opening for afternoon drive, and he liked my style, the right candidate had to "know jazz". I seized the opportunity, discussing my favorite Brubeck tracks, the different Miles Davis line-ups, my affinity for the 70s output of big band leaders like Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson who continued to carry on promoting the music during its decline in popularity. I may have mentioned seeing Keith Jarrett and Herbie Mann in concert and how I took lessons from the drummer in The Stanley Paul Orchestra...
“Okay, kid. You got the job!”
I loved hosting my jazz program on WKDC. Alas, a few months into my gig, the station was sold. No more Jazz. (I still have the hundreds of support letters sent by the station’s avid listeners.)
I was offered a job by Major Networks, a Chicago company that provided satellite programming for stations across the country. Lite-Hits, Z-Rock, National Sports Minute and a host of financial advice and law talk shows were offered. I board operated Lite-Hits, edited tape, produced some of the talk shows, and filled-in on sports. None of it was live. None of it was local. I tried to convince myself I was still in the game.
I worked the overnight shift, 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. I would drive home, dejected, wondering if I truly had a shot in radio. My commute from River North to Midway Airport was rife with contemplation and doubt, lightened by the presence of Lin Brehmer.
Damn this guy is good.
But I showed up each night to Major Networks. I worked hard. To add to the less-than-ideal situation, I had recently split with my girlfriend of four years. My heart was broken. And here I was sending out love songs from Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, Bread and the ubiquitous Whitney singing “I Will Always Love You.”
It was 5:20 a.m.
I called Lin. The studio line rang and rang and rang until he answered.
I spilled out my life predicament to him. He listened silently. Respecting that he had to be on the air in a moment, I thanked him for being an inspiration and threw in a request for Roxy Music, Sly and The Family Stone or Genesis.
“Ah, great choices,” Lin said, his voice perking up.
He assured me I should keep going and that the right place would find me. “Hang in there.”
I exited the parking lot and drove into the rising sun over the Chicago skyline, crankin’ up 'XRT and the tunes I requested.
And, as Lin suggested, I hung in there. I have carved out a thirty-plus year career of being me behind the mic.
Everyday before I begin my WVLI morning show, I think of Lin.
As long as I do so, I will think of Lin.