We were huddled around an ancient, double-headed cd-player in the dark projection booth above a grand, sprawling art deco movie theater, cavernous and full of velvet and terra cotta. Around us were gelled stage lights with wires hanging loose and old projectors from every era; scattered about were countless CD-R’s and PBR’s. A tiny, tinny boombox tuned to our frequency way left on the dial served as a monitor. If someone made a golden age hip hop remake of The Brave Little Toaster, this boombox would be the scrappy protagonist discarded and confined to the scrapheap. It let us know we were broadcasting though. A grimy cover of a Green Day song sung in German was fading out.
“I’m Eric lab Rat here with Ruby Aftermath and this is the Black Power White Power Power Hour on Red Line Radio, you just heard Weisse Wolfe and this is the Last Poets with “The White Man’s Got a God Complex”.
It was a dumb joke, obnoxious by intent, mixing music about oppression with music about liberation as if they were at all equal. I probably wouldn’t make it now that I’m a humorless PC punk, but I was more of a provocative asshole back then. It was wrong.
Besides, I was 21, falling in love but too immature to say it, living out my “Pump Up the Volume” dreams, and probably drunk. Besides that, I didn’t know enough about nazi bands to stretch it even a half hour. Our station boasted a broadcast range “from Evanston to Uptown” … maybe… if the weather conditions were right. Even if the little tinny boombox in the projection booth was the only one tuned to our show, we were radio pirates.
The Adelphi Theater wasn’t just any theater. It was my childhood theater. The one that featured second-run movies for cheap, where my parents snack bags of unsalted popcorn and healthy snacks into Milo & Otis.
Built in 1917 and last-modernized in the mid ’60’s, the Adelphi was gorgeous. In the late 90’s, it transformed into a Bollywood showcase, catering to the Indian communities on Devon. Every Friday night there were searchlights circling the sky above the theater, and couples dressed to the nines sauntered down a red carpet. Apparently though, a Bollywood cinema was as unsustainable as a second-run one. It was an old-school single-screen theater in a Blockbuster era.
By the time Red Line Radio was broadcasting, the place had fallen into serious disrepair. Rows of movie seats, surely less than the 900 the theater had once held, were uprooted and stacked all over. Walls were peeling, windows were broken, the carpets and curtains were dingy, water damaged and smoke stained. The bathroom we were using had only intermittent water and electricity and signs pleaded with us to please go elsewhere for number two.
I’m not sure how many times the theater changed hands before I found my way there, but as I was given a tour, we passed two longhaired metalheads having their own personal screening of Pink Floyd’s The Wall on the big screen. Often I’d look down from the booth to see them playing giant-size Grand Theft Auto, truly living their best lives. They were trying to renovate it, as much as they could by hand, but the bills were piling up and the money was running low. Soon they were gone and a different set of kids with a little bit of money and a lot of aspiration found themselves just as in-over-their-heads.
In truly Rogers Park fashion, there were the slightest of rules imposed and they were still broken. People made keys for people who made keys for people who made keys. Responsible drunks picked up the slack cleaning up after the less-so. Unfamiliar faces were caught in the act using the floor as a crash pad with copies of The Reader as pillows. The owners allowed the radio station but weren’t associated. At monthly meetings we chipped in what we could towards rent.
As different people were brought in to the theater, it was shaped by politicians and Latin Kings, hippies and ravers. Pete Wolf, host of the decades-strong open mic In One Ear at the Heartland Cafe hosted afterparties there. Singer-songwriter Doug Nation, whose signature look included angel wings and a cowboy hat with a million glittered ab muscles, started throwing raves there. Almost everyone involved had fake punk rock names except for maybe Bill Morton, a record label owner and Rogers Park entrepreneur, who founded Citizens for the Adelphi Theater to try and get historical status for the building. He’s now president of the Rogers Park Chamber of Commerce.
As an underground enterprise from an era just before social media, timelines and records and even personal accounts are hard to come by. Everyone I know involved with the theater and radio station is too busy living their lives in the present to answer my questions about the past so I’m going a lot by my own recollection. Paul from the band Mayor Daley had a live/work space in the one spare room upstairs and occasionally threw noise shows there. Or maybe there were lots of rooms and tenants but his was the only one I saw. Maybe the one show I attended was the only one that happened.
Red Line Radio was magical though. For me, all Chicago radio was. Every Saturday night, when I was an insomniac middle schooler trying to write a (horrible) novel as my parents slept, I would frantically flip blank Maxell and Memorex cassettes into my radio and record all night. Somewhere in my parent’s cluttered house, the tape that’s supposed to be the Cantor teaching me correct intonation for the haftorah portion of my bar mitzvah is a Bad Boy Bill hip house mix from B96.
WNUR gave a disclaimer that from midnight to 6am they might play explicit content with artistic merit, and did so gleefully with a punk show that fed into an all-Frank Zappa show that ended at dawn.
A station manager at WLUW would later warn me that while Northwestern can afford lawyers to fight off the FCC on a “safe harbor” precedent, Loyola can’t, and the often stoned jockeys on their backpacker hip hop show would sometimes end songs abruptly with an “oops, forget you heard that”.
And then there was WZRD, my heart and joy.
WZRD was the official radio station of Nervous Center, and the Nervous Center was my high school coffee shop. It stood next to the Davis Theater in Lincoln Square, and didn’t just sell coffee and snacks but had the added revenue stream of hosting experimental jazz and noise bands, plus the occasional puppet show. Read that in a sarcastic but wistfully nostalgic tone.
The shop’s clientele was a unique mix where it seemed like everyone was under 20 or over 40, where a first wave Chicago punk like Boppin Bill Meehan (Silver Abuse/The Wayouts) might be found collaborating on a wall of noise with teen prodigy Alex White (Hot Machines/White Mystery). Whenever the cafe wasn’t hosting shows, they were playing WZRD, a freeform station out of NEIU where the djs could lose their timeslots for playing a single-genre set or giving their name (everyone was simply “the Wizard” to bypass ego). The station, broadcasting from NEIU since 1977, boasts a collection of 30,000+ records and 15,000+ and somehow managed to absorb all those early waves of punk, electronic, dance music and assorted weirdness.
For pre-internet and early internet weird kids like me, late night radio was as meaningful an escape as it was for the girl in the Lou Reed song. Instead of running off to the big city I ran to radio itself.
Aaron Cynic, now a politics writer for Chicagoist, gave me a key to the Adelphi. Amongst the people I met at Red Line Radio were Boy 13, now a dj and bartender at Smartbar, and Ken the Soul Rebel, a dapper suedehead who you can see in literally all of the first several hundred episodes of Chic-A-Go-Go. I met some of the people behind the original incarnations of Albion House and Rancho Huevos, respectively the longest running diy spaces still active on the north and south sides. We played music that filled in the gaps where all the other niche stations left off, we went on flashlight tours to parts of the building that had no power, where we found all the old abandoned reels of Indian films, and murals made 10 and 20 and 50 years ago, in backstage areas that were never open to the moviegoing public.
Just as our crew included hobbyist engineers, part of a diy network of pirate radio stations that would exchange parts and help build transmitters for actual rebels making counter-governmental broadcasts in South and Central America and Eastern Europe, it was a group of hobbyists that took us down. A messageboard of audiophiles who hunted illegal broadcasts and reported them, boasting of their kills like trophy hunters.
Acting outside his jurisdiction but claiming to represent the FCC and the FBI, a cop showed up at the theater and calmly informed whoever answered the door that the station was over. It was highly illegal and potentially dangerous. Unregulated broadcast signals could potentially interfere with an airplane’s communication but the risk was small-to-nil with our low wattage. Unregulated signals also risked bleeding over onto a commercial broadcast stations signal, which would fuck with people’s money which you know the government can’t abide. The building, the antenna, and the equipment were all at risk and we were politely asked to leave. We gathered as much as we could at the time, and maybe trespassed a little to get the rest.
There’s no current picture of the Adelphi Theater because nothing exists of the Adelphi. The Citizens of the Adelphi fought valiantly to get the building historical landmark starus but failed. The building fell into the hands of a condo developer who had had such luck with Rogers Park buildings on the lakefront, they assumed that just as many people wanted to live all the way on Clark Street. The 2008 housing collapse hit before any construction had started and put the nail in the coffin for any plans for the Adelphi. If you visit now, you’ll see a depressing hole in the ground, surrounded by chain link.
As for Red Line Radio, it exists as a point on a throughline where Free Radio West Town and Guerrilla Love Radio exist before it, and the short lived Off Grid Radio and WPBR come after. Broadcasting from the Buddy Gallery, WPBR was an acronym for Wicker Park Broadcast Radio and a pun on PBR, omnipresent drink of choice anong hipster gentrifiers AND the people who hated them.
All this leads to Lumpen Radio, a low-power fm station broadcasting out of Bridgeport, and Que4 Radio, an AM station broadcasting from Bucktown. As the FCC has loosened regulations on low-watt community stations, both are completely legal and above-board – no swear words in the songs or nothin’.
Named after his long running magazine, Lumpen Radio was started by Bridgeport community leader and longterm weirdo art enabler Ed Marszewski (the guy behind Buddy Gallery, Co-Prosperity Sphere, Marz Brewing, and Kimski). Lumpen includes offerings from Yollocalli Youth Arts Reach, Boogie Munsters, Sonorama and our old Red Line Radio friend Malice.
Headed by the team behind the diy spaces Quennect Four and MultiKulti, Que4 Radio continues their legacy of mixing revolutionary art and politics, with a bent towards hip-hop and music from the Afro-Latino diaspora.
Both stations aim to cater to a broader Chicago community with a diverse lineup of music and talk that was definitely intended by all the pirate stations before them, but not always achieved when the stations bloomed out of punk and noise communities that’re frequently, notably missing a lot of black faces and voices.
Even in an era of unlimited internet streaming, the Chicago airwaves are still magical y’all, maybe moreso than ever.
DISCLAIMER: My memory is flawed and romantic, but everything is true as remembered and experienced. Names and dates may be completely off. I try to portray everyone in the best possible light but there was a lot of drama. If your truth differs from mine, or if you have any stories you’d like to share, I’d love to read them in the comments.