La Grange native Rick O’Dell keeps smooth jazz alive

Smooth jazz. Upbeat, mellow, but bright enough to keep you perking along with your coffee for most of the day.

“It’s relaxing, it’s a whole comfort zone of music,” said Rick O’Dell, who was a program director and announcer on WNUA 95.5 for 25 years, has seen the path of smooth jazz in the Chicago radio market become exceptionally rocky. However, just last January, the format has been rescued, so to speak, and returns to what O’Dell calls “terrestrial” radio.

Dubbed “Chicago’s premier smooth jazz programmer” by media columnist Robert Feder, O’Dell’s show is now being broadcast on WTMX 101.9 HD2. “I’d been doing my own show SmoothJazzChicago.net since November of 2012,” O’Dell said, chronicling a series of setbacks to the format that would discourage any but the most devoted jazz fan.

“I grew up in La Grange,” O’Dell said, “and when I went to the University of Illinois in Champaign. I had no idea what I wanted to do. My background is Japanese-American and in families like ours sons often go into medicine, accounting, engineering. But I didn’t.”

He did, however, start working at the campus radio station WPGU. “It was a full commercial station and we learned all aspects of broadcasting,” O’Dell said. He eventually began taking classes in speech and communication, which pointed the way to a decades-long career in radio.

O’Dell is identified locally as the program host for WNUA 95.5, a Chicago radio station established in 1959, which in 1987 began playing New Age instrumental tracks. O’Dell had been hosting “The Sunday Lite Brunch” on another station, but when WNUA began broadcasting smooth jazz full time, he was hired as music director and was heard on the air during the middle of the day.

“Initially we were doing New Age, playing tracks by George Winston, Windham Hill type of music, but by 1990-91 research showed that it was a little too soft, so we changed to smooth jazz,” he said. They did not aim for jazz purists, those who want the energy and high intensity of improvisation. “Instead, we played jazz that is urban and mellow. Music that the average person might enjoy listening to at work.”

At its peak WNUA reached 1 million listeners a week in the Chicago area. “Then in January 2009 a corporate decision was made in San Antonio, miles away from the Chicago market, to change WNUA to a Spanish-language station!” O’Dell said, still surprised and recalling the announcement clearly.

O’Dell then went on to WLFM 87.7, based on Frontage Road in Northfield. It had a smooth format, but after three years that also changed. Still believing that smooth jazz had a future, O’Dell and a few of his colleagues began searching for a place to secure their format. “But the executive doors were closed to us,” he admitted.

So in November 2012 they launched their own show, SmoothJazzChicago.net, which allows fans to listen at their desks or wherever they have Internet access. “I wanted listeners to hear the music free, as they do on regular radio,” he said, “and by being on the Internet the station can reach an international audience. We’ve heard from listeners in Brazil, Egypt, England.”

But his show needed an Internet connection. “We lost the audience in the car,” he admitted, referencing one place where radio is almost constantly playing.

After about a year O’Dell heard from Greg Solk of Hubbard Radio. “He’s very respected in the industry and he wanted our SmoothJazzChicago on his 101.9FM HD2 station,” O’Dell said, obviously pleased. Broadcasts began Jan. 7.

To hear HD stations, special receivers must be purchased, but O’Dell believes that they will be standard equipment in many new cars starting this year. “So we’ll be back with smooth jazz everywhere again,” he said.

O’Dell, a 1976 graduate of Lyons Township High Schol in La Grange, revealed that he has one regret about his years there. “I never worked on WLTL 88.1FM, which is the finest high school radio station in the country,” he said. “Chris Thomas is the general manager and for students working there that is the equivalent of taking college classes.”

“We never fail to remind him that he didn’t work on the station,” said Thomas, laughing. “But he’s been back here many times to talk to my radio students. In 2006 he was inducted into the Lyons Township Hall of Fame.”

As for the quality of WLTL, the teacher says that O’Dell is quite right. In 2012 WLTL received the John Drury High School Radio Awards as the best high school radio station in the country. During O’Dell’s years at WNUA he took WLTL students on tours of the studio. “Anytime I ask him to come, if he is able to do it, he does,” continued Thomas, who has been teaching at LT for nine years. “He’s easily the nicest person I’ve ever worked with in broadcasting. Anyone will tell you that.”

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