Lauren O’Neil holds down the midday fort at WKQX (101.1FM), although that fort is in need of
some repairs these days. “We are in a temporary location,” she admits with a laugh. “Sort of bunking with the parents at Cumulus in temporary studios at State Street. (Home of fellow Cumulus properties WLS-AM and FM.) But they are building us a new facility at NBC Tower, and it should be ready this summer.”
Lauren has been part of a move with this station before – but that move was a move down the radio dial. When she first arrived in Chicago a few years ago to help launch the alternative format, their frequency was 87.7 FM. “Not every radio dial even went down to 87.7,” she says, “so we were always like a grass roots organization, doing guerrilla marketing. There were only four of us
running this radio station and we were like a family. I’ll never forget our first event at the Aragon. The energy in that room – I get goose bumps just talking about it. Getting to meet the people who
were listening and getting to see the passion they had. That was an incredible moment.”
Lauren lives and breathes the music the station plays. It’s the music that drew her into the business in the first place. “I was a student at the University of Florida at Gainesville and was a dance minor,” she explains. “And I had this epiphany one day. I was bartending at the Purple
Porpoise and we had a concert series there every week with the radio station Rock 104 (WRUF). It was a student-run station but it was an independent station— not really affiliated with the university. (University of Illinois has a similar station – WPGU Urbana-Champaign).
The epiphany I had was that music was my driving force – and that’s why I was into dance. It was the music. My favorite thing to do in the whole world is seeing music live. You’re totally immersed in it. It’s like a whole body experience. So I sort of threatened my way into getting a shot at the radio station. I met the promotions coordinator and said ‘Dude, you need to hire me.’ And to my surprise, he did.” Lauren loved radio right away, but had to make sacrifices. “I had to lighten
my load to do radio,” she admits. “I was paying my way through college bartending, and I was going to school full time, and I was a Bud Girl. So I scaled back my hours at the bar and school, and I fell in love with radio.
I did every shift except for the morning show. I did a locals-only show, and was hosting nights and the concert series by the time I left.” After a very successful stint co-hosting an afternoon show after graduation, Lauren was introduced to the dark side of the broadcasting business. It really threw her for a loop when she was unexpectedly laid off by Clear Channel. “I was considering
getting out of radio entirely,” she says, “because getting laid off was a huge shock. I had been at this station for seven years and was part of a great afternoon show. An old boss of mine reached out and said ‘Take some time, but don’t take too long, because Jim Richards in Chicago needs to hear from you.’ When I reached out to him I was still licking my wounds, and he invited me to Chicago. When I got here I fell in love with this city immediately.”
She also loved the culture at Merlin Media, the owner of the station at the time. But in 2014, Cumulus took over the station, and she worried it might be more like her previous experience in Florida. “I had trepidations at first when Cumulus came in,” Lauren admits, “but the experience
has been amazing. They liked what we were doing, and they moved us to this new frequency, but they still let us do our thing.”
And their thing includes presenting their music and features to the audience on many different platforms. “We have our own app,” Lauren explains. “We have on-demand features. We try to give
they want to consume it. Whether it’s an app, or on the radio, or they text us, and we’re on Snapchat, and we’re very active on Twitter, and Facebook, and all the social media, and phones, and e-mail, and iHeart radio, and we have an HD channel. We’re using every avenue possible
to reach our people. “ What do the listeners get when they tune in during the midday show? “I lean
on my sense of humor to bring information to the listener in an entertaining way,” O’Neil says, explaining her philosophy.
“I try to imagine who I’m talking to and where they are, and the things they care about before I start talking.” She developed this approach because of what she prefers to listen to on the
radio herself. “I don’t want people to just tell me something, I want them to entertain me, so that’s what I try to bring when I turn on that microphone. Although, listen, I’m not overthinking it. The truth is that I’m just me on the air—unabashedly myself. It’s not that complicated. I’m just
talking to people.”
She does it every weekday from 10 AM to 3 PM on WKQX, 101.1 FM.