The Rise of Alternative Radio
by Alex Cosper
table of contents
Chapter 1: A New Era Begins
For a guitar player raised on radio, I sure had a hard time finding something good to listen to in 1990. Radio had once meant community, information, creativity and entertainment. Now it sounded like it didn't mean anything but either background blandness or extreme hype. And the biggest joke of it all was that radio was so full of itself, as if it were believing its own contrived slogans. According to the government, the public owned the airwaves. But with media deregulation from the eighties on, the sound of corporate takeover was steadily dominating the dial.
Not only did I hate the way radio sounded all across the dial - the way it undermined the average person's intelligence -
I couldn't stand how the industry operated. They made it so that most of the industry was run by a small tight network of consultants and other business people who were able to influence radio owners and managers. It was this small circle of gatekeepers who dictated industry conformity that shaped the national music charts and the way jocks sounded on the air and the way jocks had to bounce around market to market every few years.
I wanted to not be a puppet and to not be a traveling minstrel. I wanted to do radio how I wanted in my hometown. One of the biggest flaws I found in radio was its determination to be as local as possible, yet it rarely cultivated talent from the same market. Radio stations everywhere consistently shipped in transplant air talent and bosses from other markets. The number of these transplants who failed to learn the market was endless. Interestingly, most of the winning programmers either came from Sacramento, or had spent many years in the market, or simply fell into an already winning situation.
One thing I loved about radio was that the dress code had more to do with what was comfortable than what was required. I usually wore casual clothes like jeans and a wacky t-shirt, kind of like in high school or college. I was not so much anti-business as I was anti-conformist. I never liked following any fashion whether it was street or corporate. I didn't like being hooked into things. I was my own thinker. I actually appreciated radio as a business because I've always loved analyzing numbers.
Before I became Program Director of the first successful alternative station in my hometown, my radio career started at that very same station, KWOD 106.5 in Sacramento, as an intern out of Sac State (CSUS) in 1984. I gradually worked my way up to Music Director and late night air personality (10p-2a) by the end of the decade. After all that hard work for low wages I was blown out in late 1989 when a new regime headed by a top 40 programming legend named Gerry Cagle decided I didn't fit in with his program of high energy presentation. I had a pretty laid back delivery compared to most top 40 radio personalities, but I still tried to sound like an upbeat party jock. Another missing ingredient was that I didn't sound like I was commanding anything. As Cagle told me, "You're letting the program run you when you need to run the program."
I drifted in and out of a few radio jobs and wound up mostly spinning tunes at a night club for the next year and a half.
During that time I wrote a lot of letters to a lot of industry people. On November 4, 1990 the Sacramento Bee published a letter I wrote about the state of radio in my hometown:
No station in Sacramento history has gotten away with calling themselves "new" when they weren't.
KWOD and KROY have tried it recently and no one has believed the hype, as the ratings show. The point
I'm making is that consumers are more aware in the nineties, and radio stations should be more careful
about what they say to listeners. When 93 Rock, for example, used the slogan "Sacramento's only
rock 'n' roll station," more people were listening to KZAP. Only after 93 Rock dropped the statement
did it skyrocket in the ratings. I'm not saying a few wrong words can kill a radio station,
but I am saying that improper slogans are packaging errors, and too many packaging errors are
what kill a radio station.
I'm pretty sure that the letter went unnoticed by KWOD personnel, because if they did catch it,
why would they rehire me seven months later? I had just been blown out of KROY as a weekend jock and was just
starting a weekend air-shift at an obscure classic rock station called KLCQ in the small town of nearby Davis, CA,
which lasted for about five months.
In the radio industry the term "top 40" is commonly referred to as "contemporary hit radio" or "CHR." The radio industry
trade publication Radio & Records came up with the term "CHR" as they did "New Rock" which eventually became "Alternative." In late 1990 the three-way CHR battle in Sacramento was turning into one monster squashing two midgets.
FM 102 had regained its status as the market leader while KROY and KWOD fought not for second place, but
against the ridicule of last place. The first casualty was KROY (96.9 FM) in November, as the station changed
personnel and became classic rocker KSEG, calling itself "The Eagle." KROY had been the legendary call
letters in the sixties and seventies, and always appeared at the top of the ratings from 1968-1974.
The music of the mainstream in Sacramento, and the whole nation for that matter, was r&b-flavored pop. This had
been the case throughout the eighties. Part of the reason FM 102 won the CHR battle in the eighties was that
one of its Program Directors, Rick Gillette, understood what he called "the pulse of American dance music."
I knew from working in roller rinks and being a mobile DJ that beat-oriented music had taken over the mainstream. I also knew that tempo was a huge factor in orchestrating a compelling music mix. I also knew that the public was tired of DJs that sounded fake. FM 102 avoided these pitfalls with a fresh winning approach. After Gillette's departure in 1987 FM 102 drifted from their base, which led to a more even three-way CHR battle. In the late eighties FM 102 even began drifting toward modern rock for a brief period. They ultimately moved back to their hybrid of pop and soul in 1989. They went on to be the CHR leader in Sacramento throughout the entire nineties.
KWOD, meanwhile, was like a sinking ship in the ratings. The programming simply wasn't consistent in the 1988-1991
period. Like KROY, its musical direction kept shifting every three to six months, which can be very confusing to an audience. Sometimes the flavor would be soul, sometimes sugary pop, sometimes rock and sometimes just a mix of anything. At one point in 1989 KWOD used the slogan "no rap crap" but when that campaign failed, the station ended up playing lots of rap six months
later. It was as if both stations were desperately trying to roll the dice with their identities in an effort to make a sudden ratings splash, only to fail even more in the ratings. Even so, modern rock seemed like a bigger risk.
Prior to 1991, there were just over a dozen modern rock stations in America's major markets. Those stations were:
KROQ - Los Angeles
KITS - San Francisco (Live 105)
KDGE - Dallas (The Edge)
XTRA - San Diego (91X)
WDRE - Long Island
WFNX - Boston
KUKQ - Phoenix
KTCL - Denver
WBRU - Providence
WWCD - Columbus
KJQN - Salt Lake City
CIMX - Windsor, Canada and Detroit
WHTG - Monmouth-Ocean, NJ
In addition, there were a handful of rock stations that leaned either toward modern rock
or an adult progressive sound. Those stations were:
KFOG - San Francisco (rock)
WXRT - Chicago (progressive)
WHFS - Washington DC (progressive)
WBCN - Boston (rock)
KTCZ - Minneapolis (progressive)
KBCO - Denver (progressive)
KINK - Portland (progressive)
The adult progressive stations tended to be eclectic and somewhat of a resemblance to the
late sixties freeform radio that marked the rise of FM radio. WHFS had been an eclectic station
since its freeform days in the late sixties, letting the jocks play whatever they wanted.
WBCN was also an early freeform station that became a more streamlined album rock station, but was very
adventurous, especially in the new wave era. WXRT was also an early progressive station, signing
on in 1972. By the end of the eighties KBCO had been the only station of all modern rock hybrids to
hit number one in their market. They were a mix of modern rock and classic rock. The station was so
successful that WHFS hired their Program Director, Dennis Constantine, as a consultant in 1989.
He came in and began to steer the station away from their obscure playlist, and crafted a new sound
more like album rock than CHR.
Constantine helped WHFS recruit PD Tom Calderone, who accelerated the station toward an even more
marketable direction. Calderone went on to become the voice of a national weekly syndicated radio show called
Modern Rock Live, which was carried by KWOD. The show featured band interviews and a lot of
exclusive recordings not available to the public. Calderone helped pick his successor Robert Benjamin
at WHFS in early 1991 when Caldrerone signed on as a consultant for Jacobs Media, in which he would inevitably
consult stations around the country that called themselves "The Edge." Benjamin and his assistant Bob Waugh
made the station more focused on current alternative rock music.
By the Spring of 1991 several modern rock songs were showing up big on the pop charts. There was already a fairly huge library of popular modern rock songs from the eighties but now there seemed to be more current modern rock songs than ever. R.E.M. had come on strong with the hit "Losing My Religion." INXS was still a hot act with their hit "Disappear." Depeche Mode's 1990 hits "Enjoy the Silence" and "Policy of Truth" still seemed current. Other big hits of the first half of 1991 included "Right Here, Right Now" by Jesus Jones, "Sadeness Part 1" by Enigma, "Unbelievable" by EMF, "All This Time" by Sting, "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak, "Here I Am" by UB40 and "I Touch Myself" by Divinyls. There were also pop songs that sounded modern enough to fit the mix such as "I've Been Thinking About You" by Londonbeat, "Joyride" by Roxette and "Gypsy Woman" by Crystal Waters.
On May 5, 1991 I received a phone call from my friend Rick Neal, who told me that KWOD had just gone "progressive."
I was out of radio at the time. Rick and I had worked together at KWOD in the eighties. Both of us were amazed that the mainstream station would make such a daring move. Rick actually knew a lot more about modern rock than I did, especially when it came to underground bands. All I really knew about it was the music that crossed over to the pop charts in the seventies and eighties by groups like The Police, Blondie, Talking Heads, Pretenders, B-52's, The Clash, Go-Go's, The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, OMD, U2, R.E.M, INXS, Simple Minds, Tears For Fears, and so on. I had also learned about certain obscure bands from my high school friend Sam Cadura, who had a huge collection of every kind of music imaginable. Even though my musical knowledge was about the hits, my musical appreciation was for artists who had a purpose other than to sell records. Those artists, tended to be labeled alternative, progressive or modern. I listened to the new KWOD and I definitely liked some of what I was hearing. It kind of cracked me up because it just sounded like a crazy radio station breaking the oldest rules in radio.
KWOD's evening personality at the time was Adam Smasher, who told me that one night in April he decided to start playing all modern rock on his show while Gerry Cagle was on vacation. The phone and fax response was so mind-blowing, Adam was able to convince Gerry that modern music might help turn KWOD around. Adam then was promoted to Program Director and afternoon personality.
Coinciding with the emergence of KWOD as a CHR/modern rock hybrid was the rise of KXRK in Salt Lake
City. The town already had a fairly successful modern rock station called KJQN, which was programmed
by Mike Summers, who launched the station in the eighties. But then Summers decided to go across town to
launch another modern rocker, KXRK, which debuted at the bottom of the spring ratings. It looked like a long shot to beat the established KJQN, but within a year Summers would win the battle.
Rick Neal, who kept in closer touch with KWOD than I did, told me KWOD had an opening for Music Director and that my name had come up. Then within a few days, out of the blue, the boss who fired me a year and a half earlier, Gerry Cagle, called me.
He told me I was "right about the music." I wasn't sure what he meant by that because I had never really pushed for modern rock as a format although I pushed for certain modern rock artists that crossed into the mainstream. I had been more into moving toward a rock-based top 40 sounding station, like "Pirate Radio" in Los Angeles, which had a flash of success in 1989 and then faded away in the next few years. By now I realized that playing lots of rock in high rotation wasn't going to conquer the mainstream. Nevertheless, I asked Gerry if this meant he might hire me again and he said "absolutely."
On May 20 Gerry and I met at KWOD and discussed the position of Music Director for the newly-evolving "modern rock
station." It was actually still officially a CHR/top 40 station. Gerry needed someone who understood top 40 and modern rock since KWOD was now a mix of both formats. I told him I was very interested in coming back. He told me to check back in a few days and the station would make me an offer. That offer, a few days later, turned out to be $5.50 per hour, which was not only slightly less than what I had made before, but half as much as I was making spinning tunes at a night club. I told Gerry, thanks, but that I had to decline. I didn't feel that bitter because I knew KWOD, being an independent station owned by sole proprietor Ed Stolz, simply didn't have the big bucks to pay salaries comparable to the industry standard. A big reason why a lot of industry observers had written KWOD off was that it did not have the promotional budget to compete with the well-funded corporate stations.
A few days later on May 26, the Sacramento Bee's David Barton wrote an editorial about KWOD's shift to modern rock called "Rock Radio Isn't Making Waves." In this lengthy piece he made fun of KWOD's new positioning statement "we are evolving" and criticized the station for posturing as a new station when really it was "business as usual." Barton went on to say: "Rather than introduce a new format, and give the audience credit for knowing something about music, KWOD
has fudged every move." Then he accused KWOD of still being a repetitious top 40 station. Much of the article was one jab after another such as "KWOD is talking down to an audience that knows more about the music being played than the people at the radio stations do." Barton did, however, credit the station by conceding that although "KWOD's new format is revolutionary only in terms of Sacramento's pathetically restricted radio programming, it is nevertheless significant."
The reason why KWOD sounded the way it did was obvious to me as well as Adam Smasher. Gerry wanted to keep the station top 40 based on his view that top 40 is the king of all radio formats for current music. This view had always been widely held by the major record labels. But because modern rock was becoming an exciting trend, Gerry was willing to compromise. The station would be modern rock for the audience but would continue to report as a CHR or top 40 station to trade magazines. Gerry coined the term "altergressive" for the new format. Although the term never made the dictionary, Gerry's industry friends around the country started to pay attention to the developments at KWOD.
By late June I had grown tired of my DJ gig at the night club and decided that maybe working for peanuts at KWOD might not
be so bad if I could make the music sound better. The critique on the street about KWOD was mixed between "the greatest thing that's ever happened to Sacramento radio" and "too much repetition." The big rock ballad hit at the time was "More Than Words" by Extreme, which I liked at first, but by now the relentless repetition of hearing the song over and over day after day was driving me mad. It wasn't really considered modern rock by anyone anyway, but I knew why it was being played. It was popular and radio relies on popular records to hold an audience. Despite the accusations that KWOD still sounded top 40, I believed that top 40 was important because of its influence on society. I had always hoped that meaningful artistic music, instead of the simple-minded pop music that had conquered the charts, would someday take over the mainstream.
So on June 27 I called Gerry (pictured left of me) and told him I was interested in the MD gig regardless of the pay. The next day Gerry told me I was hired. My first day back on the job was July 2. The following Saturday I was back on the air and I received several calls (okay, about fifteen) from listeners who remembered me from the eighties. It was a warm welcome by some. However, I received a lot more calls from people complaining about how we were mixing in too much regular pop music like the Bryan Adams song "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)," which went on to be the biggest hit in the world that year.
I guess at some point soon after, it occurred to me that most of the songs the "progressive crowd" requested were not love songs. Nor were they usually songs by artists that had a string of huge pop hits. Although we received many requests for artists like U2, R.E.M., The Cure and Depeche Mode, most of the requests were for newer or less exposed artists. And the subject matter in most of these songs had more to do with alienation, decadence and social dissatisfaction than romantic relationships. This was particularly true of songs like "Crazy" by Seal, "Get The Message" by Electronic, "Step On" by Happy Mondays or "Head Like A Hole" by Nine Inch Nails.
In July KWOD took on a new identity. It had always been called "KWOD 106" on the air and on bumper stickers, but now
it was called "KWOD 106.5" to sound more in line with the digital revolution. At the time the common thinking
among station personnel was that techno dance music was the vanguard of the alternative revolution. I also convinced Gerry that we needed to slow down the rotations of some of the more burnt songs we had driven into the ground. In fact, we decreased all of the rotations, which gave the station a more relaxed sound. I believed this audience didn't need to be pounded over the head with CHR techniques and that they would appreciate the station more if we quit sounding like a hype machine. At the same time, I agreed with Gerry that we should stay a CHR/top 40 reporter to the industry, simply because...I was still programmed by the industry.
In late August I got into a heated discussion with Rick Neal about the definition of modern rock. Rick was a huge
fan of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Lou Reed, Elvis Costello and a lot of underground punk rock bands. He completely
criticized KWOD's direction of sounding like a wishy washy pop station and that we were still playing adult contemporary pop like "Human" by Human League.
Rick told me that the Sex Pistols started the whole revolution that influenced all the modern rock bands to follow. I did not really know their music very well at this point, so I didn't really know what to say. But I did have memories of when I was 14 years old and I saw a clip on the news that a new angry short-haired British group called the Sex Pistols, who spat and swore at their audience, was invading America. Then there was the Sid and Nancy story. Then I never heard much about them again except in rock history books. They had never been played on mainstream radio in Sacramento. Nevertheless, I filed Rick's comments away in the back of my mind for possible future use.
We did not really have a definition for modern rock at that time. It seemed to be a wide open terrain for anything
that wasn't already over-played on the radio, with a bunch of over-played songs mixed in. We definitely did not call the music "modern rock" or "alternative" on the air. In fact, we never called it anything. We just plugged in positioning statements between songs like "we are evolving," "the modern evolution continues" and "crossing new musical boundaries." Never in those first few years did we ever tell the audience we were playing modern rock, progressive, or alternative. It was simply the audience and the local press who gave us that image based on the fact that most of the music we played had been or could be categorized as such.
Gerry and I shared a vision at the time of finding songs that simply sounded like they could have been monumental pop hits if given a chance. We both wanted to find fresh-sounding melodic adventurous songs that cut against the grain of homogenized pop. We wanted songs that sounded revolutionary and mass appeal at the same time. One of those songs was "Right Here, Right Now" by Jesus Jones. It was a song that touched on the dramatic changes going on in the world such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was a major step toward the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, there weren't enough hooky visionary pop songs like that at the time to build a format around, so we had to expand our vision of the format to include songs that painted a more vague picture of the world.
One of the most important lyrical songs we played at that time was "Radio Song" by R.E.M. Ironically, the song was precisely
about what the audience was accusing us of. It talked about radio wearing out songs and how "the DJ sucks." The song ended
with a rap that painted radio as a manipulator of public taste. I thought it was a good idea to play the song to show that we weren't afraid of criticism. Pure CHR programmers would never play a song like that because it might educate the audience about the industry, which didn't fit the agenda. Besides, R.E.M. was one of the hottest acts of the year with their big selling album Out Of Time.
In September Adam Smasher moved on to a series of radio jobs in big cities across the U.S.A. He had been Program Director for awhile, so with his departure, Gerry named me as the new Program Director. I also became host of the weekday midday show (10am-2pm) as "A.C." They even gave me a raise. My duties continued to be talking on the phone a lot to record label, record store and other industry people. I also continued to sit at a computer and plan out the station's music logs. That was my strongest contribution, I thought, which was planning out hours of song by song music lists with an emphasis on music flow. Karen Holmes was named Music Director and she attended music meetings with Gerry and me. We all brought in songs every week that the three of us would listen to.
The music KWOD played throughout the Summer of 1991 included:
Big Audio Dynamite - Rush
Crowded House - Chocolate Cake
EMF - Lies
Erasure - Chorus
The Farm - Groovy Train
KLF - 3 a.m. Eternal
Lenny Kravitz - It Ain't Over Til It's Over
The La's - There She Goes
Psychedelic Furs - Until She Comes
R.E.M. - Shiny Happy People
Seal - Crazy
Simple Minds - See The Lights
Siouxsie & The Banshees - Kiss Them For Me
Squeeze - Satisfied
Violent Femmes - American Music
see full list of 1991 songs
Within a few months the on-air schedule changed again with Australian Nick Monroe moving into the night slot. Monroe's accent was genuine, which was very fashionable for modern rock radio. The audience had a certain understanding that modern rock was international music. A lot of pure modern rock stations had jocks with foreign (usually British) accents. KROQ had Richard Blades and Live 105 had Mark Hamilton. More importantly, the reason why I pitched Nick to Gerry was that I thought he had a great sense of humor and he seemed very aware to the music.
In the September 29 issue of Radio & Records a page two headline read "Cosper Cops KWOD PD Job." The article quoted Gerry Cagle saying, "Alex has worked extremely hard during our shift in musical stance. He has a great understanding of the music and how to tie it all together." Then they included a quote from me saying, "What we're doing will set the pace for a lot of stations, because we offer a new choice, combining dance music and cutting edge pop. The result is an exciting music flow unavailable anywhere else in the market."
On that same page was a story about another change in Sacramento radio. It talked about a new Program Director at KZAP, which was having ratings trouble due to competition from 93 Rock and possibly KWOD. But I don't think anyone in the market thought of KWOD as a competitor to KZAP or 93 Rock at that time. We were still thinking our main rival was FM 102. Then again, no one at this point could foresee the demise of KZAP.
In October the Arbitron ratings came out for KWOD's first full quarter as an "altergressive" CHR station. KWOD, for the
first time in years, shocked the market. We jumped from 3.3 to 4.5, which was considered huge and the difference between mediocre and respectable. This finally put us in the running again with powerhouse FM 102, which stayed in the six share range. 93 Rock also slid a little bit but stayed in the six share range, which kept it near the top. KZAP, which had barely edged KWOD in the last book, sank into the "terrible twos," which was an embarrassment for any station, let alone the town's biggest radio legend. As far as ranking, KWOD jumped from a dismal twelfth place to ninth. This marked the first time in three years that KWOD cracked the top ten. Critics were stunned that modern rock was indeed the answer in 1991.
continue to Chapter 2: A Change in Evolution
© Alex Cosper. All Rights Reserved.