The Rise of Alternative Radio|
by Alex Cosper
table of contents
Chapter 4: Transition To Pure Modern Rock
So now I was the head of programming, even though I wouldn't know it for sure until mid-year. There were constant rumours that Ed was going to hire someone to replace Gerry. I knew I at least had the knowledge to compete with anyone for the job. I had lived in Sacramento all my life and I had studied the local and national market for quite some time. I had deep musical knowledge, but not necessarily about underground music. I knew the bottom ten never beats the top ten anyway and I had a good understanding of what made radio stations successful regardless of format. What I didn't have, however, that Gerry clearly had, was that intimidating authority complex. Gerry generated a certain fear in people that kept them in line. He had a powerful voice and he used authoritative language. He also had a reputation for cleaning house in times of disorder. He looked like a grown man who had been around whereas I still looked like a skinny teenager even though I was thirty years old. At 5'7" and 130 pounds, my intimidation factor had limits.
Then again, the world's greatest martial arts expert Bruce Lee had a similar physique. Although I would not take an interest in Lee's brilliance for another decade, somehow I stumbled on to some of his themes. The basis of Lee's talent was mind over matter and his motto was "be like water." In other words, don't get locked into rigid structure. Be able to think out of the box. Above all, be alert. I didn't look or sound very threatening but what I had going for me was the ability to win an argument, partly from my college debate and Communication Studies experience. I also believed I had a much more creative spirit than typical programmers and that I could compensate for the station's limited budget with new ways of thinking that stayed within the realm of logic. Instead of worrying about the militant nature of the leadership position, I based my whole supervisor image on friendship and trust. I also shared a lot of my radio and music knowledge with the staff to convince them I had credibility. Somehow it worked, most of the time.
The first half of 1993 still turned out to be dismal for KWOD in the ratings. It seemed like we were just stuck in the cellar. To make matters worse, all of our competitors had written us off. Even though we did the big "change" in November to "more rock," we still reported to industry trade magazines as a CHR/top 40 station. This meant we still had to play records (the industry term for recordings, regardless of vinyl or CD configuration) that were promoted by record labels for the pop charts. Because of this, we still had to force in things that befuddled our audience, so really little had changed. We had even swung back to an overall pop sound, although we were playing more guitar-driven music than ever before.
I tried to freshen things up as much as possible. I hired another foreign voice in January, this time Giles Hendriksen from the United Kingdom for weekends. My first impression was that he was very smart and humorous and it didn't even matter that he had a British accent. We were moving toward a more American sound by that point, although we still hung on to a lot of the British artists like Charlatans UK, Happy Mondays, Morrissey and Inspiral Carpets. I also brought back a few people from KWOD's pure CHR days of the eighties such as Marty Johnson for weekends. He had been a hit with a lot bigger audience than we had now so I didn't think a little nostalgia would hurt. Marty had been part of the successful morning team of Masters & Johnson from 1984-1988. I also experimented with a lot of production pros for the station voice that would be heard between songs around the clock in station ID's (referred to by the radio industry as imaging).
One of the things that finally convinced me that KWOD should quit tinkering with bands like Guns N' Roses happened on April 3 when I went to their sold out concert at Arco Arena. It seemed that every time they came to Sacramento, it was a time-marker in their career. For example, when I saw them open for Aerosmith in September 1988, it was the week they hit number one in America with "Sweet Child O' Mine." It was at that show that I happened to be watching Axl Rose through binoculars when I witnessed him get hit in the face with a shoe and he threatened to stop the show. Now, five years and several million dollars later, he ended the show abruptly with profanity about 90 minutes into the set. He was angry that his bass player got hit in the head with a bottle after he warned the crowd early on not to throw things onstage. He advised the crowd if they saw who did it to "kill 'em" and then he slammed the microphone to the ground and pranced offstage. For about ten minutes there was confusion. Then Slash came out and said "there's no way in hell we're going to play again." He explained the band had to end several shows like that. The audience was very disappointed. Axl had also drawn boos in the middle of the show when he began to talk smack about Metallica for insisting on being the headliners of a tour with Guns N' Roses. It was as if I was watching a band disintegrate before my eyes. I just didn't want to have anything to do with that kind of immature environment anymore.
Another sign that an era was ending happened about a month later when I went to see one of my favorite bands, INXS, at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco. They had blown me away like no other band when I saw them four times in 1988 on the Kick tour. They had a lot charisma, mystique and from what I could tell, underrated intellect in songs like "Kick," "Need You Tonight/Mediate," "Devil Inside" and many of their earlier songs. But now they had transformed into something else. They seemed less groomed and more down and out. Their slick modern sound had mutated into raw sloppiness. Michael Hutchence even joked with the crowd that he hoped they didn't throw things at them. Their record sales and airplay had dropped off the past few years and the buzz just wasn't there anymore. It was kind of eery, especially when I went backstage and tried to speak with Hutchence. I stood in front of him for several minutes waiting to shake his hand but he was sitting in a chair listening to a heavyset lady talk at him. He looked perplexed. I heard the lady say to him "don't worry, Michael, you'll be back." He then abruptly got up out of his chair and walked out of the room.
The gloominess of modern rock seemed to be moving in the direction of eternal darkness. In April, despite accepting an award from the weekly local publication Sacramento News & Review for best radio station in town, KWOD had more bad news on the way. The winter ratings for January through March showed that KWOD had hit an all-time low, falling from 2.5 to 2.3, making KWOD one of the lowest ranked FM stations in Sacramento. FM 102 and 93 Rock were still far ahead of us. Even so, KWOD's numbers didn't look too bad compared to actual modern rock stations around the country. Only a few of them had impressive ratings in their markets. The arrival of CHR programmer Kevin Weatherly to KROQ the previous year was beginning to pay off, with the station moving into top five territory. Other stations with impressive numbers included 99X in Atlanta, 91X in San Diego and WKOC in Norfolk. The End in Seattle was still in the middle of their market's pack, but was steadily rising. There were also some rock stations like WBCN in Boston that did well mixing established rock with modern rock. But outside of that, most stations experimenting with modern rock found themselves near the bottom.
Knowing that KWOD depended on word of mouth for promotion, I began to reflect on how I built up my first crowd in my younger days as a roller rink DJ. When I started at the rink I only had ten people skating around to my "show." I surprised the manager, who had tried every trick in the book to promote the place with disappointing results, by building the clientele via word of mouth. What I did was, instead of writing off each week's weak turnout as dead nights, each week I got those ten people to get to know me and each other. After several months I had 200 people each week who all knew each other through me. So I figured I might be able to do the same for KWOD, but starting off with 100 people. The first event we organized to create a KWOD culture was a volleyball tournament in which each jock was a team captain and brought twenty winners from their shows to participate in this tournament. So it wasn't just all about me creating a scene, I had help from each of the jocks. We also invited the public to come check out the event, held in May at the Sacramento Softball Complex. It turned out to be incredibly fun and a very successful event.
At this volleyball tournament, one of my female listeners brought her pet snake and asked me to wrap it around my neck. I wasn't used to even touching snakes, but I figured if it didn't bother her, it shouldn't bother me. One small thing it reinforced was not to be afraid of things that were symbolically considered evil. I had believed for a long time that evil and fear are simply products of the imagination, and holding this snake without getting attacked gave me a sense of relief. I felt that I was starting to catch up with the mindset of the true alternative world, which saw through all the symbols and facades that are designed to scare people as a tool for manipulation. Then again, there were also a lot of so-called alternative people who played into that whole fantasy and behaved like over-dramatic B-movie actors. After awhile I realized that part of my humor on the air should be to make a mockery of characters and entities who try to mislead the public with their nonsense.
KWOD's reputation for constant turnover continued throughout 1993. Karen Holmes, who had been Music Director for the past year, announced in May she would be joining Gerry Cagle in Los Angeles. She actually had concentrated more on promotions and I had handled most of the music decisions anyway, but she definitely was a better barometer of "hip" music than I was. Nevertheless, music was my thing. I liked focusing on music so much that I decided to take on both titles of Program Director and Music Director (as well as midday jock). Other people quit and I was faced with all kinds of openings in the on-air schedule. On top of that, Ed made plans to move the station to a new location.
With radical reorganization looming, Shawn Cash, who had bounced around various shifts at KWOD since the late eighties, pulled me aside one day and told me of his interest to do the morning show with a weekender named Jeff Jensen. I told them to work together overnight every now and then and make tapes that I could play for Ed. After a few more meetings in which they presented me with better than average entertaining material, I decided I would pitch the Shawn & Jeff show to Ed. After a few weeks of consideration, he approved the plan. So on May 17 the new morning team debuted on the air along with other line-up changes. The phones lit up and they drew immediate media coverage within the next month in the Sacramento Bee and three television stations. At the end of May I had lunch with Dan Vierra, who wrote a radio column for the Bee and I told him to expect more changes at KWOD.
I felt it was essential for KWOD, which had limited promotional resources, to have good relations with local media. So I regularly called Dan from then on to give him station news, like when the station moved to a new location at the end of June to the twenty-seventh floor of the Renaissance Tower. We were now at the highest office point in Sacramento, overlooking the Capitol with a panoramic view of the city. More news came on July 12 when I moved Giles Hendriksen up to the afternoon show, replacing Nick Monroe, who suddenly resigned one day. Giles sounded like an instant smash on the air with a lot of witty off the wall commentary.
Despite all the new optimism, more dismal ratings kept KWOD at the bottom. The Spring Arbitron had us inching up 2.3 to 2.5, but it wasn't enough. As soon as I informed Ed about the ratings on July 15, the first words out of his mouth were "pick a format." This in my opinion, was the greatest thing Ed ever said to me. He had been a strong advocate through the eighties and early nineties of the CHR format, but now even he had had enough. My response to him was "how about being an actual modern rock station?" This was the actual turning point when KWOD finally threw its confusing CHR status out the window and finally became what the audience thought we were supposed to be all along. I also told him we should stop trying to react to teen trends and focus more on adults who grew up with progressive music. I had to be careful how I described it because I knew Ed opposed his own generation of the sixties, especially left-wing artists. Not that I thought we would be as progressive as KZAP in its freeform era, but I wanted something that approached that type of community voice via rock music. This might help KWOD become a word of mouth phenomenon. But it had to be real. We had to free ourselves from the constraints of manufactured industry pop that the local scene makers saw through.
I explained to Ed if we became what R&R at the time defined as a "New Rock" reporter, it would automatically make us more relevant to the industry since the number of New Rock (which would later be called alternative) stations in major markets was still very small. We were trivialized in the CHR world of hundreds of stations because our ratings were so low. The format switch would give our playlist a lot more impact on the national charts. Furthermore, we would no longer have to worry about competition in our market because we would be all alone. Also, we wouldn't be hostage to the CHR universe of music anymore that seemed to be moving further and further away from our desired sound. This way we could concentrate better on the two most important fundamentals for ratings success: familiarity and consistency. To my delight, Ed agreed with me. KWOD for the first time became an official pure modern rock - alternative - new rock - whatever you wanted to call it - independent radio station.
I immediately called Shawn Alexander, R&R's New Rock editor and told him the news. Soon there was an optimistic buzz - at least in the music industry - about KWOD's official shift. Record labels now expected us to add the records they were promoting at the New Rock format, but I surprised a lot of reps by saying we weren't going to let labels or trade magazines set our agenda. That must have been something I picked up from Gerry Cagle. I was just tired of the whole game and how it had held us back. I only wanted to play records now that fit a certain sound and had certain results.
In my view, CHR or top 40 radio was essentially a stack of popular records when played in any order sounded like a repetitious jukebox. Now the labels were pressuring me to do the same things except with their universe of modern rock records. I wanted so badly to get away from that. I wanted the station to sound like endless unpredictable music that appealed to people who liked the artistic qualities of music. In order to do this, KWOD had to be a leader and not just a follower. For the past few years we thought we were leading by being the cutting edge of CHR. As it turned out, we were leading - ourselves on. High repetition and tight programming only gets a station so far. If the industry doesn't keep fueling the machine with fresh material, it all burns out. That's what I think happened to KWOD and a bunch of other stations who jumped on the bandwagon. I decided that the industry should follow us, not the other way around and that we should be more of a people's station.
Perhaps the most relevant quality I brought to the station was my sense of music and culture. Although I wasn't always accurate at "picking the hits," I had a more important understanding of the overall relationship between successful timeless songs and the audience that cherished the social and imaginative power of music. In other words, I really wasn't the best top 40 music guru who could look into a crystal ball and predict hit songs, although I knew more about the history and impact of pop music than many such musicologists. But even deeper than that, I understood and identified with rock culture, which had become a subset in the outer limits of pop culture. My edge over competitors may have been that I could articulate why certain rock songs were timeless. By 1993 I no longer cared for top 40 music at all, because I viewed most of it as the opposite of timeless. It was disposable marketing and I was more concerned with music within the more authentic world of guitar rock.
This did not mean I was completely abandoning pop, dance or keyboard music for airplay consideration, but my intuition told me to pay more attention to artists who had live concert credibility and the ability to play "unplugged." Technology was not the defining issue for music since technology constantly outdates itself. Above all, I listened for adventurous songwriting: songs that either attempted to be innovative or commented on the human condition from a more community perspective than typical one on one relationships. I believed that the void in radio was a station that focused on reaching for a better human experience instead of mere consumption of trendy teen pop marketing hype. In a sense, I was flashing back to the elements of the original progressive rock era of the sixties, but at the same time I was looking forward to visionary music that picked up where that era had left off. I wanted to promote the spirit of imagination, freedom, individualism and self-actualization. Not that this was a new idea, it just wasn't being done.
The philosophy I was developing was somewhat outside of the music industry agenda. It certainly did not conform to the tenets of radio programming for any current format. Most formats for new music simply were concocted to be a rollout of the latest record industry marketing priorities. The labels used the national charts of trade magazines as a platform for their products. For this reason, they focused their attention not on what was best for radio or culture, but what was best for building their artist profiles and record sales. Whenever I spoke with most label reps the conversation revolved around chartspeak. In essence, their whole pitch for me to play any specific record centered on research data such as existing record sales, existing number of stations already playing the song and projections as to how many stations were considering playing the song. Rarely was the pitch based on the artistic merits of the song.
We had played too much music in the past that wasn't about anything except generic formulas. The structure of the music industry dictated certain priority records at each label. Well, I made it clear that I had my own priorities. I wanted KWOD to sound like a haven for creative artists. At the same time, I didn't want to drift into some underground sound for the sake of pretending to be cool. I wanted the music to have special meaning and a lot of underground music was more about self-indulgent attitude than special meaning. Since KWOD didn't have billboards or much publicity in town, it needed word of mouth credibility. It had to be special, otherwise no one would have any reason to talk about it. The way I went about it was to tighten the music with safe modern rock hits while sprinkling in a lot of surprise album cuts that you wouldn't hear all the time.
Up until this point KWOD had never defined itself on the air throughout its modern metamorphosis other than to say things like "we are evolving." On August 13, however, a few months after our official change, Ed told me it was alright to start using the term "modern rock" on the air. At first I tried to argue that we should stay undefined, but he insisted on using the term. It was after all, what KROQ in Los Angeles called themselves. I was hoping we could come up with our own term but I just couldn't think of one. To me, "modern rock" implied that all the music had to sound futuristic, which certainly wasn't the case. Then there was the term "alternative" which implied anything that wasn't popular, which also wasn't true. The term "progressive" had an elitist ring to it that I didn't want. And I certainly didn't like "new rock" because it implied that we shouldn't play any classics, which we needed to play to keep the overall sound familiar. "Cutting edge of rock" was another term that applied to some of the music, but definitely not artists like Sarah McLachlan or the Spin Doctors, both of which I thought were good for us to play. I finally just agreed with Ed to go with "modern rock" simply because it was probably the most widely used term to define the "genre" and I couldn't think of anything better.
On August 23, Aric Johnson of the Sacramento Bee, wrote a front page story in the "Scene Section" about our new morning team Shawn & Jeff. The article was called "Ready to Roast: Poised to lampoon, two young and inexperienced DJs take a stab at fame and glory in the morning." The article basically documented how each of the two hosts moved up the ladder in their careers, beginning as interns. "Jensen says he wants to be a chiropractor and Cash wants to be a veterinarian," Johnson revealed, which was news to me. I didn't know if they were serious or not, but it didn't matter. The article went on to use some flippant quotes that didn't really add much depth, but as far as I cared, publicity was publicity. A quarter million people read the paper and that reached more people than the station did.
Then a month later we received more press, this time in a newspaper of my alma mater, which reached thousands of students. "I like to play songs with interesting lyrics, anything about the world or society and especially music with a message," I told Tami Ryan of the Sac State Hornet in a piece called "Alternative air-waves: CSUS alumnus captures local, loyal listeners."
Although I wanted KWOD to have its own unique sound, a lot of the ideal sound I had in mind paralleled 91X. In my opinion, that was the best sounding station I had ever heard. No other modern rock station in the country got away with such a crazy mix yet 91X had the best ratings of any modern rock station in the country. It sounded like a fun party station for the diverse music fan who appreciated the history of rock and roll. As far as I was concerned, so called modern rock had its roots in artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Who and Jimi Hendrix, all of which 91X sprinkled in. I thought it was so cool they didn't have that angry "generation X" hang-up stereotype that I felt held so many stations in the ratings gutter. But Ed didn't want sixties music on his station and he made that point clear to me. So the way I got around it was to play a lot of sixties cover songs by nineties modern rock artists. Many of these artists I would personally interview and they would confirm their admiration for such seminal influences.
I wanted not just the young "gen x" crowd but "baby boomers" as well. I wanted KWOD to replace 93 Rock as Sacramento's most important rock station. I despised their monopoly on rock because I felt they were only offering a slice of rock that appealed more to the Guns N' Roses crowd of blue collar tough guys. I wanted to appeal to the crowd of rock fans that wanted to see the world evolve, not into macho arrogance but a more self-actualized, educated and world-conscious mindset. I didn't want to shut out black artists, who were the architects of rock and roll in the first place. I wanted the music to be multi-cultural with a rock base. I knew fans of such an ideal sound were out there because growing up in Sacramento, I knew that's what KZAP used to be. I wanted KWOD to be a community voice that empowered its listeners and not just some package of hyped records and commercials.
Because my number one priority was still to get good ratings, I paid close attention to what the few modern rock stations that got good ratings were doing. In 1993 that essentially meant KROQ, 91X and a few other stations. I also read as many articles as I could about successful industry leaders in trade magazines. Finally, I carefully studied the demographics in Sacramento and found that the median age was actually my age - early thirties. I also found that in the 18-34 age group (the primary demographic for most modern rock stations) that there were a lot more people in the upper half of that demo than in the lower half. This led me to believe KWOD should sound a little more adult and care a little less what the college crowd was screaming about. At the same time, I didn't want to fall into the same sleepy wallpaper approach of so many boring adult contemporary stations.
I played particularly close attention to a May 28, 1993 R&R article by Shawn Alexander called "Format Breeds New Success Stories." The article mentioned how The End in Seattle surged from seventh to second place in the same demo. PD Rick Lambert said, "It came down to concentrated music. We looked at what bands we should and could own in Seattle." Basically what was happening was a refinement of modern rock programming. The era of experimenting with wide playlists was quickly ending.
For the past few years I had also really started analyzing album sales. I found that Sacramento's album sales closely mirrored the national Soundscan sales published by Billboard. This further confirmed my opinion that Sacramento was almost a precise microcosm of the national scene since the demographics were so parallel. What I found was that guitar-based music sold more albums than techno music, even though KWOD had played a lot of techno-based music in its first two years tinkering with alternative music. That's a big reason why I convinced Ed and Gerry to go more guitar in November 1992 and then revisited the topic with Ed again in July 1993.
It's true that there were a lot more phone requests and a lot more people in clubs all along that vocally demanded more techno and rave music. But phone requests only represented six percent of the audience and club-goers represented less than one percent of our audience. A lot more people - the passive audience - paid more attention to rock music. That's why I kept fighting for the guitar sound. I wanted the ratings. Ironically, in 1993 there were only a few stations in the market even playing guitar music while everything else sounded like smooth electronic music. The yuppie world had taken over and was trying to say that rock and roll was outdated. But I knew they were wrong. They just wished rock would go away because it didn't fit in with their artificial world of hyped products and plastic personas.
The mainstream had become very anti-rock. Very few guitar records were charting at CHR anymore. It gave me a flashback to my formative years. Back in the eighties, before I got into radio, I started out as a roller rink DJ. My manager, Roger, explained to me that I shouldn't play rock because it made people angry. He said rock was bad for crowd control. He told me to concentrate on records with happy sounds and pronounced beats and to not make radical tempo changes from song to song. To my amazement, he was correct. My sessions never had fights and the skaters followed the beats and never got too dangerously out of control. The only time I really played rock was for speed skate, which would only last for two songs. The rest of the music was either r&b/dance or techno/pop with heavily pronounced beats. That became the same sound that took over nightclubs. Very few clubs with DJ's played mostly rock anymore, even though it was still popular. It was all about crowd control - and to some degree mind control for the sake of repetitious marketing.
Rock and roll was historically about rebellion against the establishment. In the early nineties, the establishment was winning big time. Not that techno was pro-establishment. In fact, much of it was just as anti-establishment as sixties rock. The difference, though, was that techno was crowd control music and rock never was. The origins of techno music clearly came from the German band Kraftwerk in the seventies. Their song "Autobahn" in 1975 featured layers of synthesizers like no other record before. Then electronic music fused with disco in the late seventies. Disco had been the beginning of crowd control music. By the early eighties the result of this synergism came out in groups like Depeche Mode. The backbone of the music was based on steady beats from a drum machine. Steady beats, unlike sixties music, created a uniform sound that blended with similar beat-based music. This again, was the essence of crowd control, as DJ's could keep a crowd dancing to the same beat from song to song by an art called "beatmixing."
The problem I found with techno/pop music, other than it generated poor ratings, was that it was all starting to sound the same. That was my complaint about r&b as well. I loved both of these forms of music in their early inception stages, but now it was sounding like cookie-cutter marketing. Techno also was hard to perform live without using pre-recorded samples or sequencers. I never forgot how I saw Howard Jones play in Sacramento in 1989 when his sequencers went out and he was forced to play acoustic piano. I actually gained a lot more respect for him because of it. When I met him backstage after the show he was still upset that his equipment failed him, but I told him "at least you knew what to do." That was not the case with certain other techno/pop acts that I started to notice messing up on stage, who didn't have the live musical talent to cover when the sequencers failed.
One further incident pushed me away from techno and deeper into the rock camp. It was when Jesus Jones came to town in April 1993. Before the show, Giles Hendriksen interviewed singer Mike Edwards in the studio. In that interview Edwards bragged, "We are about the 1990's and we're probably one of the few rock bands that are." The band's latest album, Perverse was much more electronic than the previous smash hit album. Edwards went on to say "We consider techno to be the only interesting thing happening in pop music right now...Most of what we listen to is techno and we're totally disillusioned with rock music. I mean for me, I find that people making it, people commenting on it, and to a large degree people listening to it don't really want anything new. And if you're even slightly inquisitive, if you have some sort of bent towards new things - creative stuff - then it's just not rewarding to make rock music anymore. So I definitely think we'll head into a more dance direction."
Not only was I in disbelief from what I just heard, I started thinking this guy had no room to talk since his latest album was a commercial flop in America. We played the single "The Devil You Know" and even the newer single "The Right Decision" as well as the busy computerized production of "Zeroes And Ones" but none of it struck a chord with our audience. I couldn't believe this was the attitude of the guy who gave us "Right Here, Right Now," which I thought was one of the best modern rock songs of the decade so far. My suspicion that he fell into the wrong side of history was confirmed with the low turnout of 600 people that night at the Crest Theatre, which held a thousand. The subsequent review in the Sacramento Bee by music critic David Barton was entitled "Jesus Jones does not compute." The review criticized the show for showcasing too much electronic overkill, but gave the band credit for its "human element."
It seemed to me that there was too much future shock going on in society at the time to thrust into a techno revolution. Yet, computers were indeed becoming more and more a part of people's lives. I even programmed KWOD's music on a computer. But the point that I think Edwards lost about rock music was that rock was making a comeback, not because society was moving backward, but because a fresh new rock sound was emerging that dealt with the human condition. The ironic thing was that I thought Jesus Jones was a vital part of that fresh new rock sound. It's interesting that the band fell into obscurity on the American scene for the rest of the decade, just like a lot of other techno acts who tried to fight the revitalized spirit of rock. I didn't think this meant techno music was dead, it just wasn't going to be the next big thing at that time period. I sensed that a lot of people wanted to get back to more human-sounding music and less machine-driven music. That would explain why acoustic versions of songs such as "Plush" by Stone Temple Pilots generated a bigger response than the electric album version at the time. The term "unplugged" became the new buzz word for modern rock.
Even more evidence that the modern rock audience wanted to hear more guitars was the fact that two of the biggest synthesizer acts were shifting to more guitar sounds. Both Depeche Mode and New Order featured more guitar work in their 1993 releases. Depeche Mode had announced prior to the release of Songs of Faith and Devotion that the album would include more live instrumentation such as live drums instead of electronic drums as well as more emphasis on electric guitar than keyboards. The lead-off track "I Feel You" became an instant hit and was indeed based on a hypnotic guitar riff, although it maintained a dancy club feel. New Order's hit "Regret" also stayed within the group's dance pop vein with its lush layered guitar sound, which they had actually already embraced to some degree in earlier recordings.
The most ironic twist in this whole shifting paradigm from keyboards to guitars was the reverse shift by U2. Up until 1993, U2 had been undeniably the best-selling band in the history of modern rock. Their Joshua Tree album in 1987 sold over ten million copies while their 1991 half-techno/half-rock album Achtung Baby sold over seven million copies. But in the summer of 1993 the band slipped dramatically in sales to about two million with the all-techno release Zooropa. In press releases and interviews Bono not only sounded like he was done with rock music, but he gave the impression that rock and roll itself was over with and had been outdated by techno. The album sounded like a soundtrack to a video game. Although we played various tracks including "Numb," none of them caught fire with the audience the way previous guitar-based U2 hits had done.
With all this evidence piling up, I was convinced that KWOD should back off techno as much as possible, without eliminating it completely, and concentrate more on guitar-based music. That meant playing more bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Counting Crows, Toad The Wet Sprocket and Gin Blossoms, who were all emerging strongly in album sales. I decided that the station should play more album cuts from these artists to highlight the new sound that was taking over rock and pushing the contrived hair bands out of the spotlight.
MUSIC PLAYED ON KWOD IN 1993:
4 NON BLONDES - What's Up
ALICE IN CHAINS - Rooster
BLIND MELON - No Rain
BREEDERS - Cannonball
CRANBERRIES - Linger
DEPECHE MODE - I Feel You
GIN BLOSSOMS - Hey Jealousy
JULIANA HATFIELD 3 - My Sister
JAMES - Laid
NEW ORDER - Regret
NIRVANA - Heart-Shaped Box
PEARL JAM - Daughter
PROCLAIMERS - I'm Gonna Be (re-issue from 1988)
RADIOHEAD - Creep
R.E.M. - Everybody Hurts
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS - Soul To Squeeze
SMASHING PUMPKINS - Disarm
SOUL ASYLUM - Runaway Train
SPIN DOCTORS - Two Princes
STONE TEMPLE PILOTS - Plush
see full list of 1993 songs
I also brought back a lot more songs from more familiar modern rock artists of the past such as U2, R.E.M., the Police, the Clash, Talking Heads, David Bowie, INXS and Elvis Costello. I continued to sprinkle in the Sex Pistols at night, but I felt the most important cornerstone band that had influenced the development of modern rock was the Police. For three guys they created a pretty heavy sound. Not only that, they integrated jazz, reggae and African sounds into rock like no band had previously done. More importantly, they turned the sound of rock inside out by making the bass more prominent and treating lead guitar like a flavor instead of a foreground instrument. On top of all that, their songs had deep philosophical messages. All of this pointed to the more enlightened listener as opposed to the loudmouth chowderhead.
One thing I didn't subscribe to was that modern rock had to represent the decadent lifestyle and attitude of the generation X prototype. I could not stand the mindlessness of the aggressive mosh pit or the conformity of wearing all black in conjunction with multiple piercings, dyed hair and tattoos. There were way too many vampire clones to call it an independent movement. I never believed that someone's cool status should be based on what they do to themselves physically or symbolically. I always believed in something more mental and cosmic. I wanted to pitch a more free-thinking attitude and throw conformity and stereotypes out the window. To me, gen x marketing was all the same overdone persuasive process that spawned the manipulated fashions of corporate hype. Nevertheless, I didn't hold it against anyone. Too many of our target listeners (maybe a tenth) fit that description so I had no choice but to embrace them. Besides, some of our advertisers were tattoo parlors.
On October 1, I flew to San Diego to meet with a record promoter named Mike Jacobs. I liked Mike better than the average record rep because he actually knew a lot about the history of modern rock and how it tied in with the overall history of rock. What I found particularly interesting about Mike was that he had been a close friend of the late Rick Carroll, who many credit as the "founding father" of modern rock radio. Carroll, who had actually gone to the same college I did (CSUS) and worked in Sacramento radio in the seventies, was the programmer who transformed KROQ in the late seventies from underground to its more successful incarnation. Carroll came up with the slogan "rock of the eighties," which a few stations adopted that decade. Carroll also consulted 91X and some other early modern rock stations.
The next day I went to the "91X Fest" at the San Diego Sports Arena. It was the station's ten year anniversary listener party. It seemed I spent more time backstage than watching the show because I enjoyed hanging with record people, even though they were very assertive about conveying the image that they ran the industry, not people like me. I was happy that I got to meet 91X Program Director Kevin Stapleford, who I figured was some kind of guru like his assistant Mike Halloran. The artists that played included Big Country, Living Colour, Social Distortion and the headliner Iggy Pop. I actually stood on stage during the Social Distortion set behind the drum kit and saw Iggy Pop sit next to me. I was pretty amazed that for a guy that had been around so long, he still looked like a teenager. I was more amazed, though, that the crowd quickly thinned out from the end of the Social Distortion set to the beginning of the Iggy Pop set. It literally looked like an empty arena with a small crowd huddled around the stage. It made me think that young people didn't appreciate legends - even punk legends. I thought his set was the most energetic but the crowd kept thinning especially when he started making undecipherable remarks, apparently criticizing the establishment, but I wasn't sure. Whatever he was doing didn't seem to be working with that crowd. I left the place confused, not understanding why the whole event seemed to dissolve. I started having more flashes that the light at the end of the creepy modern rock tunnel was moving further away.
Another show that raised questions in my mind was that of Smashing Pumpkins on October 19 at the Warfield in San Francisco. This marked the first time that I entered the infamous mosh pit. It was almost like peer pressure as I was convinced by two record reps, Michael and Julie, who dragged me into the pit. After a few minutes my paranoia about getting injured subsided and I was able to bounce off people at ease. It was kind of a friendly mosh pit and it was kind of fun, actually. Smashing Pumpkins turned out to put on an awesome show that had me somewhat hypnotized by the way their hard rock sound had a soothing quality. When I met singer Billy Corgan backstage I had to say something about it. I told Corgan, "your concert made me think of an equation, that anarchy plus responsibility equals social reform."
Before he could respond, a typical looking "biker chick" in black leather with long blonde hair interrupted and said, "I don't want to talk politics, I just want your autograph." There was an awkward moment and a half of silence and in that span I felt embarrassed as if my confidence had just been shattered by some mindless, but very attractive bimbo. It was kind of the story of my life.
Corgan then said "my artistic moment is over and he asked me a question." As he turned to respond to my comment, somehow in the haze of philosophical inquiry the "biker chick" fell out of the picture. Corgan then said "you can't have anarchy and responsibility at the same time so your equation doesn't make any sense." I stopped to absorb his statement then I turned the conversation to how I really enjoyed the show. Trying to come back down to Earth, I introduced myself and explained how KWOD was playing a lot of the band's music. I told him how the songs "Drown," "Cherub Rock," "Disarm" and "Today" worked really well on the station and then I asked his opinion on a good follow-up cut. He suggested the song "Mayonnaise," which he indicated would be the next single. He seemed more comfortable talking about the commercial aspect of music than whatever cosmic theory I was tripping on. It was kind of the reverse of what an outsider might expect.
Maybe I was still in some kind of utopian trance from the great news I had heard five days earlier. The summer Arbitron came in and KWOD had vaulted from 2.5 to 3.6, the station's best showing in two years. It was the first ratings book to reflect our official shift to modern rock and it obviously paid off. Promotions Director Rob Endsley told me that others in the market were stunned by our giant leap and that we were "a player again." The magnificent jump put us back in the news again as I was interviewed by The Bee as well as Billboard. I credited the success to a combination of Shawn & Jeff in the morning, Giles Hendriksen in afternoon drive and an overall shift to the new conscious rock music that picked up where the sixties and seventies left off. It was a defining moment, but it was only the beginning of a new era.
continue to Chapter 5: Nirvana Vs. Pearl Jam
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