The Rise of Alternative Radio|
by Alex Cosper
table of contents
Chapter 6: Climb of the Decade
After three years of uncertainty, KWOD finally made a big splash that not only surprised the industry, but turned a corner that sent the station on a steady course to ratings success and national recognition. On April 27, 1994 with the news of the Winter Arbitron, KWOD surged from 3.3 to 4.5 and pulled ahead of 93 Rock (which fell to an even four share) for the first time. This was a huge jump that proved KWOD was a strong player in the market. We had tied our highest book of the last eight years. KWOD also beat 93 Rock for the first time in the 18-34 demographic.
Three days later the Sacramento Bee published a story by Dan Vierra called "KWOD gets a push up the ratings ladder." Dan quoted me in the article saying "93 Rock's format is still viable, but their main artists cross over into our format and a lot of their former listeners are checking us out. We're playing music that's relevant to our audience."
93 Rock's new Program Director Pat Martin said in the same article, "I think they (KWOD) got a big kiss from Arbitron." But Vierra ended the article by saying "Arbitron officials could not be reached for comment, but judging by KWOD's steadily increasing ratings, we're convinced this was no fluke."
It wasn't as if we were enemies with 93 Rock or they were enemies with us. I knew that at least some of 93 Rock's staff listened to KWOD. Laura Ingle, who did the evening show and later went on to work as a television correspondent for Fox News told me on a couple of occasions that she found out about Kurt Cobain's death by listening to my show. She also told me once that she thought my programming was "intelligent." I also listened to 93 Rock to check out what they were doing. Even though I thought we sounded better I never thought they sucked.
Modern rock finally had identity and it was finally overtaking rock radio. I believed that one reason for this surge was that we were appealing to male and female rock fans, whereas the old album rock stations were mainly targeting males. Even though we were now mostly playing guitar music, it sounded like wider variety than 93 Rock simply because we included female artists. The 93 Rock sound still gravitated toward hair bands while our station sounded like a collage of unique songs that all tied together because of their uniqueness. Plus, our music didn't sound so arrogant - we sounded more down to earth. Part of the appeal of modern rock was that its artists didn't try to pose as icons.
KWOD's big move coincided with a lot of other strong jumps around the country in the modern rock format. On May 20, Shawn Alexander's R&R column was called "Format Keeps Going & Going." He credited KNDD in Seattle for capturing the number one position in the 18-34 target demographic. He also credited KWOD as the only station to rank number one in the 25-34 demo. "We're more focused on the 25-34 demo," Shawn quoted me. "I'm more likely to play an artist that crosses rock and modern rock than an artist just happening at modern rock. We'll still play Erasure and Depeche Mode. But it almost has to be an artist with a track record - unless it's a unique or reactive song."
Depeche Mode singer David Gahan actually called into the station on April 11 for an interview with Giles. "Everyone's rocking a lot harder," Gahan said of the band. "We're just four guys in a rock and roll band." It was just strange to hear him describe their mostly ethereal and electronic dance music as rock and roll when a lot of their fans probably didn't think of it that way. It seemed as if he was just playing into the scheme that guitars had taken over modern rock. The conversation also turned to rumours that the upcoming tour might be a farewell tour, but Gahan left it up in the air. He also touched on how his wife at the time was from Sacramento, which made it kind of like another hometown for him.
One thing I kept in the back of my mind was that even though more guitars and less keyboards was obviously helping KWOD climb up the ratings ladder, techno was not dead by any means. It still packed the clubs, raves were getting bigger and it was still vigorously being pitched by the industry. That's probably what I really despised the most - that it was being hyped so intensely by the industry but it really wasn't happening on the level that they were saying. What I kept trying to tell these people was that we'll play the techno that works, but our overall sound that clearly works is rock. It had nothing to do with which type of music was behind or ahead of the times - rock was the times, just like the other three consistent strands in contemporary American music history: pop, soul and country. Jazz, the root of a lot of contemporary music, also mattered but it was usually only strong with radio audiences when mixed with pop, rock or soul. Everything that worked on American radio was either a pure or hybrid soundtrack of pop, rock, soul or country. Techno worked best with pop or soul but not nearly as well as its own genre.
One of the techno songs that clearly worked and blended well with rock was "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails. In fact, it was one of the top requested songs of 1994 on KWOD. One of the things that made the song stand out was the lyrics "I wanna f--k you like an animal." Of course, we played the radio edit. Our concern about censoring such material had more to do with the FCC than the audience. In fact the only complaints we got were from the people who wanted to hear the actual explicit version. The year 1994 would mark the rise of several songs with explicit lyrics that featured slightly edited "clean" versions. The edit usually kept the "obscene" language in except for a split second fade on the definitive vowel so that the word sounded more like a whisper. In other words, bleeps, which actually called more attention to the lyrics in question, were out of style. The new edit technique was more subtle.
There was still a vocal faction of techno fans that had the idea that techno had nothing to do with rock, that rock was the old world and that techno was the new world. But a lot of heads turned in 1994 when the Australian group Frente featuring singer Angie Hart had a big hit with an acoustic guitar cover of New Order's electronic masterpiece "Bizarre Love Triangle." The group stopped by the station on May 16 and performed it live. "If it's a really good song to start with, then it'll make a good cover," guitarist Simon Austin said. He also said their favorite music was "English eighites stuff" but that now the breakthroughs were happening in America, which they thought was exciting. Conversely, The Cure made a techno hit out of the Jimi Hendrix guitar anthem "Purple Haze," confirming that modern rock was still a wide open enough terrain where anything was possible.
One of the reasons I thought the radio industry was fascinating was the fact that radio is the final filter or gatekeeper of music that shapes public taste. No one will ever hear all the music that comes out each week. There is simply too much music being made - and sadly, most of it isn't very good. I listened to mountains of CDs over many years - certainly more than the average person. I prided myself on being a gatekeeper - that I was someone who weeded out a lot of bad music. By bad music I mean music that either sounds just like a million other songs just to sell records or music that simply has no art to it, no soul, no meaning, no purpose. But just because I didn't play a certain song didn't mean I thought the song was bad. Sometimes it just came down to the history of the market. I tried to stay balanced at the crossroads of art and commerce. I wanted to play great music, but at the same time I had to keep in mind that radio history shows that the top ten always beats the bottom ten.
Every now and then I'd explain my position to people and they would look at me bewildered and ask, "well, why don't you let other DJs decide what to play?" Or sometimes the question would be, "how do you know if a song is going to work or not if you don't play it?" Even record label reps asked that question. But people would never say, "oh you're the guy who picks the music? - Wow, let me shake your hand." Sometimes I had to deal with the paranoia among people that my position was somewhat like a dictator, not resembling democracy. But the truth is a Program Director has to be objective enough to play the songs the audience wants to hear and artistic enough to know that a lot of music the industry dishes out is pure garbage and doesn't need to be heard by anyone.
I based a lot of decision-making on record sales, requests and what was happening at other alternative stations. But I also deliberately tried to weed out the dumb records - the ones that take up slots just because the industry pushes them. Record reps would be frustrated with me that they couldn't get their dumbest stuff played on KWOD. I'd say, "it doesn't fit our sound." Then they'd say, "well, your sound needs balance." But balancing good music with bad music is simply not a winning strategy. Plus, I knew from experience that a station can't just follow the record industry or the record industry will lead the station to low ratings. Someone has to be a leader.
I also learned that just because a song gets airplay doesn't mean it's going to be a hit or sell a lot of records. And just because something does sell, doesn't mean the artist is going to make a lot of money. That became clear when Big Head Todd & The Monsters visited the station on March 11. They were interviewed by Giles, who asked about what it was like to go gold (when the label ships 500,000 units to retailers whether they sell or not). Singer Todd Park Moore replied, "You'd be surprised at how many more albums we have to sell to break even." His response triggered my curiosity, so I started asking record label people what was the break even point (for a major label release) and the general consensus was a million units.
Upon further investigation, I found out that only a small percentage of artists on any label's roster make money and that they pay for most of the artists who lose money. Now I was beginning to understand the game and why the labels pressured radio so hard with their ridiculous hype to get bleak new artists played. But I could never bring myself to sympathize with label economics. Why not just sign fewer groups and make sure they are all good instead of signing a bunch of bad uninspired groups that are just mimicking what has already been proven to be commercial? My only guess was that the major labels wanted to control the universe of choices for radio, shutting out independent labels from the process.
Alternative or modern rock radio was supposed to be about indie music, right? Only in the sense, from the major label perspective, that a lot of so-called independent labels were subsidiaries of the six major labels at that time. Those six major labels of the early to mid-nineties were: Sony (parent of Columbia), Warner, BMG (parent of RCA), Polygram, MCA and EMI (parent of Capitol). A lot of indie labels were not owned by majors but had distribution deals with the majors, especially if a song started getting airplay. So, the real answer is that most alternative music that got airplay was not independent of the major labels at all.
I finally started to become more familiar with what punk rock was really meant to be about after reading Johnny Rotten's book No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. The book chronicled his adventures with The Sex Pistols and his philosophies about alternative culture. To my surprise, he turned out to have a lot of the same perspective as I had come up with on my own. He described how punk was completely misunderstood, even by its fans. His idea was that punk was a celebration of individualism yet when the corporate marketers got their hands on it, punk inevitably became another conformist trend in which everyone in its circle began wearing the same black clothes and crazy hairstyles.
More modern rock stations began signing on. On May 13 long-time rocker KOME in San Jose flipped to alternative rock. The new PD was Jay Taylor, who had been a successful top 40 programmer. The station maintained its rock edge while incorporating different new sounds. Other alternative newcomers on the scene in 1994 included: KRQT Houston (The Rocket, which transformed into KTBZ The Buzz in 1995), KREV Minneapolis, KZON Phoenix (The Zone), WMMS Cleveland, KXPK Denver, WLUM Milwaukee, WRZX Indianapolis, WYSR Hartford, WRXQ Memphis and WQNF Louisville. There were also new adult alternative stations such as KMTT Seattle (The Mountain), KEGE Minneapolis (The Edge), KTCZ Minneapolis (Cities), WVRV St.Louis (The River), KQPT in Sacramento (The Point), KUMT in Salt Lake City and WTTS in Indianapolis.
On June 1 Network 40 Magazine released its issue that featured a two page article on me. It was my biggest coverage in the industry to date. Of course, it helped that the writer was my former Music Director Karen Holmes, but then again, there would have been nothing to write about if it weren't for KWOD's amazing ratings. The story was called "Alex Cosper - Hitting A Home Run In His Home Town." In this interview I explained to Karen, "I'm a music fan, but my favorite music is the mass appeal stuff. My favorite groups are U2, INXS, R.E.M. and Pearl Jam. So it's easy for me to be excited about programming this music. The conflict of programming my favorite music really doesn't happen too often. The songs that impress me the most are the ones that have the power to cross boundaries."
When Karen asked about the air staff and how I chose a winning team I responded, "You have to use people who understand the music over seasoned jocks outside the format. Jocks who come in from other formats seem to stand out on the air and receive the most abuse from callers. The audience respects and can relate to real people on the air because they're music fans themselves. That builds credibility. A polished sounding jock just isn't important anymore. Most of the people who started as interns came in with a passion for the music. It was just a matter of me working with them to overcome the obstacles of starting out. You have to be on the level of your audience. To talk down to them by being hip is the exact opposite of what the format is about. Listeners of the station have been bombarded for years with hype, attitude and arrogance. DJs aren't gods anymore. The 'boss jock' attitude has no business here. DJs who talk down to the listeners harm your station's credibility."
Not only was it uncool in the modern rock arena to talk down to the audience or pose as an icon, it was actually becoming very cool for artists to make fun of themselves. An early example had been the 1993 hit "Creep" by Radiohead. In 1994 the big self-deprecating hits were "Loser" by Beck, "Basket Case" by Green Day and "Self-Esteem" by the Offspring.
Both the Offspring and Green Day made it onto the airwaves partly due to the enthusiasm of record promoter Mike Jacobs. In April Mike got a call from Andy Caulkin from Epitaph, who never tried to put records on the radio. Their punk acts sold well based on shows and word of mouth, which gave the label high credibility in the world of independent labels. "He says 'you need to hear to this,' " recalls Mike. "He played me 'Come Out and Play' and I said 'yeah, that's a hit.' I played it for (KROQ head of programming) Kevin Weatherly. On the way home (night jock) Jed played it on his show. I remember taking it to some idiot PD who said 'I can't play this, this is a gang record.' I said you don't understand, this is an anti-gang record."
That was about as hard as Mike had to work at getting PDs to add such an obvious hit. The easiest add came when Mike played the song for a Midwest PD who mistakenly thought Mike was his consultant. "He thought I was one of the Jacobs brothers, so he added it," he laughs. Mike also told programmers around the country about Green Day and Rancid, and it didn't take long for these punkish power pop groups along with Bad Religion to invade the format. I myself found out about these groups through Mike. I agreed with him that they were no-brainer hits.
We were able to get Beck to play our outdoor listener concert on June 6, 1994. The headliner was Violent Femmes and rounding out the bill were the Church, Possum Dixon and newcomers Eve's Plum. It was our biggest concert to date. The sold out show at CSUS attracted 3500 people. Even though this was probably the best KWOD concert the whole time I worked there, it made me very uncomfortable.
I didn't like the way the promoter took control of the show. Even though I had chosen the line-up, the promoter picked the venue and how the setting was staged. It was a softball field with a fence around the concert area - even though hundreds of people were able to watch the show for free from an overlooking parking garage. I didn't mind the freeloaders as much as the fact that the ones who paid had to deal with a claustrophobic prison-like atmosphere.
It didn't have that free-spirited feel that I wanted to be identified with the station. In fact, security guards seemed rather uptight, more than they should have been - probably because the concert area was a little too small for the crowd to kick back. There was definitely no body surfing - security made sure of that. Even though it was a crowd of all ages, and security acted as if they were baby-sitting a bunch of kids, telling even adults to get out of the way whenever they made a wrong step. It just seemed uptight compared to all the modern rock shows I had seen before. Even so, Violent Femmes and Beck sparked the enthusiasm and made it a memorable event.
A few days later Sacramento Bee J. Freedom du Lac wrote his review of the show entitled, "Loser? Who Can Tell? Beck plays CSUS - the only thing clear was the chaos." He described the Beck performance as confusing but that "all you really need to know is this: Beck + instruments + microphone = confounding chaos." Other words that described the performance included intriguing, sloppy, nonsensical and enigmatic. Then the review went on to say that some of the Violent Femmes songs were as old as the fans themselves but that the "large contingent of prepubescent audience members" sang along anyway. It's funny that I noticed it was a more all ages crowd with just as many adults as teens. He said the Church "seemed out of place, playing a hypnotic set of vocal-driven melodic pop that was strikingly different than the rest of the high energy" acts. It made me think that we put all this planning into a show just so that the paper could paint a hazy picture of it all. In other words, it was actually a good show and a good review but none of it added up to what I wanted to accomplish. I didn't want KWOD to have such a "kid image" yet that's how the event came across, with the more intelligent act being out of place.
On June 11 I visited Southern California to attend the annual KROQ Weenie Roast. It's funny that before the show I read about the Weenie Roast in a newspaper article that snubbed KROQ for being programmed by people old enough to be the listeners' parents. Both KROQ and KWOD, along with almost every other modern rock station in the country targeted the 18-34 age group, although once again, the press tried to paint the audience as younger.
The show had an incredible bill, as KROQ shows always did. Green Day, although not the headliner, definitely stole the show as singer Billy Joe pulled his pants down and exposed himself to the fans, giving the Weenie Roast new meaning. It created a real crazy atmosphere, although people seemed more entertained than shocked. Questions and mysteries about Jim Morrison pulling such a stunt in the sixties now seemed like ancient history. Billie Joe made several humorous statements including "don't listen to heavy metal," in which there seemed to be an understanding among the audience that metal and glam rock had peaked. The band did a satire of metal songs and the long-forgotten corporate rock anthem "Eye of The Tiger." Also on the bill were Offspring and Counting Crows. The next day I went to the 91X Sunfest in San Diego where Green Day played again, this time bringing fans onstage and creating more shenanigans. Backstage I actually reunited with a high school friend Rob Tonkin, who turned out to work for 91X in promotions for several years and I didn't even know it.
July was a month of ups and downs. KWOD's shift to guitar music even had an impact on the club scene. By 1994 it was pretty clear to anyone looking at the national modern rock charts that guitar music had indeed taken over in a big way. On July 1, KWOD's Friday night live broadcast from a techno club called the Rage transformed into a more rock-sounding mix and was renamed the Alphabet Club. This was completely the decision of the club, although they had asked me beforehand if I thought it was a good idea and of course I said yes. We aired their mix Friday nights at 10pm, which I thought was prime party time and I couldn't stand the fact that 93 Rock had regular programming at that time, stealing our rock listeners! On July 14 Arbitron showed 93 Rock edging us by a tenth of a point. KWOD fell 4.5 to 3.9 while they stayed flat, creating a statistical tie. It wasn't that horrible of a drop for us, but I thought, "Oh no, here we go again."
So I spent the next day freshening up the music to try to sound more current than 93 Rock. On July 20 I hired Ron Givens (my drummer) as Public Service Director. The reason I hired a friend was because not only was Ron very articulate on social issues, I wanted to hire people who agreed with my programming. Some staff members and club people from the techno camp tried to go over my head telling Ed Stolz that we weren't playing enough techno and that I didn't know what I was doing. But I was able to convince Ed that I knew more about it than they did because I at least had the research to back up my claims. Some of those critics faded away three months later when KWOD bounced back to 4.5.
During the summer of 1994 I probably went to more concerts than ever before. I didn't just see modern rock concerts, I went to every concert imaginable, including taking my mother to see Barbara Streisand in San Jose. Even though I had no intention of ever playing Streisand, I still thought she put on a better show than practically anyone I had seen before. Her mix of music, social commentary and creative use of big screen video rivaled U2's shows. Three days earlier on June 4, I rode in a caravan with friends to see Soundgarden at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. They actually came off as more subdued and more melodic than I expected even on "Spoonman." I actually liked their live sound better than the recording. It made me think they were more musical than the "grunge" myth that had been cast on them and other Seattle bands. The Offspring came to Sacramento to play for about a thousand people. They were as hot as Green Day, and they were both becoming the hottest new bands.
On July 9 I interviewed Offspring's singer Dexter Holland, who gave Green Day credit for opening the door for a lot of punk bands. Dexter, who introduced himself to me by his real name Brian, said, "punk rock is more about attitude than anything and regular straight old rock and roll fails to do that...It's not necessarily a matter of being able to play your instruments real well...No one that I know has really taken a lesson of any kind...What people in my age group get into is the rebellion and the anger and getting out frustration...trying to convey that in music really isn't about technical prowess...Music trims itself, once it gets bloated. It comes back to something a little leaner, a little stronger. That's what's kind of happening with punk rock I think."
I mentioned to Dexter that the latest issue of Musician Magazine included a piece called "Whatever Happened to British Bands?" I suggested that they were over-produced and he laughed saying "I think so too." At the time the Offspring were still on a genuine independent label, which was Epitaph. At the time, which was prior to being signed to Columbia, the band had turned down offers from major labels. Dexter explained why he preferred an independent label to a major label saying, "They're like your friends. You can call them up and ask them what's going on and they don't like refer you to the accounting department or something. That's what happens at major labels. It's not the case with Epitaph. We're a part of everything that goes on and we're able to approve or not approve of stuff...I think the thing that people don't really realize about Epitaph is that they sell a ton of records regardless (of airplay). Bad Religion sells like 100,000 records and that's a lot of records. I think the bigger labels and the more commercial radio stations - they're really not aware of this crowd that's existing because no one's representing them or whatever."
Indeed, Dexter had made some strong points - that there was a punk market after all and that it didn't really need radio to survive. It inspired me to agree with punk fans like Promotions Director Rob Endsley that we should launch a late night punk show on KWOD a few months later called "Interference." We had done a similar show a year earlier called "The Pit" but it kind of faded. But with the sudden wave of so-called punk bands breaking out in 1994, there was a reason to do it again. I wanted the show to revolve around The Offspring, Green Day and Bad Religion, but I left it up to the jock Jamie, who turned it way more underground. Once again, the press have over-hyped something beyond distortion. They tried to make it seem like punk was taking over. The truth was that the Offspring, Green Day and Bad Religion were popular not because their music was punk but because it was power pop - rock songs too melodic to be considered pure punk but too edgy to be considered straight pop. They certainly had punk influence but the idea that punk was selling millions of records was mythical.
So here I was doing something for the kids. Punk was for kids, wasn't it? That's the impression one gets at a punk concert with everyone acting like wild kids out of control. It was all about energy and attitude according to the bands and the fans. No one was quoting Johnny Rotten anymore, saying that punk was about individuality or a political statement. After all, how would the pioneers of punk know anything about it anymore when they were all middle-aged? Despite my philosophies and idealism about what music was supposed to be about, at times it was just easier to go along with the scene and watch it play out - even though I knew that scenes that aren't deeply rooted in some kind of philosophy tend to go nowhere.
Most of the music that was happening in modern rock in 1994 wasn't punk at all. In fact it was a continuation of a richer more song-oriented mid-tempo rock. Stone Temple Pilots had a string of melodic rock hits like "Big Empty" and "Interstate Love Song." The Alice in Chains song "No Excuses" was the ideal radio hit because musically it fit nicely between any two songs. Anything with a drum intro and a cold ending worked well between any two songs. I liked the song a lot because it had forward-thinking lyrics about self-responsibility and inventive harmonies.
All around, 1994 was one of the strongest years in modern rock history for songs at the crossroads of art and commerce. Sheryl Crow had the fun party song "All I Wanna Do." There was a lot of great straight-ahead rock that year that sounded classic and fresh at the same time like "Backwater" by Meat Puppets, "Feel The Pain" by Dinosaur Jr, "Selling The Drama" by Live, "The Great Big No" by Lemonheads, "Supersonic" by Oasis, "What's The Frequency Kenneth" by R.E.M., "Shine" by Collective Soul and "Fall Down" by Toad The Wet Sprocket. There were also total surprise songs that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before such as the hilarious "Liar" by Rollings Band, "Bull In The Heather" by Sonic Youth, "Seether" by Veruca Salt, "If I Only Had A Brain" by MC 900 Foot Jesus, "Hey" by Boingo, "God" by Tori Amos, "Zombie" by the Cranberries and "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys. There were even unique techno tongs such as "Beer Can" by Beck, "Big Time Sensuality" by Bjork and "It's Over Now" by Cause & Effect.
See the full list of 1994 songs played on KWOD.
One of the most artistic bands of modern rock became closely connected with KWOD in 1994 and that was Boingo, formerly known as Oingo Boingo, featuring singer Danny Elfman. I was thrilled to introduce the band at their Community Theatre show July 22 and to have interviewed Elfman on the phone earlier in the year. He also came by the station the day of the show for an interview with Giles. He had done yet another interview at another time with Brad Adams. The band had a loyal following (among a relatively small audience compared to what was happening now) since the early eighties with their quirky novelty dance songs. But now the group seemed to have nothing to do with their bouncy roots and were now venturing into a more guitar-driven sound layered in orchestral strings. Their latest album was called Insanity and the single "Hey" was more surreal than quirky. The album also featured a cover of the Beatles song "I Am the Walrus," which we also played on KWOD. At the show, many in the crowd were befuddled by the new hard rocking - almost punkish - direction that did not include much of the band's eighties catalogue. Unfortunately, it would mark the tail-end of the band's career, as they would disband within a year.
The biggest modern rock concert of the year would be the 25th anniversary of Woodstock in New York. The event took place in August with a line-up that included a mix of nineties modern rock artists like Red Hot Chili Peppers and classic rockers like Santana. It was the exact kind of event that merged the two generations together, which is what I wanted for KWOD's audience. But by that point I had given up trying to convince the market and people around me that we should play Jimi Hendrix or Neil Young alongside Green Day or Pearl Jam, even though I knew it could work. Most of our top bands covered sixties artists, including Green Day, who did a cover of the Kinks song "Tired of Waiting For You." I still programmed several sixties and seventies cover songs, but it was clear that we were gaining enough momentum in the ratings as well as dealing with so much great new music coming out already.
One of the newer bands that played the Woodstock festival that seemed to be a flashback to the original festival was the Spin Doctors. A few weeks after the event I interviewed their singer Chris Baron, the day the band came to play in Sacramento. Originally when we started playing the band in 1993 with "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" and then "Two Princes" a lot of bewildered people of the techno club scene were asking why we were playing it when it obviously wasn't modern rock. To these people it sounded retro, not modern. But I defended the band for their eclectic sounds that fused jazz, reggae, blues, pop, country and rock. True, they looked and sounded like hippies from the sixties, but the strength of their album sales was more proof that there was a sixties/nineties connection going on in music. When the band came to town to play on August 30, morning man Shawn Cash and I introduced the Spin Doctors onstage at Cal Expo in front of several thousand people.
"Sacramento's KWOD seeks mass appeal" was a story in the Sept. 6 edition of the Stockton Record, written by by Brian McCoy. As I explained in the article, "A lot of people have a misconception that what we're doing is supposed to be underground, supposed to be outside the mainstream. We have to be mass appeal. We're here to offer people what they're asking for. If enough people like a song, we're going to play it. Inevitably, the bands that we play are going to be the significant rock bands of the '90s."
The idea that KWOD focused mainly on nineties rock music offended a certain sector of adults who claimed they had grown up with modern rock. These people were upset that I was steadily deleting a lot of eighties music in favor of a more current sound. I did hang on to the more innovative guitar acts like U2, R.E.M., the Police, the Clash, Talking Heads, the Smiths and the Cure. I also hung on to songs that I thought had timeless appeal because of their message or unique sound that had not been duplicated such as "Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds, "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" by Tears For Fears and "Uncertain Smile" by The The. At the same time I was dumping the more typical techno/pop sounding groups like The Pet Shop Boys. I didn't want the station to sound like a train-wreck for the people that liked the more current guitar sound.
So how could sixties music be relevant in the nineties if eighties music wasn't? Here's my explanation: the sixties was an incredibly inventive period in music in which artists freely expressed themselves and controlled their sound. The eighties, on the other hand, was a very contrived period where artists didn't have control of their sound as they were forced by the labels to conform to marketing strategies and fabricated trends. Then the early to mid-nineties was a return to a more pure sound of free expression. Okay, that's painting a broad stroke that may not be fair to a lot of cool eighties music as well as a lot of bland nineties music. But that's my overall general impression after listening to thousands of songs from each decade. There is no doubt that major record labels controlled the sound of eighties radio with hype and industry politics whereas in the nineties artists had more control of their music - at least when it came to modern rock.
I tried to warn the industry that modern rock wasn't the same as top 40, but after awhile, I realized they could care less about my viewpoint. On November 11, I had the pleasure of attending a record label dinner with the band Veruca Salt in San Francisco. Their song "Seether" had become a huge hit in the alternative format and now the label was talking about taking it to top 40 stations. I heard one of the singers tell a label rep she was concerned about that because she was afraid it would shorten her career. The rep insisted it could only help her career. I felt like jumping in and saying something like "no way, stay away from top 40, that's the kiss of death for a rocker," but I remained silent.
Then I saw Veruca Salt open for Hole at the Warfield Theatre later that night. I was startled when Courtney Love did a stage dive into the crowd at the end of the set and guys were grabbing her body parts. It looked like a rape scene from a B-movie. It had only been a half year since her husband Kurt Cobain's death, which added to the eeriness, considering she owed her career to him. Her first hit "Miss World" was released shortly after his death. Following the show, a Geffen rep introduced me to Courtney. I shook her hand but all I could think to say was "Courtney, you're crazy." She replied, "you have to excuse me, I'm a little f--ked up." I didn't know it then, but her career as a recording artist was peaking at that moment, or at least that year, along with the career of Veruca Salt. I assumed that all these modern rockers would just keep getting more popular, despite record company game plans and personality problems, but I was wrong.
Speaking of wrong, KWOD threw another Christmas concert on December 7, but it was botched. Da Da, riding on a current KWOD hit called "All I Am," was supposed to be on the bill but they backed out a few days before the show. Then at the show, Weezer walked off stage after one song. Even though they were the best selling band on the bill we stuck them in the middle of the line-up that included headliner Jesus & Mary Chain, the Cramps, Love Spit Love and 4 Non Blondes singer Linda Perry, who I thought stole the show with her first solo performance after leaving the San Francisco band.
Sacramento Bee music reviewer J. Freedom du Lac called his piece "A New Most Hated Band. Crowd stunned after Weezer cuts out at KWOD concert." The CSUS South Gym was packed with a capacity crowd of 2,000 people, many of which came just to see Weezer, who were riding high with their first few hits "Undone (The Sweater Song)" and "Buddy Holly." What happened was the band showed up late because they somehow lost their instruments at the airport. So they had to go all over town looking to rent instruments. When they finally got on stage they spent over 15 minutes trying to tune their guitars while a Sammy Hagar CD played, which wasn't exactly what Weezer fans were expecting. Apparently Weezer's songs required special tuning and the instruments kept popping out of tune.
So after one song bassist Matt Sharp told the crowd, "Sorry folks, but our equipment is still on a plane somewhere." Then guitarist Brian Bell said, "It's an embarrassment for you to have to hear us like this and for us to have to play like this. We'll be back sometime." As they walked off stage the crowd booed madly. Then one of the KWOD weekend jocks jumped on stage and said on the mike "Weezer sucks" and the crowd cheered.
Backstage the atmosphere was more chaotic. A record rep and the promoter were screaming at each other. The band was bummed. They offered to switch places with another band, who refused. Pretty soon I was yelling at the promoter and the jock who said "Weezer sucks" just because the band's label rep was yelling at me. At the end of the night the crowd walked out quietly, seeming to feel cheated. The next day the band called in on my show to apologize. It was that show that I started asking myself if doing station concerts was more of a liability than an asset.
I started studying more ratings around the country and found that stations had higher ratings in quarters that didn't have station concerts. Maybe it was because stations had to compromise their air sound a lot to do shows. In other words, they had to hype certain records to get certain bands. Plus, they had to hype the hell out of shows that most listeners didn't attend just to sell tickets. Was it really worth it? I began to wonder.
continue to Chapter 7: Peak of the Decade