The Rise of Alternative Radio|
by Alex Cosper
table of contents
Chapter 8: Everything Changes (1996)
Even though 1995 would prove to be the strongest year for many alternative radio stations, the year was still full of glaring signs of weakness. One was the lackluster response to the Lollapalooza tour headlined by Hole. At the Cal Expo show in Sacramento that August the turnout was sparse. Even worse, a string of drug-related deaths began to plague the format in the post-Cobain world. In October Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon was found dead just a few weeks after playing at Cal Expo. There turned out to be more overdose deaths throughout 1996 including Sublime singer Brad Noel who never saw the band's rise to the top of the alternative charts with "What I Got" a few months later. With several other band member deaths in the news, along with Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland's series of drug busts and questions about junkie Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley, a dark cloud began to hang over the alternative radio format.
Just as the alternative format was peaking in 1995, the press was assessing how the music had transformed from obscurity to mainstream. In the Sacramento Bee "Encore" section (10/22/95) J. Freedom du Lac wrote a story called "Battle of the Pop Sounds. The guitar rules with the new British Invasion bands, while synthesizers head for oldies heaven." He began by describing the evolution of Live 105 in San Francisco from Eurosynth to guitar-driven groups. Later he quoted me as saying, "Most of the synth stuff has taken a back seat to nineties guitar rock. The eighties will be remembered as a very plastic decade, a very synthetic decade, and I think that's where synth music comes in. I don't think you had to be a real musician to have a hit in the eighties. But now, listeners are more critical and they demand that the artists are musicians. That's why the guitar has come back. It's just a more popular instrument. It appeals to more people."
KWOD still sprinkled in the eighties, maybe two or three out of the fourteen songs in an hour. I just wanted music to sound as authentic as possible and I had taken it to an extreme serious level. The comical irony of it all was that 1996 turned out to be a super-ridiculous year of novelty songs and blatant formula pop songs while several of the more serious artists flopped.
But the good times were still pretty much rolling through the end of 1995. In November, I was named "Broadcaster of the Week" in Billboard and interviewed for the December 9 issue. I didn't understand why Douglas Reece called his article "A Mellower KWOD Evolves Under PD Alex Cosper" when I gave him a sample hour list of our music that included White Zombie. I told him that I had toned down the hype and maybe that's where he got the idea for the headline. It was still an honor to have been featured, which was largely because of KWOD's ratings success throughout 1995.
"In 1993, we switched from being a top 40/pop station to more of a rock station," I said in the Billboard article. "I made sure every record was guitar-oriented and less dancey. Before that, people couldn't figure out what we were, because we weren't well-defined. I attribute much of our gains over the last two years to being really focused on music and making sure we're playing viable songs that matter to the audience...We experiment here and there, but for the most part, we're evolving in a consistent direction instead of worrying about all the trends that are happening...Everybody on the station has a solid identity, and they articulate what this lifestyle is about. But most important, we're very descriptive of the artists we play...We don't emphasize high energy. The station has a more conversational delivery, because we have an audience that isn't affected by hype and shallow characterization...We found that this year we didn't do as many big promotions as we did last year, yet we have higher ratings. I'm still trying to figure it out. As far as consultants are concerned, I haven't found a need for their help. All the tools we need, we possess already, if not by my gut feelings alone, then by networking with the right people."
On December 13, 1995 we threw an amazing Christmas concert headlined by Love & Rockets, who had disappeared for six years. This was a sneak preview of their upcoming comeback tour. We held it at a small club called El Dorado Saloon, which only held about 500 people. Basically you had to win your way in. We packed the place to full capacity, but we probably could have done it at a much bigger venue.
Also on the bill were Everclear, No Doubt and Jawbreaker. The members of No Doubt, including singer Gwen Stefani, were interviewed earlier in the evening by Giles Hendriksen. Love & Rockets were interviewed on my show. All the bands, especially Love & Rockets did an outstanding performance. After the show Ron Givens hung out with the band and they all sang songs together. The previous week KWOD had done a completely different Christmas show featuring Our Lady Peace that was also an incredible performance. I even got to know them by having dinner with them earlier that evening.
The first indication that KWOD was about to slip out of its position of number one in Sacramento among rock stations, was in early December when the monthly trends came in. KWOD fell from 5.1 to 4.3. The Zone debuted in the mid twos while 93 Rock had fallen to the low threes. It was the day after the Love & Rockets concert, which you can almost pinpoint as a time marker. The good times lasted through the Love & Rockets concert and then starting the next day the station and the format began to slide. The two events aren't necessarily connected but it does make an interesting time marker.
Even though the numbers would start to dip, I kept getting interviewed by the local media and radio industry press. On December 20 Frank Simpson from television station Channel 31 (KMAX) interviewed me about a local band compilation I put together called Overflow. It was one of the opening stories that night. It was a unique project because it was based on a montage of lyrics sent into the station from KWOD listeners. I gave several bands the lyrics and they turned them into songs. The theme of the album was based on the disasterous floods of the previous winter that destroyed many homes. We did a show featuring some of the bands at the Classic Jukebox in which we gave away 425 CDs in exchange for canned food goods for the Red Cross. The other 575 CDs were divided up among the twenty artists involved.
The Fall Arbitron report that came in on January 10 wasn't completely bad news for KWOD despite being a down book. KWOD inched back up to 4.4, far ahead of 93 Rock, which would turn out to be a false indicator, as 93 Rock would have many winning books to come. But in the Sacramento Bee the Zone stole the headline because they had zoomed up to 3.7, looking like they might finally be a factor.
KWOD Staff 1996
In February 1996, Josh Freedom du Lac of the Sacramento Bee interviewed me for a story he was writing about the three way battle in Sacramento between KWOD, 93 Rock and the Zone. All three stations were playing very much the same current rock hits while each station sprinkled in their own flavor. The problem I saw was that KWOD tried to be a wide appeal station while 93 Rock started becoming more appealing to younger demos and the Zone was becoming more appealing to adults.
The article ran February 9 and was called "Rock Around The Dial. The alternative sound is hot, and a trio of Sacramento radio stations aim to cash in." In this article I voiced a lot of frustration about how the competition was taking away uniqueness, which was a big attraction to the alternative format. "Alternative has no meaning anymore," I confirmed. Then du Lac pointed out that KWOD was the highest ranked of "Sacramento's AlternaThree" and has been a fixture in the Arbitron top 10 for eight consecutive quarterly ratings books. "It's the most popular form of music now," I said. Josh brought out the facts to prove the format's popularity. He pointed out that in 1994, there were 51 alternative rock stations in America's major markets but by the end of 1995, there were 129 pure alternative stations.
"It really isn't an us-against-them kind of thing," said the Zone PD Jim Trapp in the article. "I really think there's room for everyone here." Then Curtiss Johnson was quoted as saying, "I think you'll see things change here in the next year or so...One station will leave the format or evolve into something different." Then Josh mentioned how I put more eighties music back in. Then he quoted me saying, "We're in a competitive situation, and we're tightening up, weeding out the BS and focusing on a tighter presentation...With three stations playing much of the same music, I envision at least one of the stations being squeezed out. And it's not going to be us, I'll tell you that."
I probably over-reacted too much about the Zone. I should have just focused on trying to come up with better radio but I think I might have been more into defending a position. I did start to bend in ways I had never done before. I finally told Shawn and Jeff to tighten up their show and play more music in January, which actually helped get their numbers up that month. Then in February certain political pressures caused me to tell them to loosen up again and put back in features like "Weiner Wednesday" in which they read lengthy stories over the air from listeners whose bad luck cast themselves or others as "weiners." Apparently a lot of people complained this feature went away. I just wanted to play mostly music because that's what the Zone was doing. But the Shawn & Jeff following was too vocal for me to ignore.
One thing that I'll give Shawn & Jeff credit for is that they were a little ahead of the curve on talking about the internet while it was still kind of underneath the radar. The internet was just starting to get popular in the 1995-1996 period and Shawn & Jeff were the first jocks I heard talk about it. Of course, I was behind on the hi-tech world, although I had been operating a computer since the late eighties. I didn't necessarily write off the internet as a "computer nerd" thing, but I was a little cautious about the internet's position as a wide open forum. Everyone then was calling it "the wild west" because they thought it was free from government supervision unlike other mass media (even though, like radio, the internet was used by the military before it went public). My first impression about the internet was that it was a sea of misinformation. Then again, I had not spent much time with the internet. I did have meetings with the station's webmaster about the content, but at that time the site didn't have much content.
Another adjustment was the addition of Adam Smasher as the voice of the station IDs. This was the same Adam Smasher who was the night jock who took a chance on playing modern rock on his show in 1991 while the boss was on vacation. He had a younger, even bolder sound to his voice than a lot of the voice-over packages that were sweeping the nation. He became the voice of positioning statements such as "the home of modern rock, KWOD 106.5." Smasher and I remained friends for years and we used to get friends together and play touch football games. We made a hilarious video of an actual game we played. It was the KWOD All Stars (Adam Smasher, Ron Givens, weekend jock Tom Bowman and me) versus an obscure team of interns and ringers that we beat in a high-scoring blowout.
I started mixing in more local music in regular rotation, just to show the other stations that we weren't afraid to do whatever it took to stay unique. Sacramento was starting to be noticed by major record labels. Cake had set the stage with national airplay of their Capricorn single "Rock and Roll Lifestyle" in 1995. Far had been signed to Epic/Immortal while 7 Seconds was signed to Columbia. Meanwhile the Deftones had just been signed to Madonna's label Maverick. Mother Hips from Chico were signed to American Recordings. Oleander was gaining airplay on 93 Rock and would go on to be signed by Universal. Chance the Gardener were signed to Warner Brothers. We started mixing in cuts from the Overflow CD as well as songs by local bands Tattooed Love Dogs, As Yet Untitled, Little Guilt Shrine and others.
Not knowing that national politics had anything to do with my job, I caught on the news one night in February 1996 that President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Bill. It sailed through Congress without much debate. The news focused mainly on Clinton's idea of a "V-chip" as a censorship tool for parents. But the new law went much deeper into media manipulation. The Telecom Act would have a far greater impact on the media landscape than anyone could imagine at that time. The Telecom Act would be the sole reason for the acceleration of radio being taken over by the corporate world. This process had been a bipartisan campaign by both major parties and was an extension of media deregulation that started with the Reagan Administration. It used to be that an owner was limited to a couple stations per market. The Telecom Act made it acceptable for an owner to have seven stations per market. It led to a new radio business model: if you can't beat them, buy them.
Interestingly, February was the same month that Ed Stolz made a deal to sell KWOD to the corporation that owned Live 105 at the time, Entercom. They had no other stations in Sacramento at the time. Even more interestingly, Ed never told me about this sale. I wouldn't find out until about three years later when Ed would make the newspapers contesting the sale.
I went to the South By Southwest Music Convention in Austin, Texas on the weekend of March 16. A room full of about 200 radio and record industry insiders erupted with laughter when I got on the microphone. It was an industry conference meeting. WayCool Records President Mike Jacobs was leading the discussion and getting PDs to respond. One of the topics Mike brought up was about "leaks," or records that were somehow leaked to radio stations prior to release dates. I signaled that I had a comment and Mike handed me the microphone. I said, "every leak I ever played turned out to be a stiff." I couldn't believe how loud the roar of laughter was. It was as if I had exposed somebody, that a leak is really just another crafty marketing gimmick. After the meeting several people, including record executives, told me they thought my comment was hilarious.
The alternative radio world was rocked a little harder days later on March 20 when The Gavin Report stated that Mike Halloran was out of 91X. I had seen him just four days earlier in Austin, as a convention panelist. He had been a mainstay at the station for years and had just risen to PD the previous summer. The station sold from Nationwide to Jacor and the new owners wanted to go their own direction. Halloran had led the station to decisive victories over rival The Flash. Even in his final book, 91X was number four in the market. Later in the year, however, 91X would fall completely out of the top ten.
One of the most interesting confrontations I ever had with an artist was on March 25 when Everclear came to town to play at the Crest Theatre. At the show singer Art Alexakis thanked KWOD for being one of the first stations in America to play the band's first single "Fire Maple Song" a year earlier. After the show I met Art and thanked him for mentioning KWOD. I told him we played all his records. Then he mentioned that we didn't add "Heroin Girl," which had been the second single. I explained that we didn't play songs with obvious drug themes. It cracked me up how he was up on which stations played his records. Most artists acted like they had no idea how the radio game worked. Art would eventually do his own radio show on KNRK in Portland.
In the next monthly trend from Arbitron, KWOD moved back up to 4.7 while 93 Rock was flat at 3.9, two tenths ahead of the Zone. It gave me a little relief and hope to counter the radio competition paranoia that was taking over my mind. A few weeks later I ran into Curtiss Johnson at a local music awards show called the SAMMIES, in which I presented an award to Cake. Curtiss told me, "I've got to find you a job." By this point 93 Rock had been bought out by Jacor, which was becoming a leading radio company at the time. It got me thinking, maybe I'd make more money and even have health benefits if I worked for a corporation. I was never anti-corporation but I was always anti-human cookie cutter companies that treat people like ants. What I liked about KWOD was the degree of artistic freedom and the chance to prove that art really does sell. So I stayed loyal to KWOD.
Job interviews were never as exciting to me as band interviews. On April 8 I met with Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers before their show at Arco Arena. They had been through personal episodes that held the band back but seemed to be pulling together with the release of their latest album from the previous Fall called One Hot Minute. On April 12 I interviewed members of Spacehog who came off as hilarious by the way they made fun of other bands, including ones they toured with.
Earlier in the year I met with Tori Amos at a low-key meet and greet in San Francisco. Then I got my picture taken with her when she came to Sacramento on July 10. The day before I interviewed Alanis Morissette backstage at Cal Expo. She was just finishing up her big Jagged Little Pill tour and by now she was the undeniable queen of modern rock. In the interview she countered the image of an angry woman the press had given her by acting relaxed and friendly and saying she was "at peace." One of my favorite interviews that year would be with Producer Brendan O'Brien. He basically talked about how he pretty much let Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against the Machine craft their own sound. We discussed their stripped down sound versus the more highly produced sound.
When I learned about the Winter 1996 Arbitron, I felt a certain chill for the first time that I had not felt since KWOD's floundering days of 1992. KWOD was flat at 4.4 while 93 Rock jumped to 4.8 to beat us for the first time in several books. The Zone pulled even closer to us, up to 4.1. It should not have been the end of the world, but it felt like it. For the first time in over three years I wasn't quite sure what direction to take.
It wasn't as if I had completely lost touch with my idea of great music. It was more like the music industry suddenly tried to capitalize on the success of the alternative radio format by starting to stage a commerce over art mentality. Like I said many times, KWOD's success happened at the crossroads of art and commerce. Suddenly there was this full-throttle attempt by the industry to blast the format into an all-commercial dance pop/rock sound. It wasn't as if I couldn't pick a hit. Although I had a stronger knack for picking long-term staple songs, I could still hear a new song and have a good idea of how well it would do, given the chance. I placed top 30 consistently in a national industry contest at picking the alternative hits put on by Active Industry Research. But now I was noticing that the alternative chart was becoming a growing list of industry-influenced disposable pop songs by one hit wonders.
My music philosophies were changing because the music was changing. We fell into a pattern of inconsistency throughout the year partly because of what the labels were promoting, which at times contrasted with the album-oriented direction I wanted to take the station. Meanwhile, the owner leaned toward a more mainstream sound. At first I avoided records that didn't fit in with KWOD's established sound such as "Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth" by Primitive Radio Gods, which sounded like an eighties techno/pop song with samples. But when it hit the top ten I broke down and added it.
I also tried to resist "Counting Blue Cars" by Dishwalla for sounding too adult contemporary, but again, I added it after it went top ten. I didn't want the station to lose its word of mouth appeal by sounding too ordinary, but as always, I still wanted to play what the people wanted. Then in May I put back in a lot more eighties music, which Ed liked. Over the summer he told me to take off the harder edged teen records, so I did. So KWOD's sound kept changing throughout 1996. A few of the novelty songs I did like included "Pepper" by Butthole Surfers and "Popular" by Nada Surf. The Refreshments also were fun and seemed more creative than contrived.
Some of the artists who had become format cornerstones put out disappointing albums in 1996. Pearl Jam's No Code did not turn out to be the multi-hit album that was characteristic of previous Pearl Jam albums. Although the curiously tribal lead-off single "Who You Are" hit number one on the alternative charts, it didn't really come back as a recurrent hit, which was also uncharacteristic of Pearl Jam. Although Soundgarden put out a fine album called Down On The Upside, the hits weren't as big as the hits from the previous album Superunknown. It would also mark the end of their run as singer Chris Cornell would venture into other projects.
Counting Crows, Gin Blossoms, Cranberries and Cracker also had new albums that didn't do as well as previous albums. Stone Temple Pilot's album Tiny Music spawned a lot of radio tracks but none would become as memorable as the band's earlier hits such as "Plush," "Vasoline," "Big Empty," and "Interstate Love Song." The lead-off single for the new album was "Big Bang Baby," which was a gimmicky dance rock record that seemed to slam the music industry.
Perhaps the biggest commercial let down the whole year was R.E.M., who I always said was a cornerstone of the format. They had just signed the biggest record deal in history with Warner Brothers for around $80 million, yet their album New Adventures in Hi-Fi did not sell as well as earlier albums. It was actually a great sounding album, but maybe it didn't measure up to the hype it received in the minds of the record buying public. Several bands had to be dropped from the label's roster as a result of the deal. One of those bands turned out to be Chance the Gardener, who I gave airplay to in support of the local scene. Sadly, near the end of the year after the band had been dropped, singer Stu Blakey committed suicide.
See full list of 1996 songs played on KWOD.
In 1995 I had refused to do a summer concert and did the Bush autograph party instead, just to prove our ratings didn't depend on doing big shows. We even had our highest ratings ever. It was funny how we always had down books during periods we did listener concerts yet we had our highest ratings whenever we skipped doing shows. Even so, I was influenced by a lot of people in the industry and at the station to do a show anyway. So, one of the last KWOD concerts that I was actively involved with happened on June 13 at Cal Expo/Waterworld USA.
We were lucky to get Jewel, who came on strong with her first album Pieces of You. Even though the Zone had been the first in the market to play her, we gave much more airplay to "Who Will Save Your Soul." She actually had been discovered by Mike Halloran at 91X. He helped her get a record deal with Atlantic. She performed a wonderful mix of acoustic songs and humorous commentary at our show that we called "Summer Splash." Also on the bill were headliners Plimsouls, who I thought would pull the eighties crowd, Dada, making up for the previous year when they pulled out, and new bands Semisonic and Solution A.D.
One of the bands I supported that I thought would be huge in the future was the Refreshments (pictured left). We were one of the first stations in America to play them. They were from Tempe, Arizona and were friends of the Gin Blossoms. I told some PDs about them in March at the SXSW convention and then the band started getting more airplay around the country with the song "Banditos." It was just a funny story set to simple guitar-bass-n'-drums rock and roll. They came through Sacramento three times that year and each time came by the station for an interview.
On July 18 I called up Curtiss Johnson to congratulate him on the ratings. They jumped a full point to 5.8, which was considered major. Sadly, KWOD fell 4.4 to 3.8 but managed to stay ahead of the Zone, which fell to 2.6, a drop of a point and a half. My immediate thought was that we were alienating the rock crowd with too many goofy pop songs and maybe even too many oldies.
In August I visited The Endfest in Seattle, put on by KNDD. No Doubt, although not the headliner, clearly stole the show. They had the most energy and created the most crowd excitement. It was the only band that day in a long line-up of hit acts that got the crowd dancing. I even reported on my show that "when No Doubt went on everyone got super-crazed." This was just eight months after they were still an up and coming band at our show. Now they had another album out and the hit was "Spiderwebs," which I thought was too pop for KWOD. I didn't really want to play it but because Trauma Records had delivered the band for our show last December, I had to show support and play them. After all, they had become a big hit. But later in the year I would run into deeper debate with the label over the single "Don't Speak," which I refused to play because it sounded too much like an adult contemporary pretty pop ballad. The song became a huge modern rock and crossover pop hit.
Backstage at the Endfest I met Chino Moreno, the lead singer of Deftones, who were transforming from Sacramento band to national band. He was surprised when I told him that we played their first singles "7 Words" and "Bored" at night. He had thought that KWOD was too melodic of a station to play their hard sound. But I let him know that we supported them and other bands from the local scene. In fact, by that point we were playing several local bands in regular rotation. A couple of Chance the Gardener tracks called "Boise" and "Smoke" became very familiar to the KWOD audience that summer. Then the Zone started playing them, so it looked as if they were poised for national success.
I wanted to play more rootsy music in general but the music industry seemed to be moving more toward polished produced records. The idea that alternative was the new mainstream seemed to cloud alternative's identity. Was it pop, rock or neither? I wanted to keep the station moving in a rock direction, but the industry was pushing the alternative universe of new songs into a pop direction, while a chunk of the audience had become skeptical of the format's move toward both a pop and rock commercial sound. At the same time this was going on, at a meeting in August Ed Stolz complained to me that the station sounded "too hard." It was true we were playing a punkish hard rock song once an hour at night and maybe that's what he meant. But we sure were playing quite a bit of pop. So were we too pop or too rock?
One of the controversial ironies that year revolved around Metallica. Because they cut their hair were they no longer a hair band? Since their music sounded more melodic, could they be considered mainstream or modern rock? When the lead-off single came in I played it on my show and then took phone responses live on the air. It was the melodic ballad "Until It Sleeps." Most of the callers said it should not be considered modern rock. So I decided not to play Metallica and that 93 Rock could own them in the market. The day before their album Load was released nationally in May, they played a free show at Tower Records in Sacramento. Throughout the day KWOD dismissed the rumors that they would do the free show because they couldn't get the permits. The news kept changing throughout the day. First they would play, then they wouldn't, then maybe they might. The only station to get it right was 93 Rock, who were there at the show with their big tour bus. KWOD, however, was not there.
As it turned out, Metallica, who were already a big selling rock band, got even bigger. They even headlined the Lollapalooza tour that summer with Soundgarden. Lollapalooza made a huge comeback in ticket sales from the previous bleak summer. Several alternative stations including KROQ, KOME and 91X played the new Metallica track that became a factor in re-defining the format. It became an issue at industry events. What was the definition of alternative? It seemed that the magic answer that I tried so hard to shut out of my thinking was that alternative was becoming whatever was popular. In 1996 alternative radio was no longer defining the hits; the hits were defining alternative radio.
So to make things even more confusing to rock listeners was that the most glam rock band of all time, Kiss, was doing a reunion tour that got linked to modern rock in several ways. Stone Temple Pilots and other modern rock artists opened for them on the tour. Kiss were the headliners for a KROQ listener concert. So August 27, the day before the band came to Sacramento, singer Gene Simmons phoned in on my show for an interview. Simmons talked about how he likes to put on a show and that bands who stand around are boring. I actually played "Rock and Roll All Night" after the interview. Some listeners might have wondered how could ultra-commercialized glam rock have anything to do with alternative music?
KWOD wasn't alone in its 1996 ratings slide. WHFS had peaked with about a five share in Washington DC the previous year, but were now in the threes. WHYT, a one time booming alternative station in Detroit, had now fallen to the twos. Live 105 also fell into the twos. Even 91X had fallen from the fours into the twos, just like WPLY. The same thing happened with KROQ, which had been top five throughout 1995, but fell out of the top ten that year.
The stations that managed to do well in 1996 were generally the ones that stayed true to their overall rock sound but still mixed in other sounds, including the pop records I tried to avoid. KOME, programmed by Jay Taylor, was a station that had peaked at a five share but only eroded into the fours with their rock mix that included Metallica. I called Jay up that summer to ask him what he was doing that kept the station winning. He continued to tell me, like he had in the past, that it was the guitar sound that kept the numbers up. In September Jay would hire KWOD's night jock, Ally Storm, creating a pretty big problem over who should replace her.
Also in September a record rep named DJ alerted me that the Zone had shifted their format again. Now they were playing the alternative format's biggest hits (minus the hard stuff) in a super high rotation. Our fastest song rotation had been a little over three hours. It had been the fastest rotation between us, them and 93 Rock. The Zone previously played a lot of oldies. But suddenly they tightened up and went more current. Their hottest rotation was just under two hours. That meant a very repetitious top 40-sounding station, just like what KWOD had been in 1991.
By that point the one group that made us stick out from the other stations was Cake. Their latest single "The Distance" was struggling to move up the alternative charts, but I kept pounding the song in heavy rotation because they had a strong hometown following in Sacramento. As a result of the hundreds of spins, other stations that had held off or given up on the song took another look at it. By the Fall it had climbed to the top of the alternative charts and even crossed over to the pop charts. I introduced the band at their Tower Watt in-store CD release party for the album Fashion Nugget on September 17. Then I introduced them again at The Crest Theatre the next night. Backstage singer John McCrae was very thankful to me for supporting the band and I told him in all sincerity "thank you for making great music." It was more nutty novelty music, but the kind I liked because it was so original.
By October I had had several disagreements with Ed Stolz about the direction of the station. I explained to Ed that the format was down nationally. Since I took control of programming in 1993 KWOD never had back to back down books - until now. On October 17 the ratings came in and it was a mix of good and bad news. The good news was that KWOD had gone up in all demos except teens. The bad news was that the drop in teen numbers brought the overall 12+ numbers (which Ed cared about most) down from 3.8 to 3.5. 93 Rock, on the other hand, stayed over a point ahead of KWOD despite a down book. Meanwhile, the Zone had surged again, this time to 3.4, a tenth below us. This was the closest they had ever come to beating us and I didn't get the feeling anymore that independent station KWOD could beat the bigger corporate competitors.
When I told Ed the news he said, "I need to take control of programming." Then my instant response was "Okay, then I'll have to give my thirty day notice." This was something I had been meaning to say at times for the past year, but I kept waiting for a new job to come up. I looked into a few situations but nothing was happening. Now it didn't matter. I just wanted out because the pressure was becoming painful. There was no attempt by either of us to talk each other out of the new scenario we just spun into.
From that point on, for the next month, I just did my midday show and prepared Ron Givens to be the next PD. I let him schedule the music and told him as much as possible about the job. I wasn't sure if he'd get the job but I thought he would at least be viable for some type of position in the programming department. I just knew I didn't want to do the job anymore. I was too tired and stressed out over it. I used to know how to win when all the conditions were in our favor but now everything had changed. The music wasn't the same hypnotic stuff that drove the format the past few years. Now everything sounded like watered-down formula. Our identity changed frequently throughout the year based on the debate about oldies, whims of the music industry and the fear of falling ratings. Now there was head on competition by stations that had a lot more money. KWOD no longer sounded like the most unique station in town.
I just wanted to take a rest - which is exactly what I did for about a year. The last song I added on KWOD was "One Headlight" by the Wallflowers, one of the few instances that year when my tastes were in synch with the charts.
On October 22 I started telling industry people and the KWOD audience that I was leaving KWOD in mid November. Several record reps commented that it was like an obituary, as if I were ending my career. I didn't see it that way. I had given my life to radio and music and now I was going to rethink my life. I believed I had more accomplishments than most radio people, the biggest of which was to program an independently-owned station to higher ratings than big corporate competitors in my own home town.
In November I concentrated on doing fun and interesting shows with interviews and off the wall commentary. I did a phone interview with Social Distortion singer Mike Ness, who confirmed that he didn't want to make "a cute alternative record" just because that was the trend. The band's latest song "I Was Wrong" was one of my favorite songs of the year, but it wasn't one of the bigger hits of the year. I liked the song's honesty and the fine-tuned rawness of the sound that had melody and edge. I had crafted KWOD's identity on authenticity - and awareness.
"It's funny," I said on the air the day before the Presidential Election, "last night the Presidents (of the United States of America) were on Modern Rock Live and someone called and asked about the election and they were all 'well I don't know why anyone would want to take advice from a rock star about politics' (laughs)...and you know, I see his point on that except that on an inspirational level...I get more out of music than politicians."
My last show on KWOD was on November 18. On the show Adam Smasher called in from Tempe, Arizona and said, "you definitely pioneered a new sound for Sacramento radio and you ought to be proud of yourself." I closed the show with a long bit starting with the story of when I met Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins backstage in 1993 at the beginning of KWOD's successful run. It was the story about how I said to Billy his show inspired me to think of an equation which was social responsibility plus anarchy equals social reform. Billy told me my equation didn't make any sense since you can't have anarchy and social responsibility.
"Well that's cool he thought my statement was inaccurate," I said in my farewell address. "But the more I've thought about my statement the more I think there is validity to if everybody just trusted each other and weren't so paranoid (laughs) and everybody took responsibilty for their own actions I bet you a million dollars it would be a lot better world." I concluded the show with a plug for the local publication Alive & Kicking in which the upcoming December issue featured an interview with me. I also gave my band the Beat Villains a plug...I couldn't resist...just to let people know I'd still be around. I explained that I was going on a long vacation. After the show I shook hands with Ed and we agreed to "keep it open." And then I began a relaxed search on another life.
My last KWOD interview came out in Alive & Kicking on November 24. The paper's owner/founder Jerry Perry interviewed me in a story called "Signing Off With A.C." about my career at KWOD and how I gave airplay to local bands. I told Jerry, "I came to the station with a new idea on how to program the music. My idea in a nutshell - and it's completely evolved since then - was to play the best alternative songs ever...Everyone had written KWOD off in '93. We had the lowest ratings in town. Then I come on with this strange format, which wasn't so strange at all. I was just serving the audience that wasn't being served, and suddenly the ratings explode. At a few points, we were the highest rated alternative station on the West Coast, and that actually made programmers pay attention to the KWOD playlist. I proved that you can win without a big budget and without a bunch of hype, and you can even play local bands, mixin' all kinds of new artists that you can't hear anywhere else. We have exposed more new artists than anybody."
I also talked about how I would be around and that my band the Beat Villains would be playing more shows. We did a string of shows that pulled good crowds of 50-100 people. We even opened for the Plimsouls and Oleander at the Press Club in October. I actually believed that something big might happen with the band. Earlier in the year, Mark Hamilton, who was PD at alternative station KNRK in Portland, had told me he liked my song "Orange Underworld." Another recording called "Joker X" was circulated to West Coast PDs, several of whom said they liked the song. I sent my latest recordings to a major label who actually had interest for awhile.
A major label A&R guy who had signed a few hit acts called me and said he liked the songs. Then he called again and said the next step is getting me the right management. Suspicious, I quickly called a friend who managed hit acts to represent me and he agreed. Then I told the A&R guy, who knew my manager, and he said, "you don't need me for nothing." I wasn't sure if he was joking or what. But the next time he called he said "the next step is getting you hooked up with the right A&R people." Then weeks went by and I didn't hear from him. Then he called one day in January to say "I'm going to find out if the label has interest." Then the next time he called he said, "I'm going to have to pass on your project because I need an album artist. All your songs sound like singles. The structure's too tight. Your songs need to breathe."
It made no sense to me. I had been the anti-pop guy for the past few years and now I was being rejected for being too pop. Yet the industry at that point was mostly pushing pop. What a joke. I didn't even consider my music to be pop in the same sense as the contrived stuff the industry was dishing out. It was more like melodic rock with meaningful lyrics, but whatever. I wasn't bummed out because I wasn't counting on a record deal. I knew I was more of a songwriter and not so much a rock star or the full package that labels were looking for. Songwriting was not the deal in their minds, it was all about image and marketing. I sensed that everything I stood for musically was fading.
My vacation opened with a few Christmas concerts. One was the KWOD show, that I helped initiate, but was mostly organized by Ron Givens. It featured Cake and Crash Test Dummies on Dec. 11 at the recently restored Memorial Auditorium. At that show I ran into Curtiss Johnson, who told me I need to learn "corporate speak." He wasn't ripping on me or anything, it was just obvious that I didn't talk like a corporate PD. Then I hung out at two KROQ Christmas shows. The first one was on Friday, Dec. 14 and it was an all female line-up: Natalie Merchant, Sheryl Crow, Garbage, Sarah McLachlan and Fiona Apple. The next night I missed most of the bands except Cake and Bush. I spent more time backstage talking with industry people, trying to get a feel for what might be open. Several people told me it was a bad time to be out of work because all the jobs were locked up. This was when I still thought I might be signed as an artist and the thought of unemployment wasn't disturbing yet. What I did learn that night from my industry friend Chris was that KWOD just hired a new PD named Ron Bunce from Milwaukee, a place that was about to become very familiar to me.
continue to Chapter 9: Radio Road Trip U.S.A.