The Rise of Alternative Radio|
by Alex Cosper
table of contents
Chapter 9: Radio Road Trip U.S.A. (1997-1998)
After it became clear I was probably not going to get a record deal, I decided I needed to plan a realistic future. I became interested in the possibilities of the internet. In 1997 there was growing talk about internet radio so I started researching what it would take to put together an internet station. I found out from talking with a record label attorney that one of the biggest hurdles would actually be getting the music industry to support it. Radio was the established medium for promoting music. They saw the internet differently. Radio was exempt from paying recording royalties to labels, although radio still had to pay publishing royalties to songwriters and publishers. It turned out I would have to pay these large fees on top of getting permission to digitally transmit their music over the internet. It was a bigger hassle than it was worth.
It was a good thing I did this research because I was about to sign on with some pie in the sky web company that told me they could do anything imaginable and it would be a great idea to stream music and it would only cost about $200 per month. I found out that not only would I run into copyright issues, a good percentage of computer users still only had 14.4k modems, which translated into poor audio quality. Sound was tinny and the delivery was sluggish. Internet music would not become a high quality listening experience for common surfers until about 1999. So basically I was exploring internet radio in its stone age.
The music industry still controlled all industries that profited in some way from their music. But one thing I learned about the 1996 downturn was that as much as the music industry enjoys this level of cultural influence, they still can't always force public taste with their powerful machine. Radio was part of that machine. In fact, one might say radio drove the machine but the music industry still designed the machine and did their best to educate the driver about what kind of music was supposed to be hip. (Note: the first big consumer radio manufacturer - Radio Corporation of America - was also one of the first major record labels.)
Looking for something to do besides play guitar all day, I called Gerry Cagle to see if I could get a writing job at his magazine. I told him I didn't want to relocate to Los Angeles. So he referred me to a sister publication, VirtuallyAlternative, who hired me to write articles for their monthly publication about alternative radio. My boss was Jonathan L. Rosen, who had programmed one of the handful of alternative stations in the eighties and early nineties, KUKQ in Phoenix. My first article came out in March 1997. It was called "Today's Alternative Formula: Complete with Missing Ingredients." It was a humorous look at how contrived and predictable the alternative format had become and how this new direction was also hurting these stations, not just in credibility, but in the ratings. My next few articles also had a slamming but playful tone to them, probably because I had read Gerry Cagle's articles which were in a similar vein.
In April KWOD's ratings came out and I was surprised they had bounced back, jumping from the low threes to the low fours. This was the new PD Ron Bunce's first book. KWOD even barely edged 93 Rock. Throughout that period Ron Givens had helped with the programming until his departure in March to venture into his own business. Basically, the station had tightened up the sound again and stuck with whatever was on the charts. It had moved from the album presentation to a more upbeat alternative hit-oriented presentation with faster rotations of songs. But the rest of the year KWOD would have spotty numbers, just like with most alternative stations across the country.
The big ratings story was the Zone, who had a new PD. Jim Trapp had left to program alternative station KTBZ (the Buzz) in Houston while Carmy Ferrari replaced him at the Zone in early 1997. Carmy had also programmed 93 Rock in its early incarnation back in 1986. The Zone now took on a top 40 identity with the most melodic alternative hits of the time. What made it different than KWOD was that the Zone played a lot more female artists. Several of the jocks were also female. The format the Zone had stumbled onto would come to be known for awhile as "modern adult contemporary" but after a few years it would meld in with the bigger umbrella of "hot adult contemporary" or "hot AC." It paid off for them as the station jumped 4.7 to 7.1 in the Winter 1997 Arbitron, making it the highest rated major market station in the country to be playing some form of alternative music. In the Summer book they even did better, rising to 8.2, far ahead of KWOD or 93 Rock.
For most of America, 1997 was another bleak year for alternative radio. Only a handful of stations had strong ratings playing alternative hits and the ones that did gravitated toward the guitar sound: WBCN in Boston, WNNX in Atlanta, KNDD in Seattle, WXDX in Pittsburgh, KXRK in Salt Lake City, WRZX in Indianapolis and KXTE in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the supposed format leaders continued to struggle with lower than usual ratings: KROQ in Los Angeles, 91X in San Diego, Q101 in Chicago, WPLY in Philadelphia and KDGE in Dallas. Even Live 105 began to trail the rockier KOME in the San Francisco book. This was alarming in the sense that KOME was considered more of a San Jose station that barely covered the San Francisco market.
So I had to ask myself in retrospect, what direction should I have taken at KWOD in 1996? The music was all over the road from jingle pop songs to hard-edged rock songs. The problem was that I tried to keep the music in the middle when really there was no middle. The bulk of listeners had deeper tastes than a thin sampling of extremes. The alternative pop crowd obviously still existed and supported the Zone because they didn't have to sit through hard rock songs. The alternative rock crowd supported 93 Rock because they didn't have to sit through soft songs. Because KWOD was hard to define in 1996 maybe it became less of a primary choice for listeners. As much as I kept clinging to the core definition of the station's sound, the major label universe still led the way.
I think the reason KWOD briefly rebounded in 1997 was that they tightened the music after it had been pretty loose for several months. Tightening means taking out the marginal songs and just banging the songs most in demand. I had poured back in a lot of eighties music just to say we were playing the eighties. I also put in a lot of current album cuts by cornerstone artists Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Counting Crows and others whose 1996 albums weren't as successful as previous albums. I was late on a lot of hits that didn't sound like they fit the station's direction. I was just paranoid that the music industry was trying to push the alternative format away from rock so that rock could be its own format again. The year 1997 would be a very confusing year for a lot of alternative PDs who had to try to figure out if they should go the direction of pop, rock or what KWOD had now become: whatever was popular on the alternative charts, including hard-edged teen records.
In April my band hit the jackpot. The Beat Villains made $270 in one night at the nightclub Harlow's. There were about ninety people who actually paid the three dollar cover to see us perform. We also played to an excited crowd that danced to our songs. But in terms of music industry credibility, that was pretty much where the excitement ended. Two different label A&R reps originally told me they would be at the show, but somehow neither showed. I had invited everyone I knew so it turned out to be a nice get together with friends. Even though we pulled off the gig, my performance was sketchy at times, so it's probably just as well that the industry flakes missed out. That was probably the show that made me realize I was not about to engage in a music career. One thing that made the show special, though, was that it was broadcast live on the internet by a guy named Jamie Mangrum on his website called Digimag. I became involved in Jamie's experimentation with internet radio. In Sacramento he was about the only one doing it.
Jamie had compiled a huge website in which local bands had their own web page. He had about 200 bands on the site. Then he started broadcasting from clubs on the internet. It was just over standard phone lines so it sounded thin and tinny but it still seemed like a revolution. Even with only ten people listening, it still had an adventurous feeling. In the summer Jamie started having people from the local scene broadcast their own shows on the weekends. For the rest of the week there was no continuous live broadcast but one could access music files from bands. It was such an exciting new idea that the Sacramento Bee bought Digimag from Jamie.
My June article for VirtuallyAlternative was called "Whatever Happened to the Class of the '90s?" It turned out that several alternative PDs and MDs around the country were now out of work so I interviewed a bunch of them. Some got fired and some quit like I did because they were told to take their station a direction they did not want to go. The alternative landscape was quickly changing from its once familiar profile. Jonathan wanted me to include my feelings about being out of work. I think he wanted me to express the pain, frustration and anxiety of being out of radio. But I didn't feel that way. For me, I was mostly living off savings and felt like I was on vacation while writing about the industry. I didn't have to worry about the ratings anymore or dealing with an overflow of mediocre music.
My next article in July was called "Preparing for the Internet Broadcast Invasion." It was a report based on my early experience with internet radio as I warned PDs that a new type of competition would be on the horizon soon. In the piece I stated, "we have entered an age of consumer control in which people enjoy multiple choice on demand. Digital push-button car radio, record store listening booths and internet radio all point in the direction of consumers being their own programmers. People have become conditioned to know what they want and to not settle for undesirable substitutes. As much as radio strives to deliver quality, the internet makes quantity seem attractive. While radio could never get away with extensive playlists, an internet station can be multi-format." I pointed out at that time that many users still had 14.4 modems, which reduced sound quality and that not all internet service providers were set up to deliver audio streams, but I said that eventually it would all be worked out. "It's like space exploration," I concluded. "Imagination is the prelude to invention."
For awhile I did have my own website that featured interviews with local guests that people could listen to. But the hit count was super low and I couldn't figure out how to market it so I started to freak out about my career. I told myself I had to get back in radio, because it was all I had done. Sometime in the summer I sent out my "PD package" that included my programming philosophy, tape and resume to about fifty radio stations. Most of the packages went to GMs but some went to owners. Of the few responses I received, one was from radio owner Willie Davis. This was the same Willie Davis who was a Hall of Fame NFL champion. He played defense with the Green Bay Packers in their first two Super Bowl victories. Willie had worked under coach Vince Lombardi, whose famous quote "winning is everything" had become ingrained in American culture. Willie called me and told me he was impressed that I had taken KWOD from the bottom to the top five. We had a good conversation which actually led to a face to face interview with him at his Los Angeles office.
After the interview about three months went by in which I had no idea if Willie wanted me or not. Weeks would go by and then out of the blue Willie would call and say he was still thinking about hiring me. Then more weeks would go by before I'd hear from him again. Each time he called, though, it seemed a little more promising. But it was those long stretches of time in between when I started to wonder what I was going to do for money. The magazine only paid $100 per monthly article, so it wasn't as if I could live off that. For a couple months I actually did fundraising as a telemarketer. I raised $20,000 but I myself only made a low wage. It wasn't fun and it made me miss radio. Calling dozens of people that didn't want to hear my voice just wasn't as fun as flipping on a mic and talking to thousands of people who enjoyed hearing my voice.
By October I was ready to take any other job regardless of the pay. Finally, Willie called that month and said he was ready to "reach closure" on my situation. He flew me to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for an interview with the General Manager of his alternative station, WLUM. The station, known as "New Rock 102 One," once had a six share in its early shift from top 40 to alternative and now it had a three share. Ironically, Ron Bunce had been the early PD who led the station to its ratings heyday. But then the station went through a series of programmers, changing almost every other quarter, as the ratings unfolded in a steady downhill slide over a few years. Somehow I convinced the GM that I could turn WLUM's ratings around, just as I had done with KWOD.
In November I was hired by WLUM for a bigger title (Operations Manager) and more money ($35K plus medical benefits) than what KWOD had given me. I also took the midday airshift. It was supposed to be an 18 month deal, but neither party had to commit to the full term. Like I said, I just needed a job and I would rather do radio, which I had already done for years, than do something mind-numbing like telemarketing. WLUM sounded like a great idea at the time because it wasn't a big company but it did have resources, such as a station van and a promotion budget. So it was like KWOD but with more resources. Plus, they gave me control of programming. Willie wanted me to do whatever I knew it would take to win. On top of that, the station had no problem with me continuing to write my industry articles for VirtuallyAlternative. It had become like a game of musical chairs with Ron Bunce. Now the question was who got the better deal?
I left Sacramento almost exactly a year after I left KWOD. First I drove to Los Angeles to visit some friends. Then I drove to Tucson and visited Adam Smasher. We went to his station's club remote that night where people were wild and I danced with two crazy women. Then I visited people for a few days in Dallas and Austin before checking into a Memphis motel. I left early in the morning and finally made it to Chicago and then Milwaukee late that evening in the snow. My next article was about this journey called "The Road To Milwaukee." In the article I focused on what I was thinking about as I traveled the country. I reflected on my career and the state of the radio industry. I wrote, "While it's true that each station needs to carve out its own unique identity, no station can afford to be too unique. So when the industry ponders where the next trend will come from, I'll be keeping in mind that people don't change as fast as the industry does. Whether it's collective consciousness or coincidence, the origin of this universal culture is the artist who addresses basic human needs and radio should try its best not to interfere with this communication."
My first day on the job was bizarre. Green Day was dropping by the station and the afternoon guy refused to do the interview because he thought his audience was adults and that Green Day was a kid's band. He ended up quitting over it. So I needed to hire someone for afternoons. After about a month I hired an old friend of mine, Dave Skyler, who had worked with me back in the eighties at KWOD when it was a top 40 station. Dave was very much a hit radio guy. He had worked at some of the top CHR stations in Los Angeles and in other parts of the country. Dave was so top 40 I had to tell him to sound more conversational to fit the alternative sound. It's funny because in the eighties when KWOD was top 40 it was totally the other way around. Dave would tell me how to sound more energetic to fit the format.
One night Dave and I decided to cruise around and "learn Milwaukee." We stopped to look at Lake Michigan. Dave noticed how eerie a dead bent tree covered with snow looked against the lonely backdrop of the chilling lake. He joked that it reminded him of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Then we visited a concert venue that looked like an old haunted house. Both of us thought we were in a very strange place but tried to keep a sense of humor about it.
Working in Milwaukee did have some stunning similarities with Sacramento. Both markets had about the same population size and both were about 90 miles from a top five market. Milwaukee was in the shadow of Chicago while Sacramento was in the shadow of San Francisco. Within the market I had two main competitors. One was Lazer, which was just like 93 Rock and the other was the Point, which was just like the Zone. Lazer was near the top of the ratings while the Point and WLUM were tied several points behind. It felt as though I were picking up where I left off.
Throughout December I made major changes to the music at WLUM. I took off the dancy pop stuff and brought back a lot of guitar stuff the station had rested. Even though I wanted the station to have a more album rock sound, others at the station wanted to keep the delivery as it was, which was upbeat and similar to top 40, talking over songs instead of between them. I would soon find out that what made WLUM different from KWOD was that at WLUM more voices had a say in what was to be done. It almost had a committee atmosphere. I thought everything would just fall in line and I would be in charge, but as time went on, I found out that I had to answer to a lot of people and try to serve their needs instead of the other way around. I even was told I had to drive thirty miles and meet a weekend jock at his home because he lived too far away to come to the station and meet with me. He was considered "a local legend" so I had to respect his agenda. It was as if they had been through so many programming people that they didn't see my position as authoritative.
I also ran into problems with some record industry people out of Chicago. I wanted to only play the best music that brought us the best ratings but all they seemed to care about was that they had records that needed airplay. Like 1996, the years 1997 and 1998 would be full of mediocre songs that dominated the sinking alternative format. It seemed to me that stations were starting to get too locked into label demands because of all the artists the labels had delivered for station listener concerts. I started hearing a lot about how the station had a relationship that went back years with the record industry and that if I didn't play the records they needed me to play I could jeopardize that relationship. Suddenly it became a high stress job again. The more I refused to conform with the record industry the more stressful the job became.
In January 1998 I was able to break away for a weekend to attend the annual Gavin Convention, which was held in San Diego. Mike Halloran had just been named PD of the Flash as he was now going up against his old station, 91X. The Flash had always been kind of a dorky alternative station because they avoided almost all the rock songs and played mostly typical pop. But now Halloran had given the station just a slight edgier sound. At one of the convention dinners, I sat at a table with Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains. I told him I was a big fan of Alice in Chains and hoped they got back together. Cantrell sounded like it was possible but now he had a solo album coming out, which I supported. At the dinner I ran into Curtiss Johnson who joked I need to go easy on Lazer, because their PD, Keith Hastings, was a friend of his. "He's got a couple of points to spare," I said laughing, knowing that Lazer had dominated the ratings for years and they weren't likely to be toppled.
In February the station got shocking ratings information that it had fallen drastically in January. But there was also some encouraging information. Most of the listeners who stayed with the station were listening longer and adult numbers picked up. The station morning show was also up after I had tightened up the talkative show with more music. I believed the music and the image of the station were headed toward authenticity under my direction and it just needed time. But at the same time I was so naive because I had no idea I would be given just one quarterly ratings book to prove myself.
Trying to assess what was wrong with WLUM seemed simple to me. It just hadn't been a well-defined station. It had changed directions often and it seemed to be thought of by Milwaukee listeners as the format of the month club. It had a great signal that covered the market, it had name recognition and it even had a station van that was always out on the streets. But it could never develop a loyal following because it kept changing with every new programmer that came in about every six to twelve months. The station actually had a consultant who told me guitar-based rock and roll had always been embraced by Milwaukee. So I was not alone in believing WLUM needed to sound more rock than in the past.
The station sounded cluttered and sponsored out with tons of commercials, liners and call-in remotes from jocks. Even though ratings were low, the sales staff sold a lot of commercial time. I believed that if you sell out the allotted time for stopsets you raise the rates to keep volume down but revenue up. But I had zero impact on influencing any sales policy. I had always believed sales and programming should be completely separate. At KWOD there had never been a sense that I even had to listen to a sales person, even though I got along great with the sales staff. But at this station, I had to learn real quickly that the sales department had a little more clout than the programming department.
In the midst of my Milwaukee adventure I got to know a lot more PDs around the country by interviewing them for VirtuallyAlternative. One article called "Alternative Influences" was about local bands that various PDs had discovered. Since I had helped break Cake out of Sacramento, I felt a sense that PDs could contribute to the music industry, so I wanted to talk about other PDs who had played with local music before it went national. Alex Luke, who was PD at Q101 in Chicago talked about how he launched airplay for the Toadies and Deep Blue Something while he was at the Edge in Dallas. Jim McGuinn, who programmed WPLY in Philadelphia, talked about the emerging Philly band Fuel in addition to his days working with Alex Luke at KPNT in St. Louis, where they discovered Gravity Kills. Phil Manning at The End in Seattle talked about his early support for local act Harvey Danger. WXSR Tallahassee PD Rick Schmidt explained how Creed, who were just starting to get big with "My Own Prison" had been featured on a station local band compilation CD before the group was signed. Mark Hamilton, PD at KNRK in Portland, talked about how he gave early airplay to local acts Dandy Warhols and Cherry Poppindaddies. Finally, KOME San Jose PD Jay Taylor talked about how he played local band Smash Mouth before they were signed.
My first full ratings book with WLUM was the 1998 Winter Arbitron, which would also be my last. Even though the trends showed a strong December, the January through March numbers were down, as the station fell 3.3 to 2.6, its lowest book as an alternative station. Teen numbers fell but adult numbers went up. It was part of what I was setting out to do, which was to give the station a more authentic, mature and intelligent sound while still having a fun and adventurous edge. But the Point, which had been tied with us, took a wide lead and it looked as though we had been buried. Curiously, a competing ratings service called Accuratings had us taking a big upward jump during the same period.
To my surprise, the GM asked me to resign a few days after the numbers came out in May. He told me he decided to "take the station in another direction." On one hand it didn't seem fair and on the other I was relieved that it wasn't my problem anymore. The station continued its revolving door treatment to PDs over the next several years as the ratings fell even lower. So at least I can feel good that you couldn't blame the station's consistent failure on me. It cracked me up when I started reading up on the history of the Packers how in the fifties they went through a new coach every year until they finally came up with a winner, which was Vince Lombardi.
One of the few genuine hits of the period was "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day. It's funny how my WLUM adventure started and ended with Green Day. They came by the station on my first day and then the last time I would have anything to do with WLUM was at the station's "New Rock Fest" concert featuring Green Day a few weeks after I left. A friend of mine flew in from Sacramento to see the show, that I had actually helped plan all year. My friend, Jimmy Brasier, was the drummer of my band the Beat Villains but as a teenager in the eighties had been the drummer of Sweet Children, which later became Green Day. At the end of Green Day's raging moon-flashing and show-stealing set we went up to the stage and bassist Mike Dirnt recognized us so he had us jump on stage and wait for them to finish. Then they took us backstage, even though they were not doing a meet and greet with the station. We joked about bands that we thought sucked. I ended up playing a game of chess with drummer Tre Cool. The game went on a long time but just as I was finally about to win, Tre knocked all the pieces over and we all started laughing hard. Hanging with Green Day was the highlight of my entire Milwaukee experience.
The new direction WLUM took shortly after I left was kind of a strange mix of music. It was kind of like the idea I had described to them as an ideal station: one that wasn't bound by demographics but by lifestyle of the audience. It was the idea of a multi-generational rock station that mixed classic rock with modern rock to create a timeless sound. I myself had gotten that idea from 91X in the early nineties.
But the funny thing about WLUM was that they didn't exactly steal my idea, not that it was my idea to begin with. Rather, they took parts of the idea and mixed it in with a whole new idea. This whole new idea might best be descibed as trainwreck radio. Instead of playing mostly current music and sprinkling in a few classics where they fit musically, they came up with an anything goes type of sound where one minute they'd be playing the Beastie Boys and the next they'd be playing Crosby, Stills and Nash. Each segue was an abrupt change and the whole concept of tempo went out the window. They played a ton of classic rock while the list of currents shrank. They also mixed in a lot of obscure music. In the ratings to follow the numbers for this strange format would spiral downward.
Ironically, the May Issue of VirtuallyAlternative featured my phone interview with Ron Bunce. The story was about how we had traded places, except it was written while I still worked at WLUM. It came out shortly after I left the station. The article was called "Comparing Distant Markets: The Sacramento-Milwaukee Connection." In response to my question about which market is easier to understand, Ron said, "I probably would go with Sacramento. I still think I don't understand Milwaukee. It's a very weird market. Some of the stuff you think would work, doesn't. I think Sacramento is a little hipper, more on the cutting edge of new music." Bunce did notice, however, that the passion level for music is higher in Milwaukee. He also made the interesting comment that "a couple of years ago new music was incredibly important to people and a recent survey showed only half thought new was important. It's kind of tough to program when there's not a lot of songs that test well, not that we live or die by research."
Indeed, WLUM's consultant had told me in my final days there that his research showed there was a severe shortage of alternative hits the past few years. In 1997 there were only twenty real hits that tested well throughout the year. In 1998 there were even less. The entire alternative panel across the country was basing a format on tune-out music. What a concept. No wonder most alternative stations continued to have bad ratings in 1998. The stations that were winning were playing a heavy dose of recurrent hits from the mid-nineties, when the format was at its peak.
Before I headed back home to Sacramento, I decided that I would make the whole journey worth it by going on a road trip around America. And I would listen to alternative stations in different cities and comment on them for my next article, "Alternative Radio Road Trip U.S.A." First I drove to Minneapolis to attend the Conclave Convention, which was the Midwest's big annual music and radio industry get together. At one of the meetings I heard CBS Radio executive Dan Mason say "don't act like a victim or you'll lose credibility." He was commenting on how PDs have to re-think their future and diversify into sales and marketing since there would be less opportunities for programming jobs in the future. I realized at that point that the suits were taking over and that whatever credibility I had as an alternative programming guru was dissolving. While I was in Minneapolis, I watched the Smashing Pumpkins put on a free outdoor concert Downtown that drew an estimated 75,000 people, which marked the city's biggest concert in its history.
Then I drove back to Milwaukee, through Chicago and then Indianapolis. I listened to WRZX, also known as X103. It was "Mandatory Metallica Monday." I had forgotten that Metallica was now considered an alternative band. Overall WRZX had a rock sound that made Metallica sound like a core artist and not just spice. In Cincinnati I listened to a station called Channel Z that featured the most blatant pop groups I had ever heard on alternative radio. In the article I joked, "At first I was confused when I heard Savage Garden but then I realized: Oh, I get it. Alternative doesn't mean anything and pop means everything."
I was never able to pick up the station I wanted to hear, which was the critically acclaimed WOXY, but the signal didn't cover the market. Then I picked up another station called Channel Z in Columbus. It sounded like the same automated format as the other one. "By contrast," I noted, "WWCD, also known as CD 101, rocked dangerously." I drove through Pittsburgh and listened to the rock-oriented WXDX and then the pop-oriented WPLY in Philadelphia. By the time I got to Newark, New Jersey I was able to hear WXRK, also known as K-Rock from New York. "K-Rock came in crystal clear and all the programming was in your face kick ass carnival madness," I wrote. The station had a much heavier rock sound than I had heard on other alternative stations, but I liked it because it sounded unique and every song sounded like a surprise. They played mostly current modern rock but mixed in classics like "Foxy Lady" by Jimi Hendrix.
I visited friends in New York for a few days and then I headed for Boston. On my way I heard the edgy WBRU in Providence. By the time I got to Boston there was an incredible thunderstorm in August. The storm was so severe it caused WBCN to cancel a free outdoor concert. I wrote, "WBCN was one of the best sounding stations I had heard so far, not just because they rock, but because they have humorous imaging, engaging air talent and they throw in surprises. But I also needed to listen to that underground station that uses the sweepers recognized by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of only ten stations in America that doesn't suck, WFNX." WBCN, still a big ratings winner, had more of a rock sound while WFNX, which consistently sat near the bottom of the ratings, had a much more eclectic underground sound. In Buffalo I listened to WEDG, in which one of their sweepers between songs caught my attention. It said, "Man, you are one pathetic loser...(laughing)...No offense...103.3 The Edge." Ordinarily I would think negativity was wrong, but that sweeper just came off as wacky and genuinely funny.
After being sprayed by the awesome mist of Niagara Falls, I got back on the road and headed back to Milwaukee. It was pure coincidence when I rolled into Cleveland that WENZ was playing "Cleveland Rocks" by the Presidents of the United States of America. I stopped at the Rock Hall of Fame and scoped it out for five minutes right before it closed. So I got in my car and listened to "Cleveland After Dark" on WENZ, which was a rocked up version of its regular programming. In Detroit I listened to WPLT, also known as The Planet, which positioned itself as "modern hits of the eighties and nineties." I think that was the first time since the eighties that I heard the word eighties as part of an alternative station's positioning statement.
Then I listened to CIMX, also known as 89X, out of Windsor, Canada. It was the first time I heard the song "What It's Like" by Everlast. I hadn't heard a lot of new music on the road trip, but this station sounded pretty fresh and edgy. It was the first station in which I heard Beastie Boys and Limp Bizkit in the same fifteen minutes, although there were no doubt other stations that did that as well. I had always tried to keep the loudest and hardest records separate so that the station wouldn't sound too hard, and a lot of alternative PDs had the same philosophy. Now I was starting to hear a more daring attempt to make the format rock even harder. I wrote, "CIMX turned out to be the most cutting edge station in the country as far as dangerous programming goes, and it's not even from this country."
"Even though much of the radio I heard on my journey was musically and formatically predictable," I concluded in my article, "I was able to come up with three different categories of stations. Most common were jukebox stations that were very basic and machine-like in their approach. Some of these stations had personality but the overall focus was on records that had passed a certain test. Then there were image stations that also were machine-like except the imaging overshadowed the records. Finally, there were a few human stations that were not machine-like at all, but came off as sincere and communal, as if the medium of radio were not a tool of forced consumption, but a gateway to a friendly resource. I predict the latter will have the most success in the long run."
As I returned to Sacramento I listened to KWOD. They were playing "Rockafella Skank" by Fat Boy Slim. This was the kookiest I had ever heard alternative radio become so far. The song's repetitious lyrics of "check it out now, the funk soul brother" struck me as nothing like the type of alternative music I had fought for. I would have never played something that was strictly a dance record. Somehow the surf guitar made it fun, though, compared to the average manufactured dance record. I actually liked it. Maybe none of what I believed about music mattered anymore. Maybe this was yet another new era.
continue to Chapter 10: A New Century of Choices