The Rise of Alternative Radio|
by Alex Cosper
table of contents
Chapter 10: A New Century of Choices
In the Fall of 1998 I began a series of jobs that were all over the spectrum. For three months I interned at PBS television station KVIE in Sacramento to learn about video production and to see if I wanted a career in television. It turned out I learned a little but wanted to try other things. Then I worked for an online trading company for six months and learned about the stock market - mostly about what not to do. In January an old friend I knew at KWOD named Jim Matthews asked me if I wanted to do a weekend shift at the Zone, where he was Assistant PD. Since Carmy Ferrari was still the PD and I thought he was a funny guy and I was impressed on how well the station had done, I went for it.
But after Carmy left in April 1999 the station started to sound stale. They went for a few months without a PD so I figured I should throw my hat in the ring. I emailed the GM and let him know of my interest. His initial response was positive and he said he would set up a time to interview me. Deciding I should give him a little more of my background, I sent him another email describing how I had turned KWOD around from the bottom of the ratings to the top five despite not having a promotional budget to work with, but this time I was stunned by his response. He said since I didn't have budgeting experience, I probably wasn't qualified for the job. Then they suddenly wanted me to just do "tight and bright" bits with zero humor, so I quit in June, realizing radio was becoming a giant step backward for me. The last thing I wanted was for all the people in Sacramento who had listened to me for years to notice that I was becoming a scripted robot. Then they hired a new PD from outside the market and the station sunk to the bottom of the ratings.
For a year I ran an internet radio station with a business partner, starting in the summer of 1999. It was called SacLive and it actually gained some notoriety in town after quite a bit of media coverage. It was special because it was Sacramento's first 24 hour internet radio station and it played all local music. The station was automated most of the week but also featured live shows from local artists. First we advertised it on movie theater screens, which attracted television station KCRA to interview me. Then another television station, KXTV interviewed me. We also made the cover of California Computer News, a free publication at supermarkets and book stores throughout Northern California. The big splash, though, was when the Sacramento Bee agreed to a promotional partnership with us. The station was fun and seemed to be on the rise but it ended partly because of an offer I had to get back into the radio business - sort of.
In the Summer of 2000 VirtuallyAlternative Magazine, whom I still wrote monthly articles for, offered me a full-time writing position. My job would continue to be to write about the radio and record industries and get more involved with PDs around the country. I accepted the offer only after my SacLive partner told me to go for it. He had other responsibilities he wanted to concentrate on as well, so we pulled the plug on the internet station in July.
From July through December I waited and waited for the magazine to confirm my start date or sign some papers or whatever. Every few weeks they'd call and say "it's a done deal." But at the same time, the magazine and its sister publications were bought by Clear Channel, which ordered a hiring freeze. So it was not clear to me for several months when I would start but they kept assuring me it was going to happen.
December was the peak of my excitement for the magazine. That was the month they published their tribute to WHFS in Washington DC. It was a special edition that covered the entire history of the station from when it was a freeform station in the sixties to an alternative station in the nineties and early 2000s. It was exciting for me because I wrote nearly the entire magazine. I did about twenty interviews and included several other features. It was a great experience to talk with the station personalities past and present. The magazine even paid me a big chunk of cash for the project. Still thinking I'd be moving to Burbank, a cornerstone of the entertainment industry, I temporarily relocated to San Francisco to stay with friends.
But by January I was impatient. I needed to know when I was going to start. Shortly after New Year's I was told once again, "it's a done deal, your salary (of 40K) has been approved." Then a few weeks go by and I haven't heard anything from them. So I called and they said they still needed to work some things out. After another week I was losing my mind because my friends were only going to let me stay until the end of January. So I called the magazine and told them if they couldn't give me a start date within two weeks I would pass on the offer. Two weeks go by and nothing. So finally, I just left a message that I was passing on the deal and I would just stay in the Bay Area.
Although I continued to write for the magazine through most of 2001, I knew they would cut me off at some point. So I started building my own industry website called "MtAltra" which stood for "a mountain of alternative radio information." I figured I knew enough alternative radio people to make it fly so I spent several months creating the site. Over the summer the magazine told me that Clear Channel was dropping all freelance writers, so now I was officially out, but it didn't matter anymore. It turned out to be a lucky move that I didn't work for them full-time because a year later the magazine went under.
The whole time since I came back from Milwaukee in 1998 I did mobile DJ work on the weekends. After awhile it became my main source of income, especially during the "waiting for a start date" phase of 2000. I had actually made more money at mobile sound in the eighties working weekends than working full-time in radio. Even though it wasn't my ultimate career goal, it certainly paid the bills and allowed me free time to get back into my real love, which was writing songs and making music.
I ran into a lot of great friends I met over the years at Live 105's BFD concert in June 2001. I spent more time backstage talking with radio and record friends than I spent watching the show, although I did enjoy Fuel, who I had seen in Milwaukee. The most memorable revelation that came from this reunion was what a record exec told me about radio: all the corporate heads care about is the company's stock price. Ha! Ha! In numbers we trust. Too bad most of those stock prices for record companies and radio chains swirled downward for most of the 2000s.
I launched MtAltra in January 2002 and continued to write about what was happening in alternative radio. But at the same time, I really didn't like much of what I was hearing in the format. It just wasn't amazing music to me. It all started to sound like industry formula, even worse than in the late nineties. The format had been moving toward a rap/metal genre since the late nineties and I didn't really care for it. I may have liked some of the Beastie Boys stuff in the eighties and stuff like Faith No More, but I couldn't take it as a format. I couldn't take any one sound as a format, especially an all male macho, yet depressed sound. I liked rock but not arrogant teen rock or as one radio friend called it, "angry muppet music." It just didn't seem like it had any purpose but to make generic rebellious statements that stirred up hate and aggression. My philosophy has always been life is too short to waste time on things that don't get you anywhere.
So MtAltra started to become a sluggish task for me to come up with positive things to say about alternative radio. I thought it did well for a site with zero promotion as it attracted about a thousand visitors a week. Finally, with the ratings confirming that the alternative radio format had peaked a long time ago, I just started writing slamming reviews about where the format had completely gone wrong. It was hilarious at first, but after awhile I just said to myself 'I don't care about this music anymore. It's all cookie cutter, it's all meant for people who just like to hear someone scream about nothing and I've heard it all before many, many times.' I finally just said forget it and I sold (but practically gave away) the site to my old high school friend Sam Cadura in 2003. Then I began to focus on creating TangentSunset.com, which was about my music and my writing about other things besides the dissolving spirit of alternative radio.
It's funny, though, that the one format I had always wanted to do on the air, but was never allowed to do, was the version of alternative rock that turned out to have the most success in the early 2000s. That was a lifestyle-based all generations of innovative rock format - one that played everything from Beatles - Stones - Doors - Hendrix - Creedence to Bowie - Iggy - Blondie - Police - Clash to U2 - REM - INXS - Cure - Smiths to Pearl Jam - Nirvana - Chili Peppers - Cranberries - Counting Crows to whatever happens to be the most relevant current music to a specific audience that wants an unspecific mix of other brilliant types of music such as blues, rhythm & blues, jazz, reggae, innovative techno and even country. This wide open - large library - type of album format has been called "adult album alternative" or "triple A," even though it's better to think of it as a universal format. Stations programming this format that have led the rock scenes in their markets include KFOG in San Francisco, WXRT in Chicago, KBCO in Denver, KCTZ in Minneapolis and KINK in Portland. KBCO has even been to number one in their market.
But falling out of the radio world did not turn out to be the tragedy that the common radio professional may fear. I never got into radio because I wanted a radio career. I got into radio because I wanted to change radio, which was exactly what I did - for a few years. Growing up in my teen years I only listened a few hours a week just to know what was happening. I did, however, spend countless hours listening to records and researching the history of music. I never liked the way most disc jockeys sounded because I thought they sounded pretty fake. To me it was no wonder that there never were that many celebrated radio stars who made history because hardly anyone in radio history has done much to deserve recognition. Whether it's reading liner cards or making up cute disposable phrases that fit over fifteen second song intros, I find most DJ chatter to be worthless - and so does most of the public, if we are to believe in the methodologies of radio research. People like to be entertained or informed, but they don't have time for babble.
Some might ask, as a PD did I or did I not force my personal choices on an audience? The answer is yes and no but not really. Yes, I introduced new music that I thought had merit, but based more on my professional experience and knowledge of what had worked before. And yes, I had a vision about a smarter society that works together instead of one that tears each other apart, and I purposely tried to find smarter music that fit that vision. But that's only because I knew it had been done before in the sixties and seventies.
I chose the path least traveled - by the industry, but the path that a significant chunk of population was waiting for. At the same time I never lost sight of the fact that I was serving an audience that I had to listen to, otherwise the ratings would be bad. My whole mission was to prove that quality can sell. And I did prove it - at least to myself - for awhile.
The idea of letting disc jockeys play and say whatever they want with no rules or structure sounds exciting. But the truth is, it's usually boring, which is why it doesn't work and commercial radio gave up on that theory a long time ago. At the height of the hippy revolution freeform may have been interesting because there was so much music at that time that had something to say and had a purpose other than just to sell records.
When subject matter and innovation started dropping off in favor of a more standardized corporate sound beginning in the mid-seventies, the stack of wow records that could turn on a first time listener began to shrink. It didn't mean all music went to hell, but it did mean that the pop scene began to fragment into factions. The more factions, the less chance anyone has to get a message across or affect the masses. Imagine everyone having their own radio show. Who would listen to someone else's self-indulgent choices when they could play their own favorite music and be happier? By the mid-2000s that concept wasn't such a stretch of the imagination, thanks to new media.
Alternative radio owed its whole premise to the fact that pop music became over-exploited and diluted. It had to do with repetitious dance music being the most easy to market genre, so it in essence, took over the mainstream. When the more artistic crowd became alienated by trite, repetitious, easy to shut up and dance music, they began looking for other choices. In the seventies they found punk and new wave. Both styles started out as avante-garde, original and stunning only to be mass marketed as cookie-cutter trends that were packaged with clothing and other products. Then in the eighties techno, house and industrial were genres meant to offer an alternative to standard dance pop music, until each of those genres became defined by specific rhythm patterns that became just as repetitious as disco so that DJs could have a field day with beat-mixing to keep dance floors packed. Basically its commercial purpose became the same as disco: music designed to create continuous dance atmospheres in clubs to sell alcohol. That may not have been the intent of the artist but it was the intent of the club owner who hired the DJ.
The nineties were like a flashback to all previous decades with an emphasis on a mid-sixties to early seventies rock sound, when music had its most powerful impact on people. That's when music was a vehicle for something other than for the record industry to sell records. But after awhile nineties rock became just as generic and bland as the corporate rock that took over in the seventies. That's not because the public demanded more formulaic music, it's because the record company kingpins thought the public was stupid enough to accept whatever they dished out once alternative radio became a fad.
Fast forward to the early 2000s and we hear a lot of music that all fits into some pre-existing formula, not designed to influence anything other than for people to buy CDs. And what's so funny to me, even though it's not very funny to the record industry, is that the more the industry has moved in the direction of aggressive marketing of generic products, the less the public wants to buy it. Record companies, instead of working with the computer and software industries, chose to fight the pioneers of music downloading and wound up with a big black eye. While the record industry began to look at its consumers as pirates, consumers began to look at the record industry the same way. Even though illegal downloading of music via the early Napster website and other peer to peer file sharing networks cut into music profits and the record industry won the initial lawsuits, if the music biz had just merged with the technology, they would not have been knocked down so hard in revenue and reputation. Some labels downsized or went out of business. The ground-breaking model Apple set in 2003 with their iTunes music store for legal downloading of music should have been in place long before kids in a garage came up with a way to swap music files for free. Napster was born in 1999 but in a few short years it turned the entire record industry upside down with file swapping.
The radio industry also got hurt in the late nineties through early 2000s, except not nearly as hard. Even though revenue stayed up, ratings trickled downward, making the medium's long-term outlook questionable. The big reason advertising revenue grew was mostly because radio companies merged together to form bigger companies that could rake in more national advertising dollars. As for the alternative format, it continued to fizzle downward in ratings, with a few exceptions. Radio benefitted greatly by the dotcom boom of the early 2000s because so many start-up internet companies were able to convince investors that all it took was traditional media advertising (via radio, television and print) to create a market. But it didn't work out that way, proving that mass media outlets do not entirely dictate or even influence public taste. It also proved that a website isn't necessarily an automated cash register.
Starting with the Telecom Act of 1996, merger mania overshadowed the entire American cultural landscape. The whole time I was working at independent station KWOD trying to gain indie credibility and fight corporate warfare, I had no idea that my side would lose the battle over time.
I thought that individuals would rise up and see through the trivialization process that the growing corporate mindset had impacted on culture and human spirit. Like Social Distortion said in one of their songs, I was wrong. Very wrong. Corporate America, despite the stock market crash of the early 2000s and the exposure of corporate fraud, is here to stay. It is so here to stay that anyone who tries to fight it seems rather foolish. But at the same time, it doesn't mean we have to base all of our thinking on corporate principles or products. We're not robots yet. It doesn't mean the independent world can't exist.
It's important to realize that the whole concept of Corporate America is an artificial market condition. In other words, the corporate business model was created by law, not by the free-enterprise system. Corporations started in England many centuries ago to limit liability of individual investors. They didn't become the empires we think of until the early 1900s. Now a hundred years later, corporations are the foundation for much of our economy, so it wouldn't be surprising if most people now take them for granted.
Everyone complains about the downside of corporate standardization but at the same time they act like there's nothing we can do about it. But the truth is, people are still free to choose what they buy. Most people buy corporate products out of convenience, because let's face it, the corporate system isn't all bad. Most people consume nothing but corporate products because that's what's readily available at stores. Corporate products also command top of mind awareness for most people thanks to advertising.
The idea that music and radio should be outside the corporate system completely holds no water. Most popular music through the years has indeed come from the three to six major labels and their subsidiaries since the music industry began. It's true that rock and roll would have never made it without the support of independent labels in its early years. But the majors eventually caught on and joined the party. It's not the corporate system that is flawed and waters down culture. It's the people who run these corporations who need to look at the bigger picture of culture and the responsibility that comes with shaping people's choices.
Radio began moving in the direction of corporate expansion in the eighties with media deregulation. This direction accelerated in the nineties with the Telecom Act of 1996. Thanks to the softening of radio ownership rules, big business was allowed to take over the radio industry. Now a company could own more than 40 stations nationally and more than just a few FM stations in a market. Independent owners caught in the stranglehold of high operating costs began to cash in by selling to bigger companies. The result was corporate mergers. Small and medium sized companies began to merge together to form big companies. Now a company could buy its competitors and own a corner of the market.
In February 1996, just as the Telecom Act was being signed, Entercom says KWOD owner Ed Stolz, under the company name Royce International Broadcasting, signed a letter of intent to sell KWOD for $25 million. A few years earlier FM stations in the market were going for around $10-$15 million. Ed's initial investment in the station back in 1977 before FM's rise to dominance was only a few thousand dollars. Entercom owned Live 105 in San Francisco but no other stations in Sacramento. Then in October 1996 Entercom bought a few Jacor stations in town, KRXQ (93 Rock) and KSEG (The Eagle). From February to October, Entercom jumped from being the 38th largest broadcaster in America to number 14. In the next few years Entercom added more stations to its Sacramento profile and moved KRXQ from 93 to 98 on the dial. Meanwhile, in 1997 Live 105 traded hands from Entercom to CBS Radio/Infinity Broadcasting.
Sacramento, the perfect microcosm of America based on demographics, provides a great study for merger mania. By the early 2000s most Sacramento stations were owned by one of three companies: Clear Channel, Infinity and Entercom. A company that began in Sacramento called Chancellor Media would prove to lay the seeds to what would follow for the whole nation. In 1994 Chancellor Media was started by a Texas-based investment firm called Hicks, Muse, Tate, Furst, headed by Thomas Hicks, who was born into the radio industry. Hicks grew up working in radio at his father's station and then began to branch out into investing. By the time he bought Sacramento stations KFBK and KGBY and called his company Chancellor Media, his parent investment company was a huge empire that crossed over into other industries. At the same time Hicks owned a completely different media group called Capstar. In 1997 Capstar purchased SFX Broadcasting and Chancellor merged with Evergreen Media. Then in 1998 Chancellor and Capstar announced they would merge together. Chancellor changed its name to AMFM Broadcasting and became the number one radio company in the country. But it didn't end there.
In 1999 George W. Bush, not yet President, sold his stake in the Texas Rangers baseball team. Hicks at the same time, a friend of the Texas governor, wanted to get out of radio and into the sports world. So Hicks decided to buy the Texas Rangers and sell off AMFM in 2000 to Clear Channel, which had just merged with Jacor the previous year to become the number two radio chain. AMFM's $23 billion sale to Clear Channel created the biggest giant in radio history with the count of well over 800 stations at the time. Within a few years after more acquistions, Clear Channel grew to over 1200 stations, which represented ten percent of all commercial radio stations in America.
Clear Channel's closest rival became Infinity Broadcasting, which was the result of its own big mergers. In June 1996 leading radio company CBS Radio announced plans to merge with Infinity Broadcasting, which completed in 1997, making it the biggest radio group. They became even bigger that year when they purchased American Radio Systems. In 1999 Viacom acquired CBS Radio/Infinity Broadcasting, which simply became Infinity Broadcasting under the Viacom umbrella. Viacom also owned a long list of other entertainment companies that included movie studios, movie theatres, cable television channels, theme parks, outdoor billboards, book publishing and much more. It marked the beginning of the mega-media corporation. The goal of these mergers was to create a distribution system that gave a conglomerate the ability to cross-promote its brands.
The record industry also rode the wave of consolidation. In 1996 Seagram purchased MCA and created Universal Music Group. In 1999 Universal Music Group acquired one of the big six labels, Polygram, and became the world's leading music company, reducing major labels to a count of five. Then smaller labels under the UMG umbrella merged together such as Island, Def Jam and Mercury. At the same time Geffen, MCA and A&M merged under Universal Music Group as well. In 2000 Vivendi Universal was created when Canal+ merged with Seagram. In 2003 two major labels, Sony and BMG, merged to further shrink the music industry down to four major labels. The three others continued to be Universal, Warner and EMI.
The result of merger mania was a smaller industry with bigger companies. Now that a radio giant could own seven stations in a market, it didn't really need seven separate staffs. In many cases one group PD was hired to oversee the entire cluster of stations, diminishing the role of individual PDs at each station. As we moved deeper into the corporate evolution, many air personalities, especially on the overnight shift, began to lose their jobs to automated programming, voice tracked by in-house talent to be used across the country. Now you had not only less stations sounding unique, but less programmers deciding on the national direction of the music charts.
Even though the PD was still the person who interfaced with the industry, in many cases the PD became a representative of more powerful influences on the corporate ladder. Corporate chains typically installed a "Vice President of Programming" who oversaw the whole chain of stations, although some stations still maintained a level of autonomy. Other programming influential levels above PD include Operations Manager, Station Manager, General Manager and in some cases a consultant. This structure had existed for decades but in the nineties it became more common and more obvious. It used to be that upper management, which tended to be out of touch with the streets, would just let the PD decide what would go over the air. Alternative radio was somewhat immune to the corporate structure through the mid-nineties because several alternative stations were owned by independents up until then.
Another layer of influence that must not be ignored, despite being somewhat of a secret to the public, was that of the independent record promoter. Congress began to investigate this invisible influence in the early 2000s to see if conflicts of interest were involved. Basically, an independent record promoter was hired by actual record labels to promote their music to radio stations. The problem is that this situation created a controlled network that shut out artists who weren't paying the indies to get their music played. Some indies were able to gain monopolistic representation of a station if they offered the station, say a $40,000 promotion budget upfront. In exchange, the indies got to take credit and payment from labels for whatever the station added to the playlist.
The real mess, though, was when the pressure went the other way and labels demanded that indies had to get certain records played to stay in business, which forced the indies to demand stations to follow their suggestions. After all, once you're bought off, you're expected to reciprocate. That's just the unwritten law. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if it didn't cost an artist over a quarter million dollars to pay off the indies to pay off radio just to get a song played with no guarantee that it'll be a hit. The whole payola scam of airplay having a price tag isn't necessarily illegal if the station announces the terms to the public and reports such revenue to the IRS. But that's the catch. If the public knew that most of the music they listened to on radio were just commercials, would they buy it?
I dealt with indie promoters in the KWOD years, but there was no binding contract between us and them. I listened to their pitches and played the songs that I thought fit the station and they were able to negotiate artist promotions for the station through the labels. It wasn't a money thing, it was a music thing. Then at WLUM I had to deal more closely with an engrained indie promoter who expected certain records to be played, even though I refused to play that game. From what I understand, the indie promoter influence on alternative radio grew more demanding in the next few years. And if that's what happened, that explains a lot why the format became less and less popular as time went on because stations were forced to crowd their playlists with "favor" records that went stiff instead of what the audience wanted to hear. The indie game had been played in the top 40 arena for years, but it was about 1996 when indie promoters began approaching alternative stations with offers of huge upfront promotional budgets in exchange for exclusive representation of radio stations, which allowed them to pose as the contacts for getting airplay. Other industry insiders agree with me that 1996 was the year the format began its descent.
Luckily for music fans who care about integrity, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, before becoming Governor, smashed down the whole radio-middleman-label payola triangle, in conjunction with FCC and Congressional investigations. The government began investigating, subpoenaing, charging and fining some of the biggest payola beneficiaries. By 2007 all the major radio and music corporations were fined millions of dollars and were forced to sign agreements they would end the pay for play practice.
Getting back to the turning point when independent alternative radio began getting gobbled up by corporate empires, Ed never told me about signing a deal to sell KWOD to Entercom in February 1996. The first I heard of a KWOD deal with Entercom was from students at college station KDVS at UC Davis in 1999. I was invited by one of their jocks named Froggy to come in as a guest. She had listened to me on KWOD for many years and thought it would be fun to have me on her show, which featured mostly punk and underground music. In between bits someone in the room told me, "yeah, I hear 98 Rock is buying KWOD." I replied, "I don't believe that because I know the owner Ed Stolz and he would never sell the station. That's his baby." But then I started reading newspaper articles about it and it just blew my mind.
One of the benefits of merger mania for radio owners was that because big companies wanted to achieve the new maximum limit of seven stations per market, station value skyrocketed. Soon major market stations were worth $50-100 million. Advertising sales also skyrocketed in the process as companies were now able to sell packages of airtime on various stations to national sponsors. Now one sales staff could sell for seven stations instead of one.
The KWOD story took an even more ironic turn in July 1999 when Entercom filed suit against Royce International Broadcasting and Stolz for blocking the sale. A few months later Stolz filed a counter-suit against Entercom, accusing them of "racketeering." For the next four years these lawsuits would make industry news as the two sides went back and forth lashing out at each other in interviews. In one particular article published by New Star Radio News on Sept. 21, 1999, Stolz said, "Royce stands for independence, localism, and a sincere concern for the needs of the communities it serves...Ultimately, this is a battlefield from which one of two principles affecting American media will prevail: tyranny or independence."
Then in December 2001 Royce International filed for Chapter 11, which might have been grounds to end the case. But a few months later a California Superior Court ruling denied the bankruptcy filing. Then in April 2002 the same court ruled that Royce International "must proceed with the sale of KWOD to Entercom." By that point Entercom had become the fifth largest radio broadcaster in America.
Stolz did not give up, though. He fought to save KWOD as an independent station. The momentum kept swinging between the two sides in the press. I actually believed, because Stolz was so into law that he would successfully block the sale. I didn't know whose side the law was on but I knew Ed knew a lot about the legal system. I figured he would drag the case on so long that Entercom would just back out.
What actually happened, though, was that the court simply ruled in favor of Entercom in early 2003. After a few more meaningless legal proceedings, it became official in May 2003: KWOD was now the property of Entercom. Ed's charges didn't stick and were thrown out. In many ways it marked the end of an era of independent radio, but it also opened the door for KWOD to finally have the resources it needed to compete in a corporate environment. Ed moved to Southern California to focus on his other station, KRCK (97.7 FM), serving Palm Springs.
Shortly after the ownership changeover, Curtiss Johnson, who had been Station Manager of 98 Rock, decided to concentrate on new sister station KWOD in the same position. Even though Curtiss was competing against me when I programmed KWOD, I never thought of him as a rival. I was more impressed by how he was able to turn his station around and at times dominate the Sacramento ratings. He had previously done the same thing in Phoenix at rock station KUPD. So I called Curtiss in January 2004 to see how he was doing and how things were evolving at KWOD.
Maybe the reason I didn't think of Curtiss as just another corporate bean counter was because we always talked more about music. "I've always been about exploring new music," he told me. He also said Entercom is not "as corporate" as the other radio owners. We talked mostly about music and the creative side of radio. Knowing that the alternative format was still in a ratings downturn nationally and that record labels were consolidating and going out of business due to lack of hits, I tried to find out how these conditions affected Curtiss.
I asked Curtiss, "Do you try to fight corporate formulas?"
Curtiss replied, "I've always tried to be a pragmatic person. I have to live with what's presented. You try to look for the next thing that's going to happen. The last creative burst was in the early '90s with grunge."
So then I asked him if he expects these creative bursts to happen every year or even every month and he said, "Creative bursts run on a cycle of a generation or a decade. Rock was music that stemmed from the streets. Then the producers and record labels got a hold of it then there was a manufactured sound. Then the Beatles came and that was the next creative burst. The British Invasion fueled us through the '60s and '70s then the '80s had a few explosions."
I was curious if Curtiss agreed with me that there was not a single artist from the mid-nineties through the mid-2000s that one could project in twenty years or so to be like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd of this generation, either on the level of sales or critical acclaim. He agreed with me that there wasn't. Why? Because it's beyond opinion, it's simply the truth.
Then I asked him what he had done with KWOD since the changeover and he told me, "We softened KWOD a little bit, back to when it was an alternative station and not so much a hard rock station. A lot of alternatives were playing Metallica and KWOD was no exception. KRXQ (98 Rock) had been the hard rock station. So we said let's separate them. We took Tool, Godsmack and Disturbed off." That made sense as well, since Entercom owns both stations and there's no longer any reason for the two stations to directly compete with each other.
Toward the wrap-up I asked Curtiss his definition of alternative and the answer he said, "I think now it's just a marketing slogan. To me it was the station that tried to cater to the taste-maker feeling of music. It was the leader in new music. I think nowadays alternative is sadly more homogenized."
I asked him what he can do to improve the situation and he replied, "I think I can breathe spontaneity back into the format. It needs to be more fun and spontaneous. We're always going to compete with the web."
Yes, it's true, radio must now compete with not just the web, but the iPod and satellite radio channels. On top of that, cable television now runs several channels of music without commercial interruption, which is what I started leaning toward.
It's definitely a different world than a decade ago. Radio is no longer the only way to find out the latest music and news. In fact, radio has fallen down the list in terms of importance to most people. People may still listen to radio, but not as often or with as much passion. The computer revolution and the internet is a more on-demand medium that allows people to program their own content. The idea that the soundtrack of pop culture can be shaped by radio alone no longer stands true.
The alternative radio format turned out to be a hit from the early to mid-nineties, then its popularity began to taper off in the late nineties. By 2005 many stations that had led the alternative radio revolution were gone, highlighted by WHFS switching to Spanish, although it remained online at whfs.com. Many alternative stations across the country suffered from low ratings and were losing to competitors of overlapping formats. Challenging at the bottom of the ratings in Sacramento were KWOD and the Zone.
On March 25, 2005, KWOD shifted its format from current alternative rock to "Triple A" meaning adult album alternative. To distinguish itself from its reputation of low ratings throughout the 2000s, it became "KWOD Version 2.0 " with more computer-like voices in the produced IDs. The overall sound of the station remained guitar-oriented, but more eighties and nineties songs were sprinkled in and the headbanger stuff simply became exclusive on sister station 98 Rock. After just a few quarters of low ratings, KWOD switched back to current alternative music in early 2006, but ratings continued to drop to all time lows (even below a 2 share), along with many other alternative stations across the country.
An Entercom programming executive called me in March 2006 to ask about my opinion of KWOD. He also asked me if I was interested in returning to radio. I let him know that I worked at electronic dance music station Energy 92.7 in San Francisco, doing the overnight show. I was living in the Bay Area at the time, yet I could still hear KWOD in Contra Costa County, over 75 miles from Sacramento. I told him I would call him back in a few days since I didn't really listen to KWOD anymore, even though I could if I wanted to.
My report to the exec a few days later was basically that KWOD was gloomy. KWOD just sounded like a station with lots of depressing songs in a row that didn't flow well...with jocks that sounded a little too polite and ordinary to be considered alternative personalities. The whole thing about KWOD in the nineties was that it wasn't afraid to be a leader. Now it sounded like a careful station not attempting to be brave and daring with radio, but more like a generic station that sounded like a parody of what the format had become: lots of whiney songs about pain packaged in layers of predictable corporate imaging. It didn't sound fun. Then for a day KWOD shifted into a goofy mix of songs that included several forgotten songs that I programmed in the early 90s. Whatever the station was trying to do, it sure missed my point, which was not to relive the past, but to actually find better new music.
By this point, we could all agree that alternative music no longer threatened to take over the mainstream. It sounded either too loud, too dark, too depressing, too angry, too silly or too generic to be considered anything that measured up to the artistic seriousness of the nineties. Also, the biggest of the 2000s alternative multi-million sellers have been outsold by the biggest 1990s alternative multi-million sellers. No matter how you look at it, alternative radio's heyday so far has been the early to mid-nineties.
One big difference between the nineties and 2000s has been that in the nineties alternative radio really was alternative, yet threatened to become the mainstream, while 2000s alternative radio has been very generic, yet seems to have moved further away from the mainstream.
The whole KWOD story took a strange twist in July 2006 when I went to work for KWOD's original owner, Ed Stolz, who owned a station in Palm Springs, CA called 97.7 KRCK. Like KWOD, I was the Program Director and Midday Personality. But unlike KWOD, which was in the nation's 26th biggest market, KRCK was not in a top 100 market. I learned the difference real quick that record companies don't care that much about stations in smaller markets, based on the way they barely called me.
It also didn't help that the station had no receptionist at the time and I had to keep running to the other room to answer the phone while I was on the air. I had to answer the phone because I was the only guy doing sales for the station. I also had to do all the weekly paperwork for all the services we were using. I was also Public Affairs Director. I didn't have much time to spend on Promotions, but I did that too, plus I started out as the station's web designer.
My main disappointment about the Palm Springs station was that it was top 40. I just couldn't sit through that anymore. I like songs that have a positive message and point to depth of emotion, intellect and musical talent. Top 40 was more about following trends and common lightweight themes and very little of it fit my definition of great music. So I resigned after six months and then spent time in San Diego before returning to Sacramento in the summer of 2007. The whole time I was in Palm Springs Ed Stolz told me that he was still the rightful owner of KWOD and continued to make legal maneuvers to try to regain the station, although it looked to me like Entercom wasn't about to give the station back.
KWOD continued to clunker along as an old-hat alternative, more corporate than indie...more depressing than uplifting, usually mixing a lot of 90s alternative hits with all the bland soundalike currents of the 2000s, but remained stuck near the bottom of the ratings. KWOD stayed under a three share most of the decade, which was near the bottom. After my departure from KWOD, the ratings never came near the five share I delivered in 1995. Then finally one day it all ended. On May 22, 2009 at 9am KWOD signed off as an alternative station and came back as "The Buzz," which was a mix of popular hits from the nineties. Some say that was the end of an era, but as far as I was concerned the era ended when I left in 1996 and the numbers proved it.
I admit I got off on being a taste-maker or at least a gatekeeper of alternative music. But not I nor any other radio programmmer can expect such a role to have as much impact on society in the future. Now people have the ability to program for themselves and don't need radio or any one specific medium to guide their musical awareness. I look forward to this new world becoming even more empowering to the individual. One of the tools that has created this paradigm change has been Apple's iTunes Music Store, which allows a listener to preview music before they buy it and download it to their computer or iPod.
To say that Apple saved the music industry with legal downloads is an understatement. But it's an even bigger understatement to say that Apple, more than any other corporation, changed the face of the music world and the way people listen to music altogether. By 2007 iTunes was a top five music retailer in America. Within the next year iTunes became the number one music retailer in America. Ipods as well as iTunes allow music fans to create their own playlists, the essence of the radio music experience. Competing companies offered their versions of online musical delivery, but Apple set the most effective, efficient and compelling business model for the new digital music revolution.
Radio used to be a close companion to many people because it was so local and personal. Now radio has become one of many choices.
What was lost in the wave of consolidation and the get rich quick ideal that didn't exactly pan out for alternative radio was the disappearance of gut-level decision-making by true music-inspired programmers who care about music and culture. Instead, the selection process became based on strict research...as well as compromise. Meanwhile, record labels reacted by sigining a lot of soundalike acts. This thinking sucked the true spirit of innovation and adventure out of the alternative format and replaced it with a numbers game that somehow did not add up to success. The public was turned off by the trivialization and over-commercialization of alternative music.
Maybe down the road looking back at this story will be a joke anyway because eventually everybody will completely program their own music on demand and create their own radio stations that they listen to all day. And how will individuals decide what to program for themselves? Will it be based on research? Will it be based on bribery? Perhaps it will just come down to a person saying "I like this song simply because I like the way it feels." In that sense, every type of music imaginable still has a very bright future ahead.