The Rise of Alternative Radio
by Alex Cosper

table of contents


What was once cultural is now just a commercial for itself. The popularity of alternative radio on the FM dial began to fizzle away in the early 2000s. Just a decade earlier alternative radio and its music marked a revolution. On the surface this revolution was a backlash on corporate music and a salute to independents. Alternative radio traces back to the late sixties when freeform radio began attracting disenfranchised listeners to the FM dial with underground music. It continued to develop through the seventies and eighties with stations that focused on new wave music mixed with other eclectic sounds. Alternative culture was heavily based on out of the box thinking and independent businesses that included radio stations, record labels, record stores and night clubs. This indie scene evolved gradually for years until its big splash in the early nineties.

On the pop scene it seemed that the music industry controlled a homogenized sound through puppet-like artists since the late seventies. But with the alternative revolution in the early nineties it flipped. Artists once again had become the storytellers and the writers of cultural history, just like from the mid-sixties through the mid-seventies. For awhile it was captivating. But the corporate vision of assembly line music dictated by fabricated trends would inevitably win out again toward the late nineties only to run into unprepared competition with new media. That, in a nutshell, is the story of the rise and fall of alternative radio in America.

I was part of the story. So I want to explain what happened from my perspective as a radio programmer and air personality at an independent station that became one of the early success stories in alternative radio's transition from obscurity to a widely recognized revolution. In addition to my experiences, I weave in elements of what was happening with music and radio across the nation. My musical decisions contributed to the national picture, and in turn, the national picture shaped my decisions about which songs to play or not play. Both the radio and music industries serve as gatekeepers that filter music for the masses. Since a radio station can only play so many songs, someone has to decide which songs to play. I was fortunate to be that person. My main accomplishment was that I proved that my sense of music selection contributed to better than expected ratings for an independent station considered to be an underdog.

I think this is an important story for music fans and industry people because it reveals how music itself has power to influence the masses while industry leaders can sometimes self-destruct in their quest to push artificial trends. So even though I write it from an industry perspective, I view all readers as music fans whether they are familiar with the radio/music industry or not. As a musician I see the artist as more important than the industry that delivers that artist to the public. Most other industry people seem to have a very different view.

The station where I spent most of my radio career was KWOD in Sacramento, CA. The first seven years of this experience was all about working around the clock for low wages. The next eight years would pretty much be the same story, except with more power. I figured since the business was so competitive, the only way to secure a job was to become more valuable than the pros. So I put in a lot of volunteer hours to help out wherever needed. They allowed me to get involved with music and late night air-shifts. I worked my way up to Music Director, only to get blown out in a typical radio shakeup in 1989. KWOD was a top 40 station that stayed close to the national pop charts. Then in the Spring of 1991, the station took a chance on playing mostly modern rock music and brought me back as Program Director. The first few years were up and down as the station struggled to mix top 40 with modern rock. But after switching to a pure modern rock format in 1993, KWOD became one of the most successful alternative stations in the country.

There had always been resistance among radio owners and programmers to experiment with a lot of music outside the charts. The cost of running a station was so high, especially for a sole proprietor, that it required decent ratings to attract money from advertisers just to pay the bills. The terms "alternative," "modern rock," "progressive," "post-modern" and whatever else was used to describe a format that strayed from the pop singles charts were equated with unchartered territory by many industry leaders. They saw it as a specialty format that only worked in a few places. The only stations that seemed to do exceptionally well with modern rock either mixed it with traditional rock or top 40.

KROQ in Los Angeles was successful with a modern rock base mixed with a lot of pop/rock crossover hits. 91X mixed modern rock with classic rock and was one of the top stations in San Diego for many years. Both stations were consulted by veteran top 40 programmer Rick Carroll, who had come from Sacramento radio (KNDE AM) and began programming KROQ in 1978. It was Carroll who came up with the slogan "rock of the eighties" and pulled KROQ out of obscurity. Carroll remained with the station until his death in 1989. WBCN in Boston was also successful in balancing traditional rock with modern rock and The Police gave Oedipus, the station's Program Director, credit for launching their career by being the first to play "Roxanne." Most modern rock stations, however, suffered from horrible ratings due to either obscure playlists or weak signals with poor market coverage.

Sacramento had a "rock of the eighties" station from 1983 to 1984 when low rated KPOP briefly flipped to the Rick Carroll format. But the station fell to the bottom of the ratings and then it actually battled KWOD for a year as a top 40 station, only to consistently trail quarter after quarter. In 1985 KPOP completely changed to a rock format as 93 Rock and entered a long-term battle to unseat KZAP as the rock leader in Sacramento (KPOP changed call letters to KDJQ and then KRXQ). KZAP was actually one of the nation's first freeform rock stations in the late sixties, along with KMPX and KSAN in San Francisco and KMET in Los Angeles. Like most of these early experimental stations, KZAP gradually became a carefully consulted station that focused on big selling rock artists. This streamlined approach actually forced its progressive competitor, KSFM (Earth Radio), out of the rock format in 1979. KSFM then became a market leader for many years as an r&b-based top 40 hits station called FM 102.

KZAP dominated Sacramento ratings from the late seventies through the mid-eighties but inevitably flipped to country in the early nineties when it became clear that 93 Rock was consistently winning the ratings battle with newer music. Ultimately 93 Rock changed dial positions in the late nineties to 98.5, KZAP's former dial position, and became 98 Rock. Their parent company, Entercom, acquired KWOD in 2003 and the company took control of the rock scene in Sacramento. Prior to this ownership change, KWOD had been an independent station owned by Ed Stolz under the name Royce International Broadcasting. Stolz acquired the frequency in 1977 and debuted KWOD as a jazz station. He chose the name "KWOD" to reflect a futuristic development that never really caught on, which was quadrophonic stereo. Toward the end of the decade the format shifted toward mainstream hits.

Sacramentans also had familiarity with modern rock or progressive commercial radio prior to the nineties by commuting to the Bay Area, ninety miles away. Alternative stations in the Bay Area included KWAK (The Quake) in the early eighties and KITS (Live 105) from 1986 on. An eclectic station called KKCY (The City) surfaced in 1987 but disappeared within a year after an ownership change. Public radio station KPFA out of Berkeley, owned by the Pacifica Network, is often cited as a great alternative listening experience on the dial, if you can learn the schedule of its ever-changing block programming, in which the format changes almost every hour. Sacramento has also had long-running eclectic public radio stations such as KVMR from Nevada City and KDVS from the campus of U.C. Davis.

But it was not my job to program KWOD like college radio, public radio, Bay Area radio or even alternative radio. My job was to get the station good ratings based on what worked in Sacramento. In order to do so, I had to program for over 200,000 people instead of the mere thousands that specialty formats attracted. I was mainly concerned with the listeners living in the immediate Sacramento area, although the station's powerful signal covered a 75 mile and beyond radius that included parts of the North Bay, East Bay, Lake Tahoe, the "gold country" and other Northern California areas. In order to reach this vast audience I had to mix new adventurous music with a lot of familiar pop and rock music.

By the early nineties, Live 105 listeners had come to expect a wide variety of non-mainstream music. The station had kept its same call letters, KITS, from its hit radio days, but was mostly known as Live 105. Steve Masters had a big influence on the station's shift from pop to modern rock. On his evening show in 1986, Masters began playing modern rock and the incredible response led Program Director Richard Sands to take a chance on switching the entire format. Masters would go on to be the ears of the station for new music and launched a lot of airplay for bands that would go on to dominate the format.

Masters loved the crazy novelty stuff. He particularly liked the alternative music coming out of the U.K. Unlike KROQ and 91X, Live 105 wasn't so much a rock-based station as it leaned toward electronic music. The station did well for San Francisco, and dominated the market in the 18-34 age group. The pressure for KWOD to follow Live 105's sound was amazing. People would always call up in 1991 and say something like, "You guys need to listen to Live 105." People who regularly traveled 90 miles to the Bay and listened to Live 105 had an attitude that the station and its followers were the leaders of the latest hip movement.

I respected what Richard Sands and Steve Masters were doing and it obviously made sense for San Francisco, an eclectic multi-cultural international hotspot. But Sacramento was a lot less cosmopolitan and a lot more like a microcosm of average America. The demographics, political history and social thinking seemed to be exactly in sync with the national picture, which I'm sure is why Sacramento is one of the top ten test markets in the country for new products. It also became a top 15 market for record sales by the nineties.

Ironically, this distinction of being a national microcosm, makes it a very unique city, which is probably why most outsiders never figure it out. They call it a "cow town" because it's surrounded by farms and the city was full of fields until the sixties. But by the nineties it had developed into a huge metropolis of strip malls and suburban areas to visually erase the small town image, even though the "cow town" tag stuck. People want to say it's "white trash" or "redneck" but what they are referring to is really a small fraction of the city's profile.

Many people say Sacramento is a conservative town because it's a state capital. Yet it has consistently elected liberal mayors and its only major daily newspaper, The Sacramento Bee, tends to endorse left of center candidates. Many Sacramentans regularly visit the Bay Area for concerts, sports and other cultural events. Being in the shadow of San Francisco, one of the most progressive cities on Earth, how could Sacramento not have at least a streak of progressivism? The answer is that Sacramento embraces a certain amount of change while staying close to the American mainstream most of the time. KWOD's target audience, though, was a little ahead of the curve.

Alternative radio evolved from the idea that some people like adventure and new directions beyond top 40. The hallmark of top 40 has always been repetition of the biggest hits. The reason for this is that the average listener only listens for twenty minutes at a time and in those twenty minutes they want to hear their favorite songs. The strategy had worked since an Omaha station owner named Todd Storz in the 1950's got the idea from hearing the same songs over and over again on a jukebox in a bar. Some industry insiders will argue, though, that the concept of top 40 actually started around 1952 by Gordon McLendon, owner of KLIF in Dallas. Then in 1965 a national radio consultant named Bill Drake got credit for trimming playlists, speeding up song rotations and hiring fast-talking jocks at KHJ in Los Angeles as well as other RKO-owned stations. This approach was known as "Boss Radio" and some say the real architect was KHJ Program Director Ron Jacobs. A similar idea had actually been successfully enforced in the early sixties by Rick Sklar, who programmed WABC in New York. Regardless of who deserves the credit, the approach led to the top 40 format skyrocketing in the ratings across the country. Tight programming simply got more audience most of the time than stations that tried a lot of new ideas or stations that tried to be everything to everyone.

But after cycles and cycles of top 40 radio becoming predictable, disenfranchised people began exploring other music on their own. They also embraced freeform radio in the late sixties only to see it transform into more commercialized radio in the seventies and eighties. It used to be that the jocks of all formats picked their own music. But with the payola scandal of the early sixties and then the proven success of tight programming, the power of musical decision-making fell into the hands of Program Directors, who based a lot of their judgments on input from Music Directors. Sometimes PDs would report to higher levels of management. By the end of the nineties, however, there were several layers of influence above the level of PD, somewhat diminishing the position.

Reflecting on why I got into radio in the first place, it was because I wanted to be the guy who decided the music because I believed I could create a more interesting mix of music for the masses than what was being dished out. Radio sounded like a machine to me and I wanted to be the driver of the machine and steer it into a more compelling direction. I also wanted to do my own on-air style. I thought of myself as "the anti-jock" because I sounded nothing like a typical disc jockey. I was laid back and presumed that listeners didn't mind interesting and philosophical commentary in small doses mixed with the music. I loved to expand on song ideas and say things like "that was Tears For Fears with 'Everybody Wants To Rule The World' and you know it's funny - everyone who's ever tried has ended up with a pie in their face."

By the end of the nineties the music, the social commentaries and the concept of independent thinking were drowned out by an incredible giant wave of corporate expansion. This takeover weeded out a lot of things that made alternative radio unique. At the same time the exciting rise of new media created many more avenues for the state of independence to blossom.

continue to Chapter 1: "A New Era Begins"

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