East Coast Alternative Radio in the 80s/90s
by Alex Cosper
Bruce McDonald helped elevate alternative radio on the East Coast with his experience at WFNX in Boston and WHTG in Monmouth Ocean, NJ. From 1983 to 1990 Bruce was APD/MD at WFNX and then PD at WHTG from 1995 to 1996. The 80s were the years only about a dozen stations in large markets across the nation dared to test the waters of radio beyond the mainstream. WFNX was one of the stations that helped craft the foundation of the alternative format that would soar in the 90s.
ALEX: What were things you did at WFNX in the 80s that might be considered treasured archives today?
BRUCE: Treasured archives? My live 1988 Sugarcubes interview. Radio debut of a young Bjork. Later turned into an hour long special that was supposed to be pre-produced but we ran out of time. Did the last third pretty much live on-air. Ha! The following year did one of only two North American radio interviews with the legendarily reclusive Kate Bush. XTC's live acoustic set on my show. Lou Reed's New York interview ...Took me three years to get Lou up to our Lynn, MA studios and three-and-a-half hours to get him to leave ... That first Trent Reznor chat. Aircheck of my last show. Any of my Johnny Rotten interviews. The infamous "WFNX Welcomes The Godfathers" T-shirt & bumpersticker – part of our guerilla marketing campaign after WBCN started aggressively poaching 'FNX bands for live broadcasts. And the equally infamous Christmas card in which I had my armed around WBCN PD and then nemesis Oedipus. When I went into the record biz, Oedi thankfully turned out to be a great guy. Extremely fair considering how much of a pain in the ass I was...
ALEX: How would you describe the climate of modern rock at that time?
BRUCE: When first I became WFNX Music Director in 1985, there was no "Modern Rock." There were about a dozen like-minded commercial stations including WLIR/Long Island, 91X/Tijuana, KROQ/Pasadena, CFNY/Toronto, Live 105/San Francisco, WHTG/Asbury Park, WHFS/Annapolis were Almost all were based slightly out of a major market and/or with significant signal problems. KABL/Minneapolis was a cable station. KJET/Seattle and later Jonathan L's KUKQ were both AM. And we were all lumped into the lowest tier of the Radio & Record's AOR section.
Think it was in '86 that R&R put together their first commercial radio "Alternative" chart. They smelled money. It was problematic from jump in that the panel was constantly changing. Consistent ratings were a requirement for membership too. WFNX had one bad book & then R&R AOR editor Harvey Kojan dropped us. Between the labels' lobbying and half the panel's withholding their reports in protest, we were quickly reinstated. As we were all still lumped in AOR, Alternative stations were hammered by promo departments looking to "close out the panel" on mainstream rock records. 'FNX was the only "AOR" station in the country to not play Bruce Springsteen's Live 1975-1985 album.
It went back and forth like this for years. I left in 1990. It wasn't until '92 that Alternative would prove to be a viable format. Timing is everything.
ALEX: How much freedom was there at the station?
BRUCE: Freedom was, often slowly, sacrificed for consistency and to maintain some semblance of order. Jocks always had a fair amount of leeway in constructing their sets. We had the luxury of having a stubborn, committed owner in The Boston Phoenix's Stephen Mindich. Never once censored us. In '87 he did corner then-PD Michael Bright on the annual corporate booze cruise to ask, "What's that song we have in heavy rotation that uses the F-word?" Without missing a beat, Michael fired back, "Which one?" To his credit Stephen didn't ask us to pull either track (The Replacements "I Don't Know" & The Cure's "The Kiss" were the songs in question).
ALEX: Did any songs or artists in which you gave early support go on to have national success?
BRUCE: When "Mad Mac" Max Tolkoff replaced Michael in '89, he brought in a 91X-style index card system. I didn't have a problem with the system. Hell, I later used it to great effect as PD of WHTG/Asbury Park. However, I did have a problem with the way some key parts of 'FNX history were marginalized AND irrelevant-to-Boston West Coast bands such as Oingo Boingo were highlighted.
I learned an awful lot from Max but after 18 months constantly fighting to get artists like Nine Inch Nails and The Pixies their proper due, the daily air shift grind, promotional appearances, DJing clubs, etc., I split. Needed to get the hell out of Boston too. Lived there my entire life. Wasn't at all comfortable with my modicum of local fame.
Unfortunately, we were unable to break The Pixies while I was in Boston. Not for our lack of trying. Ditto for fellow Boston bands Buffalo Tom, O Positive, Tribe, Heretix. The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Psychedelic Furs, The Smiths all were well served by our airplay. WFNX certainly helped set the national stage with seriously early support of the decidedly not New Wavers The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden and Jane's Addiction off the top of my head...
ALEX: How did WFNX rise in national stature over the years? It seemed to always get praise from national Alternative publications.
BRUCE: 'FNX rose in stature for three simple reasons: longevity, integrity & passion. And my big mouth. Four reasons.
ALEX: What was the philosophy for adding new music?
BRUCE: Our criteria for adding music was pretty clear cut. Do we like it? Does it fit in terms of tempo and texture? Sometimes we'd add something that didn't fit precisely 'cuz it didn't fit – it had to be damn good though. As national leaders stuff like the artists' market history, national sales story & chart numbers weren't that important to us. If they didn't have a story and they had the goods, the rest would soon follow.
Whether we could work with a label or not was absolutely crucial. We understood bands we championed would get poached by bigger Boston stations. But many labels found creative ways to continue to support our efforts, to soften the blow. Others steamrolled right over us.
After one in a long line of particularly egregious incidents, I pulled one major label's entire catalog out of the air studio for over three months. Since this included major WFNX core artists, they didn't believe we'd do it. Then they didn't believe we'd stick to our guns. Sales of said label's artists supported exclusively by 'FNX plummeted. Panicked artist managers' calls to the label soared. Having proved they needed us just as we needed them, the music was returned to our airwaves. But not before we had every label's attention.
ALEX: How would you describe the transformation of modern rock radio from 80s to 90s?
BRUCE: Alternative Radio changed tremendously between the '80s & '90s. In the '80s we had little industry respect, no template, an erratic ratings impact at best, few resources and a small ever-changing cast of Mom-and-Pop stations. Other than one focus group, Arbitron .. which we "stole" ... and the short-lived Scarborough service, we had little research available. We made it up as we went along. We fought for every listener & every marketing dollar.
By the the mid-nineties, when I was at WHTG or working the other side of the phone for Polydor Records, the consolidation of ownership had begun. The number of Alt stations nationwide numbered in the triple digits. Some were their market's ratings leaders. There were now a slew of consultants offering complete programming, promotional & imaging templates. Independent promoters "claimed" exclusive station representation. Focus groups. Auditorium tests. Music call-out research. A whole lotta money was being spent...
ALEX: What were some highlights of your time at WHTG?
BRUCE: It was challenging and ultimately gratifying taking over for local legend like Matt Pinfield. WHTG had even less resources than WFNX did in the '80s. It was an AM/FM combo located in the owner's house. Plus every New York City station bleeding into Monmouth-Ocean County wanted a piece of the beach action during the summer. I also hadn't done a radio show in 5 years. By the time I left, the first hour of my show was beating the last hour of Stern in the market.
The two festivals we did: Surfstock (starring The Smithereens among others) and The Snow Ball (with CIV, Del Amitri, Deep Blue Something). Because it was on the beach, we coudn't sell advance tix to Surfstock. And it rained that morning! The Snow Ball didn't sell out until the day of. Both had me sweating bullets. My pals The Smithereens & CIV both did me a major solid as did the local promoter, Tony Pallagrosi. Raised cash both days for The Surfrider Foundation and The Food Bank of Monmouth & Ocean Counties.
Our 1995 Asbury Park Warped tour guerrilla promo. It was the first one. Some idiot West Coast ad agency awarded the presents to the NYC Active Rock station. The day before we blitzed tix to the sold-out show stockpiled from labels & the promoter. Lacking a station van, we rented a 24-foot truck & hung a massive 'HTG banner from it at the gate. Gave out water, Warped Tour-related music samplers, stickers, etc., to listeners waiting in line. Borrowed a cell phone and throughout the day I did on location call-ins from CIV's tour bus, had Quicksand on, even called from the roof of The Stone Pony.
The whole promotion cost less than 100 bucks. Totally kicked the bigger station's ass. Their interns showed up with a handful of black station tees and a dozen 12"x24" station posters. Though it was the PD who dropped the ball, somebody in that station's promotion department lost their job over it. Typical.
In January of '96, a blizzard shut down the state of NJ for 3 days. I made it down from Jersey City just before the state of emergency was declared. Until it was lifted, I alternated shifts with my assistant Rob Acampoura. Fortunately we had trade with the Holiday Inn up the road so we had a place to crash, eat & take a shower. I'd start to fade so I'd wake Rob up and vice versa. For three days. Other than long walk to the hotel in the blizzard (and the shortage of food that last day), it was a ton of fun. Talk about a captive audience. Listeners were literally huddled 'round their battery-powered radios.
Between that and the Snow Ball a few weeks previous, I was pretty burned out. WXRK/New York had just flipped Alternative and was running jockless. Programmed by KROQ's Kevin Weatherly. Called a trusted friend in LA to get some intel and was offered a job at Polydor a second time.
ALEX: How would you describe radio since the Telecom Act of 1996, which led to big corporate mergers in the radio industry?
BRUCE: Since the telecom act radio has become increasingly boring and predictable. It's not surprising radio's audience has plummeted. It's no longer compelling. At all. There's no reason to listen to music radio for more than 30 minutes a day. Since it's programmed that way, it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Radio changed my life well before I was on the air. I love radio even I don't listen to it except for sports talk & for traffic reports. With a satellite dishes, the internet, X-box, my family, books and 100,000+ songs on my iTunes, I don't have time to.
ALEX: In all your radio experience what stands out as the best memory or memories?
BRUCE: Hands down my fave radio memory is the aforementioned 1989 live acoustic XTC set on my 'FNX evening show. At that point I'd been a serious fan for a decade and given Andy Partridge's well-documented stagefright, I never thought such a thing was ever in the realm of possibilities. I'd met them twice previously that year so we'd already established a rapport. Still, I was really nervous for them. Early on I mistakenly called their new album, Oranges & Lemons, "Oranges & Lemmings." Andy immediately riffed, "Orangutans & Lemmings!" Colin cried, "Brilliant!" Redfaced I replied, "That's the alternate title we use here at 'FNX." That broke the ice. Ha!
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