The Rise of Alternative Radio
by Alex Cosper
table of contents

Chapter 2: A Change in Evolution

KWOD was a hot story in late 1991. We had made industry news because we were one of the first major market top 40 stations in the new decade to successfully shift to a mostly modern rock playlist. Of the dozen official all-modern rock stations at the time, some of them like Live 105 had changed from top 40 in the previous decade. But none of them made the kind of ratings splash we had made in such a short time. We saw what we were doing as a completely innovative idea, playing modern rock tracks in frequent rotations, as if it were the new direction of top 40.

With the news of KWOD's ratings spreading throughout the CHR and new rock radio communities across the country, I began to get calls from trade publications to do interviews. They wanted to share our "secrets" with the rest of the industry. The first trade magazine to interview me was Hits in a story called "Alex in Wonderland." I told interviewer Nick Bull:

"We had experimented with alternative music within a contemporary hits format throughout the '80s and it seemed to work pretty well. Earlier this year Gerry Cagle decided - since dance and rap weren't working for KWOD, mainly because FM102 had that market locked up - to do something experimental with the top 40 format. And since top 40 has been having trouble all over the country, we had nothing to lose."

The Hits interview concluded with one of my cosmic outsider quotes: "I wish that record labels would put out more innovative pop music, because that's the void in music that everyone is waiting for to be filled. We have to show the public that music isn't just for dancing, it's a chance for musicians to express universal thoughts." It wasn't that I was against dance music, it was just that dance music was already all over the radio. And most of it had forgettable throw away lyrics that continue to be forgotten to this day.

In another interview I was asked about whether or not KWOD was following Live 105, and my response was deleted. There was a certain understanding that Live 105 was an industry leader. So it's no wonder some of my flippant comments were edited out such as "I think down the road they'll be following us." But I began to have more respect for Live 105 when I met some of their important station personnel. My first experience hanging out with them came on October 25 when I drove to San Francisco on an incredibly rainy night and hung out at the Live 105 listener concert. It was at a huge complex called The Fashion Center. I did not pay as much attention to the bands including the Psychedelic Furs as I did hanging out with record reps and the station's Assistant Program Director and Midday Air Personality Mark Hamilton. Mark turned out to be friendly, hilarious and informative. He said the best thing for a new alternative station to do is just to play a lot of the format's all-time biggest hits and then through time start to mix in newer music. That's not what we were doing, though. We were trying to be as current as possible without reaching too far into the unknown.

The reason we were playing mostly current music was because that was a requirement of certain trade magazines to be listed as part of the panel of top 40 or CHR stations that made up the national charts. Such stations are called reporters. It's important to have reporter status because those are the stations that record labels take seriously. The labels provide reporter stations with artist promotions, lots of album giveaways, concert tickets and backstage passes. It's very important for such a station that wants to have an image with its audience of a direct connection with artists. What I found strange, though, was that a certain percentage of our playlist had to reflect the national charts in order to be a reporter. It begged the question: what comes first the music or the trade magazine? Then again, radio/music trade magazines are mostly funded by record label advertising, so it begged an even deeper question: who really controls the music industry?

In November Gerry and I were both interviewed by radio industry kingpin Joel Denver, perhaps the most respected name in CHR at that time. If anyone in the business ever said just the name "Joel" it was understood they were talking about the CHR editor of Radio & Records. Joel would eventually go on to found one of the most successful radio industry websites, Joel's story about KWOD came out in the December 6 issue entitled "CHR + Modern Rock = Ratings Success."

In the article Cagle admitted "I'm a dyed-in-the-wool CHR guy." He then described the musical decision-making process: "Alex finds the happening records. He listens to everything that comes into the station and brings them to my office for consideration each week. The one thing we ask ourselves is: 'If this record was marketed and promoted to mainstream CHR, would it have an opportunity to be a hit? ' If so, we play it. If not, we pass. For that reason, you'll hear lots of songs on KWOD that you won't hear on Live 105 or KROQ...Alex's personal and professional joy in listening to the music is a big factor. Alex brings some unbelievable stuff to me. Labels should listen to some of the things they're sending out. I think they're missing some great records. Many have more potential than the records they're promoting each week."

The article was mainly based on Gerry's quotes, but included some of mine such as: "When Garth Brooks is the No. 1 selling album in the country and most CHRs won't touch it, it's evident that most CHRs are only offering a slice of the mainstream. In this market, FM 102 offers its slice and we offer ours, and neither station plays the top artist in the country. Amazing, isn't it?"

Gerry offered his explanation why CHR was in a ratings downturn nationally, saying "Most CHRs and labels are comfortable with a musical formula that fits the dance-oriented urban lean that predominates today's national charts. It's the path of least resistance." In other words, it was the path that record labels put the most push behind, because that's what sold the quickest, and radio followed. KWOD was making waves because we were an independent station that was no longer conforming to industry demands. Gerry had a history of shaking up the industry. In 1989 he wrote a fictional book called Payola (Branden Publishing Company, MA) about a radio programmer getting paid off by underworld figures representing record labels in exchange for airplay. Although it was a novel and somewhat of a satire on music industry paranoia, it may have mirrored some of the industry reality through the late 1980's. This book coincided with a government investigation into payola and a big selling book about actual radio payola called Hitmen by Fredrick Dannen (Random House Inc, NY).

None of us at the station knew as much about the radio business as Gerry. He had been successfully programming stations across the country since the seventies. Some of his stints included WRKO and WOR in Boston, KHJ and KCBQ in Los Angeles and KFRC in San Francisco. He might not have been a punk rocker or a techno rave DJ but he sure knew how the business worked better than anyone I ever met. He also personally knew most of the top people in the industry.

Gerry, like myself, cared more about turning KWOD's ratings around than what the format was. In those days ratings determined advertising rates and the idea was that you can keep your job and maybe even get a raise if you brought the station more money. However, we both wanted to do something adventurous and unconventional that would set us apart from the rest of the industry. That's where we connected. One of the most revealing, ironic statements Gerry made in a July 1991 interview with Hitmakers touched on the essence of what would make alternative a winning format in the nineties:

"We don't target a demographic. We're targeting a lifestyle. We're targeting a lifestyle that's young at heart, very active in social affairs and in political consciousness, and a lifestyle that knows no age group."

Although my primary mission was to help Gerry get good ratings, I also cared about a bigger picture. I wanted KWOD to be a voice of the people. I was tired of CHR being the default format for youth. Beyond the music, CHR typically avoided issues. The depth of CHR jock content was typically shallow, although there was a certain expectation that sexual innuendo was relevant. But now we were dealing with an audience that had something to say about the world. Many of the songs we were playing had philosophical undertones such as a song about an inquiry into violence called "Human Nature" by Gary Clail, the mockery of self-indulgence called "Chocolate Cake" by Crowded House, an anti-fundamentalist tale called "All This Time" by Sting and the environmentally conscious "Grey Cell Green" by Ned's Atomic Dustbin.

So even though KWOD had a split personality of half modern/half top 40, we felt we were really venturing into meaningful territory that made us a very unique station. As Gerry often said "we're not letting others set our agenda." In other words, we saw ourselves as leaders, not followers. That might have seemed like a stretch to the underground people, though, since we were still following the chart game. But at least Gerry had sense enough to know that we couldn't get away with playing the biggest chart records of that time by artists like Michael Bolton or Whitney Houston.

Besides the growing interest of modern rock in 1991, something else profound was happening in the music industry that year. It was the transformation from hyped data to raw data in determining the popularity of recordings in all formats. Prior to 1991 music charts published by national trade magazines were based on reported data from radio program directors. Some charts were also based on record sales in which the information was reported by record store personnel. This system allowed for information to be distorted. In some cases radio programmers would report records they weren't even playing (known as "paper adds") as a favor to record labels in exchange for some type of promotional reward. This practice was frowned upon by trade magazines. Then in 1991 Billboard introduced revolutionary electronic monitoring of sales and airplay, creating a much more accurate reading of market conditions. It forced other trade magazines to begin asking stations for raw data of airplay in the form of "spins" that songs received per week instead of just arbitrarily ranked playlists. It also took away a tool that record labels had used for years to hype new music.

I felt that modern rock was beyond hype anyway. Even record labels seemed to respect the integrity of the format as more musically legitimate than CHR. At the same time they saw modern rock radio as a launching ground for new artists and as a stairstep between college radio and CHR. One way or another, they still wanted to influence and control the format, just as they had done with CHR for years. The game of trying to distort the charts to get programmers to consider hyped records was over. With the advent of electronic monitoring, they finally focused their attention on getting stations to actually play their recordings, which could actually translate into record sales (of any configuration but mostly CDs by this point). For the records that stations didn't want to play, label advice was to give overnight spins. Seven spins a week was still better than zero and if several stations did this, it would be enough to show up as having activity for consideration around the country. That's how some new records broke through.

I was actually very bored with music and radio industry politics. I didn't care about all the different agendas outside of the radio station. All I wanted was to be a part of a radio station that served its audience and maybe to help revolutionize the industry a little with better music. I went through literally stacks of CDs every week sent to us by several labels, trying to find the most exciting new music possible. I was annoyed that labels signed so many uneventful bands that sounded like weak imitations of popular artists. I would say that less than five percent of all the music that came in had any chance of consideration. It made me ask, why not just start looking for better music by local artists?

I don't know if the decision-makers at stations like WAPW in Atlanta or KNDD (The End) in Seattle had picked up on KWOD's success (along with KROQ, 91X, Live 105 and WHFS) or if they were simply perceptive that modern acts were gaining popularity, but they were the next few stations to experiment with modern rock. WAPW, like KWOD, had been a once successful CHR station trying to pull out of a hole. Also like KWOD, they tried to remain CHR at first and mix in as much modern rock as they could get away with. A year later it would become pure modern rocker WNNX (99X) and go on to become one of the top alternative stations in the country.

At the end of the dial in Seattle at 107.7 FM had been an adult contemporary station at the bottom of the ratings called KMGI, owned by Noble Broadcasting, who also owned 91X in San Diego. That's why the 91X programming team of Kevin Stapleford and Michael Halloran were asked to consult the station when it flipped to modern rock in the Fall of 1991. It turned out to be the first station called "The End," which would become a moniker across the country in the decade to follow. The difference with The End was that they debuted as pure modern rock, at the precise moment in history when the Seattle music scene was starting to surge.

When I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana I didn't get it. Before I even heard it I was told by people at Geffen/DGC Records that this was a hot band we couldn't ignore. I recall Music Director Karen Holmes acting very excited about it. She was younger and more in tune with the emerging modern rock scene than Gerry or I were. For some reason I thought Nirvana didn't fit our overall melodic techno/pop sound.

The record rep Michael gave me a copy of the album Nevermind and guaranteed it would be a smash. I took it home and listened to the whole album. I liked "Come As You Are" because it had captivating lyrics and an interesting sixties-like guitar riff. Nevertheless, I went along with adding "Smells Like Teen Spirit," even though I had no clue what it was about or why anyone would like it. But on my recommendation we also started playing "Come As You Are," which was rare that a CHR station would play an album track that wasn't being promoted as a single by the record label.

As it turned out, the label was absolutely correct. As soon as we started playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" it quickly set the phones on fire and became our most requested song for several weeks. Other people in the business told me they shared my sentiment that "Come As You Are" was a much better song, but that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would be a much bigger hit. On the strength of the lead-off single, the album went gold quickly, which was pretty strong for an up and coming band. They had a previous release on Sub Pop Records a few years earlier called Bleach, which was big on college radio, but was mostly ignored by commercial radio.

The interesting thing about the whole Nirvana explosion was that it did not help KWOD's ratings in the follow-up to our winning ratings book. He had pounded both songs by Nirvana throughout the quarter to meet the demands of the phone requests, yet in the Fall Arbitron book KWOD slid 4.5 to 3.9 in the overall ratings. Even though we still maintained decent numbers, it always feels better when the numbers move up instead of down. Ratings can swing up and down in unpredictable patterns, but it doesn't always mean what goes down must come up. It also reminded me of an ageless radio industry quote that the phones only reflect about 6% of the audience. Instead of just following the charts we were following the phones. Maybe we were forming a new core audience, alienating the rave crowd and perhaps the top 40 carry-over crowd with that new "grunge" music.

I never understood why the music press was constantly trying to tear down "grunge" music from the very beginning. It was journalists, not musicians who came up with the term "grunge." The term was used to define hard rock bands coming out of Seattle attached with a stereotype of angry depressed rebels in plaid jackets and other gloomy weather clothing. Yet most of these bands would go on to score their biggest hits with ballads. It was in December, after Nirvana had already been big that we started playing Pearl Jam. No matter how you analyzed it, these were bands that were starting to become huge acts and somehow we weren't capitalizing even though we were playing them. It's interesting to note that except for KROQ, Live 105, The Edge in Dallas and a strong debut for The End in Seattle, most modern rock stations across the country had down numbers for the Fall book. The adult progressive format, however, which tended not to play any hard rock, did incredibly well, especially WXRT in Chicago, KBCO in Denver and KTCZ in Minneapolis.

The confusion over the ratings slide had us asking a lot of disturbing questions. Was the previous book simply a fluke? If not, were we really messing up? If so, should we change something? Wasn't it constant change that hurt KWOD in the past? Was Nirvana the problem or was all the other music the problem? Did we over-play "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or not play enough of their other album tracks? What about the U2 release?

Not only was Nirvana a huge hit during the Fall of 1991, so was U2. They had clearly outsold all of the artists on KWOD in the past. Their new album Achtung Baby was also a huge seller that spawned more radio tracks than any other rock album in recent memory. Before the album came out we played the hypnotic brain-twisting warm-up track "The Fly." Then with the album's release in November, "Mysterious Ways" became the big hit as we sprinkled in several other tracks like "Zoo Station," "Until The End of the World," "Even Better Than The Real Thing" and "One." The day we got the advance copy we played the album in its entirety at midnight. We actually did this with several albums to counter the attacks that we didn't play enough album cuts. We always took care of the most adventurous listeners at midnight.

The overall sound of KWOD in the Fall of 1991 was a wide mix of music. One of our most requested songs in October was a ballad by Crash Test Dummies called "Superman's Song." The song was a huge hit in Canada where the band was from. We played it a lot partly because of the massive requests but also because hardly anyone else in the country was playing it and we wanted to have a certain number of unique songs that couldn't be heard elsewhere. It had a unique sound because it featured a deep baritone vocal with lyrics that compared politicians to comic book characters. To our surprise, KZAP started playing it, possibly because we were starting to share audience with the old rocker and it showed up in their research. One of the reasons we might have shared audience was that our morning guy, Pat Still, used to do mornings at KZAP on top of being Program Director. During his reign KZAP was still a market leader, but almost to the minute he left the station, they began an irreversible tumble toward the bottom of the stack.

We also played the Sacramento band Cause & Effect a lot, partly because they were local and hung out at the station frequently, but also because they were signed to a major label, which was BMG's Zoo Entertainment. Their song "What Do You See" had gotten a little airplay around the country earlier in the year and their follow-up "You Think You Know Her" actually made the national top 40 in May 1992. We felt we were ahead of the country by playing them a lot. They sounded similar to Depeche Mode and fit in with the techno club sound.

I felt proud that I had convinced Gerry to approve an all-local music show called "The Sound of Sacramento." I pointed out to him that Cause & Effect were not the only local band making waves in Sacramento. I think the real selling point besides the fact that 93 Rock had a respected local show was that a lot of our listeners were either musicians or had friends in bands. I also believed that a lot of our listeners fantasized about being rock stars and that we could give information about how to make it in the industry. The idea for the local show came from a musician friend named Dave Conley, who helped with the musical direction of Cause & Effect. At first the show was hosted by myself and a future San Francisco radio personality Morris Knight and we buried the show on Sunday mornings with all the other public service shows. In June 1992 the show was moved to Sunday nights at 8pm. Eventually Dave Conley became the host. It would be the show that played future national artists from Sacramento such as Cake, Deftones and Oleander.

We did a lot of night club promotions during the disappointing Fall 1991 book. In October we did a special party with Erasure and in November we did a listener party with the Rembrandts. In December we had another listener party at a big club called Yukatan with somewhat of an obscure line-up that still filled the place. The bands included Crash Test Dummies, World On Edge, Paleface and local modern rock cover band Plastic Violets (featuring Dave Conley). On Sunday nights this club transformed into "The Shark Club," which was a live broadcast on KWOD featuring a techno dance mix that packed the venue. It was this crowd that was most skeptical of KWOD, as they felt KWOD should play more electronic dance music and less pop and rock. After all, raves had become the new defining scene for the "hip" crowd. There were actually several subcultures emerging at the time and they each believed what they were doing was the new cutting edge of society. You also had the punk scene, the ska scene, the reggae scene, the hip hop scene and the new age scene as well as an acoustic coffee house scene.

On New Year's Eve Sacramento Bee entertainment writer Dan Vierra named KWOD "station of the year." We felt pretty good about our buzz on the street, despite the constant nagging by listeners about "too much repetition." Then a few weeks later we learned about the ironic Fall ratings. It didn't devastate us, though, because it wasn't that big of a drop and KZAP, once the market's unbeatable rock champion, was now trailing us badly. Could it be that KZAP tried to resist Nirvana and instead tried to hang on to the past? Didn't classic rock fans already have a full-time favorite station now that KROY had become The Eagle? Who was more in trouble, KWOD or KZAP?

continue to Chapter 3: All Over The Road

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