The Rise of Alternative Radio|
by Alex Cosper
table of contents
Chapter 3: All Over The Road
In early 1992, despite the continued Nirvana craze with a barrage of album tracks, the direction of modern rock seemed to be moving more toward electronic music. Raves consisting of thousands of people had become a trend. On one hand the rave scene seemed to be creeping into the mainstream, yet on the other hand it was still considered underground. I only ended up going to one rave throughout the whole decade, which was in March 1992. My impression was that it was cool in the sense that it brought a lot of people together for a huge dance, but I also thought the music was heavily over-rated. It reminded me of disco because the repetitious music wasn't the point, it was the crowd.
I was not entirely opposed to rave music for airplay, just as I was not opposed to any style except music in which style clearly overshadowed substance. Pop artists, for example, who were successful on the strength of showing off their vocal talent instead of songwriting or musicianship simply didn't fit. Anything that sounded manufactured to fit in with a trend also didn't fit. I liked variety and originality and lyrics that told an interesting story. I was personally more impressed by guitar music and bands that could play live than highly produced keyboard music by people who faked it live with sequencers and pre-recorded material.
It seemed that the techno crowd had become our most vocal audience on the phones. So KWOD incorporated an electronic flavor with a wide spectrum of songs that all had a melodic pop hook. The club scene was pretty lively in town at that point but techno music was not selling very well in the weekly reports we reviewed. I was skeptical all along that the club scene represented our overall audience. In fact, I started to calculate exactly how many people went out to techno clubs and it didn't even approach one percent of the market.
It turned out 1992 was a bad year for KWOD in the ratings. After hitting 4.5 in the Summer of 1991, the numbers consistently slid into the threes and then the terrible twos. We had loosened our rotations throughout the year in response to the complaints that we were too repetitious. We also listened to the audience and expanded our playlist a little. Another difference between 1991 and 1992 was that the latter year produced less CHR/modern rock crossover hits. We gave several tracks from U2's album Achtung Baby a lot of airplay, but most of the songs we played that year were not the timeless staples that shape a winning format. One of the biggest hits of the year was "I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred. This was a song I felt threatened the credibility of the station but agreed to play it anyway since it was one of the few modern rock songs that made the top 40 at that time. I really believed that KWOD at some point needed to establish serious artistic credibility to create some kind of buzz that we were legitimate.
But at least we could feel good that we were still on the air. KZAP, on the other hand, was unable to recover from the knockout punch in the Fall book that came out in January. They slid to 13th place, which was their lowest dive in decades. KWOD, despite having a down quarter, stayed ahead of the old rock station that had completely lost its identity by trying to get too conservative with rock music. 93 Rock maintained their number five position and was clearly the leader in rock radio by this point. They had achieved this status by playing mostly newer rock music for the younger audience. They weren't "modern rock," but they stayed up to date with new releases from established bands like Guns N' Roses, Rush, Tesla, Scorpions and Van Halen along with rising bands such as the Black Crowes. KZAP, however, was drifting backward in time, but without excitement. The Eagle had scooped up classic rock fans with around the clock programming of mostly seventies and eighties rock. KZAP was simply squeezed out of relevance. So on January 20, 1992 they put their legend to rest and completely changed their call letters and format, flipping to country music. The call letters KZAP resurfaced a year and a half later in the Northern California small market of Chico.
Even though this situation created room for a broader up to date rock station, KWOD was still stuck between CHR and modern rock that encompassed a broad range of styles from electronic to edgy rock. In radio terminology we were "all over the road." We didn't have a certain focus or sound. We simply gravitated toward hits and songs that sounded like they could have been hits with a modern flavor. The problem was, the list of songs that fit this criteria was steadily shrinking. The record industry simply didn't crank out as many big modern rock hits in 1992 as they did the previous year. Nevertheless, we kept on truckin' with our pseudo-modern format that seemed to be moving toward obscurity. I thought some of the music was pretty good by artists such as Ingrid Chavez, Ghost of an American Airman, Lightning Seeds, Sugar Cubes and Judybats, but these and many other artists simply were too unknown to serve as anchors to pull in the masses. We were fusing in emerging rock bands, but they were also apparently too new to give us the ratings we were looking for.
The music KWOD played throughout 1992 included:
10,000 Maniacs - These Are Days
Alice In Chains - Would?
Tori Amos - Silent All These Years
The Cure - Friday I'm In Love
Duran Duran - Ordinary World
Enya - Caribbean Blue
Peter Gabriel - Steam
Annie Lennox - Walking On Broken Glass
Sarah McLachlan - Into The Fire
Ministry - N.W.O.
Morrissey - We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful
Nirvana - Lithium
Pearl Jam - Jeremy
Red Hot Chili Peppers - Under The Bridge
Sugar Cubes - Hit
Temple of the Dog - Hunger Strike
Toad The Wet Sprocket - All I Want
U2 - One
Utah Saints - Something Good
Suzanne Vega - Blood Makes Noise
XTC - The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
see full list of 1992 songs
Just when we thought there might be more room to rock, a few weeks after the KZAP demise a contemporary jazz station called The Point (KQPT) at 100.5 FM announced that they were switching to adult rock. It was supposed to be an ecclectic mix of music, but they turned out to be more "all over the road" than KWOD would ever be. It turned out their format would consist of a lot of obscure songs that would ensure low ratings for the next three years. A lot of it was great sounding music, but no station ever wins by drifting too deep into the unknown.
The two widely agreed upon causes for ratings success in radio have always been familiarity and consistency. But throughout 1992 it was hard to really consider KWOD as either familiar or consistent. We did a little more reshuffling with the jock line-up in January. Episodes of musical chairs continued as we had to reshuffle again the following month as well as in March.
After Pat Still left mornings in January there was a series of ever-changing morning shows over a short period. The Andy Quinn Show attempted to emulate Howard Stern with in your face macho shock jock sex controversy. Some of Quinn's critics were outraged that a supposed progressive station featured a morning host who would put female callers on the air and ask their breast size. He would also ask if they would have sex with him. Howard Stern was popular, but mainly on male-dominated album rock stations and had not yet penetrated the alternative or mainstream market, nor had he ever been carried in Sacramento at that point. KWOD's audience was about 40% female. Younger teen listeners didn't seem to have a problem with Quinn but many adult listeners were outraged. The station was flooded with complaints and threats of boycott. So after only a few months of the Andy Quinn Show, the mild-mannered Axl Marley moved from afternoons to mornings while Quinn's role shifted to reading the news but he quit shortly afterward.
New to the line-up was Brad Adams, who we lured away from 93 Rock. He had done 10p-2a there and in March began doing afternoon drive on KWOD. Music Director Karen Holmes and I convinced Gerry that Brad would sound good on KWOD. He had a deep haunting voice and he was a big fan of artists like the Cure and Peter Murphy. We needed jocks who sounded like they knew a lot about the music we were playing and Brad certainly had guru qualifications. He also sang lead in a band that did modern rock cover songs. Brad even had a very gothic look with black hair that spiked upward. But he did not come across as a radio character. He was the real deal. Despite Gerry's long history with top 40, he opposed the idea of jocks sounding like corporate robots, so the addition of Brad Adams further strengthened our profile of genuine personalities. Gerry even told us not to worry about talking up song intros to the vocal, which in top 40 is considered a major artform even if the content is nothing but babble. For the 10p-2a shift, Nick Monroe persuaded us to hire the friendly upbeat Ally Storm from FM 102, where she did late nights. We felt we might be on to something if we could nab two good-sounding jocks from the city's top stations.
Soon after Brad started doing afternoons, he did a phone interview with John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols. KWOD still hadn't touched the Sex Pistols or Lydon's follow-up group Public Image Limited but I was at least beginning to understand the influence of these groups on modern rock. It still seemed out of the question, though, to play Lydon's music on KWOD because it sounded too rough for our melodic pop sound.
Because the station was suffering from a shortage of hit songs we had no problem spiking in oldies that were re-released in films. We were all over the Wayne's World Soundtrack in April. Two big re-releases of seventies pop/rock hits came back in that movie: the swirling sounds of "Dream Weaver" by Gary Wright and the rock opera flavor of "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. Both Gerry and I thought these songs fit KWOD because they were unique hits for their time, plus they stood out as unique songs in 1992. On top of that, the movie was a smash. Our audience didn't see it that way, though. To them it was probably more confirmation that we were stuck in the past, stubbornly hanging on to the old world of pop radio. Queen's singer Freddie Mercury had died the previous November of AIDS, which spawned worldwide recognition and tributes. The song became huge again at top 40 and rock radio but apparently not with the modern rock audience.
On April 17, U2 came to Sacramento and sold out the 17,000 capacity Arco Arena on the "Zoo TV Tour." Achtung Baby was still selling millions and by this time we had given airplay to virtually every track on the album. I have to admit this was a show that changed my life. Never before had I seen a concert that mixed live performance and big screen video in such a surreal way. Not only was the music compelling, the flashing video featured high speed images and messages that bordered on subliminal manipulation. One of the messages that lasted a mere split second but stayed in my mind was "no one promised you a tomorrow." It penetrated my psyche and altered my thinking. It was kind of a revelation. It relieved me that rock and roll still had a viable message and wasn't just cookie-cutter marketing for escapists.
Another mind-opening event that Spring was when I got to interview singer Andy Partridge of XTC in the studio. We gave a lot of airplay to their latest song "Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead." I asked Partridge if the rumor were true that the song was about JFK. He confirmed there was such imagery in the song. More specifically, he said it was based on a Halloween pumpkin he had seen, which somehow made him think of a "perfect person" who happened to be a pumpkin. "What would a perfect person do?" Partridge pondered. "They'd tell the truth. That would make them really powerful. That would make them kind of popular and unpopular in certain quarters. And they give people what they want. People want compassion and love. And they want money so he gave all his money away and made them all happy. He became so popular for being perfect that the government decided to have him bumped off, which has happened all the way through history."
Then I took live calls from listeners. One listener brought up the XTC song "Dear God," which blasts religion with the lyrics "did you make mankind after we made you / and the devil too?" The caller asked Partridge if the song coincided with his actual beliefs. Partridge replied, "There is no God, ergo there is no devil. There is no heaven and there is no hell. And we have to be as good as possible and have as much fun down here and cause everyone else to have as much fun as possible...and not let people scare the pants off you with this religious nonsense." KWOD had never broadcast such a view before. It must have shocked a few people, especially during the midday hours when things were supposed to be as tame as possible so that businesses could go about their business as usual. Another caller asked Partridge about his position on politics and the outspoken singer replied, "Politics is a catch 22 taken to the nth degree because all you can vote for are politicians. Yet who'd want to vote for somebody who would be a politician?"
We had been the only station in the country to give airplay to the song "Saltwater" by Julian Lennon (left photo courtesy of Naja Davis). I thought it was an interesting song because it talked about global warming, which seemed to be a topic that was off-limits in the standard pop world. I got to interview Julian on the phone in January (on the condition that I didn't ask any questions about his father, the legendary Beatle). It was strange that the song was an international hit but unknown in America, except for the airplay on KWOD. Julian showed his appreciation by doing one show only in America on that tour - and that one show would be a KWOD listener appreciation party in June. We did it at a small club called Key Largo. But the deal was Julian would only perform five acoustic songs with another guitarist. Unfortunately it became an uptight situation when the sound man couldn't eliminate constant feedback. Julian tried to start several times but was interrupted by the feedback. He was obviously frustrated at one point when he told the sound man he was going to start anyway and hoped that the sound man could figure out the problem. It was embarrassing for everyone there. I was even more sad that my girlfriend dumped me during the event. After the show I approached Lennon and said "Julian, thanks for doing the show," but he just bolted past me without saying a word.
A few days later I happened to be visiting Key Largo again when I met someone who would become a very good friend and a key player in my radio career. His name was Ron Givens. We met playing pool, which I loved. It turned out Ron was a drummer who wanted to play in my little side project, which was a band called the Beat Villains. Dave Conley also played in the band on keyboards. I was the singer and songwriter. We all ended up in a gig Downtown on July 4 that pulled a decent crowd. Ron and I would become good friends over the years and down the road I would get him a job at KWOD.
In 1992 Gerry still did the hiring and firing, but a lot of the people that got hired went through me. My interview style was much different than most PDs. The standard industry style interview was designed to weed out people. But my style was to bring out the best of people. For example, I never asked questions like "what is your biggest weakness?" I figured such a question invited either a contrived or defensive answer, which could throw a good conversation into psychological confusion. I was more into describing what we were looking for and seeing if it matched the goals of the interviewee. Of course, I always pointed out that the job didn't pay much, but that the creative freedom at KWOD was unique for the industry. If their tape sucked then they never made it to the interview anyway. One tape that I liked that turned into a hire was that of Scott McPherson, from New Zealand. Now we had two foreign accents on the station, which I considered to be a plus since international music still dominated modern rock. Scott, however, ended up just doing weekends since the regular weekday line-up had finally been solidified.
With declining ratings all year, I wanted to get a fresh perspective on modern rock. In August I drove to San Diego just so I could listen to 91X. I had followed their impressive ratings and heard a lot of good things about them from industry people. Nick Monroe had worked on the air in Imperial Valley near San Diego and was very familiar with the station and he spoke very highly of them. Their playlist always featured rock songs that I wanted to play, but somehow the techno crowd influenced me not to play them. The station was a mix of modern rock and classic rock, which was my dream format. But no one I talked with in Sacramento seemed to believe that the two eras could mix. I couldn't figure out why I could hear the obvious connection between the two eras but I was surrounded by people who thought there was a serious generation gap to deal with. Some younger listeners acted like modern rock was supposed to be some movement that was overthrowing classic rock and I didn't feel that way at all. If anything, I thought modern rock was picking up where a lot of great classic rock left off before the suits moved in and squeezed all the spirit out of it. All I could assume was that the younger crowd had not been exposed to sixties and seventies rock.
I was amazed at what I heard on 91X. It sounded like theater of the mind stream of consciousness. They mixed rock, rap, reggae and a pinch of electronic music along with nutty oldies like "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" by Nancy Sinatra. It sounded like one surprise after another. I even heard "Tomorrow Never Knows" by The Beatles. The overall sound focused on the latest rock hits by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Black Crowes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, Smashing Pumpkins and Alice In Chains. But they also included a lot of modern rock hits from the eighties and the latest music by Morrissey, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Jesus & Mary Chain, Sonic Youth and other contemporary artists ignored by rock and CHR stations.
I was so impressed that I drove to the station and stopped in to ask for a tour. That was when I met Michael Halloran, the Assistant PD, who I had already known was one of the main brains behind the music. He invited me into the control room where he was on the air. The walls of the studio were covered with shelves full of vinyl albums. Most of the music was on tape, but they also utilized turntables for their surprise oldies. Halloran told me that jocks were allowed to insert requests from the vast library every now and then.
I told Halloran that I really enjoyed the station and I was curious how he decided on which songs would get played. He said in a nutshell it's music that comes from the heart and sounds human. That's why every now and then they would play a country song by someone like Dwight Yoakam. He seemed to share a view I had that music should be more about substance than style. When I asked him why techno music didn't sell as well as rock he said it was because techno artists didn't have an image that people could relate to and that their music wasn't song-oriented enough. In other words, techno was more about beats and studio tricks than lyrics and melody. From this conversation I started to form a theory that the most successful songs are the ones that directly communicate with listeners.
Upon my return I told Gerry about my impressions of 91X and told him I thought they sounded great as a rock-based alternative as opposed to what we were, which was much more pop. He seemed receptive. We were both concerned that what we were doing wasn't working and that our sound was all over the road. Gerry pointed out on August 21 that a station in Los Angeles called MARS FM had dropped their eclectic format, which included a lot of techno. MARS had non-existent ratings, not just because of poor signal coverage, but because they played nothing but obscure music around the clock. KWOD also seemed to be moving toward obscurity. But it wasn't like we were playing hip underground music. It was more like a grab bag of low-charting music. We were so desperate to play a hit we even started playing "Erotica" by Madonna, which raised even more questions with paranoid callers.
One of the most humiliating moments in my radio career happened the day They Might Be Giants came to town on September 2. In my mind they were legendary among elitists. They stopped by the station that day for an interview on my show. As usual, the interview went fairly well with periodic brain-fades on my part. I told them, for example, that I thought their music was eccentric and they gave me a rather sour look. "Eccentric?" John Flansburgh gasped. "I would say it's more educational." Then that night at The Crest Theater they put on a very entertaining show that seemed to end in embarrassment for KWOD. The singer asked the crowd how many listened to KWOD and the room got kind of quiet with just a few handclaps. Then when he asked who listened to Live 105 the room exploded with cheers. After the show I met with the guys again. Flansburgh suggested I pay attention to what college radio programmers were playing. Not that I opposed college radio, but to imply that college radio, which only pulled a small fraction of our audience size even at our lowest rating, was cooler than we were was just...it was just...I didn't know what to say to that.
In October 1992 we threw KWOD's first festival called "Kwod-a-palooza," which was inspired by the hippest alternative festival series of the time, Perry Ferrell's Lollapalooza. It was special for me because my band The Beat Villains opened the show. I played guitar and sang with other KWOD members such as David Conley on keyboards, night jock Ally Storm on sax and my future assistant Ron Givens on drums. The sold out event was held outdoor at the Radison Hotel in North Sacramento, which had a capacity of one thousand people. Other acts that played were Cause & Effect, Material Issue and headliner Shakespeare's Sister, who were cut short by a curfew, but managed to squeeze in their one hit "Stay." The big draw was actually local-turned-national heroes Cause & Effect. Sadly, it would be the last chance Sacramento would see keyboardist Sean Rowley perform. A month later he died of cardiac arrest brought on by an asthma attack in Minneapolis while on tour with the band Information Society.
The alternative format in general took another blow on October 16 when Sinead O'Connor got booed offstage in New York at a Bob Dylan tribute on national television. She shook up the press a few weeks earlier by tearing up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, trying to make a statement about oppression. Despite hardly ever watching television, I caught both broadcasts as they unfolded. I looked forward to seeing her, as we played several of her songs on KWOD and I thought she was the perfect cross between cutting edge and pop. My initial reaction to the SNL incident was that it was a pretty daring move and that young people who were fed up with the old world would rally behind her. But as it turned out she was demonized by the media and the religious right who apparently still had a lot of influence on the mainstream, including youth. It became a turning point that marked her decline as a vibrant force in music. It also seemed to mark something darker in society: more punishment for freedom of expression.
The bummers that year seemed endless. When the Summer Arbitron ratings came in KWOD fell below a three share for the first time in over a year. That meant rock bottom. It was as if we had to start all over again. Gerry and I had meetings about what to do. I kept trying to convince him that we should be like 91X and make people think that we were the rock station in town that played the cutting edge. By that point Gerry seemed willing to try anything, so after we had numerous meetings with owner Ed Stolz, the green light was given for KWOD to be reborn...again.
Everything changed in November 1992. The week Bill Clinton was elected President, KWOD told the audience we had a major announcement which turned out to be that we would play more rock beginning November 9. In other words, we weren't going to play any more Madonna or other blatant dance pop that confused our identity. We kicked off the new format on my show at 12 noon with "Welcome To The Jungle" by Guns N' Roses. Some of the modern rock artists we began mixing in with established rock artists included Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones, Bob Marley & The Wailers and Jesus & Mary Chain. We also threw in the most cutting edge artists of the nineties that we had avoided so far such as Rage Against The Machine, Primus and Ministry. The only thing we had played like that in the past was "Head Like A Hole" by Nine Inch Nails because it got a ton of requests. Now we were playing even more songs by Nine Inch Nails. The whole idea at least in my mind was to out-rock 93 Rock without going metal. The response was about 50-50 super-excited versus super-disappointed. It was clear we shook things up again but it wasn't clear if it would help our ratings. It should have felt refreshing, but somehow it felt more like the station had crossed over into the Twilight Zone.
The following month Gerry Cagle shocked the station and the industry by announcing he was leaving radio in January to oversee the top 40 trade publication Network 40, which was part of a bigger industry trade called Album Network. For awhile it looked as if Ed Stolz might replace Gerry with another experienced Station Manager/Operations Manager. But it would never happen. I assumed the programming crown as Gerry's position was eliminated and I reported directly to Ed. Although I did not receive the pay or title that Gerry had, I now had the final say, for the first time, as to what would be played. Ed, of course, had the final final say, but he was usually too busy with legal affairs and engineering to dabble in programming. One of the few things he told me to do was back off the "trashy" garage rock we were playing. Applying some of his musical knowledge, he instructed me to make sure mostly "major key" songs were programmed. I guess that meant a drift back to the more mainstream pop sound of modern rock.
Throughout 1992 the modern rock format across America had expanded beyond the original dozen. New to the format included WKQX (Q101) in Chicago, WZRH (The Zephyr) in New Orleans and WRLT in Nashville. These were genuine modern rock stations and not CHR hybrids like KWOD, as even WNNX (99X) in Atlanta made the full transition from CHR to modern rock starting as a Halloween stunt. In 1993 there would be even more stations switching to an authentic version of modern rock. These stations included WIBF in Philadelphia, XHRM (The Flash) in San Diego, KPNT (The Point) in St. Louis, KEDJ (The Edge) in Phoenix, WENZ (The End) in Cleveland, WAQZ in Cincinnati, KBBT (The Beat) in Portland, WKOC in Norfolk and WROX in Norfolk. The grand total of major market modern rock stations would still be a small panel of around thirty. There were also several other modern rock stations coming on in smaller markets. The format, however, was still in its infancy with only a few stations here and there doing well in the ratings. So KWOD's ratings did not look so bad compared with the stations that were trying to be pure modern rock. Although critics of the format still looked like geniuses, the underdogs were about to give the industry establishment a very big surprise.
continue to Chapter 4: Transition to Pure Modern Rock
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