The Rise of Alternative Radio|
by Alex Cosper
table of contents
Chapter 7: Peak of the Decade (1995)
The year 1995 would mark the heyday of the alternative format before the landscape would drastically change. It was a year that ushered in several interesting new alternative stations that would prove to be winners in commercial radio and cultural acclaim. WPLY in Philadelphia, WXDX in Pittsburgh, KNRK in Portland, KCXX in Riverside, WEDG in Buffalo and WPBZ in West Palm Beach began what would be a long commitment to the format. A new competition flared up in Las Vegas between newcomers KEDG and KXPT. The former station was called "The Edge" and it was run by George Tobin, who had been the manager of eighties teen pop star Tiffany. An interesting brief rivalry developed between the student-run WBRU, who had served Providence for years, and new corporate competitor WDGE called "The Edge," which did not last long. Other new alternative stations born in 1995 included WHYT in Detroit, WHPT in Tampa, KISF in Kansas City, WXRC in Charlotte, WJRR in Orlando, WNWZ in Memphis and WNVE in Rochester. The format was now growing quickly.
On January 8, the bounds of free speech were tested by none other than Pearl Jam. Several modern rock stations across the country chose to run what was called "Pearl Jam's Self-Pollution Broadcast." It was a live show that resembled freeform radio, mixing in live performances with other recordings and commentary between the songs from Eddie Vedder and his Seattle friends. What no one really expected though, was the excessive use of profanity. What was funny was that most of the profanity was not used in an indecent way, but in a very casual way, just like how the common person hears the same words being used every day. Even though the show was a live satellite feed after 8pm, in which FCC standards loosened up, several stations pulled out midway through the broadcast. KWOD aired the show in its entirety and did not receive a single complaint.
Even though my show was low-key, I offered humor when I had something funny to say. I got my first and only chance to do the morning show, also in January. Shawn & Jeff were in Hollywood working on the set of the new television series Star Trek: Voyager as extras (the episode eventually aired March 20). So filling in for them January 12 on KWOD was Ron Givens and me. We brought in comedians, we had call-ins from Shawn and Jeff and we told our own funny stories, but most of the time we played music. The phones were crazed with people telling us they loved our show. It was completely fun.
Here's the conversation with Shawn and Jeff while they were on the set of Voyager:
ALEX: KWOD 106.5, seven-thirty in the morning with Alex and Ron filling in for Shawn and Jeff, who are actually on the phone right now.
SHAWN: How's it going?
ALEX: Everything's perfect, man.
SHAWN: (laughs) We're kind of a little groggy because we didn't get off the set last night until nine o'clock.
ALEX: Wow. You're still in L.A. and you're still taping today, right?
SHAWN: We are still taping today. Our call is at 8:30 today. It's going to begin with a tour of the different sets for Deep Space 9 and Star Trek and then we're going to wardrobe and make-up and get set up for today's shoot.
RON: Cool, so what characters did you end up getting?
SHAWN: Um, my name I think is B.T. Bork...something like that and Jeff's is Jeff Smart.
RON: Jeff Smart? That's almost a contradiction in terms. (Everyone laughs)...So what's the name of the episode?
SHAWN: The name of the episode is "Prime Factors." Basically, we're a race of aliens from the Planet Zakaris and it's a planet that the Star Trek Voyager ship stumbles upon. And they beam down. And it's basically a planet full of people that really enjoy pleasing other people. They get pleasure from pleasing other people.
ALEX: What's the extent of your role?
SHAWN: Basically, we're two of twenty aliens that live on this planet in this very high tech little city that just loves to inflict pleasure upon people. And the way this works is we don't have any speaking roles but we are like teacher's pet extras. There's a lot of scenes that start with us in front of the camera talking but you can't hear what we're saying. There's not a speaking role but -
ALEX: But you're background characters that make a difference.
SHAWN: Exactly. It'll be one of these things when you watch it...you'll go we're not man one and man two in the distance.
ALEX: So, we'll be able to recognize you?
SHAWN: Oh yeah. Oh, yeah.
RON: So is there like any alien sex scenes?
SHAWN: Um, well (laughs). There's no sex scenes but there are scenes that we're loungin' around with people in pillows. (laughs)
RON: So who is better, you or Jeff? (everyone laughs)
SHAWN: Actually Jeff and I both probably had about equal screen time so far. Hang on, I'll let Jeff...Here's Jeff.
JEFF: Hey, greetings from the Delta Quadrant.
RON: So you're like 75,000 light years away from here?
JEFF: Something like that, yeah."
ALEX: So this will run in about five or six weeks?
JEFF: About six weeks, yeah.
RON: So is this everything that you thought it would be? Is it just as fun or is it hard work or what?
JEFF: Well, I guess that kind of depends who you ask. For us, we're just like gitty stupid about the whole thing. It's nothing but fun for us. There are people who are doing the same thing we are that are just "when do I get lunch?" and "my hair itches" and "when can I go home, my shoes hurt."
ALEX: Have you gotten to mingle with the cast very much?
JEFF: Yeah. One of the guys turns out to be really cool. The actor's name is Garrett Wong. Very cool gentleman. He just came up and started talking to us. We're gonna ask him if he's gonna show us some of L.A.'s seedy underbelly of night life tonight.
RON: That ought to be fun.
ALEX: So he might be the right connection to get you a permanent role on the show.
JEFF: Yeah, right. (everyone laughs)
RON: So how far away are you from signing the actual long term contract?
JEFF: Uh, probably about 70,000 light years. (everyone laughs)
Overnight host Andy Prescott quit in January to work for an insurance company. Andy had also been my assistant, who I thought was going to be my Music Director. I had never dealt with someone in radio before that chose a straight job over a chance to move up in radio. So what happened was, I started letting Ron Givens (pictured left) get more involved with the music and I started listening to his input. I liked the fact that he understood musicianship. One of the things Ron suggested was to play more music by the local band Cake. We had played them for years on our local show but Ron believed they deserved around the clock regular rotation. The band had already been signed to Capricorn Records and made it on the national college radio charts.
Cake's national release called Motorcade of Generosity featured several witty radio-friendly songs including "Rock and Roll Lifestyle." We started playing the song regularly and soon the rest of the country began to catch on. We also started playing other cuts such as "Jolene," "Mr. Mastadon Farm," "Ruby Sees All" and "You Part the Waters." I saw them play at the South By Southwest Music Convention in Austin in March and they blew me away. I had already seen them in Sacramento with the crowd singing their lyrics, but now the same thing was happening on the road. It was very exciting to see a Sacramento band become such an inspiration.
Another artist that KWOD was early on was Our Lady Peace from Canada. In February I saw the band play in Vancouver and thought they sounded strong. I went with a handful of other industry people, which included Karen Holmes. The overall reaction among the group was very positive. So I became one of the first ten programmers in the country to start playing their first American single "Starseed." It went on to become a big national hit in the format and the band would show their appreciation by agreeing to do the next KWOD Christmas concert.
Another line-up change happened in February with the return of Ally Storm, replacing Joe Gomez in the evening shift. Ally had worked at the station from 1992-1993 and then ventured in real estate, but her heart was clearly in radio. She was a fun person who brought a positive vibe to the airwaves. While almost everyone added an element of cynical humor to their show, Ally was always upbeat. Because I programmed the most cutting edge music at night, Ally emerged as a very cool jock with a positive image. In March KWOD made the news because Sheryl Crow made the news, and we were the station associated with playing her. Sheryl Crow came to play Sacramento on March 2, the day after she won Grammy awards. I was interviewed by Channel 3 about whether or not alternative music had become the mainstream. I explained it was no longer something that was discovered underground. Later that night I went to the Sheryl Crow concert and met her backstage. I told her I had seen her sing with the Allman Brothers and she was really into talking about them. I told her we were one of the first stations to play her first hit "Leaving Las Vegas" and then she got kind of excited, saying, "we should do a show for you" but just then the record rep broke up the conversation and escorted her away.
Later in the week I went to Berkeley to see Hootie & The Blowfish open for Toad the Wet Sprocket. It was a bizarre concert because the opening band got loud screams while the headliner played to a more polite and subdued audience. But when Toad singer Glen Phillips asked the crowd, "Who came to see Hootie?" the place erupted with cheers. I only programmed a couple Hootie songs off the album Cracked Rear View. The first two singles "Hold My Hand" and "Hannah Jane" got minor airplay on KWOD, only because the album sales were very strong. It just didn't sound like it fit KWOD's overall sound. It sounded like simplistic pop with an emphasis on style over substance that blended in better with adult contemporary or some other format on some other station. Yet Toad the Wet Sprocket were what I considered very much the KWOD sound. It was straight ahead honest rock, whereas Hootie had a little more formula and a little more pop sparkle to them. Hootie went on to tie for best-selling album of the year. Pop was creeping back in...but now I was keeping it to a minimum.
The pressure to play pop was now coming from a different place - from the adult contemporary faction of neo-hippies. But I was still fighting people from the dance pop crowd as well. On March 9 I went to check out a party at the Rage to celebrate KWOD's Sunday night techno show Ambiance. After I left one of the weekend jocks got on the microphone and started saying I wouldn't play techno on KWOD. The next day I had a meeting with the jock to try to warn him not to say stupid things in public. This was the same person who tried to organize a petition against me and the same person who tried to over-ride my programming decisions. After a few more months of ordeals I found my job became easier just by firing him. I usually got along with everyone.
Beginning in April, after Arbitron released another positive trend for KWOD, a record rep pointed out to me that 93 Rock was starting to play the same newer music we were playing. For awhile they were resisting playing modern rock and were trying to stay locked into a hair band type of genre. But now they were playing more bands like White Zombie, whose current song "More Human Than Human" had become a smash. It was a song that a month earlier was defining the new direction of modern rock. I had been at the Southwest By Southwest Music Convention in Austin where several Program Directors from around the country hung out. One PD said to a group of us in a hotel elevator, "Does anyone get the new White Zombie record?" Then someone answered, "you're outside the demo" and everyone started laughing.
It was at that same industry convention that I witnessed a ridiculous debate between record executives and radio programmers about station concerts. The radio side was crying that they were the ones breaking the acts and deserved a show in return. The record side was crying about how they had to invest all this money in a band that helps the station's ratings. I suggested on the microphone that maybe a better idea than a concert would be an autograph party. Just have the band show up to sign autographs to a group of lucky winners. The moderator pulled the microphone away and said something to the effect that it was a bad idea and that it would never work. Nevertheless in June, I refused to do a show and tried my idea instead, featuring the group Bush. It turned out to be an exciting contest on the air and a fun event at a night club. Everyone was happy and no one lost a bunch of money.
When the Winter 1995 Arbitron ratings were released in early May, KWOD hit 4.9, which was its highest book to date as an alternative station. A few weeks later 93 Rock had a new PD, which was Curtiss Johnson. He had been a very successful rock PD in Phoenix at KUPD and had previously worked on the air in Sacramento at KZAP. A few days later at the Live concert a promoter told me that "Curtiss is coming after you," meaning 93 Rock was launching a head on competition with KWOD. He also told me that the station was going to use its resources to beat us. Somehow I didn't feel threatened, even though 93 Rock was owned by a corporation. I believed that KWOD had a solid loyal following.
On May 17 Ron Givens and I went backstage to attend an aftershow press conference with R.E.M., one of my favorite bands. It had been their first concert in several years. The press conference seemed a bit annoying to Michael Stipe because a lot of the questions were industry-oriented such as "do you consider yourselves to be adult contemporary?" Stipe kept giving short answers to such questions, looking bored. So when I asked a musical question, a lot of people were surprised that Stipe gave me a lengthy answer. My question was "are you done with printing lyrics in your album jackets?" Stipe's long answer ended with "I prefer being heard than read." It seemed profound compared to all the other lame questions and answers.
By June the hottest band on the American modern rock scene was still Pearl Jam. Their third album, Vitalogy had come out the previous Fall and spawned a string of radio hits for the band including "Spin the Black Circle," "Better Man," "Corduroy," the anti-corporate "Not For You," "Nothingman," "Tremor Christ" and "Immortality." Not only was the band coming to Sacramento, they were making national headlines about their complaints against Ticketmaster, the service that the band claimed had a "monopoly" on the concert ticket industry. Pearl Jam signed with a different service called ETM to sell tickets over the phone. The band played in Sacramento on June 22. At the show we had a pilot named Gary Martin, who was introduced to me by Ron Givens, fly over the the outdoor venue with the banner "KWOD 106.5 welcomes Pearl Jam." Two days later I saw Pearl Jam again at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This time Vedder said he was sick and he walked off after seven songs. Neil Young filled in with his songs the rest of the show. Neil said at one point he thought Vedder was passed out backstage. There would be ripples of complaints among Pearl Jam fans about Vedder for several months until the band made up the show in November. It was the first time I had noticed that Pearl Jam's stature was crumbling.
The summer of 1995 would clearly mark the peak of KWOD's success as an alternative station for years to come. It would also mark an end to KWOD enjoying a unique sound in Sacramento, as competitors began to immitate KWOD's programming. Many other modern rock stations in America saw their best ratings at some point in 1995. If there was one time-marker that represented modern rock's peak in popularity it was an album called Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette. At first I resisted playing the single "You Oughta Know" because it sounded so pop musically. But it was an example of a record raging up the modern rock chart that was working in a big way for everyone else, so I finally started playing it when it hit the top ten. I had thought the lyrics were a throwback to the old pop world about male-female communication problems. I thought the culture had evolved to a point where men and women understood each other as humans. Somehow, this song blasted its way to the top. It became one of the biggest hits of the year and the album tied with Hootie & The Blowfish for biggest selling album of the year. Each album sold 15 million copies, which was unheard of in modern rock.
See full list of 1995 songs played on KWOD.
On June 16 Shawn Alexander wrote a story for Radio & Records called "Ratings On The Rise...Again. Format recovers nicely after slight wobble in Fall '94 survey." The article listed KWOD as the biggest mover in a group of other upward moving stations such as WBCN, KNDD, KEGE and KXRK during the Winter '95 Arbitron survey. It would become the first time ever in American radio history that an alternative station hit number one (12+) in their market. It happened to KNDD (The End) in Seattle. The station was also number one in various demographics. I sent a postcard to PD Rick Lambert and MD Marco Collins, congratulating them on a great book.
The next month would mark the beginning of screws that held the format together coming loose. On July 28 two separate resignations would happen. One was Kevin Stapleford, leaving his PD post at 91X. Another was Steve Masters, leaving his MD and night show positions at Live 105. Steve had a reputation for finding hits. He was one of the first jocks in America to play "Creep" by Radiohead. Now Steve was joining a new record label called WayCool Records, which was owned by MCA and run by President Mike Jacobs. Stapleford's departure led to the promotion of Michael Halloran to PD. Halloran would prove to give the station one more burst of creativity and ratings success.
One of the things I attributed to KWOD's rating success in 1995 was that I kept corny stuff to a minimum. The overall vibe of the station had a serious tone about the music but a comical feel about society. Shawn & Jeff were the least counter-culture and the most connected to mainstream American pop culture, always talking about television shows and celebrities in the news. I let them do their thing just because I liked the idea of a station having artistic freedom. So they had the pop culture show, followed by my music-intensive but sometimes philosophically inquiring show, followed by the British gossip of Giles Hendriksen, followed by the music-intensive and upbeat party atmosphere of Ally Storm. It was a wide mix of different presentation styles by people who weren't acting like characters, they were just being themselves. It had an honest feel.
But while I was keeping KWOD real, the music industry was always presenting me with music that I didn't feel fit KWOD's direction. Like, I tried hard to avoid goofy stuff. But on my birthday on August 4, a Seattle band called Presidents of the United States of America were guests on my show as we talked about their funny act. They played "Peaches" live on the show, although the band's current single was "Lump." The label knew that I wasn't warming up to the nutty song so they had the band do some of their other songs to show me that they had several fun songs. I admit the guys were funny and as the band was closing the interview, one of them threw in a plug for "Lump." I ended up playing the song and other funny follow-up songs by the group.
At the Endfest in Seattle on August 5, I showed up late but caught the last two bands, which were Gin Blossoms and then Bush. I couldn't believe people were throwing stuff at Gin Blossoms, who were coming off a soundtrack hit "'Til I Hear It From You." It seemed that their music was too mellow for the rowdy crowd. Bush, however, were well-received. They had a strong string of hits in 1995 that included "Everything Zen," "Come Down," "Machinehead" and "Glycerine." At the show a record rep was joking that "the Spin Doctors are over," referring to the band's follow-up album that didn't come close to selling the millions that the first album sold. It did seem that the tide was turning away from the more organic-sounding groups toward more produced-sounding groups.
On August 10 Ed finally gave me a big raise. Now my salary jumped from $24K to $31K. I had tried to negotiate for a much higher salary but Ed said "the money isn't there." I knew that a sales executive at the station was making $150K but Ed was able to argue that sales is where the money is. It didn't matter that the station was losing money when I took over as PD and now it was making millions because of the higher ratings. Somehow I wasn't destroyed by the fact that I wasn't making even close to what the average major market PD was making (which R&R listed the average major market PD salary around $90K). I cared more about the art of radio and all the excitement surrounding the music. I also enjoyed the attention I was getting in the industry.
At a concert in Los Angeles I briefly talked with KROQ PD Kevin Weatherly, in which he told me he liked the article about me that just came out in Network 40. I was the cover story for the August 11 issue. The story was called "The Hunter Becomes the Hunted" by Jeff Silberman. I explained, "The format in general, has become very hot. Several platinum artists can basically carry the format now, with multiple hit cuts from their albums...I don't think it (alternative) is the flavor of the month, but it can be if people treat it like a package of ear candy. The format will have longevity if it stays true to itself. KWOD is successful because it stays true to how I define the format. Being a musician, I really focus on the quality of the songs. There's a lot more depth in the library, where three years ago there weren't that many well-known core artists. Now we're got rock artists with multi-format appeal."
Then I tried to get funny by attacking our rock competitor, who had been jumping on our bandwagon. Silberman asked how we stood apart from them. I answered, "Part of it is we're not the ones scrambling for identity. The stations across town are suddenly coming on as current rock, playing a lot of what we play. It's actually confusing their audience without taking away our audience. They're playing over half of our list; they're shadowing us so much that I almost feel like I'm programming two stations. I've made it a point not to react to them. They're the ones reacting to us. We're going to stay consistent and make sense on the air."
I tried to add another bold statement to prove programming more by gut than research mattered to the station's health. Silberman asked if I used gut, call-out research or auditorium testing and I replied, "Just gut. The other two ruined top 40. Why would I want to ruin alternative? I do keep track of phone requests, but don't live by them. I simply add that into all the other little factors and that produces my gut feeling for the music...I have yet to see the philosophy where you play a lot of unfamiliar stuff and break new bands work, So I don't think we're bound by it...I haven't tightened up much this year, yet I find that when I do tighten up, the ratings get higher. Even so, I don't want to get too tight because I'm not a top 40 PD. This music shouldn't resemble top 40. It's an 'alternative' to that. It's more like AOR except that it doesn't hang on to dinosaur bands...There's no doubt that the artistic level of the songwriting is much higher than it has been in many years."
Then I concluded the article by laying out as much of my philosophy as possible to create a blueprint for the rest of the country to follow. I said, "The guitar is the most popular instrument in the history of music. It has been around since the 16th century, and I don't see any end to that trend. Technology-based instruments outdate themselves with every new technology. People don't want to hear the corny sound effects of 10 years ago. We're winning by playing guitar music...This isn't a single-oriented station. I pick a lot of album cuts, mainly from top artists. I want to find good songs, be they singles, album cuts, from a name group or an unknown one. I just want the best songs...Top 40 is more high energy and image-oriented in terms of funky air names, silly slogans, catch phrases and street lingo. Our jocks are more down to earth, talking on a conversational level. Again, it's more like AOR talent, except that our jocks are not so laid back that they put everyone to sleep."
But things were about to change. On September 11 crosstown adult alternative station KQPT changed their identity. Since the late eighties they had been called "The Point," first as a jazz station then as a mix of eclectic styles that included blues, rock and folk. For awhile they used a slogan on billboards that read "bands you've never heard of." It obviously kept people in the dark because they stayed at the bottom of the ratings for years. But now the station was calling itself "The Zone" and spit out a playlist that closely resembled KWOD's, minus the more edgy records.
But KWOD would have one more celebration as leader of the Sacramento rock scene. In October the Summer '95 Arbitron was released as KWOD rose to its best ratings as an alternative station in its history and for many years to come. KWOD inched up to 5.2, making it the number five station in Sacramento, ahead of all rock competitors. KWOD also had the best numbers on the West Coast, where alternative stations did the best in the country. It was a very exciting time. And we didn't know it at the time but it was the end of an era. The ideals of balancing art and commerce were about to be tipped in favor of more bottom-line visions of the corporate elite, who were taking over America.
continue to Chapter 8: Everything Changes