Thursday, January 15, 2004

Nostalgia Kills?

Here it is, the "Indie 103.1" rant... and who would of guessed that my home town would be responsible for the next big shift in radio? I moved away from San Diego because there was no music there! Sigh.

What the hell am I talking about? Anyone reading this in LA already knows: Indie 103. It's a new station that just started up around the holidays and everyone has an opinion. I've listened to it mainly because they don't have DJs yet, and they haven't played any commercials for the last couple weeks, and I'm intrigued by it, and I've done a little research...

103.1 has long been a hot spot, or rather, cold spot on the LA radio dial. About 12 years ago, it was the brief home of MARS FM, a techno dance station started by the Swedish Eagle from KROQ - LA's almighty, groundbreaking alternative station. He wanted to get in on the start of something new... the rave scene. The underground hits were all there - but nobody cared. Hey, unless it was 4am and you'd had the right drugs, that music wasn't really gonna do anybody any good. Don't get me wrong - I was a raver kid - and MARS FM is the only radio station that actually made me want to work out. But it was a bit ahead of it's time.

So most recently, 103.1 has been the current version of that - a dance music station with a unfortunately small playlist, making it very repetitive. It was still a shock to listeners, though, to wake up on the morning of December 21st to no DJs and Christmas music. It did this till Christmas night, when it started playing "alternative." But cool alternative: lots of the Pixies, X, Nirvana... and also the Postal Service, Polyphonic Spree, Bright Eyes, Interpol... Very interesting.

I grew up in San Diego (Encinitas, to be exact) and in 1983, 91X hit the airwaves. It changed my life. Actually, the English Beat's Just Can't Stop It and Berlin's Pleasure Victim changed my life. Then came Duran Duran - but you don't even wanna get me started on that. When I look back on my radio youth, I like to think that I learned much about music from them. I heard a mix of rock (like Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Beatles) with weird ass new wave stuff (your B52s, Devo, Sparks, Talking Heads) and the punk that scared the parents (X, Dead Kennedys, Toy Dolls) and newer rock (Tom Petty) and ska (Specials, Untouchables, Selecter), and don't forget the goth (Cure, Siouxsie). Pretty much a grab bag o' fun. It was wonderful.

I moved away in 1987 to San Francisco, which had just started Live 105, an alternative station which was more dancy than I was used to (Erasure, New Order) but worked out okay. I swore by 91X, and then in the mid 90's, it was sold. And sold again... eventually to the evil Clear Channel, who ditched a bunch of the DJs and program director, Mike Halloran. Halloran moved on to another station (the Flash, I think), which was sort of a 80's station, and started reworking that too. Then it was sold and flipped to soul or something. Eventually, Halloran turned up at FM 94.9, and created a format that is staring to ripple down through the world of radio.

It's called "Classic Alternative," and it's industry nickname is actually "the San Diego format." Basically, it's the music I grew up with, tossing in compatible new stuff. So they're gonna play Interpol since it has such a heavy 80's influence, or Hot Hot Heat cuz they sound like Gang of Four. It'll be the music alternative kids thought was cool and didn't get to hear so much anymore... Soundgarden, the Pixies (never in my life have I heard the Pixies in such heavy rotation, not even at college radio "back in the day"), even Temple of the Dog, mixed in with the Specials and the Cure and the B52s and lots and lots of X.

It's pretty much the same thing that has happened to every generation of music. When I was a kid, I remember my dad listening to the "oldies" station - you know, the Archies and the Beach Boys and Elvis and that fun 50's & 60 fluff. In the mid-80's, the "classic rock" stations arrived... Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple. Now it's my turn; the nostalgia is here.

I am resisting change, but it's happening all around me. When San Diego's 94.9 started this format change just a year ago (I actually applied for a job there during a bout of unemployment - my sister called to tell me that they were asking for DJs over the air), they were rated at #18 in the market of 18-34 year olds. Now they are #5. They've beaten 91X, and 91X ain't happy about it.

And other stations are swapping too. Up in Seattle, not one, but TWO stations are changing to this format. The End had started out like 91X, except in 1991, and they stole Marco - the host of 91X's local and underground band show Loudspeaker - to do it. But then they also went the skater route... in creeped the screamo stuff and away went the adults with the cash to spend. So in December, the End (and also Seattle's "The Point," now "K Rock," along with Atlanta's 99X) all flipped to the classic alternative format.

This format is causing a stir mainly because of it's demographics: the 18-34 year olds spend, and the stations can buy time from liquor and beer companies if they can prove that 70 percent of their market is over 21. And the liquor and beer people bring a lot of cash to radio stations.

San Diego's 94.9 has prided itself on it's independent status - not just for its unique programming format, but also because it is independently owned. The interesting thing about "Indie 103" is that it's basically a Clear Channel station, and they already own the maximum number of stations allowed in Los Angeles. They are actually leasing the signal from Entravision, a huge Spanish language broadcasting company. And they swear they have nothing to do with the programming, but the new Program Director for Indie 103.1, Michael Steele, comes from Clear Channel owned KIIS FM, LA's pop (Britney, Christina & Justin!) station. Leave it to Clear Channel to find a way around the already decimated/deregulated radio field... In the border states, radio station buyers can get around the minimum requirements by buying a station based in another country. Ask 91X - XETR, Tijuana, Mexico.

Last night, I went to DJ at the Burgundy Room in Hollywood. I've DJed out in the clubs for a couple years now, and DJed at KALX, a college and community station, for 10 years. The bar stuff was always guilty pleasure music - tunes I wouldn't really play on the radio, because the radio is where we tried to learn. Find the new music! Rediscover the old! Really, I didn't suck. So, last night, when I started to pull my records, I just kept thinking, "No, they're playing this on that damn Indie 103 station. I don't want to sound like that." My set had been rendered partially obsolete. Instead, out came the real indie rock and real garage rock (like the 60's kind the kids are imitating) and some crusty country music, and punk too foul to make their playlist.

So I don't hate Indie 103, but I don't care too much for it either. And I suspect it'll go downhill once the DJs come in since new stations usually do. It's not that I don't understand what they are doing, and why so many of my friends love it, I just don't want it to ruin "my" music. The Pixies (who are going to be at Coachella in some form this year) are one of my favorite bands in the whole world, and now that they are being played hourly on this station, will they get tiresome? Did my stoner older cousins get bummed out in the early 80's when you could hear Pink Floyd all over the place? Will my stoner buddies get bummed out because Radiohead is getting miles of airplay? And I have a problem with the word "Indie" for this station - because very little of what they actually play is on an independent label, which is where (and why!) that term developed anyway.

There's not a lot of great radio in LA, so I'll take what I can get. The world renowned public station, KCRW, is a bit vanilla for me. I appreciate that they break new artists and provide an alternative outlet, but their choices just seem pretty safe. Not that I'm into anything really scary, but what if I was? And I like KXLU, the Loyola station, but its hours and reception are limited. And I can surf the net while at work and find all kinds of stations all over the damn place (I'm currently really enjoying Cincinnati's WOXY - a true, true alternative commercial station, in my opinion). Let me know if you know of any other good stations. Finding the good music always means searching, I think. For now, "Indie 103" seems to just be comfort food for my ilk. I don't wanna give up and get old just yet!

And, let's be honest, I'm just a bit of a snob. Tee hee.