Rock 'n' roll 'n' Radio

As printed in the Fresno Bee, Sunday May 10, 1992
The recent transmogrification of radio station KKDJ -- for a dozen years Fresno's ostensible Home of Rock n' Roll -- into The Edge" -- specializing in what is commonly known as modern or alternative rock -- has a lot of people in the local music scene talking. For me, who has trumpeted the music known as "punk" "post-punk" "new wave" "progressive" "underground" "modern" "post-modern" "alternative" rock ever since I first heard The Clash as a high school junior in the late 70s, it seems to represent the triumph of my musical value system over the old Baby Boomer guard.

Now I know how lifelong cold warriors felt after communism collasped: as much as I'd like to cast it in purely moral and ethical terms -- "its about time you admitted we were right all along" -- I can't. Because I know this wasn't a triumph of values; it was a triumph of economics. "Alternative rock" is now the mainstream.

If that sounds stupid and contradictory, it also exactly describes rock radio programming for the last 15 years.

Homogenity in programming

Blame it on the consultants. Let me explain: consultants are these highly connected music industry people that produce playlists and tipsheets for radio station programmers to use.

In other words, they pick the music for hundreds of radio stations across the country. If you thought that the disc jockeys or at least the music directors programmed their own radio stations, you are sadly mistaken. Maybe on college or public radio, but if the station accepts advertising, then the odds are pretty high that the Djs have minimal input at best on the songs they so enthusiastically play for you.

The goal? To make sure that the music emanating from your radio is familiar and non-offensive enough to keep you from changing the dial. If you change the dial, the ratings suffer, the advertisers scatter and the station changes its format to Country. That's why most radio stations in any given genre sound basically the same.

When punk rock first hit these shores in the late 1970s, the consultants decided that it threatened their emerging status and declared that people would never like it. So they told their stations not to program it, and since few people heard it, few people bought it. Then, in a brilliant bit of circular logic, they said, "See, it's not selling very well. We told you it was no good."

For the first time, a major rock n' roll movement was mostly ignored by rock n' roll stations.

Since the majority of the new acts they did play were just increasingly lamer versions of previously successful artists, their stations got boring. And since they always claimed to be on top of the best new music, people concluded that all new music must be boring.

Thus, the Big Lie: There is no more good new rock music. Right. As if the entire human race suddenly forgot how to play instruments and write good songs. It's just that there was no more good new music on rock radio.

Voila! "Classic Rock," a prefectly reactionary format for the Reagan 80s, and the antithesis of the challange of "new wave rock." Classic rock epitomized rock radio's bent towards playing great songs over and over again until everybody got completly sick of them. "Free Bird!!"

Of course, "underground rock" didn't go away: it just gradually burrowed upwards using a loose network of fan magazines, college radio, word-of-mouth, and, of course, the ubiquitous MTV. You see, the audience for rock had become so large and fragmented that bands could have entire careers, get paid, and still be largely unheard.

Sometimes a Talking Heads or U2 or R.E.M. would poke through and achieve large-scale success. But these bands took years, and were considered flukes. Not until the Nirvana album turned the industry upside-down -- a "punk rock" album outselling Michael Jackson and Guns N' Roses at Christmas! -- did they realize that there was a serious audience for this "modern rock" stuff.

Old-time exploitation threatens

So there is finally a commerical radio station playing nothing but "alternative rock." Everything is great, right? Well, yes and no. Right now, the novelty is way cool, so I'm listening. And I'm wondering if I like "modern rock" was much as I thought I did all these years. Their spin is that it consists mostly of haircut and keyboard groups rather than the scruffy guitar bands that I prefer. But that's not what really bothers me.

Look, I can't help thinking that what all this really means is that, after 15 years, "new wave" has a history long enough to exploit in the same old ways. Listen closely to the new KKDJ and it becomes obvious that they have a rotation, an emphasis on singles rather than album cuts, and worst of all (for a station that fancies itself as "The Edge"), an overt reliance on previously popular music.

Indeed, they've essentially taken every "modern rock" song that has ever crossed over into the mainstream and created a brand-new format: "classic modern rock." It just screams "consultants" and is the type of thing that drove many of us away in the first place. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.

What this radio market -- one of the most supersaturated in the country -- needs is a rock station with enough guts to go free-form. Play everything, old and new. And no more musical racism -- include soul and funk and rap. I really believe that such a format, if done with some semblance of intelligence, would actually work.

Right now the scene is so fragmented that people really don't listen to just one type of music. It's only the music industry that insists on artificial differences -- most of us don't fit so snugly into categories and consequently what we like is a little bit of this, a little bit of that. A station that played everything would appeal to everybody; think of the demographic boundaries just completely shattered.

Conventional radio wisdom holds that such a station would suffer a high amount of "tune out." Maybe. But in this age of cable clickers and push-button programmable tuners, people would change channels regardless. More important, people would agressively tune in looking for something new and good rather than settling for the lesser of several evils. Wouldn't that be nice. And really different. For once.

--Jim Connelly

Naturally, I was slammed on KKDJ for this article; and people that had known me for a long time said that it was the same old song I'd always sung. Probably. But nevertheless, as "alternative" proceeded to consolidate its post-Nirvana gains, KKDJ never got their shit together. And just a couple of months before Kurt Cobain killed himself, KKDJ gave up the ghost. Last I heard, it's a sad, pathetic oldies station. Serves them right.

Back to my Writing Home Page

WritingMy MusicCool

This document last modified on 16 June 1995