The Idaho Statesman for August 8, 1995 reported that Pirate Radio, Boise's home for metal and hard rock, would be changing to Alternative format. They would now be known as New Rock. Being a former radio guy and a current resident of Idaho's capital, I immediately decided to visit the new Program Director, Tim Johnstone. Johnstone was then marketing director for local music store The Record Exchange. He also had a show on Saturday nights on a local top 40 station, called "Modern Rock Music Shop".
Because I hadn't read the news item carefully I entered his office intent on soliciting a job, with visions of KUOI dancing in my head. KUOI-FM is the glorious, free-format radio station of my alma mater, University of Idaho. It's one of the last stations in the country without a regular song rotation. In the daytime you can play anything you want as long as it lacks the seven dirty words; at night even that rule goes away. KUOI currently projects 400 watts from a transmitter mounted directly atop the student union building, spreading out hemispherically and landing on a mostly college-educated audience of twenty thousand people, plus rabbits and assorted wildlife in or near Moscow, Idaho.
The meeting with Johnstone was not a success. He didn't know I was coming, but that wasn't the problem. He simply hadn't heard my phone message--in fact he never listens to his answering machine. (A useless piece of info, but not as useless as Tim Johnstone's answering machine.) The problem arose when he mentioned how New Rock would be easing into the new format to avoid scaring away sponsors. Ignoring the alarm bells, I spoke up and said I had several years experience in radio; in fact I'd worked at a college radio station for three whole years. As a cloud of murky, ionized gloom particles settled over my brain, Johnstone spoke up: "Yeah…unfortunately college radio is out. The advertisers need a solid format."
He sympathized; he too had a background in college radio. Boise State University has its own campus station, KBSU, and Johnstone had been a DJ there in the 1980s when the station was wild and free. But as Boise had grown, KBSU's spectrum had grown more valuable, and in late 1985 the University decided to sell out to NPR. Late that December, an unhappy DJ barricaded himself inside Master Control for his last show, blocking the entry with two-by-fours and broadcasting his idea of independent radio until management shut off the power.
Johnstone, while not a wielder of lumber, was clearly a guy with taste who'd gone tête-à-tête with commercial reality and escaped with his soul. He'd follow the Alternative format, he said, "though I really hate some of the shit I'm going to have to program."
That's where he lost me. Alternative? Format? Suddenly I realized I'd read the news article but glossed over one word: Format. New Rock wouldn't be alternative. It would be Alternative format. I found myself in a quandary.
"Alternative," to my 1995 brain, still meant "noncommercial." It meant music no one would pay for. Non-classical, non-CHR, non-country, non-jammin'-oldies, non-urban, non-Latin-contemporary--if it didn't fit any format it was Alternative. Formatted meant "commercial." Alternative meant "everything else." It was the broadest broadcast category. Until 1991.
Then "Smells Like Teen Spirit" happened. Suddenly a punk band from Seattle who'd probably never wanted to be anything more than a good parody of '80s hair metal, and whose opus Bleach had sold in the thousands, suddenly had a Top 40 single and a million-seller in Nevermind. Then Pearl Jam and other bands hopped the train. Someone had to christen this New Sound but quick. "It's alternative, right? So CALL it alternative!" some overworked music journalist must have yelled at her assistant twenty minutes before deadline. "Christ, do I have to think of everything?!" she probably added, and slammed down the phone, breaking the handset.
They printed it, and then someone else printed it, and before anyone realized it the word "alternative" started to mean "that harder stuff the kids are into these days." Maybe someone even tried to think of a better name--"Skullduggery" or "Dave Rock" would have done nicely--but that harder-edge stuff, that punk-pop grunge whatsit, was blowing up fast and the program directors had to name their cash cow. "Alternative" was the nearest adjective. Thus a format was born. But when exactly did this happen? And who was responsible? Long-running independent warhorse KROQ in Los Angeles probably had a lot to do with it. Nirvana, plus KROQ, plus a hundred thousand kids calling in requests and listing their age and sex, equalled a demographic that advertisers could covet. Whoever did it and whenever it happened, by 1995 it was all over. A new commercial pigeonhole had been drilled.
I could have put my foot in the door. College radio in 1991 enjoyed a period, as it had in the mid-1970s, when its playlists actually mattered to program directors at Top 40 stations. KUOI's top plays are still listed in CMJ, and one KUOI program director, Timothy Cook, went on to found his own label, El Recordo. But I was not focused on the possible career opportunity. I wasn't paying attention because I was having too much fun. I first got the radio bug in 1991 when my friend Rob invited me to help him on "Doo Doo Radio", his Saturday night show celebrating the worst music of the last three decades. I participated in a two-hour ABBA-thon. I helped perpetrate a twin salute to Olivia Newton-John and Napalm Death. I was injured when KUOI's staff played the staff of the student newspaper in a game of Hallway Cassette Hockey, which was broadcast live.
After that I'd had my own show every semester until I graduated. Every week I played a different comedy album, followed by an hour of techno. Radio without rules is a gas. KUOI once sponsored a Bring Your Own Concert with no amplifiers--the sound went from the board to the transmitter and audience members brought their own boom boxes to listen to the show in the municipal park. On my shows I played Sparks and Bonzo Dog Band and The Clash and Velvet Underground and Gershwin and Steely Dan and the Credibility Gap and John Oswald and Kronos Quartet and the Billy Nayer Show. College radio is big fun with small risks. The school's paying for it, so why not have fun?
The concept may sound like masturbation. After all, no one's listening, right? But someone's always listening. In 1993 I got a call from a listener who wanted to thank me for playing the Firesign Theatre LP "Waiting For The Electrician Or Someone Like Him." It had taken him back to the days when he'd been "stoned off my ass in 'Nam" and he appreciated it. People called when I played noise collage from California and they called when I played avant-big-band from the Netherlands. I didn't get a lot of requests, though. KUOI DJs are not good jukeboxes. I played what I liked.
After I graduated in 1994 I moved back to Boise and got a job as a mobile DJ, and apart from the perennial high school kid question of "Are you guys gonna play any good music?" the thing I remember most was the night someone requested "Today" by Smashing Pumpkins. It's a downtempo number, too slow to dance to. The kids were dancing to it. They were all out there--jumping slowly, bumping and grinding and twisting slooowly. They danced to it because they knew it. It was Top 40. It was pop.
Soon after that I saw the article in the Statesman. As for the meeting with Tim Johnstone, I slunk out of his office with no job and no great insight into the music industry. (This whole "alternative" reverie didn't happen until later. It's rude to stand around executive offices all day having epiphanies.) But even after I had my moment, and even at this late date, I was not, nor am I now, particularly enlightened.
What's to learn, really? So a station switched formats. Big whoop. Change the names and it's happening now where you live. And a new format was born--well, it happens. Witness the Electronica boom of the late 1990s. Is that good or bad? Hard to say. I don't really care for formats. Formats suck. And, not coincidentally, so does radio. Has the phrase "The radio in this town sucks" never passed your lips? Then you are in the minority, friend. It sucks nearly everywhere. And there is no solution. Except, of course, for you to found your own microwatt station. I've got mine all planned. "KBBB, Radio for People who like to go b-b-b-b-b-b-b. Tonight, Sparks, Stockhausen, and Steven Wright." Look for me soon in a jail near you.
Anyway, there you have it..."alternative" explained at last. I hope this article has helped--because I was there! I saw it happen! Well, not really. In criminal terms, the body's gone and the rain's nearly washed away the chalk lines. There could be a story there, but I missed it. Sorry. But really, who cares? When did you last tell your children "Grab the beach ball, kids, it's time to go downtown and watch the format change!!"
And despite my ramblings and the thoughts of the serious music historians, the definition of "alternative" remains a little vague. But as a public service I now present the last word on what "alternative" REALLY MEANS. Honest. It is unassailable. It is unimpeachable. And if you remember to say it at the parties you attend, you will always be cooler than the room. The definition of Alternative is: One of the many listening categories you can choose from when you join the Columbia House Music Club.
(Originally published Fall 1995, KUOI-FM Program Guide 50th Anniversary Edition, KUOI-FM, Third Floor, Student Union Building, University of Idaho, Moscow)