About three months ago, while I was driving home from LAX on a Saturday night, the car stereo was barely on, my mind was far away, and I just wanted to get home. Then the riff on the radio registered in my head — it was the slow, syrupy Sabbath-esque run of the song “Dopesmoker” by a band called Sleep. But “song” isn’t the right word for “Dopesmoker” because it’s an hour long, one meandering monster chord progression rolling over and over as cymbals fly, the bass hums, and the band sinks deeper and deeper into the riff’s abyss. Think Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” multiplied by 666. As I drove up La Brea and watched the lights of Hollywood roll across the basin, Indie 103.1 had once again delivered a jolt of spirit into an otherwise mundane cruise through L.A. That night Henry Rollins played the entire 63-minute song. On commercial radio. In the second-largest market in the country.
Every diehard loyal to Indie 103.1 FM over its improbable five-year run as Los Angeles’ most consistently surprising rock radio station has had similar Eureka moments. This being L.A., these no-way-did-they-just-play-that-song epiphanies usually occurred in the car, when something joyous would erupt from the speakers as if from the stars above. Maybe a Modern Lovers groover, or the Minutemen, the Melvins, Postal Service, or No Age, Joy Division, the Cure, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. If you were a rock fan, the surprises kept coming.
The station’s biggest surprise, however, came Thursday at 10 a.m., when regular programming abruptly ceased and the staff was laid off with no warning. Morning DJ TK had just ended his show by playing “My Way,” not the Sid Vicious version most familiar to Indie listeners, but the Frank Sinatra original. An announcement followed: “This is an important message for the Indie 103.1 Radio Audience,” said the male voice — not a regular Indie DJ but one of the station’s salespeople — “Indie 103.1 will cease broadcasting over this frequency effective immediately. Because of changes in the radio industry and the way radio audiences are measured, stations in this market are being forced to play too much Britney, Puffy and alternative music that is neither new nor cutting edge. Due to these challenges, Indie 103.1 was recently faced with only one option — to play the corporate radio game.”
The announcer informed listeners that Indie “had decided not to play that game anymore,” and bid farewell to the terrestrial airwaves in favor of the Internet. Entravision Communications, the station’s Santa Monica-based owner, played the message the next two days between a half-dozen Indie classics, including X’s “The New World,” Black Flag’s “Jealous Again,” the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” and “My Way,” this time by Sid Vicious. Each replay was like a little stab in the heart — especially when people learned that the “decision” to go online meant firing the staff that built and maintained Indie. The frequency is now home to Spanish-language El Gato 103.
Indie 103.1 FM, a renegade music machine built from scratch by two guys over Christmas break in 2003 after a $2,500 shopping spree at Amoeba Records, was an anarchic and influential juggernaut in the L.A. music scene. Ex-Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’s noontime “Jonesy’s Jukebox” was the station’s flagship show, and one of the most unlikely star turns that the station’s founding creative team, program director Michael Steele and music director Mark “Mr. Shovel” Sovel, helped orchestrate.
The station launched after Entravision, which owns 48 mostly Spanish-language radio stations (among other media properties), teamed with Clear Channel Communications to unleash an alternative-rock station on Los Angeles. “Both parties saw an open market for a station like this — that this community wasn’t being served at all on commercial radio,” recalls Sovel. “There was KCRW, but they don’t play much music during the day. And there was nothing on KROQ worth listening to.”
So Sovel canceled his Christmas plans and with Steele “hunkered down while the city was empty, scheming to get [Indie] on the air.” He says that the two were given complete creative freedom by their corporate overlords. They started ripping their favorite classic punk, new-wave and alt-rock tracks to create a database, then headed to Amoeba with the company credit card. “We just started grabbing every album that we loved,” remembers Sovel. “It was so cool to be able to look through [The Clash’s] Sandinista and go, ‘Oh my god, “Hitsville UK!” I’d love to hear that on the radio,’ knowing that we were about to throw out this bomb on L.A.”
When Steele and Sovel visited Jones, a gruff, Cockney, aging punk living in the Hollywood Hills, “We sat in his house and he said, ‘I want to be a DJ on your station,’” recalls Sovel. “We didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know what he had in mind. I don’t even know if he knew.” Jones debuted “Jonesy’s Jukebox” in February 2004, and Sovel — whom Jones dubbed “Mr. Shovel” — became his producer.