KROQ's Still Popular, But Does It Still Rock?
PHOTO BY DREW BARILLASKROQ DJ Ted Stryker
Did you know that KROQ broke Katy Perry? When the pioneering L.A. rock station first played her in May 2008, Perry was a little-known Santa Barbara performer who previously had sung Christian music and gone by her given name, Katy Hudson. The song, "I Kissed a Girl," about drunken sexual experimentation, was not particularly church-friendly. But more importantly, due to its dyed-in-the-wool pop aesthetic, it was a curious discovery for the station that broke The Sex Pistols, Blondie, Duran Duran, Sublime and Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others.
Founded in 1972, KROQ is located at 106.7 FM and brandishes the slogan "alternative first." It's the No. 1 rock station in L.A. — which is the biggest radio market in the country. With an audience of 2.25 million terrestrial radio listeners per week, it's one of the two dozen biggest stations in the country, and it counts fans from sea to sea, many of whom sport KROQ bumper stickers on their cars.
But it's quite possible that many of KROQ's fans over the years wouldn't recognize it today. The station has evolved far beyond its punk-rock past, and its playlist now is peppered with artists such as Macklemore, Lorde, Daft Punk and Avicii, none of whom could be considered rock. (Macklemore is a rapper, while the other three perform varying forms of pop and electronic music.) In fact, KROQ now has a great deal of crossover with the pop-focused KIIS FM. It's enough to make one wonder: Has KROQ lost its ability to, well, rock?
It certainly has its resume in order. The station's most famous DJ, Rodney Bingenheimer, came aboard in 1976, and was a punk, new-wave and alternative-rock tastemaker, earning the nickname that inspired George Hickenlooper's 2003 documentary, The Mayor of the Sunset Strip. Along the way Bingenheimer broke or helped popularize groups including The Runaways, X, Black Flag, The Germs, Van Halen, The Smiths, Dramarama, Social Distortion, The Bangles, The Go-Gos, Blur, Oasis and many more.
Current afternoon DJ Ted Stryker, who is 42, has been at the station since 1999. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was a huge fan. "KROQ wasn't just a music station, it was how I found out about what was going on in Southern California," he says. "Even though the people on the station were stars, like Richard Blade and Jed the Fish, I thought, man, I want to hang out with them! They introduced me to so many bands."
Based originally in Pasadena, now located in Mid-City, KROQ was founded by Hollywood club owner and band manager Gary Bookasta, who had a talent for launching not just bands but also personalities, such as Jim "The Poorman" Trenton, Dr. Drew Pinsky and Jed the Fish. Since the 1990s, the station has been the launch pad for comedians Jimmy Kimmel, Carson Daly and Adam Corolla, as well as personalities Kevin and Bean and Matt "Money" Smith. And, of course, there's Bingenheimer, whom Jed the Fish has called the "soul of KROQ."
But over the years, the station's soul seems to be slowly dying. Bingenheimer's signature show, "Rodney on the Roq," still exists, but it was long ago relegated to Siberia: It begins at midnight Sunday and ends at the red-eyed hour of 3 am.
In 1986, KROQ was purchased by national conglomerate Infinity Broadcasting, which now is part of CBS Radio. But there's more at play here than just the usual "big bad corporation ruining the music" narrative here. Throughout the 1990s, KROQ continued to break giant acts, including No Doubt, Hole, Bad Religion, Rage Against the Machine and The Offspring, none of them well-known outside of Los Angeles when KROQ started playing them.
"I know it's a big city and big cities produce big bands, but these are our bands," Stryker says. "When you think KROQ you think of those bands."
Indeed, KROQ still plays those acts regularly, and both they and the station have become synonymous with the term "alternative rock." But that term has become watered down, and nowadays what KROQ plays couldn't really be considered an alternative to anything. Along with KIIS — which brands itself as "LA's No. 1 hit music station" — KROQ's rotation includes works from artists such as Capital Cities, Lumineers, fun., The Neighbourhood, Bastille and Imagine Dragons.
Stryker isn't sure how to categorize these types of artists. "Are those rock songs and rock bands? I have no idea," he says. "I don't even know what's alternative rock and what's rock and what's hip-hop anymore." He argues that these artists are so good, though, "How can we not play them, even though we're considered a rock station?"
Not all rock fans would agree, and it's certainly not immediately clear how "I Kissed a Girl" fit into their playlist. "The song already leaned a little on the edge of pop for KROQ, but we loved it so much we wanted to play it," says Lisa Worden, music director and assistant programming director at KROQ. "We're not going to force rock on people."
Adds programming director Kevin Weatherly: "It didn't fit in the alternative sphere, nor did it fit in with Top 40." He says the same thing can be said of tracks such as Lorde's "Royals" or Avicii's "Wake Me Up," or even past experiments like Cypress Hill's "(Rock) Superstar," a song that Stryker says had some listeners complaining, upon its 2000 debut: "This isn't K-RAP, this is K-ROQ!" he says. "If we believe in it and we're passionate about it, we'll play it."
That's how all of KROQ's music is chosen, Worden says, adding that she, Weatherly, operations manager Gene Sandbloom and the station's DJs pick the tunes themselves. "The labels promote what artists are important to them at the time, but they don't dictate what we play. We are the ultimate decision makers."
Beyond the hits, they play cutting-edge, lesser known music on shows such as Kat Corbett's "Locals Only," a midday feature, which has championed smaller L.A. bands like Pangea, Papa, Blondfire, and No. Meanwhile, Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones hosts "Jonesy's Jukebox" on Sunday nights, playing groups like The Growlers, the Allah-Las and Parquet Courts.
But this isn't enough for many of the station's die-hard rock fans, who often make their voices heard. "We always get that vocal minority, people who can be closed-minded to new sounds, who say, 'This isn't rock, this isn't KROQ,' " Weatherly says, "but the people that love it far outweigh that."
In truth, the "alternative" label is probably passé; a more accurate description of KROQ's current format might be current pop mixed with classic rock. After all, while classic rock in recent decades mostly revolved around 1960s and '70s performers such as Jimi Hendrix and Boston, nowadays KROQ favorites like Red Hot Chili Peppers have moved into that realm.
Even if you don't agree with the direction the station has taken, there's no doubt that its personalities are conscious of its heritage as a tastemaker and a risk taker. Believe it or not, for Stryker, Lorde represented to him a chance to be edgy.
"When I first played Lorde, I remember thinking, 'Are people going to like this?' I think it sounds pretty cool," he says. "Lorde is definitely alternative rock. It doesn't just have to be a band with guitars that is four guys from Silver Lake."
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