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.
“It was so unorthodox,” Sovel says. “There was all this dead air and pausing, smacking his lips, and I was in the background thinking, ‘Oh my god, what have I done? This is a train wreck.’ And very quickly people started going, ‘This is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever heard.’ Suddenly people like Johnny Ramone were coming to be on his show.” Over the next five years Jonesy created this weird, awkward, anti-interview show. His guests may have come on to plug their new movie or album, but they’d end up talking about some non-sequitur topic and laughing hysterically. The first time I was on, about a year ago, he only played one song — and belched into the mic a half-dozen times — over the whole two hours. The second time — which, it turns out, was part of the final “Jukebox Jury” segment on Indie — we talked about the service industry and proper tipping etiquette, the mysteries of Nickelback, coffee, Brian Wilson’s mental struggles, and, oh yeah, we judged a few songs.
The moments are too many to mention. Patton Oswalt and the Comedians of Comedy guest-hosting “Jonesy’s Jukebox.” Former bandmates John Lydon and Jonesy talking Sex Pistols. “When Robert Plant came into the studio,” recalls Sovel, “it was Jonesy, Plant and me in there. They started singing some old ’50s song, and in the middle of it, Plant starts singing, ‘You need cooling/baby I’m not fooling’ and as he’s doing that he looks at me and winks. I’m thinking to myself, that’s Robert Fucking Plant singing ‘Whole Lotta Love.’”
Sovel also created and hosted “Check 1-2,” which dedicated itself to highlighting the best L.A. local rock bands. More shows arrived. Henry Rollins’ “Harmony In My Head,” “Complete Control” with Joe Sib, “Neon Noise” with Paul V, Darren Revell’s “Big Sonic Heaven.” Joe Escalante’s “The Last of the Famous International Morning Shows,” which ran from 2006 to 2008, featured David Lynch as its weatherman.
These specialty shows were mixed with a consistently adventuresome rotation of new indie rock, punk and dance, songs from tiny labels and big majors, a bunch of tracks added into rotation based not on a band’s marketing budget but on the merits of the song. Everybody knew that the Pixies’ “Debaser” was a classic, but few radio stations played it as much as it needed to be played. Daft Punk sounds great on the radio next to the B-52s and Tokyo Police Club. Countless bands received airplay on Indie that otherwise wouldn’t have stood a chance.
When you were stuck in traffic and had no future and no exits before you, Indie was there. New York City has so many newspapers and magazines because citizens take the subway and read while they commute. In Los Angeles, you listen to the radio. And, sure, there are CDs and iPods, but for that segment of society with janky cars, jammed-up CD players and dinky rock & roll speakers (i.e. the young creative class) — and for the desperate music supervisors looking for a song in a pinch just as the Go! Team jumps across the airwaves — Indie 103.1 was a central part of our daily lives.
“When I landed on Indie,” recalls DJ Darren Revell, “radio had become sour over the years. I never imagined to be working at a radio station like Indie. I remember the first time I ran the board for TK — I think it was Cinco de Mayo and he was playing ‘Jealous Again’ by Black Flag. And I was like, ‘Holy shit! I can’t believe there’s a radio station playing Black Flag during afternoon drive time.’”
The station not only played Black Flag, but in ’04 snagged its former lead singer. When Henry Rollins negotiated his two-hour spot, he was typically blunt. “I said, ‘I bet you can’t pay me anything,’” Rollins recalls, “and they said, ‘Correct!’” He said he wasn’t looking for money, but freedom: “I will abide by the FCC rules, of course, but you can’t tell me what to play.” They agreed. “They’ve given me 120 percent freedom. No one ever told me to cool it.”
Great radio, however, doesn’t pay the bills; advertising does, and the station’s Arbitron numbers never matched its listeners’ enthusiasm. “Our ratings were never good,” admits Sovel. “We’re on a signal that doesn’t cover the entire city. But they were good enough to generate advertising. They wouldn’t have let us stay there if we weren’t making money.”
But with Entravision’s stock recently dipping below $1 a share (it’s currently being threatened with delisting by the New York Stock Exchange), the corporation opted to chase the much larger Spanish-speaking audience. (Entravision declined to comment for this article.)
The station’s fate was sealed, in hindsight, this past October, when what Sovel calls a “perfect storm” hit the station. First, of course, was the economic collapse, which resulted in many advertisers cutting back. And second, Nielsen/Arbitron changed the system by which it counts listenership by introducing a device called the Portable People Meter. The company claims the innovation more accurately measures the number of people listening to a radio or TV station at any given time.
When the PPM Arbitrons arrived, however, the results were far below what they had expected, says Sovel. “We saw the first numbers and we were like, ‘We’re fucked.’” It showed Indie as 39th in the market, with a 0.6 share of the Los Angeles radio audience.
Sovel thinks that the PPM’s methodology extremely underrepresented its L.A.-basin listenership. Regardless, in October, program director Max Tolkoff, who replaced Steele in 2007, eliminated some of the evening specialty shows in hopes of improving the numbers, and moved Rollins’ “Harmony In My Head” to Saturdays. The playlist also began tilting more toward the center, with more commercial alternative choices.
The wondering and whispers intensified. (When I was there the Friday before it shut down, the minifridges were bare and the receptionist was no longer validating parking tickets.) “Recently that threat had been there,” says Revell. “Definitely over the past two or three months we felt it stronger.”
Revell was finishing up his 7-to-midnight show the night before Entravision pulled the plug. “Jonesy was upstairs cleaning out his office around quarter to 10, and I put two and two together. I saw Jonesy up there and so I decided I’d play whatever I wanted for the last two hours I was on the air. I wish I could remember everything I played, but there was so much emotion going through me, and I was so upset because I knew we were going away, at that point. It was devastating. I know I played The Cure’s ‘Disintegration,’ and the last song I played was the Sugarcubes’ ‘It’s Oh So Quiet.’” (Jonesy was unavailable for comment on the shutdown.)
The next morning, after the first farewell announcement, the phones starting lighting up. Some people thought it was an April Fool’s joke — except that, it’s January. The Indie message boards bounced with missives of outrage and despair, blogs buzzed, and Saturday host Tedd Roman Twittered his layoff. He snapped a picture of the locked studio door, which was affixed with a Xeroxed “Do Not Enter” sign. Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead and Slim Jim Phantom, ex of the Stray Cats, were left standing in the lobby, unaware that their appearance on that day’s “Jonesy’s Jukebox” had been canceled.
Within the day, fans had created online petitions and “Save Indie” MySpace pages. Later that night, when Revell was spinning records at the Good Luck Bar in Los Feliz, he was bombarded with condolences and thanks. “People were just coming up and hugging me, and crying, and bringing me to tears, too, really. Just totally overwhelming.”
“We had a very active audience,” says Sovel. “They were not passive. We could put on a show at the Hammer Museum with two really good local bands and there would be a line around the block of a few thousand people — a thousand of which couldn’t get in.”
Among that active audience, he continues, are artists and industry types interested in somehow keeping the Indie 103.1 spirit alive. He says that over the weekend he and others brainstormed options of moving the station’s former talent en masse somewhere else on the FM dial. “There’s a lot of activity going on,” he confides. “There’s a vigorous effort to put Indie back up on the air in Los Angeles, and there’s a lot of people offering their support, both individually, as listeners, and artists who have come forward to offer their support, as well.”
Of course, if Indie survives, it will have to be with a different name. Indie 103.1 is owned by Entravision (Clear Channel stopped booking ads in 2005), and the station’s Web site is continuing to stream the music library. It’s part of the company’s attempt at moving the station’s avid fanbase online, where there’s much less overhead. Programming such as Indie’s, Entravision explained in its on-air farewell announcement, “could only be done on the Internet, a place where rules do not apply and where new music thrives, be it grunge, punk or alternative — simply put, only the best music.” (“We would never abandon our listeners like that,” stresses Sovel, who was frustrated with the announcement looping over the station he helped build. “I want listeners to know that that was not our decision.”)
Some of the specialty shows, including Paul V’s “Neon Noise” and Full Metal Jackie’s “Chaos,” will continue on the webstream. Rollins, too, was asked by management whether he would be interested in continuing.
“Knowing that I have a lot of listeners who listen abroad,” explains Rollins, “the Internet is their connection to me; I said yes. I asked, ‘I get to play more songs because there’s no commercials?’ They said yes. ‘And no FCC so I can finally play N.W.A?’ And they said yeah.” This past weekend Rollins put together broadcasts for the next three Saturdays, “and they all have 30 minutes more of music, and zero restraint.”
But, he adds, “You see the abruptness with which the terrestrial version of this show ended. The online version? You never know. It could be all over by lunchtime today. But I was told that there are so many online listeners that it’s making them want to keep the station online to try it out. So the future of this little station — I don’t know. I did these three shows. I wonder if they’ll air.”
If online Indie fizzles, says Sovel, it’ll be no big deal to him. “Nobody cries when a web stream goes silent. It’s not the same thing. There’s an intangible experience of listening to the radio that can’t be duplicated on the Internet. And there’s an emotional attachment to it because everybody felt part ownership in it as part of our community. Which is why people are calling and crying and are sad about it.”
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Not that everyone’s surprised, he confesses.
“From the day we went on the air, people didn’t expect us to last, but it kept going and going, and even when we were doing well, people would say, ‘Are you going to stay on? Please don’t go away.’ There was this collective sense that nothing good like this could last.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct two factual
errors. First, Tedd Romann was Twittering his layoff, not TK. We have
changed the passage in the story to reflect this. Also, the Black
Flag song that Indie looped in its rotation after the station went
off the air was "Gimme Gimme Gimme," not "Jealous Again." We
apologize for the errors.