So last night I was downtown with that strange, new radio station on — 103.1 FM, a.k.a. “Indie 103” — and I started driving like a complete asshole, switching lanes between a city bus and some lardass pickup, desperate to get through a yellow light for no reason other than what my ex-boyfriend calls rock & roll desire. The radio had just segued from X’s “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” to XTC’s “Senses Working Overtime,” obviously the greatest pop-rock song ever recorded, and suddenly the night seemed a little more infinite. It’s crazy what the radio can make you do.
When I told my brother about Indie 103, he was all, Who’s behind it?, and I couldn’t even believe myself when I replied, Clear Channel and some Hispanic radio company. Has radio ever been this strange?
Yes and no. Make no mistake, despite the claims on Indie 103’s Web site, this is corporate radio. It’s just corporate radio doing what it does all the time — making a grab at whatever new, niche-market fad is hot this week. In this case, that’s “alternative gold,” an inherently paradoxical new format pioneered by KBZT in San Diego.
Indie 103’s Gen-X-museum vibe gets a bit queasy, but the general freakishness of the station as a thing, a phenomenon, is compelling — as is the experience of watching friends actually get excited about radio again. I mean, who would have guessed that when X finally got the radio play it deserved (or PJ Harvey, or the Replacements), the people responsible would be, well, Clear Channel and some Hispanic radio company?
Most of my friends haven’t listened to radio in years — not with any joy, anyway. They’re bummed out by KCRW’s easy-listening groove, and bored by the repetition and cruel shittiness of commercial radio. (I’m always like, What about KXLU? But I never get a real answer.)
I’m not even Indie 103’s target audience — I’m female, for one thing, and I’m way over Bob Marley and Pearl Jam. But the thing is, like anyone, I’m willing to slog through a fair amount of distasteful stuff if I know I’m going to hear something delightful and forgotten, or delightful and new, played in its entirety, without commercials and mixed in a fun, chaotic way with other surprises. I’m not an idiot. That’s how Indie 103 has managed to cause such a buzz among a certain demographic in SoCal. In its embryonic, no-DJs-no-commercials incarnation (commercials just began airing this week), Indie 103 is the kind of station that appeals to a fairly broad range of people — not because they like all the music, but because they passionately adore some of it. And because the way it is delivered is totally unique to L.A. corporate radio. And because no one ever plays Nirvana’s “School.” Ever. (It would be great, though, if Indie could get rid of that fake-stoner dude doing the station IDs.)
It’s ironic that the people who helped invent brutally bad radio, scarring the ears of a generation, would be helping now to provide an antidote. That’s capitalism, though. Clear Channel knows there’s a mess of music fans out there who’ve tuned out over the past few years and turned to their CDs and the Internet for musical fun. Clear Channel doesn’t like to lose listeners, you know. It doesn’t like to lose money.
The people at Clear Channel are adamant that they have absolutely nothing to do with the programming end of Indie 103 — they are merely responsible for selling 12 ads an hour — while Santa Monica–based Entravision Communications, one of the largest Spanish-language broadcasting companies and owners of the 103.1 signal (KDLD-FM in L.A. and KDLE-FM in Newport Beach), handles programming. Clear Channel is touchy on the subject, no doubt because the Justice Department keeps a close eye on its occasional attempts to get around FCC-mandated ownership limitations.
I’m sure that, in fact, Clear Channel doesn’t have anything to do with Indie’s programming — on paper, anyway. But the context for this deal is kinda funny. Here’s the situation, which is multilayered — pardon the messy insider-ism:
1. Clear Channel operates 91-X, San Diego’s (superior) version of KROQ, which recently took a beating in the ratings from the upstart KBZT-FM 94.9, a station that pioneered a similar format to Indie 103, that is, semi-obscure new shit and a lot of “alternative gold.” (Yes, my friends, anyone who actually remembers the Stone Roses is now officially old.) Apparently Clear Channel took a lesson from that bitch slap in deciding to work with Indie. (The dude at Clear Channel who’s handling the deal, Roy Laughlin, actually mentioned the success of KBZT when discussing Indie’s strategy.)
2. Clear Channel owns KIIS-FM, L.A.’s mega Top 40 station, which dipped drastically in the last ratings book. Interestingly, the station located at 103.1 previous to Indie was a dance station — not a powerful or lucrative one, but certainly a competitor in some small measure to KIIS-FM.
3. The guy hired by Entravision to program Indie 103, Michael Steele, just happens to be the former music director at KIIS-FM. (By the way: What was a Pixies fan doing at KIIS, anyway? Poor guy. Congrats on the new gig.)
4. Indie doesn’t stand a chance of taking down KROQ, much as some might hope, but it could hurt KROQ slightly in its continual battle for No. 1 ratings. (Kinda like Ralph Nader — he could never win the election, but he lost it for Gore.) In an interesting side note, Clear Channel’s Star 98 recently hired KROQ icon Richard Blade, perhaps another attempt to grab aging ex-KROQers.
Radio is probably the most volatile mass medium, and if Indie doesn’t do well enough, it’ll be shuttered in a heartbeat, just like every other station that’s gone up against KROQ (remember Y-107?) and the scrappy weirdoes who formerly broadcast at the 103.1 signal — Groove Radio and Mars. Fortunately, Clear Channel claims it has no interest in turning Indie into a real juggernaut — a tiny share of listeners and 12 ads an hour is all it wants. Sounds good to me.
And if Entravision is looking for any advice from a potential devotee, I have plenty. Those commercial-free Mondays it’s promising are a good start. And here’s another idea: Instead of spending thousands of dollars researching what your audience wants to hear, why not take a few goddamn requests? You think KROQ got so big in the ’80s by market research? It did it by giving its DJs and listeners an actual hand in programming. Cut out the freaking middlemen already. Give your research money to Michael Steele and let him continue to follow his own instincts. He’s onto something, you guys. Then, let him pick some great DJs and give them a hand in programming, too. People don’t demand perfection of their radios: They just want some creativity.
And if you really want to kick some ass, why not take a lesson from the visionaries of the ’80s — lay off the oldies a bit and play more new stuff that’s as adventurous as “alternative gold” was in its day. You could start by playing the Sleepy Jackson and Junior Senior immediately. Much obliged.