Rock Tonic

The prank was timed impeccably. Listeners expecting the opening strains of Jonesy’s Jukebox, a signature radio program on southern California’s Indie 103.1, were greeted instead by Spanish-language programming. An exasperated voice in the back of many minds may have piped up, reminding that it was April Fool’s Day, but somewhere deeper, probably just below the solar plexus, an uncomfortable tightness warned that there was reason to fear. And then, it was over. Business as usual at Indie 103.1 courtesy of the show’s host, the inimitable Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, who must have had himself quite a chuckle at the expense of his listeners.

Since the metamorphosis of 103.1 from a dance station to something altogether different since Christmas 2003, the station has become one of the best-loved in a city that has rendered my iTrip virtually useless due to severe crowding of the airwaves. Rolling Stone‘s Erik Pedersen has gone so far as to hail Indie 103.1 “America’s coolest commercial station” (4 June, 2004) while LA Weekly‘s Kate Sullivan penned a pretty compelling missive to God for the survival of this “pretty-much-freeform, alt-rock haven for music fanatics, unsigned local bands, and aging punk rockers with latent DJ genius” (“What the FCC?” 4 March, 2005).

Sullivan’s letter to the Big Guy was spurred by news that the business arrangement behind Indie 103.1 was to be torn asunder. Technically owned by Entravision, a local media company with scores of Spanish-language stations across the US, the station relied on advertising conglomerate Clear Channel to handle, well, its advertising. Joe Piasecki explains that, “under newly revised media ownership rules, one company can have a controlling interest in no more than eight radio stations in the Los Angeles area, because Indie broadcasts as both KDLE out [of] Santa Monica and KDLD out of Huntington Beach, Clear Channel had two stations too many” (“Indie 103.1 Rocks On,” Los Angeles CityBeat, 31 March, 2005). The answer: drop Indie 103.1.

Even if reports of FCC interference are a startlingly elaborate part of the prank (which, incidentally, I’ve yet to determine), listeners might be forgiven for worrying that Entravision would give up its venture into “alternative-gold” programming, i.e., the oldies for 30-somethings rotation that drove the success of San Diego’s KBZT. It wouldn’t be the first time that a rock station has been replaced by either Spanish-language or “urban” programming. (The latter, rather dubiously encompassing hip-hop and R&B, also dominates Top 40 rotation.) Major-market rock stations have been in decline for some time and at least four have been laid to rest in the last six months: Philly’s Y100, D.C.’s WHFS, Miami’s WZBT and Houston’s KLOL. More often than not, the factors behind this trend are plotted on an axis that transects taste and demographics. Frankly, youngsters just don’t dig rock like they used to because it’s likely to be their parents’ music. Then there’s the recurring boogeyman of, yes you’ve heard this before, Latinos changing things up.

As Ben Quiñones reports in “¡Despiertese, Despiertese! Starting the Day with Piolín,” Arbitron ratings indicate that the show’s host, Mexican immigrant Eddie ‘Piolín’ Sotelo “has the No. 1 Spanish-language morning show in Los Angeles, with a 5.0 (five percent share, or approximately 500,000 of all radio listeners in his time slot), not to mention a higher rating that Howard Stern . . . or any other English-language morning radio show you can think of. He also has the No. 1 syndicated show among the 645 Spanish-language stations nationwide. In short, Piolín is the No. 1 morning radio show, Spanish-language or otherwise, in the U.S.” (LA Weekly 25 March, 2005). This profit lure has not gone unnoticed by Clear Channel, which intends to convert up to 25 of its 1,200 stations to Spanish-language programming by next year.

The twist is that despite Jonesy’s prank, the near truth of which rests on Clear Channel and Entravision’s success with Spanish-language programming, Indie 103.1 is a proponent of music from Latin America as well as US bands that sing in Spanish. On Tuesday nights, for example, the station airs the Red Zone. Hosted by Chelina Vargas of Cookman International (the company behind the Latin Alternative Music Conference), the show plays anything from Latin-infused ska, punk, electronica or hip-hop. Vargas played Kinky far before they were signed and has had a hand in generating a buzz around bands like Los Abandoned, Liquits, Volumen Cero and Maldita Vecindad. When asked to explain his decision to feature the Red Zone, the stations program director, Michael Steele, cut to the chase: “We’re a rock station and these are rock bands” (Shannon Cook, Hispanic Radio, 15 October, 2004). That this sentiment seeps beyond the show’s two-hour time slot is apparent in the expected and not so expected presence of Ozomatli and Fobia tracks that crop up in other host’s playlists

Indie 103.1 is onto something here, a shot in the arm to cure some of corporate radio’s own ills. One might be inclined to call it creativity. Amidst Steve Jones’ commercials for Toyota of Huntington Beach and Mighty Morning show host Dicky Barrett praising the merits of some car insurance company, the station manages to connect with listeners because of its expansive view of what constitutes the niche market that it targets.

Simply stated, national memory of rock may be homogeneous-mostly white, mostly guys, many of whom are quite skinny and British-the music is most certainly less so. Recent guests of the Mighty Morning Show have included Brian O’Neal of seminal black rock band The BusBoys and Kerri Koch, director of “Don’t Need You” (2003), a documentary about the emergence of riot grrl. I’m listening as I write. Bad Brains are playing. Now Joe SiB of the Complete Control show spins “Son Mis Locuras” by Go Betty Go followed by the Cockney Rejects’ “War on the Terraces” and The Pogues’ “Sunny Side of the Street”. On my drive home, Jonesy assembles a series of soul songs that included Chairman of the Board’s “Everything’s Tuesday” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Oh So Beautiful”. Bizarre. Endearing.

What the success of Indie 103.1 ultimately underscores is that the demise of corporate rock radio stations may have less to do with demographics, than with the stultifying definition of the genre and the limited view of how people listen at the root of an exceedingly lame business model. For one thing, lots of Latinas listen to non-traditionally Latino music. Indie 103.1 could not have built its audience without drawing in a good many of the Chicano punks that populate this city. A similar sentiment informs Kate Sullivan’s assessment of the station’s appeal: “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… 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.” (“Corporate Radio Doesn’t Suck” LA Weekly, 16 January, 2004). As corporate radio struggles to combat an increasing loss of listeners to internet and satellite radio, a vulnerability that is as much to do with its drive toward control and standardization of the airwaves as the emergence of new technologies, it might do well to remember that listeners would be far less inclined toward a mass exodus to radio that they pay for if the radio that they receive for free were worth a damn.