The Shot Heard 'Round the Dial

Austin' "Alternative" Radio Market

by Chris Gray

It's taken a while, but the three favorite words in Austin radio are no longer "Stevie Ray Vaughan." Now it's "New Rock Revolution," and every couple of years or so, Austin gets another one. First, it was
K-NACK four years ago, and because radio was only beginning to suffer from acute hair-band withdrawal, the upstart station was dismissed as a bunch of freaks who had just moved from the far left of the dial to the far right. Then a little band called Nirvana came along and left radio programmers scratching their heads, thinking there might just be something to this "alternative" thing after all.

It would take another station's coming to Austin, and a serious overhaul of one of its most entrenched stations, to make this point clear. The ABC-owned Z-Rock, its harder-than-you playlist shot through with flannel-garbed hitmakers Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, went on the air in the summer of 1993. Z-Rock immediately won its target demographic, 18-to-34-year-olds, and jolted longtime Austin rock giant KLBJ-FM out of the Album Oriented Rock (AOR) complacency of Boston, the Eagles, and Rush, and into the maelstrom known alternately as "current rock," "alternative rock," and, yes, "the new rock revolution." But still, that was only the beginning.

When Kurt Cobain pulled the trigger in April 1994, the sound that echoed wasn't the bang of a shotgun, but the ching of a cash register. With its first full-fledged martyr on board, alternative rock broke through once and for all into the mainstream and became a true pop culture phenomenon. Punk, dead to the world five years before but suddenly fueled by the staggering record sales of Green Day and the Offspring, stepped up to claim its slice of the pie. Suddenly, and finally, radio programmers had a bona fide format on their hands: a little AOR from Seattle, a little Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR) from California, and a lot of money from corporate America. And on June 9, 1995, it came to Austin. But why?

"We thought there was a niche," says Sara Trexler, 101X (KROX-FM) program director, before correcting herself. "Not a niche, but there was a hole in the market in terms of having alternative music that was not mixed with either classic rock or heavy, heavy urban dance kind of stuff, and was specifically for this sort of generation format.

"And no one else was doing that," continues Trexler. "You have KLBJ, which plays some new rock, there's no doubt about it, but they also play a lot of classic rock. Then you have KHFI, which may play Hootie and Blues Traveler and that kind of jangly guitar end, maybe some Green Day, but they're not going to play Juliana Hatfield, they're not going to play Filter, and they're not going to play Supersuckers. Those were the two stations with the two big sticks that were saying, `Hello, we see you young people out there, but we're really not that interested in you; we don't really care."

To try to cover that perceived gap between KLBJ and KHFI, the new kid in town, KROX, or 101X as it has come to call itself, drew from just about every available avenue in the Austin radio spectrum, as well as a couple of new ones. Jocks Ray Seggern and Rachel Marisay, and 101X's basic playlist, came from K-NACK; morning drive jock Ernie Mills drove south from Dallas' Edge, a nationally recognized pioneer of the new rock format; Production Director Jane Shasserre jumped ship from
Z-Rock, hence most of 101X's commercials retain some of that in-your-face quality; the station made instant local connections by using sister station KGSR's sales staff to handle advertising; the on-air delivery and general attitude is pure Top 40/CHR; and KROX's aggressive attitude toward club tie-ins and remotes is closest to KLBJ's. Throw in a Butthole Surfer and a unique "rock & roll talk show" on Thursday nights, and you've got a radio station - one that wants, and needs, to make money hand over fist.

"People hate to hear this," says Trexler, "but the number one reason radio exists is to make money. If the station doesn't make money, it doesn't exist anymore. It doesn't matter if it's KLBJ or K-NACK. That's the bottom line; it's gotta make money. At 100,000 watts, we obviously have to make money, we have to have ratings. So we have to be mass appeal, we have to be popular."

But having to be popular doesn't necessarily translate into being popular, and some of the most heated debate about 101X's arrival centers around just how many people will tune into a format that's being done to death across the dial. In other words, is it a niche or is it bigger? "We're not a niche format," explains Trexler. "We're not trying to carve out a niche. We want to be accessible to a lot of people. I don't want to be selfish with my listeners. I want it to be something that a lot of people can listen to, that a lot of people can like. It's a mass appeal format now."

Not surprisingly, other stations don't see it quite like that, or if they do, they're not quite sure why there's another station trying to do something they were already doing. "I don't really see [101X] as any kind of landmark, because I thought K-NACK was basically playing this stuff before 101X came along, " says KLBJ-FM program director Jeff Carrol. "101X just has a better signal. So, I don't see them as anything really new to Austin. They're just trying to do it a little bit different and a little bit better."

"I think [101X] was a good wake-up call for us," says K-NACK General Manager/co-owner Richard Rees. "It's a good exercise in job experience to have a true competitor again. Before, when we were on the air, it was like `a bunch of weirdos listening to that new rock stuff down at K-NACK.' It was tough to get credibility. Now, it's like, `Wow. Instant credibility. Maybe what you guys were doing wasn't such a bad thing.' "

"I don't really consider 101X a direct competitor," Z-Rock program director Daryl O'Neal says. "If you look at their playlist, they have about 40 to 50 percent of our titles, and the rest is a pure modern-rock format similar to KRBE in Houston or the Edge in Dallas. I don't think there's a place for them, to be quite frank. When you've got KLBJ, K-NACK, Z-Rock, and, to a large degree, KHFI, playing a lot of the same music, to come in and open a station that plays the same music, there's no hole for it.

"When we came to Austin, there was a hole," continues O'Neal. "There was a huge hole. You had KLBJ playing what they had been for forever, Z-102 the classic rock station, [and] K-NACK being alternative. CHR back then was CHR. There wasn't any hard rock, and so when we debuted, we debuted number one with 18-34 adults. That's a hole in the market; that's when you go, `I can fill this.' Everything new has a curve to it, sure, and certainly I think we've settled in to where we ought to be, but I don't see that kind of hole [for 101X]."

If there's not a hole, then judging by the amount of money Sinclair Communications has sunk into 101X, it's going to stick around long enough to create one. So is everybody else. KLBJ is owned by the Johnson family [as in Lyndon Baines Johnson], Z-Rock by Disney via ABC/Capital Cities, and K-NACK by Rees and a group of wealthy investors. So, what Austin audiences are in for is an old-fashioned dogfight among radio stations who all play the same music - or close enough.

"It's just gotten so competitive," Carrol says. "If we all picked our own niche, everybody would have just a small little piece of the pie. All the radio stations want to be successful, so they're all looking for that bigger piece. Right now, this kind of music is what everybody thinks is going to give them that bigger piece."

"Musically, we're all a little bit different than each other," says K-NACK's Rees. "The differences, though, are probably minor in the big picture. What's going to define success or failure is how we keep things different with our listenership."

It's not going to be with the music, that's for damn sure. An informal survey of the four stations' playlists found nine artists -Silverchair, Foo Fighters, Alanis Morissette, the Toadies, Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, Bush, Live, and the Presidents of the United States of America - in heavy rotation on all four stations, and 12 more - Better Than Ezra, Rusty, Elastica, Gin Blossoms, Blind Melon, Collective Soul, Catherine Wheel, Dandelion, REM, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lenny Kravitz, and White Zombie -circulated heavily on at least three out of four.

"Music may not be the only driving factor behind radio, as far as further defining the choice of your listener," Rees says. "If they've got the same song on four stations, what's [the listener's] motivation for picking you over the next guy, other than maybe you've got cooler call letters or a cooler logo?"

"In some ways, it's a shame," Carrol says. "Competition has made radio stations better, but it also limits what's being played. As all these stations start playing the same stuff, does the listener really have five choices now, or are we just button-pushing, looking for the best song? Who's providing the real alternative?"

Nobody. The term "alternative," at least in its original sense, is as dead as Kurt Cobain, and probably died with him. "Nirvana did break through on a lot of levels because they were able to put out something raw and fresh," Rees says. "Everything since Nirvana has been a regurgitation of their sound."

"Alternative is such a weird term," Carrol says. "I don't really think it's alternative. Everybody in the industry calls it that, but it's really become mainstream. It's not that everybody's tastes have become alternative, it's that the music that's being put out now is good enough that the masses like it as well as the people who used to be into alternative music because it was different from what was being played on mass-appeal radio stations."

"I would say that in terms of being alternative, we are an alternative to whatever else is out there," Trexler says. "There's no doubt about that. Nobody else has Gibby Haynes on; we've got lots of interviews that constantly go on; we have a flashback lunch that's a pretty bitchin' free-for-all nostalgia-fest. There's a lot of stuff that we can do that nobody else is doing. Maybe it's not always a free-form station, but it's certainly not as rigid as a lot of places."

So, essentially, as far as true alternative programming goes, we're back to where we were before all this alternative rock business started - left of the dial. David Jinright, station manager of the University of Texas at Austin student radio station KVRX, thinks college radio should push commercial radio to play better music. "We have the freedom to do things new and different, because we only have to answer to our listeners," he says. "College radio doesn't care about getting the largest audience. We care that the music gets somewhere."

Fortunately, college has something that commercial radio doesn't; the freedom to experiment. And sometimes, those experiments turn out something really great. Commercial stations, on the other hand, just have to make money. In order to make money, stations have to sell product, both musical and non-musical and they find out real quick that mass audiences are the ones with the cash, so it's their needs that get served first. This usually means a jock will get call after call requesting Tripping Daisy and Alanis Morissette. This is not great radio, but it pays the bills. And it has its bright spots, too.

"Sara [Trexler] gives me a lot more leeway than I've had anywhere else," says 101X overnight jock Ray "Dogg" Seggern, who's worked at seven Austin radio stations. "But there are limits. I couldn't do what Gibby does."

"When K-NACK came on, I started getting to play better music, as far as I was concerned," says Johnny Walker, KLBJ nighttime jock. "And when Z-Rock came on, we had to do the same thing; I started playing better stuff. I get away with a lot more now with 101X in town, because I can go in to the PD and say, `Hey, look, man. We need to be playing this stuff.' And we are." For the most part, the jocks would rather just deal with their shifts, even the endless Silverchair requests, than take part in any protracted inter-station wars. Most agree that the rock radio market is as tapped as it can be, but welcome the competition anyway.

"Our listeners have been pretty loyal, they're pretty faithful," K-NACK afternoon drive jock Melody Lee says. "They keep listening and keep calling us with positive input, so, we're not really distressed or feel like we're in any competition at all with 101X. We want to stress that - we don't feel like they're our competition. Everyone's competitors in this market. To say that one station is competition or might take away our listeners is absurd when we've always had competition with the other stations. I think the town is more than big enough to take the two. There's been a lot of talk about them trying to run us out and [that] K-NACK's gonna fold, but that's just not true."

No one will know for sure what kind of impact 101X will have on the market for at least another month, when the next Arbitron book comes out. It would take a lot for 101X to dethrone KLBJ, still Austin's rock ratings king, but Z-Rock showed two years ago that it can be done. Whether or not 101X is a niche format or a mass appeal is up to the listener. They're out to prove everyone else wrong, and they might do it. Maybe the best thing that's come out of 101X's arrival is that it's made the other stations stop and think about their own identities. That's never bad for the listeners.

"What we've always decided is we don't really care what the competition is doing," KLBJ's Carrol says. "We're just going to be the best at being KLBJ. If some other rock station signs on here in the next few weeks, we won't change to try and take them on; we're just going to be the best that we are."

"On the network, we're adding titles left and right, trying things - we're adding seven, eight new titles a week that several years ago you never would have heard of," says
Z-Rock's O'Neal. "Z-Rock is a totally different animal now. We don't want to say, `We're a modern rock station' or `We're an alternative station. We're a new rock station. We're a current rock station.' We're just Z-Rock. That's our position."

"K-NACK's niche will continue to be introducing new music to the listeners in the market," K-NACK's Rees says. "I don't want to be attracting mainstream America. I want to be attracting what's new, what's different, what's on the cutting edge."

"You can think of it this way," Trexler says. "We suck less than the other stations. It's kind of like if you're watching Beavis and Butt-head and they go, `Well, it doesn't suck that much.'" n

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