What's Left of the Dial
Adults, Alternatives, and Anniversaries
The times, they are a-changing. Oh, sure, that line may be the most clichéd opening sentence in music journalism, but in this case, it's justified. Everybody knows the source, the title of the song, and the artist who wrote and sang it, but do you know of anyone under 40 who was introduced to it through the radio? Except for those who caught it before the last of the freeform FM stations died out in the Seventies, most folks heard that song originally through friends, at a party, or via a cover version.
Bob Dylan, like many recording artists who are considered both seminal and influential, somehow had no significant representation on the airwaves for nearly two decades -- despite popularity and high record sales. Many others, whether they were too quiet, like Joan Armatrading, or too loud, like the angry young Elvis Costello, struggled for years to get heard on the air, until the late Eighties when somebody somewhere decided that smartening up the plasticized void that radio had become might not only be interesting but actually profitable. And so the now seemingly omnipresent word "alternative" was introduced to the world's musical vocabulary.
First, there was "Alternative Rock" radio, out to rope in a new generation of alienated youth who knew there was more vital music in the world than the likes of Supertramp and Grand Funk Railroad. On the heels of this success came the "Adult Alternative" format, which brought into homes all the acts that slightly older, well-educated and, most importantly, wealthier listeners had previously discovered through public radio, their cutting-edge friends, or at a party -- a party not quite as wild as the one where they had first found out that "Everybody must get stoned." Austin, Texas, home of executives with ponytails and accountants who play a little guitar on the side was, needless to say, one of the most likely cities in the U.S. to expect an "Adult Alternative" success story. And so along came KGSR-FM.
Appearing in homes and cars among the usual sea of oldies, country, and swaggering, once-relevant rockers parading the airwaves, KGSR appeared on December 1, 1990 at 107.1 on the FM dial. They began by slowly easing names like John Hiatt, King Crimson, and local acts like Joe Ely and Two Nice Girls onto a playlist of what was then a sagging, new-age jazz station called Star 107. Soon enough, though, the sappy instrumentals were dropped altogether, and an emphasis was placed on singer-songwriters and fresh, if not overly loud, rock-oriented acts like Los Lobos. Some blues and whatnot were tossed in, as well. "Hits" were ditched in favor of album cuts, and great effort was made to contrast the increasingly preprogrammed nature of radio with a mood that felt specifically Austin. The mix clicked, as it began to do in other cities across the country, and "Triple-A" (Adult Album Alternative) radio became an entity to be reckoned with.
Five years down the line, Triple A radio has changed a great deal. The humongous success of "alternative rock" has, for all intents and purposes, made that music mainstream, and to top that off, the once-clear line between "Rock Alternative" and "Triple A" has blurred substantially. Supposedly Adult-geared stations are now programming loud "alternative" rock staples like the Goo Goo Dolls, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and even Pearl Jam between the quieter tunes of Van Morrison and John Wesley Harding. Industry magazines like Billboard are reporting more and more excision of singer-songwriters and roots music from Triple-A playlists. As always seems to happen in the music world, the unique is being softened and genericized.
Fortunately for the pony-tailed execs and accountants, KGSR has not yet been swept into that whirlpool. The station is currently celebrating its fifth anniversary (if you don't have a ticket yet for tonight's [Friday, December 1] exclusive concert at KLRU studios featuring Los Lobos, Shawn Colvin, and Sonny Landreth, I'd say you're out of luck) and releasing the third volume of its annual Broadcasts series, a CD collection of regularly played artists recorded live at the station. Program Director Jody Denberg takes pride in still being able to call the station "eclectic." He says the station has evolved over the years, mostly in the area of being more focused: "If you tune in for any given 15-minute period, you get a flavor of what we do." Any seeming loss of originality over the station's first five years reflects as much "a difference in the [radio] environment as much as in what we do." Artists like Sheryl Crow and Counting Crows who once were the exclusive domain of the Triple A's are now played "across the board," and so a visit to the 107.1 frequency no longer brings the shock of the new that it once did. "When KGSR started," notes Denberg, "there was no KNACK, no 101X, no KOOP, no KVRX... and KLBJ was still playing a slew of Def Leppard."
Despite good numbers, however, when the station was bought six months ago by Sinclair Communications (who at the same time introduced the new Rock Alternative station 101X) there was some trepidation at KGSR that the station might be turned into one of the "Alterna-lites," as the new hybrid stations are being called. After all, the staff "still likes some Buddy Guy along with our Blues Traveler," says Denberg. Their fears were assuaged as soon as new owner Bob Sinclair first visited the station -- wearing jeans and smiling. The fact that Sinclair's company (which already owned four stations of various formats outside of Texas) was starting up 101X also helped ease the minds at KGSR; "The last thing he wants us to do is become a watered-down version of what they're doing [at 101X]," Denberg points out. After all, competing with one's own enterprise doesn't make a whole lot of business sense. Sinclair concurs, and offers that the alternative stations that remain the most successful are those that are "sort of unique to their markets. There's no other station like [KGSR] in the U.S.A.," he says. "It's perfect for Austin -- and it works for me."
So where will things go from here? Well, in the world of radio, even when the playlists are stagnant, the battle for the advertising dollar never is. As 1995 draws to a close, then, enter KAJZ-FM, a new station from the KLBJ empire that has just taken over the 93.3 FM spot, replacing a Hits of the Seventies station. Program Director Jeff Carrol admits that the audience which KAJZ is seeking is largely the same one targeted by KGSR; "25-44 age group, with a 50/50 split of male and female."
Yet, rather than attempting to go head to head with KGSR playlist-wise, the new station is hoping to pick up the jazz fans that KGSR left behind with a relatively new format called "New Adult Contemporary" or "Smooth Jazz," which avoids New Age, but doesn't hit the jumping jive end of the spectrum, either, concentrating on contemporary jazz acts like Chuck Mangione and Earl Klugh. One thing the two stations do share is the idea that to be successful, they must have a uniquely Austin flavor. Carrol points to the fact that there are a "lot of talented jazz musicians" in Austin whose work the new format plans to spotlight, and that while the radio market here has certainly blossomed far beyond the limited choices it offered five years ago, most of the advances have "focused on the rock side."
Is Austin ready for Smooth Jazz? Will KGSR be able to remain competitive without giving in to the Alterna-lite trend? Will Classic Rock stations eventually go the way of the, er, dinosaur? As always is the case with radio, the answer is blowing in the wind. n