THIS IS A Hootie-free zone," the sign in the studio at KFMA-FM 92.1, proclaims. It's also a Whitney-free zone, a Mariah-free zone and definitely a .38 Special-free zone.
It's an altogether alternative zone at Tucson radio stations KKND-AM 1490, and KFMA, which are playing a form of music known by several labels, including "modern rock" and "progressive rock," but more commonly referred to as "alternative rock."
It's an alternative to other kinds of music on your radio dial. It has strong roots in rock, featuring a diverse collection of artists, from the universally known (U2, R.E.M., Pearl Jam and Nirvana) to the well-known (Green Day, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden) to the lesser-known (Tripping Daisy, Garbage, Belly) to the more obscure (Doo Rag, Negativland, Marilyn Manson).
"This is the now and happening thing," says Chris Patyk, formerly program director and on-air personality for KKND, also known as "The End" for its position near the right end of the AM dial. "It's become incredibly mainstream because so much of it has mass appeal. The Gin Blossoms, Better Than Ezra, groups like that, they're just basic rock and roll," says Patyk, who resigned from KKND in February to go work at a Phoenix alternative station. "They're nothing too weird in some people's eyes."
Despite Alternative Rock's current popularity, the end of "The End" is coming soon. The station is switching to a sports-talk format on March 18, because it lost its niche as the only 24-hour alternative station in Tucson when KFMA went on the air. (See related story.)
Meanwhile, Suzie Dunn, KFMA music director and program director, and Larry "Lars" Miles, operations manager of KFMA and its sister stations KLPX-FM 96.1 (rock) and KTKT-AM 990 (news), agree alternative rock is today's mainstream.
Although Dunn calls the label "a thorn in the side of people in the industry" and Patyk calls it "a silly moniker," both agree people have to call the genre something, and that name seems to be most widely recognized.
"Nobody labels music the way the music industry does, and radio is guilty of it, too," Dunn says. "I've made my peace with it, kind of. Listeners don't do that. The 'alternative' thing is just a word. I'm just trying to play the best, coolest new music I can find."
Where does it come from?
"In the mid '70s, a new sound was born. In its formative years, it was known as 'new wave.' As its popularity grew and more commercial radio stations saw the format's potential, 'new wave' grew into 'modern rock,' '' according to a KKND advertisement.
The new sounds of the '70s spawned from artists such as Lou Reed's The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, and David Bowie, who were part of the "proto-punk era" from 1963 to 1972, according to Alan Cross' The Alternative Music Almanac. This era also included the birth of "glam" or "glitter" rock bands "which specialized in loud pop music with simple melodies enhanced by wild costumes, lots of makeup and elaborate theatrics," according to Cross. Bowie and his Ziggy Stardust character became the most famous and enduring inventions of that era.
Bowie, who released such megahits as "Changes," "Suffragette City" and "Jean Genie" in 1972, "Rebel, Rebel" in 1974, and in 1975 "Young Americans," "Golden Years," and "Fame," has said he was heavily influenced by Reed. Bowie's success continued through the '80s and into the '90s, punctuated by a concert tour with Nine Inch Nails last fall. At first it seemed like a strange pairing because of NIN's raw, hard-edged, angst-ridden lyrics and younger following, but the highlight of their Phoenix show was the awe-inspiring handful of songs Bowie and his band performed with Trent Reznor and the rest of NIN.
In 1974, during the "pre-punk era" from 1972 to 1975, a band called Television began playing on Sunday nights in a Manhattan dive bar called CBGB's, which stood for "country, bluegrass and blues," the type of music to which the bar originally catered. But Television's music was so popular, CBGB's became a "rock only" club and began to seek out new talent, including Patti Smith, who that year released an independent 7-inch record ("Hey Joe" backed with "Piss Factory") which Cross says many consider to be the first punk single.
In August 1974, The Ramones played their first gig at CBGB's. "No one had ever seen anything like these four guys from Queens. The leather jackets and hoodlum image caused some people to describe them as 'punks, ' '' according to Cross. Their songs were short, simple and very fast, unlike the traditional rock being played at the time.
The Ramones' self-titled debut album would go on to be rated the No. 1 alternative record of all time by Spin magazine, and CBGB's would become a Mecca for alternative music fans.
Meanwhile, in Britain in 1975, the Sex Pistols played their first gig on November 6 at St. Martin's Art School. After about three songs, an outraged school official stopped the show. A year later, everyone was talking about the Sex Pistols and "punk" rock.
In 1976, "the year punk broke," the Sex Pistols' popularity was high and the Ramones released their debut album. That summer, the Ramones went on tour in the United Kingdom, a move which "helped unite all the unorganized elements that were trying to come together as a new music scene. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols became catalysts in this musical chemistry and literally hundreds of new bands were formed that summer," Cross says.
Another type of music which branched off of punk was called "new wave," a "stripped-down pop music that had the trappings and occasionally the appearance of punk without the anger. And since this term was an American invention, the first groups to be tagged as new wave were American: Blondie, Talking Heads, The Cars, Devo," Cross says.
The alternative sound fragmented even further in the '80s with bands such as Joy Division (which became New Order), Pretenders, X, The Cure, The Smiths, The Police, Boy George and Culture Club, Thompson Twins, the Go-Go's, Depeche Mode, R.E.M. and U2--each with its own unique sound ranging from rock to techno-rock to synth-pop.
But it was Nirvana's 1991 Nevermind record that "changed things forever. Nirvana was the first rock band in a long time that meant something. It was substance over image--and Nevermind became the first album to galvanize the new post-Baby Boomer generation of music fans. To the record companies, it was a sign this was the music of the future," Cross says. Sales estimates for Nevermind vary, but range from eight million copies to more than 10 million.
Of alternative's move further into the forefront of today's popular music, Spyder Rhodes, a veteran DJ at Club Congress who's also on the air mid-days on KFMA, says, "I'm really torn about this subject. The selfish side of me felt kind of ripped off when this alternative market came forward. It kind of broke my heart.
"I always tried to be a voice for underground music. The other side of me says this is the best thing that could've happened. Now new bands are getting signed. The industry has a more open mind."
But "there will always be an underground, no matter how popular this alternative format gets. Kids are going way further into the underground," says Rhodes.
THE MOVE TO alternative represented a format change for both KKND and KFMA. KKND was formerly known as "Power 1490" and had a rap/urban format. KFMA used to be "The Echo," with an eclectic mix of rock and blues. All say listener response to the change has been far more positive than negative.
Laury Browning, general manager of KKND and its sister stations, says she was looking for a format to attract listeners a little older than Power 1490's predominantly teen to early 20s audience. Older listeners are coveted by advertisers because of their higher discretionary income.
Market research commissioned by the station's ownership revealed alternative rock's growing popularity. And because at the time it wasn't being offered as a radio format in Tucson, Browning says, "We went for it!"
Arizona Lotus Corporation, the owner of KFMA, also conducted market research before changing The Echo's format, and was looking for a sound that would increase its market share and revenues.
Research showed there was a "huge need" for a station exclusively playing Alternative Rock, says Tony Schavietello, former general manager of KFMA and its sister stations. Schavietello recently was transferred to a Lotus property in Nevada.
KLPX had been combining rock and alternative rock, born out of Dunn's immensely popular Sunday night show, "The New Music Test Department," now in its ninth year on the air.
Last year, KLPX had its two best ratings books in the station's history, Schavietello says, and Dunn was nominated by Billboard magazine as "music director of the year" for her efforts in blending the two types of music.
But "it had to be split one way or the other," Miles says, and listeners clearly were responding to the alternative songs.
"This is the train you've got to be on now. You adapt to these things. We're on something that's moving," says Schavietello.
"The only constant in radio is change," adds Miles.
KFMA went on the air in October, and management is hoping to improve its signal, which is licensed for Green Valley. The transmitter for the 50,000-watt station is located near the Pima County Fairgrounds, and although the signal is powerful in Green Valley, it has trouble competing with FM stations licensed in Tucson, some of which have 100,000 watts.
The KFMA studio, housed with its sister stations and offices at 1920 W. Copper Place, reflects the station's format and the personalities of its DJs. Tiny white lights, commonly used on Christmas trees, illuminate the studio, because staffers dislike the bright overhead lights. There's a shrine to Big Boy Restaurants complete with a plastic Big Boy doll surrounded by candles, as well as Looney Toons character figurines and, of course, autographed posters of alternative bands.
"Suzie (Dunn) was a big part in this. We had in Suzie a nationally recognized talent. She was the right person to program the station," Schavietello says.
"We did not seek an outside consultant because of Suzie," adds Miles.
Still, listeners may hear some artists, such as Soundgarden and White Zombie, on both KFMA and KLPX. Some songs will debut on alternative stations and then cross over to other formats, such as Top 40, and rock stations.
"Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots can move over to KLPX as needed. They can become part of the mix of the 'heritage rock' station," Miles says. KLPX will continue to play new rock as well as classic rock, but distinctively alternative artists will be played on KFMA, unless they cross over.
"A great rock song is still a great rock song. If it's a great tune, it's a great tune," Schavietello says.
But don't try to stereotype or put a label on people who listen to alternative rock.
"People get the impression about this format that I've gotta dress a certain way, or I have to behave a certain way, or I have to look a certain way, I have to be a certain race to appreciate that. That's so ridiculous. It shouldn't be that way with any sort of music. It's music. People should enjoy it," Patyk says.
Patyk and Dunn say alternative listeners range from pre-teens to people in their 40s.
"Most people form their musical tastes from ages 13 to 20," Miles says. People who are now 25 to 30 years old grew up listening to A Flock Of Seagulls and Missing Persons, and are perfect for KFMA, while people who are now 30 to 35 grew up listening to Foreigner, Heart and Journey, and can tune into KLPX for those artists, he adds.
A lot of people now in their 30s grew up "musically adventurous" in their teens and 20s, Dunn says. "Chances are they still are.
"I don't want to lose the hard edge of the station (KFMA), but at the same time, I don't want to be hard all the time. We're not just programming the Green Day, Rancid--we're playing Natalie Merchant. The trick is how you put them together with bands that bridge that," she says of her programming philosophy.
The KFMA programming lineup Monday through Friday includes: Chad's Pad from 6 to 10 a.m.; Spyder Rhodes from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., including the all-request retro show "Eat Your Eighties" from noon to 1 p.m.; Suzie Dunn from 2 to 6 p.m.; and Chuck Roast from 6 to 11 p.m. Special features include "Love Line" from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, a show about love and such via satellite from Los Angeles' KROQ-FM alternative station, where callers in L.A. and Tucson can phone in and discuss relevant topics; and "Another Rotten Day," former Sex Pistols bad boy Johnny Rotten's interpretation of that day in alternative music history, which airs at 9 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. weekdays.
The "Test Department" and the "Reggae Connection" air on Sunday evenings. "We're looking for other special programming. Maybe a local music show," says Dunn, adding local bands are already being played in the regular format.
Dunn says upscale Daniel's Restaurant in St. Philip's Plaza took a chance on a KFMA happy hour promotion two Friday afternoons in October and had good results. The promotion was originally to be with "The Echo," says Linda C. Diana, general sales manager for the three sister stations.
"The client had the courage to give it a try. The stereotypes aren't true. People who were originally stereotyped are now making business decisions," Dunn says.
"The categorizing comes from people who aren't in the categories. The statistics show the money is in these (demographics)," Schavietello says.
National statistics indicate 65.4 percent of alternative's listeners are between the ages of 18 and 34, while 34.3 percent are 25 to 34 years old, and 21.6 percent are in the 12 to 17 age group. Alternative appeals slightly more to men, who make up 57 percent of the audience, while women comprise 43 percent.
KFMA and KKND are each attracting a variety of advertisers, and sales managers for the stations say entertainment-oriented businesses--such as record, video and stereo equipment stores, restaurants and nightclubs--make up the largest segment of advertisers. In addition, banks, car dealerships, grocery and department stores, and beer and soft drink makers are on the air.
Alternative has become so mainstream, Diana says, Nike and Taco Bell have been using the music in their television and radio commercials and alternative bands are featured on late-night TV Talk Shows.
Club Congress, located inside the Hotel Congress at 311 E. Congress St., advertises on both KFMA and KKND, and bar manager Alex Skelton says he "most definitely" has seen a positive impact on business. Since KKND began sponsoring '80s night on Thursdays, including a live remote broadcast every other week, the number of people coming to the club has doubled, and now totals 600 or more on average, Skelton says. Club Congress features dance music and live bands, and Rhodes spins at the club on Thursday and Saturday nights.
It's easier for Club Congress to book bands when they're being played on the radio, Skelton says. "I think it's long overdue (for Tucson to have alternative radio)," he adds.
Dick Plowman, owner of Outrageous/Fineline, Tucson's original alternative bar and dance club at 101 W. Drachman St., says, "I'm in love with the two radio stations. They're just great." He says business "is better than it has been in a long time" since he started advertising on the stations. The Fineline dance club is open to people at least 18 years old, but you must be at least 21 to enter their aptly named Outrageous Bar.
Dan Vinik, director of entertainment at Hotel Congress, says, "It's nice to have a closer relationship with the radio stations." But he says he'd like the stations to be "more in-your-face. They're hard-working people and I know they have constraints. I understand what those constraints are." Nevertheless he'd like to hear more variety and more "cutting-edge" music.
The overall response, Dunn says, "has been overwhelmingly positive. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop. It's like we've opened up a buffet and people are saying, 'Yeah, let's chow down on this.' "
Dunn says her goals are to expose listeners to "the best new music" and to get the station more involved in the community and in interacting with listeners. "We're only three months old. We're a work in progress. By no means do I think there won't be changes."
THE NICHE IS gone and so is "The End" on March 18.
Now that KKND-AM 1490 no longer has the alternative-rock format exclusively, with the debut of KFMA-FM 92.1, station management at KKND says it's changing the format to 24-hour sports- talk.
KKND was the sole provider of 'round-the-clock alternative rock in Tucson from its June debut until October, when KFMA went on the air.
"On an AM station, it's nice to have a niche-type format," says Laury Browning, general manager of KKND and its two FM sister stations.
The change means the two on-air personalities left on KKND will be out of work as of March 18, unless a place can be found for them on the company's sister stations--adult contemporary KMXZ-FM 94.9, or on KKHG-FM 104.1, which plays classic rock, Browning says.
"I'm very, very sorry about the personnel changes that are going to take place," Browning says, adding no new employees will be hired as a result of the format change.
Chris "Curly" Patyk, who was the program director and the morning on-air personality for KKND, already has a new job in Phoenix as assistant program director/music director for alternative rock stations KEDJ-FM 106.3, and KHOT-FM 100.3, a dual FM simulcast. Both Phoenix stations are known as "The Edge." Because the tower location for KHOT is in Globe, it also can be heard in Tucson. Patyk started his job February 22.
The change likely means "I'll be unemployed," says Laura K. Smith, KKND music director and on-air personality, although she might be able to work for KKHG. Smith moved to Tucson from Phoenix specifically to take the job at KKND. She worked in radio in Phoenix and also attended Arizona State University, where she majored in religious studies. She says the job at KKND was her first full-time "real job" and if she's unable to find another one, she may go back to school to finish her degree.
Gary Sandorf, known as "Ted Stryker" on KKND, says the change "kind of feels like a stab in the back" after all the hard work he and his co-workers have put in at the station. "It's more frustrating than anything to me...when you know in your heart that what you've done is good, and just like that--it's gone."
Sandorf says he was offered a job in Las Vegas two months ago, but turned it down because he was happy at "The End." "I'm kind of scrambling for something right now," he says, adding he's being considered for jobs at two California radio stations.
KKND and its sister stations were purchased by the Journal Broadcast Group, Inc., and Smith says "it was their plan all along" to change the format to sports-talk.
Rumors of the format change had been circulating in Tucson's advertising and radio communities for months.
The new station will be called "The Fan" and its call letters will be changed to KFFN, Browning says. Its programming will come from a national sports network and also will feature syndicated talk show hosts.
Browning says she believes there's room in Tucson for another FM alternative station. If the Journal Broadcast Group were to purchase another FM frequency in Tucson, alternative is a format that would be considered, she says.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 makes such a purchase possible by relaxing broadcast ownership restrictions. Signed into law February 8, it increases the national audience share that a single owner of broadcast stations can reach, from 25 percent to 35 percent, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Browning predicts this will lead to more ownership changes everywhere.
Smith says, "More power to Suzie (Dunn)" at KFMA, which soon will be Tucson's only local source of alternative tunes on the radio 24 hours a day. "I really hope she succeeds."
There are no plans for a format change at KFMA, says Dunn, who is the station's program and music director, as well as an on-air personality.
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