It’s not always possible to determine the true origin of a radio format. Many start with multiple stations trying variations on a theme until the ether coalesces into something tangible. Others, like Sports Talk, (which we wrote about in a previous edition of Radio’s Most Innovative) have a crystal clear starting point. Alternative – the format formerly known as Modern Rock – falls into the latter category.
The roots of the format can be traced back to one person: Rick Carroll who took over programming KROQ in 1979 and tapped into a new, underground movement that was taking over clubs in Los Angeles. He recognized that artists like the Cure, Depeche Mode, R.E.M. and U2 had a lot of fans but no home on FM radio.
The format would become known as “Rock of the 80’s” and take root primarily on the West Coast, followed by a few outlets in markets where stations start with the letter “W.” In the early ‘90s, the format spread across the country, fueled by the spread of Grunge music. Unfortunately, Carroll passed away in 1989 before getting the chance to see the widespread adoption of the Alternative seed he planted.
Carroll was truly an innovative thinker and a radio pioneer. To glean more insights about the format’s beginnings and Carroll’s contributions, we turned to one of the early disciples, Max Tolkoff, better known as “Mad Max,” PD and air personality of “Rock of the 80’s” first affiliate, 91X in San Diego.
JM: Talk about the influence of Rick Carroll, his vision for Modern Rock, and what it was like to work with him.
MT: When Rick took over KROQ at the tail end of the 70’s, he was simply looking for a way to differentiate the station from the rest of L.A. radio. On the rock side, KMET and KLOS were battling each other to the bottom of the ratings barrel, while CHR was limping along, not really setting the world on fire.
In an effort to find a USP – or Unique Selling Proposition – for KROQ, Rick started to target music that no one else was playing in L.A. Rick’s inner voice was saying, “Look at all these songs that COULD BE hits, but no one else is touching them.”
And to Rick it was all about the SONG. He wasn’t concerned about the career arc of bands (otherwise known as artist development). If they had a career, great; but if all we got out of them was one good song, that was fine, too.
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Rick really saw KROQ as a prototype of a new version of CHR in L.A. He combined new music no one had heard before with the mechanics of Top 40. It was a crazy experiment that attracted a wacky staff of intense music heads who hoped the gambit would pay off, but were prepared for disaster. What happened next, of course, is the stuff of legend. Fame, fortune, ratings. And then consulting.
91X in San Diego was Rick’s first client as a consultant. He kept his job at KROQ, but started a consultancy called Carroll, Swartz, and Groves, believing that this new approach to radio had potential beyond L.A. Rick was a blast to work with, but he was more of a big picture guy. When it came to the nuts and bolts, he was a hot mess. Rick handled the day to day programming of 91X from L.A., and we used to get the “music wheels” sometimes minutes before the start of an airshift.
JM: What was the initial reaction to the idea of a station focused on this music that at the time, was mostly unheard of?
MT: In L.A., the response was positive, but not immediate. It took almost a year before KROQ was a household name among the core. In San Diego, the reaction was instantaneous and explosive. We changed formats almost three weeks into the 1983 Winter book and still jumped from a 3.9 to a 6.1. 91X went from the third rock station out of three to the talk of the town. A mere three tenths of a point separated us from the reigning king of rock, KGB.
JM: When the format rolled out in other markets, was the success as quick and powerful?
MT: Oddly, success was not immediate in San Francisco and Philadelphia, the two other markets where Rick signed consulting deals, but this was chalked up to less-than-stellar execution of the format.
JM: Were there indicators this music was becoming popular and that other programmers were missing its appeal?
MT: Absolutely. It was clear almost right away that bands like the Cure, Depeche Mode, and others had huge “underground” followings. These artists were selling large amounts of concert tickets and albums, not just overseas, but in the U.S. as well. All that was missing was airplay.
JM: What were the biggest obstacles the format had to overcome?
MT: The perception that it was all crazy punk or annoying dance music. That the only people that listened to KROQ or 91X, or Live 105, or WHFS, or WLIR had Mohawks or purple hair. Also, in the early years, sales departments had a hard time explaining the format to national advertisers.
JM: What were some of the early promotions and activities stations did that you just wouldn’t hear anywhere else?
MT: At 91X, we once gave away a six pack of Yugos. We also did a contest called “Expose the X,” where people were encouraged to send us visual evidence of their efforts to put the 91X logo in front of as many people as possible. Most of the other stations at the time also participated in on-air fundraising and radiothons around the “We Are The World” project.
JM: What role did local music have on the station?
MT: A huge role. It was acknowledged that many new bands were starting to happen in Southern California. Local music was not just appearing on weekend specialty shows, it took up key slots in regular rotation.
JM: What artists did the original Modern Rock stations play that might surprise people?
MT: Tom Petty, Michael Jackson, Madonna.
JM: It wasn’t just the music that was different. How were the jocks and the sound of the station different from what was on the radio at the time?
MT: Rick Carroll was very insistent that the on-air delivery be up and energetic. Not to the level of traditional CHR bombasticness, but close. All the jocks were encouraged to reimage themselves as entertaining on-air curators of the new sound. KROQ jocks had names like Freddie Snakeskin and Sam Freeze and Poorman. And the jocks were encouraged to use “drops” in between songs. There were also hourly “jock choice” picks for music.
JM: Was it a music format, a lifestyle format, or both?
MT: Both. If you were into this music, you also generally lived a somewhat different lifestyle. Although, it was soon discovered, fans of the new format came in all shapes and sizes and tastes. It wasn’t just college kids. It was kids in high school, as well as Gen X-ers just hitting the workforce and corporate types in shirts and ties.
JM: There had to be people who were critical of the idea. What did they say at the time?
MT: Many people thought these stations were just a novelty, a flash in the pan. Lots of people predicted that many, if not all, of those practicing the format would flip to something else within 18 months, or sooner.
Before 91X flipped to the format, the GM had commissioned two separate research projects to find a format hole for the station. Both concluded that the “new music” approach would never work in San Diego.
JM: With technology today, can you imagine another radio format growing out an underground movement like “Rock of the ‘80s” did?
MT: Yes. If you are awake and paying attention in this industry, you know that everything is cyclical. Format popularity goes up and down continuously. Generally, whoever is the source of great music wins.
At the moment, it’s a little surprising that no one has taken a shot at a viable EDM radio format. Given the current popularity of DJs, raves, and incredible music sales, one would think this is a great “alternative” to everything else out there.
JM: What is your favorite memory of the early days of the format?
MT: In San Diego, there was so much excitement in the air after we switched formats in 1983. It was an incredible feeling going around town and hearing the station on in nearly every small store and restaurant. I didn’t need to monitor 91X in just my car. You could hear it everywhere. It was a broadcaster’s wet dream.
JM: What’s your best advice to someone with a new format idea?
MT: Condense your idea to a succinct two minute pitch. Then try to get to the decision maker. That person is likely to be the GM or market manager. They are the real gate keepers. They are the only ones who have the power of life and death over formats. If you can convince that person you have a ratings winner, followed by huge increases in revenue, you can get a new format on the air.
Thanks to Mike Stern for writing this week’s RMI.
INNOVATION QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Technology is huge; I wanted to learn about it. People might say that’s odd, but I think it’s odd if artists aren’t interested in the world around them. I’m always chasing that.
More of Radio’s Most Innovative
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- Radio’s Most SKINnovative: Jim McBride
- Radio’s Most Innovative: Radioplayer
- Radio’s Most Innovative: Mediabase/Rich Meyer
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