Around noon on November 12, KLOL spun its last record, which was also its first: "I'm Free" by the Who. The choice was ironic for a couple of reasons. First, KLOL hadn't played a record that good in years, and second, the station hadn't been anything like "free" since Clear Channel bought it. And then it was over -- the station that brought us such iconic images as the silver surfer and the rampaging old-school radio was tossed in the Dumpster of Houston radio history, where it joined the likes of KIKK, which once defined the city's musical aesthetic for the entire world. The latter morphed into smooth-jazz dreck. KLOL's transformation was at least a step forward -- the new Mega 101's mix of Spanish-language hip-hop, merengue, rock en español, reggaetón and dance-pop should make Clear Channel a lot of money. And it's the freshest new format to grace the air here in years, but more on that later.
Still, man, has Houston changed since I was a kid or what? Ratings from ten years ago tell the story -- by then, country already had started to slide toward ratings purgatory. In the January 1995 ratings book, KILT had slid from the top spot to second (toppled by Sunny 99.1, of all things), which was the first time in four years that country had not topped the ratings. Still, Q-Country and KIKK were third and eighth, respectively. Today, the city's two current country stations are lucky to crack the top ten, or even, for that matter, stave off the local classic country outlet.
And then there's rock. Including the oldies and classic stations, there were six rock stations on the dial in 1995. KRBE's new rock was No. 1 in the format and No. 4 overall; KLOL checked in at No. 9 overall and second in the format. And then there were Rocket 107, Z-Rock, the Arrow (which had almost exactly the same ratings then that it has now) and the oldies emporium.
If you looked long enough, you could see the rap and Spanish tsunami welling just below this deceptively placid surface. The Boxx was already in the top six, and there were seven Spanish stations lurking near the bottom of the ratings, led by KQQK and the Selena-fueled Tejano 108.
What a difference a decade makes, both in the nation and here in Houston. Since 1995, wave upon wave of Asian and Hispanic immigrants have arrived. Hip-hop has burst through the dam of racial, political and critical resistance and has, at least in part, lured away a generation of kids of every color from rock, R&B and country.
Meanwhile, the lords of rock and country in New York, Nashville and Los Angeles churned out ten years of mostly inferior product. (Nashville kept trying to clone Garth, until Faith replicants became more fashionable; the rock barons spewed legions of clones of Nirvana, and then Green Day and then Limp Bizkit and Korn.) At the same time, the Internet became ubiquitous, exposing music fans to a wider and wider range of music and atomizing fans into narrower and narrower subgenres of rock and country. Downloading arose and eroded the profits of record companies. Clear Channel, Cox and Infinity (among too few others) bought every radio station in the universe and strictly formatted their new acquisitions. And now XM and Sirius have just begun to chip away at land-locked radio. Before that trend's all over, trad radio will be as much a preserve of the poor and/or isolated as people who have only network TV.
Could the likes of KIKK and KLOL have done anything to ensure their survival in light of all these factors? "Yes," and "probably not," respectively. As for KIKK, their stab at a Texas country format was half-assed and ill conceived. Alongside their Waylon & Willie and Pat & Cory, they played way too much Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Tim McGraw and Shania. They should have spun more Steve Earle, Hank, Guy Clark and Johnny Bush instead. There are quite a few stations in the Hill Country that have thrived after doing just that.
Which leaves us with KLOL. These days, ailing hard rock stations are an admittedly much tougher species to save than even struggling country stations. Once young women of easy virtue abandoned hard rock -- which was along about 1991 or so, for those of you keeping track -- KLOL's days were numbered. Hell, by the time of its demise, even strippers had stopped listening to KLOL. These days, what young chickenhead wants to pole-dance to Velvet Revolver when she can get nasty to "Get Low"?
The first thing they could have done is not fire Stevens and Pruett. The second thing they could have done is widen their playlist a little. I know it's a desperate measure, but they could have thrown in some vintage hair metal to woo some of the nostalgic women, like the one featured in Bowling for Soup's "1985." They could have jumped all over Los Lonely Boys when their record came out instead of championing the stale likes of Tesla. They could have been more of a local presence -- not just played more Houston bands, but also hosted more events and been a heavy presence on the scene, the way they were back in the '70s and '80s.
Man, do those days seem prehistoric now. It used to be that people were just as loyal to their favorite radio station as they were to their sports teams. Every day, you'd see dozens of cars with KLOL, KIKK, or 97 Rock stickers on the windows or bumpers. Those stations defined who you were. They were your lifestyle. If you were a KIKKer, you wore boots, a huge belt buckle and a Stetson, drove a "KIKK-Up truck," drank Lone Star and two-stepped on Saturday night. A 97 Rock sticker meant Saturday found you at 17 Mile Road in Galveston, where you smoked lots of weed, beer-bonged a 12-pack of Bud and puked all over your Trans Am. (And then drove to the Ratt show at Cardi's.) Rock 101 was slightly more uptown. A KLOL person wouldn't puke on his car, and it would probably be a Camaro. And before that, a KLOL sticker could get you in trouble. "Back in the '70s, you could get pulled over for having a KLOL sticker," remembers Press contributor Greg Ellis. "It was a sign of rebellion, not conformity."
Today, the only radio stickers you see are for rap and Hispanic stations and oddities on the dial like KPFT and KTRU. Commercial rock and country radio have lost the Anglo and assimilated Hispanic youth. (I stress that last point because there are probably tens of thousands of local thirtysomething assimilated Hispanics who are extremely pissed by KLOL's format switch.)
One of the radio conglomerates could get these kids back, but only if it were bold enough to spin rock and hip-hop side-by-side. Okay, this is the third time I've said this in the last nine months, but recent events have made me nothing if not more certain that this format will work. Why is their no station here -- or anywhere else, for that matter -- that spins the likes of the Killers, the Faint, Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, Radiohead, U2 and Bright Eyes alongside Eminem, 50 Cent, OutKast, the Roots and Kanye West? One that also played classics like Public Enemy, the Violent Femmes, Eric B. and Rakim, and the Cars? What's so difficult about that? Almost nobody born since the mid-'70s would mind a little straight-up hip-hop (other than the three tracks off Licensed to Ill the Buzz spins) mixed in with their rock, because that's the way they've been jamming their whole lives. It's a demographic now. It's reality. It's who the youth of America is today.
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But no, when it comes to Anglos at least, Clear Channel can see only in black and white. When the company shut down a KLOL-like station in San Jose, California, and flipped it to a Latin format earlier this year, Clear Channel Communications regional vice president Ed Krampf had this to say in the San Jose Mercury News: "The fastest part of the market is Latin. And rock is having trouble. Young white kids are listening to hip-hop, and the other young segment is Hispanic Sometimes you just have to move on.''
Yes, young whites are listening to hip-hop, but that's not all they listen to. Some of those same whites also listen to lots of indie rock, or country, or hard rock. At least in terms of what they listen to, they are neither white nor black but brown.
Which brings us back to the target audience of Mega 101. I've listened to the station for a few hours, and even though my Spanish is barely conversational and by no means up to the task of deciphering the slangy and rapid-fire lyrics of the music, I've enjoyed the station. You'll hear a Ricky Martin remix alongside one with Latin rappers rhyming in Spanish over a Lil Jon track alongside another edgier group rapping over the tracks to "This Is Radio Clash" and "Bust a Move." Molotov mingles with the Kumbia Kings; Paulina Rubio segues into Juanes.
Hell, it's as if you were hearing a Spanish version of the unborn Anglo station I've been harping on about all year. It's a sad comment on either us or them that they don't think the Anglos can take a station like that. To them I say, try us.