Houston commercial rock radio has always been a wasteland, a badlands of tired music and dead trends. And it seems that the people of Houston know it. The Buzz -- our so-called alternative station (though it's now as mainstream, and intelligent, as Jessica Simpson) is the highest-rated rock station in town, which is all well and good, until you take a close look at the Arbitron ratings book. There, you'll find that the Buzz is tied -- with smooth jazz seephole the Wave, no less -- for ninth overall. KLOL -- the alternative to the alternative, as it were -- fares much worse. It's all the way down at No. 20, tied with the Point, an '80s station that might lead you to believe that absolutely nothing but crap was recorded in the whole decade.
Neither the Buzz nor KLOL has much of an identity these days. Broadly speaking, the Buzz is for tools with goatees and the women who love them; KLOL is for tools with mullets and the strippers who fleece them. (And the goatee is the new mullet, for what that's worth.) If you sell ads for one of those stations, you need look no further than the booze industry. That's all the guys -- and it is mainly guys -- who listen to those stations buy; well, that and drugs, and you can't exactly sell an ad package to the dope man. And a good chunk of what's left in the pockets of Buzz and KLOL listeners after they've bought all their drugs and liquor ends up in some stripper's thong, who then spends some of it on drugs for herself, and takes the rest to her boyfriend, who blows it on drugs and booze because he's just like the guys she "entertains," only worse, because he's jealous that his girl is cavorting naked in a room full of drooling, lust-crazed tools every night. Or maybe it all ends up in some other stripper's thong across town, 'cause he's one of those dawgs you see on Ricki Lake. Either way, the money winds up in one of two places: fattening the bottom line at Big Liquor Inc., or lining the pockets of Juan Valdez's naughty hermano up in the Colombian hills. And as our fair and balanced government has told us, Al Qaeda has some kind of profit-sharing scheme with him, so there you have it: Listening to the Buzz and KLOL helps the terrorists win.
And over the past few years, Clear Channel Radio, the entertainment monolith that owns both stations, has taken notice of the declining ratings, if not the patriotic angle. You'd think they'd fool with the playlists some -- but that's why you're not a radio honcho with a corner office in a tall building. Yep, that's why you don't have an executive putting green, 'cause if you did, what you'd do instead is fire the disc jockeys. Evidently, their research has told them that people want more fart and dick jokes and less good music, 'cause that's pretty much what they've done recently over at the Buzz, and a few years ago at KLOL.
"Pardon me while I puke," says "Houston Hawk," a prominent local radio personality who requested anonymity. (Mr. Hawk's writings on Houston radio can be found at www.radiodailynews.com/houstonhawk.htm). "My main complaint with [the Buzz] is the disc jockeys and the dialogue and the high jinks that they are doing now on there are not a whole lot different than what they are doing on KLOL. And KLOL is not in the best shape either, so all I see is the Buzz dividing more of their own audience."
Exactly. The Buzz has a related problem -- namely, that it's trying to play too many mutually exclusive styles of music at the same time. Racket can't claim to speak for every 19-year-old rock fan, but it's hard to imagine that the average fan of say, the Darkness, would have a soft spot in his heart for a band like Puddle of Mudd, whose members look like the kind of dudes who used to beat them up in high school.
The reverse is also true. "People who listen to nü-metal don't listen to anything else," says Press contributor and Hands Up Houston booking collective founder Lance Walker, who adds that he finds the KLOL morning shows offensive and sexist. "The horrible thing about nü-metal is that it just goes in a big horrible uninspiring circle. Guys wearing their bass guitars down around their knees -- it just doesn't expand on anything. Therefore nobody wants to learn anything new, nobody pushes anybody in any new directions, it's all the same, it's all on ten, everything's as loud as it could possibly be, they're always screaming as loud as they can."
As the Darkness and dozens of other young and hip bands have reminded us in the last couple of years, what's old is new again. Look at the rock bands making waves with the cool kids, and even a bunch of thirtysomethings, these days -- the White Stripes, Jet, the Datsuns, the Kings of Leon, the Hives. Though the media, including this member of it, has branded them all "neo-garage" rock or some such, it's pretty much a bullshit tag. It's just plain old classic rock, albeit new classic rock songs played with the piss and vinegar of youth.
But you sure as hell aren't gonna hear the Darkness on local classic rock outlet the Arrow. According to Arrow program director Vince Richards, people tune in to classic rock to hear the same old same old, so these bands are stuck with the Buzz, where they compete for space with bands like Staind, Trapt and Linkin Park.
Given all of that, it would seem that radio's ripe for a new format, a nationwide sea change. Here's a blueprint: Take all the so-called garage bands, throw in some cool classic rock, and throw it all together with softer-edged stuff from the likes of Norah Jones, U2, Radiohead and Coldplay. Toss in some of the early punk and proto-punk stuff by Motörhead, the Clash, the Jam, Iggy and the Stooges and the Ramones, and the '80s stuff that the Point mostly shuns -- stuff like the Violent Femmes, the Pixies and the Replacements. Then there's hip-hop -- today's teenagers can't remember a world without it, so there's no built-in resistance to it, and nobody on the commercial rock dial is playing 1980s floor-fillers like Eric B. and Rakim's "Seven Minutes of Madness" remix of "Paid in Full," or De La Soul's "Me Myself and I," or the quirky John Lydon/Afrika Bambaataa collabo "World Destruction." You could throw in the edgier, backpacker-friendly mainstream stuff of today as well -- OutKast, Black Eyed Peas, the Roots. Give it a name like Rock Revolution or something like that, and as the Brits say, Bob's your uncle and Fanny's your aunt.
Imagine Jack and Meg's "Seven Nation Army" followed by Zep's "Fool in the Rain" followed by the Clash's "London Calling" followed by Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl" followed by Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," and tell me that formula's not a winner. You want a Mix? We got your Mix hangin' low, buddy. A station like that would rob tons of listeners from the Buzz, KLOL and the Arrow, as well as a few who tune in to old-school hip-hop shows on the rap stations and the people who never let their radio tuner stray to the right of KTRU. Who knows, it might even win back a few people who've turned the radio off and ripped off the knob -- the CDs- and iPods-only crowd, a multitude that grows more numerous with each passing day.
As it happens, a station sort of like that already exists, albeit in Southern California. In Santa Monica, a struggling dance station was flipped to a format much like the one Racket just described (and thought he dreamed up). Although the station stuck pretty much exclusively to vintage punk and new wave in the early weeks, according to the Indie 103.1 Web site, they're currently spinning Bright Eyes, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Atmosphere, Jet, Interpol, Iggy Pop and Polyphonic Spree. An LA Weekly scribe reported hearing X's "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline" segue into XTC's "Senses Working Overtime."
"It sounds like an Americanized version of Virgin Radio UK," enthuses Walker. "Obviously it's coming from a way different angle over there, but still they're playing older stuff, then semi-pretty popular stuff like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay, but then they'll hit you with the Coral and other stuff that's not big yet but may be working its way up."
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Could Houston get a station like that? Maybe, or at least a dumbed-down, vintage punk and alternative new wave version. Hawk predicts that there will soon be one like that a couple of hundred miles up I-45. "I would be so bold as to say that format is about to be on the radio in Dallas here in the next couple of weeks," says Hawk. "I've heard there's a struggling rock station up there that's gonna try that."
This format even has a name -- "alternative gold," though some have suggested the nicely oxymoronic "modern oldies" as another option. Whatever the name, it's a sexy new idea in commercial radio -- and that Santa Monica station, though owned by a Hispanic broadcasting company, has an exclusive ad sales agreement with Clear Channel. Clear Channel or no, Hawk remains unseduced by the format, at least as far as a "classics-only" entity. "The fact of the matter is, man, you're really splitting hairs with this format," he says. "If the alternative station is not a top ten, what makes you think the old alternative is gonna be any better?"
Well, it would certainly create quite a clamor for a couple of months, much as the Texas-fried version of KIKK did. More recently, so did the Country Oldies format on KTHT. In both cases, though, ratings collapsed after about three months. KIKK is now off the air, and Country Oldies has slipped from the top of the country heap to a tie at the bottom. "With anything new, there's gonna be a huge sampling," says Hawk. "People love to try something new. But then they'll determine after two or three months, 'Hey, this isn't the format for me.' But what happens is when radio stations get that [initial] oversampling, when everybody's listening to them, they do get a ratings bump. And what happens is then everyone goes, 'It's a hit format! Let's try it in our market!' They've done very little research, they've gone completely on gut, they've thrown the Roger Staubach Hail Mary on this format, and then they find that they are probably in worse shape than they were before they blew the damn thing up."
In both cases, playing better music, or a wider variety of stuff, could have forestalled the slides. If an alternative gold station were to come in here, and then stick to a playlist of "Blister in the Sun," "Fight for Your Right to Party" and "Blitzkrieg Bop," KIKK's fate would await. But if it mixed that with the Shins, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Strokes on the one hand, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Traffic on the other, and Dizzee Rascal, Big Daddy Kane and NWA on the third, and Joss Stone and Norah Jones on the fourth, it might just turn rock radio upside down. With four hands, how could it not?