Raised on Radio: A Tribute to Stations We Miss
Our pal Annie Zaleski broke the news (to us, anyway) on Twitter this week: Boston’s beloved WFNX is shuffling off the dial, the victim of a sale to radio Death Star ClearChannel. (The deal is technically pending FCC approval, but as we’ve seen over the last quarter century or so, that doesn’t mean much.)
It got us to thinking about the radio stations we’ve loved and lost — because as much as most of us tend to subsist on a self-administered musical diet these days, we grew up on the dial, and we miss the good old days when the voice coming out of the speaker during between-song breaks was one you could trust. Of course, there are still a few brilliant outposts for lonely FM travelers, but we’ve definitely lost more than a few along the way. Here are some of our favorites.
KYUU, 99.7 FM (San Francisco, 1978-88)
After starting out as an AC station, KYUU shifted in the early-to-mid ’80s to a more top 40-focused format — basically an early version of the Hot AC stations you hear today, but with a more interesting playlist and a handful of terrific DJs. The most famous of the bunch was Don Bleu, who parlayed his job at the station into Bay Area celebrity status, eventually going on to host the late ’80s Gong Show revival and some other stuff, but my favorite was Jeff McNeal, whose acerbic sense of humor was perfect for my 12-year-old sensibilities. (McNeal handed out membership cards in his official Stinking Weasel Club, and yes, I had one.) When I think about listening to the radio, it’s those hours spent listening to KYUU that come to mind, which is probably why I get nostalgic whenever I hear DeBarge’s “Who’s Johnny” or the Moody Blues’ “Your Wildest Dreams.” I should probably hate those guys, but damn, they made the Top 40 fun. –Jeff Giles
WHTG, 106.3 FM (Central New Jersey, up until mid-1990s)
Before WHTG, there was “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” and probably “Steppin’ Out,” but that really was it. As a perpetually cash-strapped high school student, my music collecting was staggered and furtive; a dubbed cassette from a friend here, some songs off the radio there, big heaps of records passed up or down from family members, but that which was new (or new-ish) was subject to financial filters. So the evening I found WHTG on the radio dial was like some sort of curtain being drawn back, and it began because they played a full album side from Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp.
They also played a lot of college radio, those bands that the regular stations weren’t interested in (but eventually acquiesced to) like R.E.M., U2, and because they were relative locals, bands like The Smithereens and Dramarama. On Sunday night they ran the Dr. Demento Show, and of course, there were the full album-sides. Another Jackson record, his live release, found them playing two distinct versions of his huge hit, one of them dressed up as an oompah-waltz. On a continuum of things that would never get played on rock radio, this was something that never EVER would get played, and all the more reason why people loved their WHTG.
The ‘90s were a boom time for the station where the underground went downtown. Those Sub Pop records they were playing all along now had cachet. Guitars, and lots of them, were put front and center. On-air talent like Matt Pinfield became on-air personalities for MTV. It was a good time for them, but also a turning point. The station moved from outlier to the focus of our region’s broadcasts, and that meant that advertising and advertiser scrutiny would exert much more influence than ever before. People wanted to have their spots near Nirvana and Pearl Jam, not Mary’s Danish or Dada. What that meant was more Nirvana (and Nirvana soundalikes) and less Dada, no Danish. They played the hell out of Cracker’s “Low” but never revisited Camper Van Beethoven.
In the end, the market will out. People stopped listening when it all started sounding more like everything else. The album-sides were long, long gone. Eventually, the station moved to a regular rock format, then a country format, then a Jack iPod shuffle format. Last time I heard the station, they suspended regular broadcasts in November, committing everything to Christmas music, the big new “growth market” apparently.
And that’s what truly bled WHTZ, Or G-106.3, or G Rock (or whatever the hell they’re calling themselves). They learned to care about what paid rather than getting paid for playing music they cared about. That may not be the reality of the radio biz these days, but that’s also the reality of why I don’t bother to listen anymore.– Dw. Dunphy
WCKG, 105.9 (“Chicago’s Classic Rock,” 1990-1996 approx)
They say history is written by the victors, and nowhere is that more true than in radio, where call signs and formats are wallpapered over regularly without a second glance backward. But the good ones, the stations with that intangible mix of just the right music, compatible on-air talent, and a waiting audience eager to listen…the good ones live on, long after the glass etchings on the studio doors are swapped out.
For my money, Chicago’s WCKG was one of the good ones. The format was “classic rock,” which to you youngsters meant anything that was too new for an oldies station and too old for a rock station. Think of a 1966-1980ish sweet spot and you get the idea. Zeppelin, the Who, Elton John, the Stones, the Beatles, Springsteen, Dylan, Jackson Browne, Van Halen, AC/DC…basically, music for dads and high school boys.
I was one of those high school boys and flipping on ‘CKG during my formative driving years meant exposure to a universe of music that my parents’ record collection had only barely suggested. Even though me and my friends were relatively normal American teenage boys in the years 1993 and 1994, we all seemed far less interested in what was happening on the alternative or mainstream rock ends of the dial, and far more fascinated by “Ramble On,” “Baba O’Reilly,” and “Start Me Up.” That’s what we got from ‘CKG. It deteriorated quickly, but those few years of glory days were formative to my musical tastes.–Matt Springer
KBBT, 970 The Beat (Portland, 1993-1997)
In 1990s junior high in suburban Portland, radio brand loyalty was big: you had your Z100 for the top 40/mainstream, KUFO for the hard rock, and KGON for the classic rock, but that was what your uncle listened to. Then something very, very weird came on the radio. If you went to 970 AM, you’d hear the droning, repetitive, infectious hook from LaTour’s “People Are Still Having Sex,” then a voice urgently shout, “The Beat! The Beat! The Beat! The Beat!” And then it would repeat, all day and all night, for what had to have been six months. Obviously, it was stalling until a new radio station could be launched, but what? The name and use of house music suggested a dance/electronica station, but that just didn’t make any sense. This was Portland, not, I don’t know, Belgium.
But then it began, and it wasn’t dance-pop, it was…the zietgiest of 1990s rock music is what it was. A cool, nonchalant alternative rock station with a full knowledge of the form. It was here that I first heard the Clash, They Might Be Giants, and the Jam. They played Pixies, Radiohead, Belly, Breeders, Beck, Britpop, and deep album cuts from the twin grunge titans of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Every song was a revelation, and it filled the cool music void that opened up when my brother had went away to college not long before. The DJs had voices I recognized from other, more corporate stations, but here they had semi-ironic hipster names like “Race Bannon.” And since it was AM, there was an otherworldly, or at least underground element to it, which was exciting for a kid listening from a clock radio in his bedroom. My only qualm was that The Beat was so laid back it identified songs only after it had played 10 or so, every half or so, if at all. I’m still figuring out the names and artists of songs I heard once on 970 The Beat in 1994.
The Beat kept me in cool music through high school. The golden age of alternative rock ended around 1997, when Smash Mouth, Sugar Ray, and their douchebag friends crashed the party. I also graduated high school that year, and so too did The Beat move on. They moved over to the FM dial, which turned out to be part of a two-tiered revamp plan. After a few weeks of high fidelity Rage Against the Machine and the Dandy Warhols, the Beat went “Adult Alternative,” so out with the Toadies, and in came the Paula Cole and Jewel. At least they still played Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” from time to time.–Brian Boone
WLOC, 102.3 FM (Munfordville, KY)
From 1988 to 1992, I worked part time at a small town AM/FM station in nearby Munfordville, KY, WLOC. Actually, I still work part time at WLOC, but it’s AM now and is a whole different kind of station. Anyhoo, the PD’s dad owned the station and didn’t much care what his son did with the FM, so we pretty much just played whatever we wanted to play, as long as it was “cool.”
Some of us (hint: me) had a looser definition than the other three guys,who all knew their music (make no mistake)…but even though we all worked long shifts (8 hours, sometimes 12 on Sunday) we had a blast playing alt.country, blues, rock, classic stuff, country, you name it. We even threw some funk and R&B in the mix when we felt like it. We even had a once-a-month 3 hour live show on one Friday night a month, where local groups or even Nashville-area stalwarts like the Royal Court of China (at the time in a configuration they called Geared and Primed) and Government Cheese performed. The Kentucky Headhunters, then just starting out and soon to break big with that Pickin’ on Nashville album, hosted the show for the first couple of years till they got too big (crowds, you know) in the early 90s…and even then, you never knew when one of them would pop in and want to play something.
I always tried to make sure I worked the board that night, essentially getting paid to party. Anyway, the owner died in 1991, and the kids tried to keep it going, but it was no go and it soon went out of business…in fact, I quit in a huff because the owner’s daughter couldn’t understand why I had a problem with not getting paid. Below’s a pic of me and my kids in 1990…you can see the ancient board and some of the posters, etc. we had. I need to do a bigger scan someday.
Anyway, some great times and lots of memories. Still the best radio station I ever heard, even when I wasn’t on it. –Johnny Bacardi
WNEW, 102.7 FM (New York City, 1967 – early ‘80s)
The peak of free form FM radio. With a cast of DJs that included Dave Herman, Pete Fornatale, Scott Muni, Jonathan Schwartz, Alison “The Nightbird” Steele, Rosko,and Vin Scelsa, they ruled the airwaves during the music explosion of the ‘60s and beyond. It was simply the place to turn when you wanted to hear the latest cool music, find out about local concerts, or mourn communally over events like the Who tragedy in Cincinnati, or the death of John Lennon. The music mix has never been duplicated, and you never wanted to get out of the car during a great set. It was the place that I first heard countless music icons, and that makes it irreplaceable for me.–Ken Shane
KQAK “The Quake”, 98.9 (San Francisco, 1983-1985)
The Bay Area used to be one of the more adventurous radio markets. In the early to mid-80s, The Quake was the place to discover “Rock of the ‘80s.” The station had Alex Bennett — an early version of Howard Stern’s style — in the morning. But I wasn’t too keen on his show. What I wanted was to hear the music The Quake played. And listen I did. If it wasn’t for The Quake, I wouldn’t have known about bands like The Nails, The The, Trio, Kraftwerk, Echo & The Bunnymen, and The Fleshtones. Hearing those bands on the air, getting excited by what I was hearing, and, yes, going out and buying albums and tapes by those band made me feel like I was at the vanguard of a certain style of music that went way beyond my hard rock upbringing. Alas, The Quake only lasted a couple of years, and then became “The City” — which played a pretty eclectic mix of rock, some jazz, blues, and, really whatever they felt like playing. I listened to The City for a while and found that I did like the music they played — but the mix threw me. It was too hodgepodge for my tastes. Still, if you lived in the Bay Area at that time, you were lucky to hear the last of magical radio… A time when DJs were tastemakers whose passion was about finding great music and sharing it over the airwaves with their listeners. –Ted Asregadoo
WCBR, 92.7 FM (Chicago, 1989-1998)
From out of the suburbs it came: a radio station on the low end of the dial that might fade tantalizingly in and out, depending on where you were driving or what the weather was like in the greater Chicago area. It lent a subtle mystique to humble, quiet little WCBR “The Bear,” suggesting that no station with such little evident concern for commerciality could in fact be real. But ‘CBR was real, for a time, and in the brief window between my discovering it after returning from college and its inevitable slide into contemporary-hit autopilot, it was the best general-format rock station in Chicago. I remember first hearing the likes of Alejandro Escovedo and Beth Orton there, well before their crosstown rival WXRT deigned to notice them; I remember things like an entire morning show dedicated to the Hothouse Flowers album Songs From the Rain. Mostly I remember that feeling I would get listening to the Bear, which I never felt listening to any other station: that what I was hearing was what the person on the mic thought was good, not what some indie was pushing or some program director thought would sell ads. Small wonder ‘CBR didn’t make it out of the ’90s alive. –Dan Wiencek
WRKS, 98.7 (Kiss) FM (New York City, 1981-present)/WBLS, 107.5 FM (New York City, 1951-present)
From the time I was a toddler, I had stacks of records to pick from and play, however, the radio was still very instrumental in my musical maturation. New York radio in the late Seventies and early Eighties were pretty exciting, and I have fond memories of not only the original “urban contemporary” radio station in the Big Apple, 107.5 WBLS, but a new contender that rose to prominence/dominance in the early Eighties, 98.7 Kiss-FM.
With trailblazing deejay Frankie Crocker (later host of “Friday Night Videos”) at the helm, WBLS played a wide and daring variety of music. Doing away with the idea (now common) that R&B music fans only listened to a narrow range of music, WBLS played everything from disco to reggae and a whole lot more. The first time I heard The Clash? WBLS. The first time I heard Culture Club (before “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” became a hit?) WBLS. I was too young to fully appreciate the diversity that Crocker brought to the station at the time, but think of how odd it would seem to younger music fans today to hear even Madonna and Run-DMC following one another on the same station. Crocker (and WBLS) made such a mix (which isn’t really farfetched when you think about it—after all, they came from virtually the same scene) seem seamless. While Kiss-FM was a little less daring when it came to musical selections, there was a wide enough breadth of “urban contemporary” music to avoid hearing the same songs over and over.
One other concept that might be mind-blowing to kids today: in order to hear the best hip-hop in the late Eighties and early Nineties, you had to be at home on Friday and Saturday nights to hear DJs like Red Alert, Marley Marl and Chuck Chillout do their thing. Both stations had late-night hip-hop shows, and they were mandatory listening for any young hip-hop fan. Since my social calendar wasn’t exactly exploding at the ages of 14 and 15, I would usually spend Friday nights in front of the radio with my finger on the pause and record buttons of my boom box, recording the latest jams from MC Lyte and Public Enemy onto a fresh blank tape. These shows were the first opportunities I got to hear West Coast artists like Ice Cube and DJ Quik, because there was no way in hell those were getting played on daytime radio. At night during the week, each station had a slow jams/quiet storm show, where the latest Luther Vandross and Anita Baker cuts would mix with classic cool-out jams by the likes of The Isley Brothers and Barry White. Even that show was important in developing my musical taste-it was integral to my appreciation of jazz, for one. To this day, I still put together Quiet Storm playlists for those nights when I just want to chill out, or those very special nights when it’s time to get a little frisky.
Recently, WBLS and WRKS merged. WBLS continues now as NYC’s only urban AC station, while WRKS has now turned into ESPN Radio (as though New York needs more sports radio.) Although both stations provided an important service (providing the only outlets for adult-oriented urban music in the biggest market in the country) the sense of adventure that at least the former station had is long gone, and the thought of a “by the people/for the people” radio station that viewed the urban community as something other than Lil Wayne/Chris Brown/Rihanna/rinse-repeat is now long gone. –Mike Heyliger
WSRD, 101.1FM (Youngstown, OH late 1970s -February 1, 1984)
The Wizard, The 50,000 Watt Rock Giant, was an album-oriented rock station that played all your great 1970s act – your Foghat, your REO Speedwagon, your Michael Stanley Band. There was an outpost of the legendary Cleveland Agora in Youngstown back then, so different up-and-coming and New Wave acts came through town with lots of support from WSRD. Bands with local ties, such as the Pretenders, Devo, and the Dead Boys, got a lot of airplay, too. When Stiv Bators was in town, he listened to WSRD, and that wasn’t just a tired promo cut, either. Every afternoon at 4:00, DJ Thomas John played his “4:00 High”, a half-hour of music around a particular theme or of a particular band, and every night at Midnight, they had the Album Hour where they played a new record in its entirety. It was heaven for any high-school kid with a cassette deck.
I was in college when WSRD changed formats and became WHOT-FM, a standard hits station. My sister called me up, all upset. “Thomas John is playing ‘Hey, Laura’!” she wailed into the phone. And that was when long distance was a big deal. –Annie Logue
WOXY, 97.7 FM (Oxford, Ohio 1983-2004)
They once called themselves “the future of rock ‘n roll.” If only. Nestled northwest of Cincinnati in the small town of Oxford, home to Miami University (whose students make up three quarters of the city’s total population), WOXY was a beacon of hope in the otherwise culture-challenged Ohio Valley. Their annual Memorial Day countdown of the top 500 modern rock songs of all time was event listening if ever it existed. The most endearing quality about the station, though, is that it remained true to its roots, both in terms of their style and integrity, even when the roof began to cave in on them and the station was having trouble staying afloat. They would still play ‘80s jangle pop at the height of grunge, and they refused to succumb to elitism and remove a band from the rotation because they had achieved some form of commercial success. Case in point: well after Scritti Politti cracked the Top 40, 97X, BAM! (come on, you knew that was coming) would still play them, and they’d play non-single album tracks at that.
When the station was forced to shut down the tower and go online, it was fair to expect that they would finally adapt to the times and make the necessary changes to remain financially viable. To their great credit – and ultimately, their demise – they did no such thing. One time in the early 2000s, we emailed them a request for the Go Betweens. They played it 20 minutes later. There are few, if any, stations that would honor that request in the first place, never mind that quickly.
Devo called one of their compilations Pioneers Who Got Scalped . That is as fitting a metaphor as there is for WOXY. They were one of the first, they were one of the best, and in the end they have nothing to show for their efforts, outside of the profound impact that still resonates with their fan base. Someone currently walking the earth has said at some point in time, “97X saved my life.” Pity we couldn’t save theirs. –David Medsker
WOFM, 92.1 FM (Chesapeake, VA)
My tastes in music were forged via many methods during my late teens, most notably a lengthy stint as an employee of the Tracks / Record Bar chain of record stores and the constant devouring of Creem, Q, Melody Maker, New Musical Express and countless other magazines, but, kids, as hard as it may be to believe, there was once a time when you could actually count on the radio to be a dependable place to be introduced to interesting new music. For me, the only station that ever mattered was FM 92, a.k.a. WOFM on the Border. Although officially licensed to Moyock, NC, the station’s tower was in my hometown of Chesapeake, VA, which meant that, although their signal wasn’t really what you’d call substantial, I still picked it up loud and clear, and I thrilled to every minute of their broadcasts. Okay, actually, that’s kind of a lie: their format was so unabashedly free-form at times that they’d occasionally throw some stuff into the mix that’d positively make me cringe. But the pros so outweighed the cons that it’s easy to forget the station’s occasional shortcomings.
FM 92 played just about every “Next Big Thing” from the UK that ever came across the pond, but they were also playing post-punk, punk, new wave, jangle-pop, grunge, Americana, singer-songwriters, reggae, jazz…nothing was off the table. Plus, this was back in the day when Hampton Roads still had a wealth of clubs booking up-and-coming artists, with the famed Boathouse in its heyday, so new folks like Nine Inch Nails and Toad the Wet Sprocket would get hyped to the nines and subsequently sell out shows even though almost no one in the mainstream knew who they were. It was a glorious time to discover new music. Unfortunately, in the end, the station tried and failed to get an increase in the wattage of their tower, and in the end, the format was changed to the ghastly satellite-delivered all-metal, all-the-time Z Rock. Tears were shed, petitions were signed, but it was all for naught. Still, the impact FM 92 made on its listeners was substantial, and the memories linger on to this day. –Will Harris