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It happened quickly. On August 27, KUKQ-AM program director, Valley alternative radio veteran and longtime indie music maven Jonathan L. announced on his weekly Virgin Vinyl program that he was leaving the station, "effective almost immediately." He made good on his word the next morning, passing the torch to music director Larry Mac, L.'s heir apparent, and Allison Strong, who was promoted from assistant music director to take Mac's place (it was domino promotion time--KUKQ studio mascot Uncle Fryday stepped into Strong's shoes).
L. was skimpy on the details of his sudden decision, saying only that he was moving to Los Angeles to work as a senior editor at a music magazine. Sources in that city say L. has been hired by the Album Network, a group of five trade publications, which he would neither confirm nor deny.
After the on-air transfer of command, L. quickly became a hard man to find, changing his phone number and leaving Phoenix three days later. I tracked him down the afternoon before he split. The moving truck was scheduled to arrive at an ungodly hour of the morning, but L. took a break from his last-minute packing blitz to offer some more insight into his surprise announcement, a look back on two decades in the music industry, his take on Phoenix radio, and an answer to the question, "Have you sold your soul?"
New Times: How's life after Q?
Jonathan L.: I'm freaking out right now. I'm not at the station anymore, I'm saying goodbye to a lot of great people, and I'm boxing up my life to drive it across the desert. I'm peeing three different colors, I'm going so crazy. I know my leaving is a shock to many people. A lot of people in the industry thought I would never, ever uproot and leave Arizona. NT: Including you?
L.: Yeah, including me. I'm definitely in shock.
NT: So what happened?
L.: The person I'll be replacing left about two months ago, they needed somebody fast, and they made me a great offer for a job that will make me an even louder voice in the music industry. The catch was, I had to take it right now.
NT: And what exactly will you be doing?
L.: Primarily writing and editing alternative-music articles and reviews. I don't plan to stay off the air forever, though. It's in the works for me to put together a nationally syndicated version of Virgin Vinyl. That would be exciting. I don't know that it will happen, but the possibilities have been seriously discussed.
NT: Looking back on your tenure at the Q, what do you see?
L.: Ultimately, it all comes down to one thing: I had my cake and ate it, too. In other words, I finally got the opportunity most radio programmers (or anyone that's ever worked in radio, for that matter) desire, want, lust after--the opportunity to do a radio station the way I wanted to. But I won't say I got everything I wanted. I never got my FM.
NT: Could anything have kept you here?
NT: Not even if KUKQ went FM?
L.: No. Well, maybe. I don't know. Let me be truthful. I shouldn't say no, I should say I didn't see any real potential for a move to FM anytime soon. Plus, the thing about this particular offer is that it's not just the money and it's not just for the sake of my career. That's part of it, sure, but I've been in Arizona 22 years, and it's time to go. It's been a fun year, but it's not enough to keep me here. I needed a new challenge, basically, and this job is it.
NT: So you were planning to leave before you heard about this gig?
L.: Let's just say I'd been thinking about other things than what was here. I saw this thing on TV a few weeks back about how people in their 40s now are not considered middle-aged. They're no different than they were in their 20s, they've got the same "so whatta ya wanna do when you grow up" attitude. They're willing to make more gambles and take more chances than people their age two or three decades ago. Back then, by the time you were in the your 40s, you were paralyzed. You didn't do anything different with your life, or at least not many did. That's not the way it is now, and that's not the way I am. I'm going off to Los Angeles. I might not like it and come back in three years. But at least I'm affording myself the gamble. Also, I'm leaving the station in very capable hands. I see a lot of myself in Larry, and both he and Allison have worked very hard. They know my mindset, and I feel confident the station will remain fairly much the same. For instance, the Ramones thing will keep going.
NT: Glad you brought that up. What's the deal with playing an hour of Ramones every day?
L.: I'll take the blame for that. I'm very close to the Ramones and I wanted to do something for the band. A lot of Q listeners may not have even been around in 1974 when the Ramones came out, but I was. And that was punk fucking rock, you know what I'm saying? I grew up on that. I wore the same clothes as them: jeans, leather jacket, tee shirt and sneakers. There's been little variation in music, but they always made me laugh. They finally got a gold record about a year and a half ago, and I'm one of the few people who has a copy on my wall. So, it may seem weird to hear 30 minutes of music by the same band twice a day five days a week, but that's what I wanted to do.
NT: Any last thoughts on the Phoenix radio market? L.: I'm not going to comment on Phoenix radio because Phoenix radio always changes. It's in constant evolution. One year you're gonna have more Top 40 stations. One year there will be four or five easy-listening stations. Currently, you have two solid country stations, although if you look at the dial, you'll find more. You've got numerous Spanish-speaking stations. And, obviously, there are numerous rock stations or "rockish" stations: Seventies rock, classic rock. Radio here will always be the same in that it's always shifting. Percentages just rise and fall. Right now you have two alternative stations. One on the FM, one on the AM. Hopefully, the AM will stay on the radio and maybe it will become an FM. I don't know. I will say this: Radio is a free entity. You need to give people a real solid reason to turn on the dial. That's the credo I've had all these years. You've gotta give people a reason to listen; you have to entertain them. Radio is supposed to be entertaining. When radio becomes a piece of cardboard with a restricted format, it's useless, and we're not talking about just rock radio here, we're talking about everything. You could have Turkish bath music, and as long as you make it sound exciting, it would be exciting radio. I mean, hell, yes, let's put Turkish bath music on the air. Because homogenized radio is crap radio. NT: Is The Edge an alternative radio station?
L.: It certainly began as that. Obviously, it's gone further into being a mainstream modern-rock station. But you know, in all honesty, it's still alternative. Because there's still many, many conservative people out there who look at the music that station plays as not being normal, and that's a good thing.
NT: Do you think there's room for a college station in this market?
L.: You know, I always wanted to see KASR become a bona fide college radio station, and I'll tell you why: I didn't look at it as competition. People call in to KUKQ asking for some really strange things that, frankly, even we don't play. It would have been much more pleasurable to say, "Listen to KASR, man, they'll be able to play that for you." KUKQ isn't a college station, but, boy, it sure is close. A lot of college stations across the U.S. are looking at our playlist week to week, because KUKQ is a professional, commercial, AM alternative slash college-minded station. But still--yes, I think there's room for a real college station. It could only help local music and the variety of national stuff that gets played.
NT: Any regrets at this point?
L.: Of course there are. I'm leaving behind a lot of friends and a lot of fans. I really care about my audience. That may sound contrived and hokey, but it's true. And people who don't like me or what I do very much, and there's a lot of them out there, probably think that's a bullshit statement, but it's not. And all the jaded, cynical characters who say otherwise should just go back to their holes and whine. Do you know what happens to you if you're a jaded, cynical character?
L.: You live in a small fucking world and nobody really wants to know you. So you can go crawl under a rock. I mean that. I don't mind a small dose of cynicism, but there's so many people out there that are so quick to rain shit on new ideas, to tell you you're crazy.
NT: You've spent 20-some years inside the music industry and you're not a cynic?
L.: There's a lot of good in everything, and there's a lot of good people in the music industry. When you're in the industry for as long as I've been in it, dealing with people in many different facets, you'll discover that. To make an overall statement that the music industry is a big, evil thing is way wrong.
NT: So you don't feel like the industry bought you out in the end?
L.: That's an interesting question. There's a lot of ways to look at it. Here's mine: Let's say you have a career, and you're working very hard, and you want to be rewarded. A reward could be if somebody recognizes you and goes, "Hey, aren't you . . ." and your interaction goes beyond just them complimenting you and pumping your ego and you sit down over a ginger ale or a beer or something and have a real conversation. That feels good. That's one scenario of a reward. Another is if somebody wants to steal you away. Say you're in a happy time in your life. You're making okay money. You're in a solid place, you're respected, and you're doing more or less what you want to be doing. Things are good. Then all of a sudden, somebody comes at you from out of the blue and says, "We've got this job, we've checked you out, and we want to fly you to L.A. to talk about taking it." So you go, and they say, "We want to keep our publication progressively solid. People speak wonderfully of you, you write very well, and you're a name. You have marquee value." You're flattered, you listen to them. There hasn't been any money offered, so you leave the interview, go back home, and continue working and doing the rest of your life when, again, all of a sudden, they want to fly you out again. You're polite and professional, but you say, "I'd like to come, but I'll be very honest with you, I know that you're interested in me, but you've never really made me an offer and I think it would be the proper thing to do at this point so I can really nail it in my mind and think hard on it." And they say, "No, no, we're going to make an offer. Please come out." So you fly out again, and now they're serious. It's a three-hour, grueling conversation, and they hand you a piece of paper with a figure. And you look at it and it's a good offer. But you tell them you want to think it over. And you come back and you're thinking about it, saying to yourself, "You know, this is a really great opportunity. The radio station is great, but it's not going to last forever." No radio lasts forever. Especially alternative radio. It's always changing. I could always go back to radio promotion. I made a lot of money--I made a lot of friends. I had a good time. I could do that again. KQ could last five more years. Maybe I should just stay here and ride out the storm. So the question is, "What do you really want to do with your life?" Well, I figured out that I wouldn't go to L.A. for what they were willing to give me and I called them and turned the offer down. They called me back and said, "We want you to be happy. Look for a fax in your machine." I did, and the offer was not only what I wanted but beyond. So now I had another decision to make. Shit. I didn't expect that. And this time I decided to go. I've worked very hard in my life, and I've never really done anything for money before. And I still don't believe I'm doing this solely for the money. I'm doing it because I think it's a great opportunity for me. I have a lot of longtime, dear friends in Los Angeles, and I think I'm ready for the change, for the challenge.
NT: Do you have a sense of finally getting your due?
L.: Interesting question. I don't want to say yes because that sounds too smitty. But I will say this: I never really knew if I truly was part of the music industry. But I woke up a few days ago and realized, "I am the music industry." And I don't mean that in a snotty way. The industry has been my life. I worked hard, I was out of work many times, and, yes, it is nice to be rewarded. But I'm not going to become complacent and comfortable, because I'm not like that. You have to understand something--I'm not a young kid, and I've never owned a suit. I've been a fucking alternative guy my entire life. That's what I am, and that's what I'll stay.
I caught up with Larry Mac on August 31 at Club Rio, where he was in the deejay booth for "alternative night," spinning "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and making laid-back "Remember, nooooo slam dancing" announcements when kids got too frisky on the floor. Mac said he plans to make KUKQ "more streetwise, to get more visible out in public. We're low-budget radio. We're broke like most of our listeners, so we're going to get out there and promote ourselves and relate to them and let them know we're the bright speck on the AM wasteland."
So, Larry, can two alternative stations survive in Phoenix, or will the market eventually wean it down to one? "There's only one alternative radio station right now," he says. "We're the only station that doesn't worry about playing hits."
Mac characterized L. as "my mentor," but said some unspecified minor changes in format are coming down the pipe. "Obviously, I'm not Jonathan L. . . . so there will be some differences, but we will still be the most out-there station on the dial."
As to the future of the station, Mac said management has "assured us full, continued support" in the wake of L.'s departure. "Of course, that doesn't mean indefinitely. In radio, everything is precarious.