The Real Alternative

Programmed by Mac and Strong, KUKQ is the place to find music devoid of commercial influences

Somebody hold a wake, because "alternative" is dead--gone the way of all labels that catch fire and fry in marketing hell. Ten years ago, the battle lines were clear: There was commercial radio and there was college/underground radio. Commercial radio wouldn't touch the good stuff--you had to dig for it in the AM nether regions.

Not anymore.
Now, "alternative" is a catch-all phrase used to describe not only musical apples and oranges, but also guavas and pumpkins, sailboats and semitrucks. Is U2 alternative? Is Ultravox? Boxing Gandhis? Pearl Jam? Depeche Mode? Plastique? White Zombie? Alanis Morissette? According to the Phoenix radio market, the answer is yes times eight--all of the aforementioned dissimilar acts get play on at least one local "alternative" radio station.

Currently, there are (count 'em) three Valley radio stations that call themselves "alternative": KEDJ ("The Edge," 106.3 FM); KUKQ ("The Q," 1060 AM); and, most recently, KZON ("The Zone," 101.5 FM).

So who's lying? No one, really. In a day when grunge is selling Budweiser and some stations dub their formats "commercial alternative," who is anyone to accuse anyone else of being a mainstream wolf in alternative clothing? However, out of the three Valley alternative stations, only one stands out as a true testing ground for new music--the place to hear tracks that don't have commercial cachet or major-label promotions behind them, or that haven't already proved their mettle on the college radio charts. There's only one station whose daily playlist couldn't be replicated with a $1,000 spree at Tower Records.

That station is KUKQ.
What the Q lacks in polish, ratings and stereo sound, it makes up for with guts, individuality and a refusal to roll over and die like a good little financially strapped AM outfit.

On-again, off-again since 1989, the Q was founded by Jonathan "I am the music industry" L., the dynamic, outspoken program director (and diehard Ramones fan) who left the station in September to become an editor at a music trade magazine.

L. passed the wand to new program director Larry Mac and music director Allison Strong. Mac and Strong kept a low profile for all of two days before they began to remold the station's format by adding several specialty shows and turning one of L.'s sacred cows into hamburger--they scaled back the Q's daily dose of Ramones from one hour to 20 minutes. The pair also launched a guerrilla hype campaign, crashing events sponsored by rival stations and papering the place with KUKQ fliers.

Attitude and street savvy are everything when you're the underdog with a Chihuahua-size promotional budget. But do Mac and Strong have enough of it to survive, let alone propel their station from a highly principled but relatively obscure avant-garde rock station to a highly principled, relatively massive avant-garde rock station? By this time next year, we'll know--the Q will be big, still small, or simply gone.

Mac and Strong are torn between the commitment to remain pure in an age of market-driven playlists and the desire to carve out a listener niche broad enough that they can tuck the Q out from under the shadow of mother station KUPD's budget guillotine--the same blade that's fallen twice before on the station.

If it comes down to it, though, if they can't have both, which side of the equation will Mac and Strong let slip into oblivion--ethos or existence? You may have to read between the lines, but the answer to that query and several others lies in the following interview, conducted at the KUKQ studio by New Times contributor Colleen O'Donnell in late October.

New Times: What's the difference between your station and the Edge?
Mac: They're a pop station, and we're a rock station.
NT: That's it?

Mac: Yeah. I hear a lot of Erasure, Depeche Mode and INXS. Those are pop bands to me. Not that they're bad bands, but they're pop bands. Whereas we tend to play more guitar-oriented stuff, and we're not afraid to throw in a song with horns, like the ska bands.

Strong: We're playing two really interesting bands right now: Glueleg is like rock with horns. I just found out they're triple platinum in Canada, and here I thought they were just a baby band. Here's another example: We're playing this band called Plastique from New York, and they categorize themselves as "reggae post-hard-core ska." Which means they integrate some hard-core elements from New York, and then one of the guys in the band is from Barbados--he brings in the reggae influence. We want to serve our listeners something that fresh, so they can hear that kind of combination of musical influences fused together.

Mac: We call ourselves "the alternative," and I believe we are the only alternative out there. The other stations call themselves alternative, but they've taken a Madison Avenue approach. Actually, I don't really look at the Edge as a competitor, and that's not a slam on the Edge. They're good at what they do, as far as being a pop station.

NT: The need to draw listeners seems to compete with the need to maintain any kind of idealistic integrity. How do you find the balance?

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