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.
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?
Strong: We carefully weigh it out.
Mac: Yeah, we weigh it out, because you know you have to have some ratings. You have to, or you won't have a radio station. They'll come down and they'll pull the plug on this as quick as anything if we're not at all successful. And we don't have to be huge. We're never going to beat the Edge on that angle, because they have an FM signal, and they play pop music, which tends to get more listeners than a station playing underground music.
Strong: That's because they cater to the comfort level of your average American white-collar yuppie.
Mac: And we cater to an audience that wants to be challenged, whether it be by punk, ska, rap, industrial, gothic or elements of heavy metal--because heavy metal is the new underground.
NT: You mentioned something about the benefits of an FM signal. Any chance KUPD will throw down the cash to take the Q stereo?
Mac: We don't need to push them. They are also very interested in that. They want us to do well, and they realize we would be doing a lot better if we had an FM signal. It's like when you have a stick and someone else has a bigger stick, it's not a fair fight. We need to make our stick bigger, and that need has been recognized, but it's a matter of time and proving ourselves.
NT: How are you different from Jonathan L.?
Strong: I think we're a little bit more open to possibly some more ... (pause). This is a delicate shading. We don't want to take the feast that Jonathan prepared and change it, but we might spice it. For example, you may begin to hear Cocteau Twins in the morning, where you didn't before. He didn't think it fit, but we do.
Mac: Jon is a music man. And one thing we're trying to do that's different is promote the station more. We're trying to get out there in the street. And some of our hard-core fans have backlashed against that: "You're trying to turn into the Edge." But I believe there's Edge listeners who listen to the Edge by default, who've never had a reason to go over to the AM, who don't even know we're here, and I want to change that.
NT: What's the first thing you would do if your budget was doubled overnight?
Mac: I'd pay the people who work for me. We've got people here who've been working for free for a year. And they love working here. Right now, we're kind of like a college radio station run by two professionals.
NT: Arguably the most critical role of college radio is to support local music. As a commercial station with a college/underground format, what do you plan to do for Valley bands, if anything?
Mac: I know we play at least 20 local bands in current rotation.
Strong: But in the year that we've been back on the air, we've probably played more like 40 or 50. What we've always done that's different from other stations is we've never segregated--local music has never been just on a once-a-week program. We highlight local bands within regular rotation. It's not like "this person in the front of the bus, and this person in the back."
Mac: There are some bands we've played that have actually gotten adds on the station into heavy rotation, like a national act would get or an indie band. I like to look at a local band as an indie band that just happens to live in Phoenix. If it's a good song, it's a good song. Some local records will even get up to 30 spins a week.
Strong: N17 and Lemon Krayola have enjoyed that ... and we're playing the Drakes out of Tucson in current rotation.
Mac: And Earl's Family Bombers out of Tucson.
Strong: They're punk-psychedelia. They're really cool. And one of the new specialty shows is called Al's Demo Hell, and I invite the listeners, if they hear a song on one of those specials ... we want to know, "Did you dig that? Did you really hate that?" Because stuff coming out of that show may end up in rotation. We found that by having all these monthly specialty shows, we are actually listening to more and more varied types of music. And we might find the hits of tomorrow. I don't pretend to be an authority, I just get the music out there.