Commercial radio has been so dull for so long that an entire generation has grown up unaware that once upon a time, radio was actually interesting. From the late 1970s, when company executives replaced idiosyncratic deejays with preprogrammed playlists of high-rotation singles, through the acquisition orgy that followed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, radio has sunk so steadily into a morass of hyperniched blanditude that bemoaning its end has itself become a hoary cliché. This is not one of those stories. Something good is happening to commercial radio: The pig is coming.
Regular visitors to Santa Cruz will know what I'm talking about. For the last twenty years, the freaks who operate KPIG, the country-fried rock station based in the small town of Freedom, have stubbornly held true to the kind of radio that once dominated the FM dial. Deejays are free to play whatever they want, splicing together obscure ditties that would never make it past the gatekeepers of Clear Channel or Infinity Broadcasting. Commercials are few and far between, alternating with fake ads for the Jehovah's Witness Protection Program. The station's watchword is character, and listeners are fanatically loyal to its eclectic mix and disdain for cheesy promos. Now, the station's owners have bought an AM station in Piedmont, from which they will simulcast KPIG's program in the Bay Area. For the first time since KSAN and KMEL were reprogrammed into the grave, listeners will have a commercial station that does something unexpected, even creative. And behemoths like Clear Channel are taking notice.
It's hard to believe, but thirty years ago most FM radio sounded like KPIG. Radio executives spent most of their energy programming AM stations, and in boho enclaves like the Bay Area a few music fanatics quietly got jobs as deejays and turned a neglected medium into a showcase for artists such as Frank Zappa, Sam Cooke, and the Carter Family. "The disc jockey was the star, after the music," says Ben Manilla, who has worked in radio since 1975 and now produces syndicated public radio programs in San Francisco. "If you could figure out a way to make Chuck Berry segue into Miles Davis segue into Beethoven, and make those transitions sound good, you were a star. ... The night Ronald Reagan was re-elected in '84, I played the Ramones' 'I Wanna Be Sedated' fifteen times in a row. Today, that would get you fired."
As happens with every new medium, radio executives got hip to free-form FM and found a way to commodify it. The old, eccentric deejays were replaced with playlists culled from listener surveys, and the age of niche programming had begun. In 1982, employees of Gilroy station KFAT found themselves unemployed when the owner reprogrammed the station to Top Forty. A few years later, they landed en masse at KPIG, started their old gig again, and never looked back. KPIG deejays regularly play artists such as Richard Thompson, Sonny Landreth, or Southern Culture on the Skids, and thirty minutes can fly by without a single commercial. "KPIG is a complete throwback to the days of self-expression on the radio, where a deejay could get on the air and let people know that he was in a bad mood," Manilla says. "The management is paying them to be artists on the radio, as opposed to line readers, people who just read whatever's put in front of them. Nowadays, people have to listen to college radio for that."
It hasn't always been smooth sailing for KPIG. In 1998, the station's owner tried to switch to a classic-rock format, prompting a revolt radio staff dubbed the "swine revolution." "Our listeners went absolutely ballistic," program director Laura Hopper says. "They saved the radio station by sheer persistence. They did flier campaigns downtown, they had people fax complaints in. The people who owned the station had listed their home phone numbers in a broadcasting yearbook, and they had people calling them at home in all hours of the night and day." KPIG became the first station in the country to broadcast its signal over the Internet, but in 2002, the federal government approved a new royalties rate for record companies that made free Webcasting effectively impossible. KPIG killed its regular Web broadcast, streaming old concert recordings until it cut a deal with RealNetworks to provide a subscription service. The station's Internet audience never fully recovered.
Now, the station's owners have embarked upon an ambitious campaign to make KPIG a radio staple up and down the coast. They bought a San Luis Obispo station last year and started simulcasting the KPIG signal, and in July, they will do the same in the Bay Area, on KMRT 1510 AM. KPIG has always had a dedicated cult following around Monterey Bay and on the Internet, and its entry into the fourth-largest radio market in America could spell problems for both KPFA and KFOG, the two stations whose music format most closely approximates the station's Americana sound.
KPFA music director Luis Medina had no idea KPIG was about to broadcast in the Bay Area, and his bluster about KPFA's distinctiveness ("We play music that they probably don't even get to") suggests he hasn't been paying attention to his new rival. But KFOG general manager Dwight Walker certainly has. "I think they're onto something, and that is they do have a unique, distinctive product that more people should be doing," he says. However, Walker claims that KPIG's new AM signal doesn't reproduce the sound the station needs to attract a significant share of audiophile listeners: "People will have a major problem hearing their favorite deejays on a tinny signal. ... In order to get noticed, you have to be something really special. It's just an overcrowded, highly competitive radio market, which I would say is just a little different from Monterey."
KPIG faces a lot of challenges. Its parent company, Mapleton Communications, paid $5.1 million for the new station, and as cheap as that may be, KPIG will feel pressure to increase its number of commercials to recoup its investment, possibly diluting its distinctive sound. No one knows whether a station focused on the culture of Santa Cruz will resonate with urban listeners forty miles away. But according to John Schoenberger, the Americana editor of the trade publication Radio and Records, KPIG's obsolete approach to commercial radio may be making a comeback. Over the last eighteen months, he says, Clear Channel has begun seeding markets in New Mexico, Arizona, and Michigan with Americana stations that rely upon a wide selection of eclectic music, deejay creativity, and quirky ambience -- an experiment that breaks with ten years of formulaic programming.
Building a dedicated audience like KPIG's takes time, however, and Schoenberger wonders if Clear Channel will wait for its listeners to come around. "You can't just put a KPIG in a market and expect a profit after one or two books," he says. "In the corporate world, it's hard to be patient."
Still, if Clear Channel is toying with the notion of resurrecting free-form radio, you know you've passed through the looking glass. In a few cities around the country, interesting commercial radio is returning to the airwaves, and KPIG is leading the charge. But fair warning, guys: One more Stephen Stills tune, and I'll take a backhoe to your transmitter.
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