January, 2006

Breakdown in communication

January 11th, 2006

KVGS 107.9-FM — otherwise known as Area 108 — started with such potential. Yes, much like any mainstream radio station (they call themselves “independent,” but that’s only because they’re not owned by Clear Channel, just a small Phoenix-based company), they played certain songs a little too often, including previously enjoyable tracks by the Killers, Franz Ferdinand and Foo Fighters. But the station brought back great stuff that has been missing from Vegas airwaves for a while, like the Pixies, Echo and the Bunnymen, Peter Murphy, etc., as well as playing stuff I’d never heard on Vegas terrestrial radio before, such as Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie.

As with most new station launches these days, Area 108 ran DJ-free (and commercial-free for a little while), sounding like a great big alt-rock iPod on shuffle. Not so bad. Even when the commercials came in, they were minimal, and the song selection — except for the occasional Nickelback or its ilk — was very good. Of course, after a few weeks, DJs were hired, and promotions started. Now, to be fair, the promotions thus far have been subtle — simple call-to-win tickets type of stuff — and the DJs have been relatively unobtrusive. But they ARE talking over the beginning of songs. And the song selection during the day — nights seem to dig deeper — continues to be listenable, but unadventurous.

There is one terrestrial radio station in the country that I would listen to 24 hours a day if I could, and that is San Diego’s 94.9-FM. No funny name. The station is, quite simply, “about the music.” This should be the model for any station calling itself “alternative,” “modern rock,” or “diverse.”

I was reminded of this again today, after not listening for a while (iTunes blitz, sorry). First song? Velvet Underground from the Warhol album. Then “Train in Vain” by the Clash. Then a song from Echo and the Bunnymen’s new album (they have a new album??!!). Then a live acoustic track from Pearl Jam. Then Queens of the Stone Age.

The music is all that matters, but the great thing is, the DJs know their stuff. It’s OK for them to talk BETWEEN songs (not over them; they have strict rules about NEVER talking over any part of a song), because they have interesting things to say. Garret Michaels, the morning DJ and Program Director (go figure — the PD actually WORKS), after playing “Train in Vain,” told the whole story behind how the song was a “hidden” track on “London Calling” only because it was added to the song program after the artwork for the double album had gone to press, even though it was the lead-off single. And these guys have ALL SORTS of inside stories like that, because they’ve been in the business for so long and have been fans of great music for so long.

They don’t do call-in radio contests. That doesn’t mean they don’t reward listeners. They have an “insiders” e-mail list that often features discounts and pre-sale ticket options, exclusive “insider-only” concerts, and more. Plus, they do “Random Acts of Kindness,” where the station’s van simply shows up somewhere and gives out concert tickets, CDs, etc.

As well, their weekly specialty shows are reminiscent of college radio: there’s a locals-only show, an ethereal/chill-out show, and a Bob Marley tribute show.

Listening to this gleaming example of perfect radio put into perspective once again just how bad is every other station out there. I think it’s time for me to finally replace my stolen XM antenna and get back on the satellite. And I think it’s time for Area 108 to wake up: Be different. Live up to your “independent” claims. Respect the music. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll earn the respect of your listeners as well.