Some people wanted my thoughts on the demise of INDIE 103.1, a highly respected alternative rock station in Los Angeles that had the plug pulled on it last week after five years. I was the Program Director of the station for roughly the last two years, since April of '07. It was a station that, by the rules of today's culture, should never have existed in the first place. But it did, and it made an impact far beyond Los Angeles. Last May Rolling Stone magazine named INDIE as the best rock station in America. No small feat considering the whithering storm of criticism heaped upon commercial radio in general for the past ten years. So come with me on a post-mortem. A brief look at an entity that gave hope and voice to many a struggling band. It's entirely possible we will never experience this type of radio again in our lifetime.
Trust me, there are no lessons here. No moral to a sad story. It's pretty much business as usual for radio as practiced in the United States of America today. It boils down to: formats that make money stay; formats that lose money go away.
Let me tell you what INDIE was not. INDIE did not spring from the fever dream of some enlightened station manger who woke up one morning convinced that L.A. needed another alternative station. There were no voices in his head saying things like, "Holy shit, there's all this great new music out there no one else is playing and I think we can be the KROQ of the 21st Century (note: just in case you haven't been paying attention to the new Arbitron People Meter data, hereafter known simply as, PPM, KROQ is, in fact, the KROQ of the 21st Century. Winner and still champion. People didn't just write it down in the paper diaries out of loyalty, or heritage. The meters don't lie; people are still listening in droves.)
No boys and girls. There was no market research, no focus groups, and no perceptual studies that pointed to an unfilled niche for a way left of center alternative station. The kind your grandpa would have been proud of when he was back in college radio.
INDIE wasn't even independent. There was no pirate ship of swashbuckling programmers and music heads beholden' to no one, ravaging the high seas and singing Vampire Weekend songs while drunk on grog. INDIE 103.1 was the creation of Clear Channel.
Five years ago the man who was in charge of all of Clear Channel's armies of darkness in Los Angeles (let's call him Roy) had this idea to take a station, and using it much like a straight razor, point this weapon at KROQ (owned by CBS), and shave some ratings to help better the fortunes of KISS-FM (owned by Clear Channel). One slight problem. Clear Channel already owned the maximum amount of stations in L.A. Flipping formats at any of the current properties was apparently not an option. But Roy is an evil genius. Hyper-smart and charming, he convinced Entravision Communications, a medium sized radio and TV company catering to the Spanish market (with 51 stations nationwide), to enter into a JSA (joint sales agreement) with KDLD and KDLE; two partial market coverage sticks underperforming with some form of Spanish dance music. Clear Channel took over sales and programming, guaranteeing Entravision a specific amount of money annually. "The Independent FM" was born over Christmas break in 2003. The fetus was a laptop in a closet running through Profit (Clear Channel's digital music platform).
INDIE was a pawn, a tool, a blunt instrument designed to execute a complicated maneuver in the chess game of Los Angles radio politics. No one was sure it would even work. The signal beaming out of Santa Monica barely covered the west side of LA, most of Hollywood, and points west to the water. The other 103.1, synchronized with Santa Monica, covered a small chunk of Orange County out of Newport Beach to the south. Hmmm, what to compare it to...Hey, remember the days of WLIR in New York? Basically a Long Island station with piss-poor coverage in Manhattan and the other boroughs. Hence their perennially shitty NYC numbers. Well, this was kinda like that. If you lived in the "valley", tough shit. Go listen online.
But the public didn't know the back-story. All they knew was one day there was only KROQ, and then BAM! Here comes a wacky station playing a combination of new and old alternative tunes people had either never heard, or hadn't heard in a long time. No jocks. Just production and music.
Oh yeah, INDIE made an impact. The response, and acceptance, was immediate. A renegade was born. Over the next year Roy breathed more life into the newborn. Ex-KISS MD Michael Steel was brought in to be the PD. A couple of full time jocks were added, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols was given his own show for two hours a day, five days a week. Other specialty shows were added; Henry Rollins took over the airwaves once a week. And so on.
How thoroughly was the public convinced they had a real independent entity on their hands? No less an authority than the Los Angeles Times wrote an editorial praising the station and its "independent" stance. Lauding INDIE for not being part of corporate radio. Ha! They never had a clue. So much for investigative journalism.
However, the station started to get some actual numbers. There is always a "check out factor" to new stations. Usually in the first year. The station even cracked a one share for a brief period of time, enabling them to become a "reporter." Also, it seems the Clear Channel sales staff, selling the station in combo with other properties, was able to bring in the cash. However, 14 months after sign-on the FCC changed the rules regarding JSA's, which made this arrangement verboten under the new rules. Clear Channel had to walk away from the deal. Somewhere around this time Roy himself exited the mighty CC. But he left a super salesperson in charge of INDIE. We'll call her Dawn. Dawn knew how to make it rain money. So now INDIE was no longer part of Clear Channel, and had to make it on it's own as part of Entravision.
So now there's an honest-to-God alternative to the alternative in L.A. And it's making wheel barrows full of cash. Look, depending on who you talk to, Los Angeles is either the number one or number two advertising market in the country. Even with teeny tiny ratings you can still make money from the table scraps of the big boys. And Dawn decided to focus on 25-54 as the go-to demo. Entravision just left Dawn and the station alone.
By this time there were now 18, yes, eighteen specialty shows on the station. The music was, to say the least, eclectic. It was hard to believe this was an actual commercial station and not NPR, or college radio. Perhaps you're beginning to guess where this story is headed. It was just too much for the average listener. A plethora of riches that appealed to the very few, and the very hip. After the initial check-out people went away and did not come back. The station was too difficult to listen to for long periods of time. Too unfamiliar. At times even difficult to pin down what the station actually was due to too many specialty shows clogging up the format.
It became harder for Dawn to squeeze blood from this stone. She was not happy. And she directed this unhappiness toward Mr. Steel. Eventually they parted ways. The station was hovering around a 0.5 12+. And not much better in the key 25-54 demo.
At the time, I was in Boston trying to repair a few years worth of damage to the image and integrity of WFNX (they had gone "ball-crushing-man-rock" for a while), and looking for a permanent new PD for the place. I was commuting back and forth to L.A. It was always designed to be temporary. As soon as the ship was back on course I would resume permanent residency back in California. And that time was now rapidly approaching. So, one thing leads to another and I find myself walking into INDIE as the PD in April of 2007.
Compared to INDIE 'FNX is practically a mainstream top 40 station. Don't get me wrong, 'FNX stays a healthy distance away from the predictable mainstream, but my God! There were songs in rotation on INDIE from the gold categories even I had never heard of. And I know all the songs that were ever played a lot or a little in the alternative world since 1982. I am not kidding. So if I don't know it, how can we expect your average listener to know it?
And let's talk about the currents. Like being a kid in a candy store. Like living on Fantasy Island. Yes Martha, there's a lot of great unheard music out there, all just itching to be aired. You know that magical land where Silversun Pick-ups popped out of the blue? Well there's a lot more good stuff where that came from. Truly, I was living in a world where the mail was more interesting from labels like Eenie Meenie, Almost Gold, Lost Highway, Dangerbird, and Astralwerks, rather than from Interscope, Warner Brothers, or Columbia.
But it's all a question of balance, right? And INDIE was seriously out of balance. Koyaanisqatsi baby. No doubt about it. And I could see the clock on the wall. I entered into this arrangement with my eyes wide open. That clock was ticking loudly, and we all knew it. But Dawn was still making money and Entravision left us alone.
And then...the first sign of the apocalypse. July 2008. Arbitron schedules a meeting at Entravision to present to the company the first "pre-currency" PPM numbers for Los Angeles. They came with a Power Point slide show breaking down the numbers for all the Spanish stations, and INDIE. And what did we see when we looked at the whole market? Essentially payday for KROQ and STAR 98.7 (which by this time had shifted to a format I can only roughly describe as "Let's-Play-All-The-Best-Testing-Songs-From-KROQ's-Library-With-A-Few-Ran
dom-Currents-Thrown-In-Just-For-Grins". Pre-PPM Star was tracking at about a 1.6 12+. PPM? 3.2. KROQ was similarly elevated back to through-the-roof status. INDIE? Suck it ass-wipes. Yer in the friggin basement. 12+ we were at a 0.3 in PPM world. We used to be 0.5 in the old Arbitron paper diary world. As far as rating point, which is all sales cares about anyway, we were at a nose-bleed inducing 0.0. Yes, you read correctly.
Then, the second sign of the apocalypse. Five weeks after the Arbitron presentation Dawn's old pal Randy Michaels (who was the day to day operating head of Clear Channel in the euphoric days of consolidation and was now at Tribune Corp.) offered her a sweet gig at the L.A. Times ruling the entire sales force. The rainmaker has left the building. Frankly, it was just a matter of time after that. Don't get me wrong, we had been cleaning up our act. We moved specialty shows either out or someplace harmless. The music was more familiar and balanced with the right currents. The PPM numbers since July had been creeping back up. Autumn seemed full of promise.
Third sign of the apocalypse? The economy stupid. In terms of sales, everyone shit the bed across the board in L.A. And in other markets too of course. By the end of the year the station was costing more to operate than it was taking in. Publicly traded companies with serious bean counters tend to have very little sympathy when it comes to scenarios like this. What would you do? On January 15th we found out.
Now, I may have been a tad hasty earlier when I said that this story has no lesson, no moral to the sad tale. If you think about it. And I mean really, truly give American radio some "big picture" thought, you might come to the following conclusion. What we hear on the radio today is not at all determined by GM's, or Presidents of radio divisions, or even owners of radio groups. What we hear on the radio today is determined solely by Arbitron. They are the true puppet masters. A rouge monopoly with the power of life and death over content.
If your content can't get ratings, and sales can't sell it, you disappear from the airwaves. Even though you know, because listeners swarm to your events, clog your blogs, and buy the music, that you have a viable audience. But if Arbitron can't track them they clearly don't exist.
And that's the shame of American radio today.