Radio free Reno
Why did KRZQ, a long-running alternative rock station, change formats?
Music fans who tuned into Reno radio station 100.9 KRZQ on the afternoon of Monday, Sept. 12, expecting to listen to alternative rock, were surprised to hear … the Black Eyed Peas. The station, which had been broadcasting alt-rock since 1992, changed at noon that day from alternative rock to The Mix, an adult contemporary format.
Radio stations change formats all the time. Audiences are fickle, and tastes change. But the loss of the local alternative rock station seems to signify something about Reno, radio, and the way people listen to music. For a long time, KRZQ had been a beacon for music fans looking for something out-of-the-box and exciting. But at the end, had anyone been listening? Who even listens to the radio at all anymore?
Back in ye olde 1990s, before the advent of the internet and all the instant pleasures that accompany it, KRZQ was a gateway drug to intoxicating, addictive music. Of course, it has also long been popular sport for music nerds to deride the station. Even back then, it played a lot of middling fare, like Bush and the Gin Blossoms, though they’d sneak in the occasional Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. song. That was all part of the fine line the station had to walk: appealing to an audience who quickly learned to disdain appeals.
For example: Many young Renoites first heard Nirvana on KRZQ. Then, after buying Nevermind, they’d read an interview with Kurt Cobain, in which he said something like, “I was just trying to rip off the Pixies.” The curious music fan would then go down to the record store, which is something else that used to exist, and buy a copy of Surfer Rosa. And then, forgetting the first link of this chain, they’d complain about how KRZQ sucked because they rarely, if ever, played the Pixies. (Though they did.)
Nearly this exact same sequence of events could also have been triggered by “Cannonball,” by The Breeders, or, with slight variations, “Pepper,” by the Butthole Surfers or dozens of other great songs that were in regular rotation on KRZQ during the ’90s. KRZQ introduced listeners to good music, only to hear them turn around and gripe about the station a year or two later after their tastes had developed.
Before there was KRZQ, the alternative rock station, there was 96 Rock.
“The station was a bad ’90s metal station and wasn’t making any money,” says Rob Brooks. “They had to do something, and they found that there was this crazy alternative format, and everybody knew that I listened to the music anyway. I worked at the station, but I listened to alternative music. They made the decision to make it alternative, and when they did, they made me the program director, because I was the only one who knew the music.”
Known on-air as “Blaze,” Brooks is now the Reno station operations manager for Wilks, the company that owns KRZQ and three other local stations, KWFP, “The Wolf,” a country station; KTHX, “The X,” an adult album-oriented station; and KURK, “The Bandit,” a classic rock station. Wilks owns three or four stations apiece, many with formats similar to their Reno counterparts, in a half dozen markets.
Brooks had a hand in KRZQ from inception right through to the moment of format transition. He is sometimes cited as “the Godfather” of KRZQ, particularly by his current and former employees, like Mat Bates, a.k.a. Mat Diablo, who worked at the station off and on from 1998 to 2006, including a stint as the program director. He went on to work at stations in larger markets, and now works for Slacker, an online radio service.
Even before he started working there, Bates was a fan. “I was listening when it signed on,” he says. “I was an awkward, music-obsessed kid. At that time, 1992, it was probably The Cure and The Fall and a lot of the stuff that KRZQ signed on and basically stood up, raised their hand, and said … you’re not alone. There’s this culture and this community and people that you could potentially have a conversation with about this kind of music. There’s a world wherein there are interesting, sexy people that like the same kind of music as you do. … I was 12 years old.”
The station continued to serve this purpose, introducing younger listeners to alternative music, well into the new decade.
“When I was middle school, and the early years of high school, it was my jam,” says Raymond Eliot, 21, the station manager at the University of Nevada, Reno’s student-run station, Wolf Pack Radio. “The music spoke to me because it was on the edge of rebellious. But as I got older, I kind of lost interest in FM radio. It was nice that we had it, I guess. … Later, it just kind of became like every other FM station, and they’re all very similar.”
Wolf Pack Radio broadcasts on the AM band, but its primary emphasis is streaming content online. With online radio on the rise over the last few years, not to mention satellite radio, mp3 players and other new technologies, KRZQ started to seem, even to younger music-obsessed listeners, not quite alternative enough—too much like every other FM station.
Smells like team spirit
One of KRZQ’s most recognizable on-air voices belongs to Mel Flores, who started at the station as a teenage intern in 1996 and was program director from 2005 to 2010. Last year, she stepped down as program director to attend graduate school, but continued on at KRZQ as part-time on-air talent. Like the rest of KRZQ’s staff at the time of the format change, she’ll be staying on with Wilks Broadcasting in some capacity, but the format change was an emotional experience.
“It was a huge deal for me,” she says. “It was the first time I cried on air since Mat Diablo left. It was the end of an era. There’s a message board going on on Facebook of all past and present KRZQ DJs and just seeing the history, because we’ve all been family for years.”
“The thing I’m going to miss the most out of all of it is training these kids how to do it, and teaching them how to fight,” says Brooks. “Teaching them how to present their lifestyle in a way that’s understandable to the masses but still keeping their integrity and their dignity and their beliefs—being able to do that without being some fucking flag-burning, sign-carrying protester.”
“[Brooks] was a mentor and a father figure for so many of us just weird kids,” says Bates. “For whatever reason, he was compelled to help so many kids become really successful in the music business. … Marc Young is the program director of a station in Phoenix. Homie [Holmes Pooser] does talent booking at the House of Blues in Vegas. Ollie [Loren Condren] is an interactive marketing maven all over the Southwest.”
For Brooks, success in alternative radio meant learning to work within the system.
“The system is just like taxes,” he says. “Everyone complains about taxes, but if you’ve got a good tax guy, you’re probably OK. He knows how to do it. I mean, I don’t know how to do taxes, but I’ve got a tax guy, and I trust him to do it and do a good job, and he tries to keep me from paying every year.”
Man in the box
“It wasn’t a decision that was made overnight,” says Jeff Sanders, the executive vice president of programming at Wilks. “It’s been coming around for about six months. We own KTHX, which plays a lot of that music, and we also own 92.9 The Bandit, which also plays a lot of that music, so it was being squeezed by our own properties. So it was kind of like chess pieces for a strategic move to take KRZQ out of those formats to move the audience over to our other stations. We let our Facebook fans know that, and let all our people over the air know that as well. If you like Green Day, Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam, we’re moving that to 92.9 The Bandit, and if you like The Smiths, R.E.M. and Dave Matthews, that’ll be on KTHX, The X.”
Some of alternative rock radio’s staple albums, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik turn 20 years old this year, which apparently qualifies them for classic rock status.
“We’ve changed The Bandit in the last couple of months to have more of the ’90s rock stuff, just because that music is 20 years old now,” says Sanders.
“I’m not surprised that KRZQ went away,” says Bates. “There’s still really good people there. The people on the ground in Reno are doing a tremendous job. … But the company that owns KRZQ is very similar to the Clear Channels of the world in that they don’t care about Reno, and they’re not concerned about what’s good for the community. They’re a business and they’re interested in making money.”
Bates is cynical about his former corporate masters, but he also acknowledges that his current company is actively trying to replace their industry.
“Our explicit goal is to replace what KRZQ and terrestrial radio in general was,” he says. “There are many better places to get the experience we got from KRZQ, all of which do not exist on the FM or AM band. It’s progress.”
For music-obsessed geeks looking for something new and different, the internet has made it easier.
“It’s not surprising that at the very end, [KRZQ] did not have any support from the company,” says Bates. “They did not have good ratings. I suspect that they’ll probably get better ratings with this new lowest common denominator format that they’ve put on. And the reason that they did that is that the kind of audience that KRZQ was going for doesn’t listen to the radio anymore. We’ve seen actionable, demonstrable evidence of that via research. … They go for the people who still are listening to the radio, which fit into a very specific demographic, not just in terms of age, but in terms of income, education, all that sort of thing.”
Sanders describes KRZQ’s new format with just those specific demographics: “It’s Top 40 basically, without all the rap. Kind of a mature Top 40. It targets a 35-to-40-year-old female that has a family, is well educated and makes money. It’s trying to be a much more adult Top 40.”
“They cater to the people who are left listening to the radio,” says Bates. “The people who are left listening to the radio—and I don’t mean this as a pejorative, I mean this in the truest sense of the word—they don’t have as sophisticated an expectation from the radio as someone who KRZQ might have been going for.”
The phrase “listening to the radio” was once synonymous with “listening to music.” Now, the only people who still listen to traditional radio on a regular basis are the people for whom music is a secondary concern—something to have on in the background. So, what about the music-obsessed fans?
“That audience is by and large gone,” says Bates. “Especially the 18 to 24, the millennials. They don’t use radio anymore.”
Not terrestrial FM radio anyway. According to Bates, they use online radio.
“The future of radio is music discovery and consumption the way that you’re accustomed to it in radio, but on your terms, completely customizable, at your discretion, on any device, ubiquitous, rather than a system of gatekeepers that influences what you are and are not allowed to discover and be exposed to,” he says.
He has a lot of affection and nostalgia for KRZQ, but he believes Slacker and other internet radio stations are the future. “I work on ways to facilitate music discovery, music consumption, but at the end [it’s about] user’s discretion and on their terms, as opposed to a system of gatekeepers that are in collusion with the record labels, as commercial radio currently works.”
The alternative format is especially problematic for traditional radio programmers. “Other formats come in and rape that format,” says Brooks. “The format’s been picked apart by niche formats, like Bob and these Alice stations, these flavor-of-the-week stations that sign on, and they don’t know what to do when the bottom falls out on that format. I signed Alice on myself. I built that station. That was a Lilith Fair station at the time. All we played was Shawn Colvin and Sarah MacLachlan. I knew the second that I turned it on, I was going to injure KRZQ with it. And then on the rock end of it, KDOT knows what the fuck they’re doing. That’s a good bunch of programmers over there, so they’re going to take the rougher end of the station and make it theirs.
“So, it was really hard to own anything, and let’s face it, the audience who listens to that format, they’re not the most loyal. It’s cool to be lame and not support things, even though you do support them. It’s not cool to openly support them, and that’s always been a problem with that format. Then, when the station goes off, we’re a bunch of assholes. But no one came to our remotes anymore! That’s how we make our money! If no one comes, then no one’s going to buy the remotes anymore. Everyone has to take accountability for this … from me, maybe not paying enough attention to it because I was distracted, to the audience for not supporting it, to being picked apart by other radio stations and then not having the resources that we used to have. It’s not like how it used to be.”
Where it’s at
Online radio stations might be completely customizable—listeners can block the songs they don’t like and develop stations that include a wide overlap of genres, but the services might seem depersonalized. It’s often a collaboration between a listener and a machine. There’s not a familiar voice that belongs to a member of the community—somebody that you see out at bars or coffee shops or baseball games, people like Flores or former KRZQ DJ Chris Payne, who’s now moved over to The Bandit.
“KRZQ kind of had an edge over regular radio just because all of the DJs had their tentacles into the community in a big way,” says Flores. “We grew up with people here. We went to high school with people here. I really think this community supported KRZQ for so long because they didn’t see it as just a radio station, they saw it as Mel or Mat or Chris Payne. They could put a face to the station.”
In any discussion that begins, “How is the internet affecting the future of …” a recurring theme is community. Online social networks might provide forums for conversations and making international connections, but it’s a remote community. It’s not Reno, Nevada. The alternative rock station KRZQ might have been owned by a national company, and the programming might have often seemed corporate, but it was an undeniable part of Reno for nearly 20 years.
“Sometimes you don’t know who’s listening,” says Flores. “We kind of mess around, we do our own thing, and we don’t realize the effect we have on the community. Then, when this all happened, and we were going away, the outpour from strangers in the community who I’ve never met, was really touching. It really was. It made us feel like it was worth it.”
“Having ears is something that has to be developed,” says Brooks. “It has to be learned. It has to be taught. And there has to be a natural ability there as well. There’s a lot of people who think that they have this ability, and when you really crawl into their catalog, it’s pretty shallow and pretty narrow. But when we can play a new track by Bon Iver and go into James Brown on The X, you tell me, who’s got the ears? Who’s got the chops? I think it’s funny. It’s like people who try to build their own house. If you don’t hire a contractor, you’re probably not going to get it done right. Everybody thinks they can do everybody else’s job. Hey, bring it on. At the end of the day, you’re going to end up turning on the radio because you’re going to want to know what happened on the corner of Virginia and McCarran today.”
It all comes down to the definition of community. “The only thing that’s really going to keep radio around is a community medium, community radio,” says Eliot. “The cool thing about radio is that it’s a pretty approachable medium. Through online radio, pretty much anyone can start broadcasting. It’s a much lower production cost and easier to get established in radio than it would be for television or anything.”
“It still starts at the basics,” says Brooks. “Your hometown radio station is still where it starts. There would be more shows that came through if we were involved, because we have influence on record labels and promoters, so you would have more live activities to go to. … To have a true alternative station, it influences promoters and record labels and agents to be aware of the market, and to bring those acts here.”
Even Eliot acknowledges that the FM band holds a unique mystique. “I’d rather have a terrestrial radio station because I like the idea of it,” he says. “I guess it could be the nostalgia factor.”