Alternative is dead, long live alternative

KWOD 106.5 FM is gone. Radio continues to broadcast its own death rattle. Sigh.

My brother and I drove to San Francisco last Friday and also test-drove “106.5 The Buzz,” KWOD’s new ’90s-only-music understudy. We hardly could stomach what we heard—“Love Shack” by the B-52s, U2’s “One,” Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush”—but were nonetheless curious, flipping back and forth between Buzz and the new Prefuse 73 album on his iPod.

But ultimately, it was sad. Like listening to radio throw in the towel.

OK, I was by no means a loyal KWOD listener. My first memory is one of few and hardly unique: hanging out in my neighbor Paul’s bedroom, listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” For me, Nirvana was something totally alternative; for him, kinda ho-hum, been-there-done-that. But that’s why Paul was a cool guy to hang out with.

Later, I remember Deftones’ “Bored” (late-night only, while mopping at work) and Cake’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Lifestyle” (on the bus to school, every damned morning). I remember poseur guitarists bringing their Stratocasters to seventh grade to jam the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” opening riff for chicks. Ditto high school, only the intros to Pearl Jam’s “Alive” or the Smashing Pumpkins “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”


So, yeah, KWOD didn’t mean much to me, but it had a lasting impression on many Sacramentans—which is what makes the “alternative” format inherently problematic: The music is “alternative” for only a fleeting moment, until mainstreamers embrace it and, in the end, it betrays its own marginal roots.

Still, alternative is not dead. It just no longer has the proverbial “editorial stamp of approval,” namely disc jockeys seeking out new music and introducing it to the young folk. Instead, the masses are on their own.

“A lot of people are trying to program music for themselves now, and they’ve given up on corporate programming because it’s so homogenized. They want to create their unpredictability,” argues Alex Cosper, who was programming director at KWOD from 1984 to 1989 and ’94 to ’96. Back then, Cosper says KWOD espoused a “gut-level ethic about picking music that the program director or his or her team liked,” which led to KWOD becoming top-five in the Sacramento market—and one of the top stations in the country.

Now, he says corporate music is “dead.”

“It just doesn’t have the same explosion of creative music that it had in the ’90s,” Cosper explains, noting that 21st-century alternative music “shouts and screams” at him and doesn’t really have a message or an innovative and fresh sound.

Of course, it doesn’t help that major labels are signing a shorter list of artists, music isn’t selling like it used to and that radio advertising is down; none of this bodes well for the format.

That said, college radio continues to thrive—if on a shoestring budget. “And it’s a great time for independent artists,” Cosper notes. “My dream is to put all my music on iTunes and have a thousand fans buy my music,” which is a very reasonable goal this day and age.

“Radio used to be a person’s best friend, but now it’s just one of many choices.”