No rules, only edicts
While its new deejay lineup debuts, KWOD v2.0 maintains corporate silence
If pop is destined to eat itself, the conglomeration of more and more radio stations into fewer and fewer hands is likely to play a critical role in that process.
The rebirth of KWOD 106.5 FM—which debuted its new slate of deejays last week—is further evidence of corporate entities taking the reins and dictating what listeners will hear, even in the ostensibly contrarian world of alternative-rock radio. With its transition to a new format, KWOD “v2.0” changed its sound from alternative rock to adult album alternative. Along with it came a new motto: “Radio Without Rules.”
The station flipped formats after the March firing of its local deejays. In a letter to its clients, the company described its new direction as a “much broader interpretation of Alternative music, with a music library that has been expanded dramatically … a place where you will hear everything from U2 to Moby, from Nirvana to Chris Isaak, from the Dave Matthews Band to Franz Ferdinand, from Green Day to Bob Marley.” More music was in; out were stunts like food-coupon giveaways, commercial breaks longer than three-and-a-half minutes and—in a move that surely would raise the ire of Dr. Johnny Fever—no more DJs in chicken suits.
After several weeks of announcer-less programming, KWOD’s new on-air personalities finally took to the airwaves on June 6. The station’s Web site, at www.kwod.com, offers up quirky bios and testimonials from new deejays Hill, Jeremy, Erin and Sims (first names only, thank you). “I took a job at KWOD, because at the time, it was the only radio station left in the United States where you could show up to work drunk. I don’t drink much, but I liked having that kind of flexibility,” jokes morning host Sims, previously a KWOD part-timer whom former colleague Kelly Pryce describes as “hilarious.” Sims also extols the virtues of living in Sacramento, where “the city cops look the other way when inmates hang themselves, so as a taxpayer, I’m grateful.”
From a playlist perspective, the transition spells the end of heavy offerings like Godsmack and Metallica. But from a corporate perspective, the transition appears no less significant: KWOD v2.0 is the culmination of a lengthy legal battle between its current owner, Entercom Communications Corp., and previous owner Ed Stolz.
After initially entering into an agreement to buy KWOD from Stolz in 1996, the two parties ended up in a protracted court battle in 1999 when Entercom sued Stolz for allegedly trying to back out on the deal. He filed a countersuit accusing Entercom, now the nation’s third-largest radio chain, of “racketeering.” Entercom eventually took ownership of KWOD in May 2003. Entercom also owns 98 Rock (KRXQ), which shares the same 5345 Madison Avenue building as KWOD and is more hard-rock oriented. The two stations were longtime competitors and friendly rivals, but with Entercom’s acquisition of KWOD, that soon would change.
The eventual result was that on March 25, KWOD deejays were taken into a meeting and told they were being let go and that the station was changing formats.
“When I found out, I was surprised,” said Nick Monroe, who was taking vacation when his colleagues were given the news. He said 13 jocks were let go. “We were the most accomplished station in the 18-to-34 demographic for Entercom. The ratings were just out, and we beat out 98 [Rock].” Monroe says he believed the change would come inevitably, despite KWOD’s ratings, because “98 cost a lot of money.”
Monroe now operates a downtown deli and said he isn’t readily pursuing local leads in radio because he doesn’t feel he will be compensated adequately. These days, he listens mostly to satellite radio. The former KWOD afternoon drive-time deejay called the new format “contrived and serious.”
“It’s nothing I listen to,” he said. “But some people might like it.”
Pryce worked at KWOD for 16 months before she was let go on Good Friday along with several of her colleagues. She said they all were taken into the boardroom and informed of their termination. Since Entercom had officially taken ownership of the station two years earlier, the writing was probably on the wall, she said.
“Entercom went on and on how they loved the brand, that it was going to stay [unchanged]. Then they changed it,” said Pryce. “I think a lot of it had to do with 98 Rock. It’s been in that building forever, and KWOD was always its main competitor. I think they wanted to get rid of the hard music we were playing and toss it over to 98.”
By diversifying the two station’s formats, Pryce speculates, the company figured it could maximize profits. “We had a younger demographic; I think they wanted an older demographic that spends more money,” said Pryce, who expects the station to skew toward “a little more retro stuff.”
“Instead of playing all the new White Stripes, you’ll hear a lot of old Nirvana,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong. Nirvana and Pearl Jam were great bands. But you can only [stand to] hear them once a day.”
Pryce will be moving to Boston in August, where she’s landed a gig on a morning show in a major market (she declined to discuss further details with SN&R). She also will be doing some stand-up comedy, including a June 12 appearance at the Crest, before leaving. She says she doesn’t regret being not kept on with the new format, despite the unceremonious manner in which it happened. The allure of the job had as much to do with the corporate culture and workplace vibe as the music.
“I feel sad for the listeners. I think they really had a great station,” she said. “I thought it had a lot of life in it. It was my first gig in radio, and it had a lot of freedom. We would try and do things that would make listeners happy, even if it wouldn’t make management happy. Radio without rules? It’s all B.S. The life has gone out of it.”
Still, Pryce is philosophical about the nature of the business, in which, she says, “everyone I know has been fired about 58 times.”
“Business is business,” she said. “I hope the new jocks on there like it.”
As for the station’s new tagline, Pryce says it conjures up visions of paunchy, middle-aged radio executives brainstorming to find a slogan that would get younger listeners ears’ perked up, and settling on v2.0 because it sounds high-tech.
Perhaps surprisingly, the one KWOD deejay who wasn’t dramatically affected by the station’s changeover was its weekly punk-show host. Kevin Seconds, a veteran of several local bands as well as the True Love Coffeehouse, said he was pleasantly surprised to learn that he would be kept on despite the changeover.
“Radio just goes through phases. It’s a fickle medium,” Seconds said. “I think it says a lot that they’re willing to keep a punk show on and take risks.” Seconds added that he believes the listeners are “more diverse” than before.
SN&R’s contact with the new KWOD v2.0’s deejays was cut short by program director Jim Robinson, who himself cited a “busy workload” as his own reason for declining repeated interview requests. SN&R later was copied on an e-mail Robinson sent out to staff originally contacted for interviews, in which the program director offered a concise edict: “Let’s pass on this guy,” Robinson wrote. “I’ve emailed him that we’re too busy for an interview. This paper would not be KWOD v2.0-friendly. Thanks.”
Radio without rules, indeed.