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Tuesday, February 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Mark Rahner
Seattle hasn't heard this much grunge since Kurt was alive and Courtney still had her first nose.
Smells like an alternative radio battle. Nearly two months after format shake-ups at two local FM stations, each is predicting victory in a town they say can support just one, the radio industry is watching it all unfold in a trend-setting market, and we're suddenly exposed to more Nirvana than a Buddhist true believer.
They're calling it a "dramatic adjustment" at KNDD (107.7) The End, says program director Phil Manning.
At noon on Dec. 18, The End staff gathered in a conference room to hear Manning's announcement on the radio at the same time as every other listener: There would be a complete reinvention of the station that had been the alternative mainstay here for more than a dozen years. Less personality and yammering, and back to basics with the music that put this town on the map in the early '90s. More Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana. Less "third-generation Nirvana wannabes" and "dumb rock" like Limp Bizkit.
Throw in more obscure cuts and artists atypical of a commercial station, with new and local material, and you get a format Manning's calling "iPod alternative. It's just kind of random. You never know what's going to come up next."
The next day, Dec. 19, the staff of '80s station KYPT (96.5) The Point gathered in a meeting room for a similar announcement: They were henceforth working at KRQI K-Rock whose rotation would be heavy on the same alt classics but without the new/local stuff. That is, most of them were working there.
A couple of jocks, says operations manager Mike Preston, "left because they were folks of a more adult-contemporary mode. Not every talent fits every format." So K-Rock adopted what Preston is just calling an "alternative" format (as opposed to "classic alternative" or its permutations) as well as a couple of The End's ex-jocks: Bill Reid and Andy Savage. The latter's Web site, www.andysavage.com, has for some time displayed the message, "Andy Savage and his morning show are busy listening to their new favorite Seattle radio station 96-5 K-ROCK." Preston confirms that Savage starts in April, after his non-compete agreement expires.
What about the proximity and causality of two adjustments? Depends on who's answering the question.
First Preston: "Our sense is they were very scared. We think they knew that we had Andy Savage. He was their morning show, and since he's left the air, things have kind of dimmed there. I think they kind of wanted to do whatever they could to dilute whatever impact he might have."
(Entercom-owned KNDD ranks 14th tied with KISW compared with a tie for seventh place overall in spring 2002. Infinity's KYPT is 21st, down from 18th place at the same time. "It wasn't a secret that the station had been struggling," Preston says.)
The only on-air casualty at The End, by the way, was the Marconi show. Imported from Portland, it lasted a scant 37 broadcasts. It was nothing they did and they didn't draw a landslide of complaints, Manning and Keller insist; their shtick just didn't fit the new ideology.
"Do you like fart jokes? Do you like fat jokes? Do you like base humor?" Manning asks. For that matter, he adds that Savage wouldn't have fit anymore, either. (Though leaving when his contract ran out in September was Savage's idea.) Manning says he's developing a "different kind of morning show" but won't elaborate.
Meanwhile, what you're not hearing anymore out of The End is as notable as what you are hearing: No more DJs talking over the music. No more quick-cut maniacal production style.
"We've taken our voice guy from snowboarder to skier," Manning says. "DJs are not allowed to mention any major record-label name. Nobody's a customer to a label, they're a customer to a band."
There's a laundry list of broadcasting clichés outlawed with a $5 penalty per utterance: "before that," "preceding that," "at the beginning," "at the top," "at the top of the set," "in that set," "at the top of the hour," "coming up," "also in there," "single," "the latest single" ... and Manning adds, "If you're not Keith Jackson on college football day, you should never use the words 'kicking off.' "
The net effect: End DJs have to think about what they're saying now. Thinking is hard.
"I had to relearn a lot of the ways that I spoke and the way that I talked on the radio," says night-time guy Andrew Harms. "Music filled the gaps in dead air when you paused. Nothing is louder in the world than dead air. That was a total crutch."
The on-air result is a refreshing and only occasionally irritating hybrid between an edgy college station and the other polished ones in the Entercom stable.
Says Harms, "Previously we were a very slick radio station, very by-the-numbers, very produced, and the new focus of the station, that's not what we're meant to be. It's more natural."
Management at both stations naturally claims that listener response has been overwhelmingly positive 90 percent at The End, by Manning's estimate, and 95 percent at K-Rock by Preston's. It won't be until the Arbitron winter ratings are released in April before anyone knows if those numbers are hyperbole.
Meanwhile, even though Seattle is just the 14th-largest radio market, The End is a bellwether station, says Max Tolkoff, alternative editor at trade mag Radio & Records. "People around other radio stations still look at The End in Seattle as a station that breaks new music, so they want to see what they're playing.
"The radio industry is like little ducks, lemmings," Tolkoff says. "KMET in L.A. was a heritage rock station that flipped to smooth jazz in 1988, and the next thing you know, smooth jazz was the format du jour. The industry has their eye on the station (KNDD), so if ratings look like they're good we might see ripples from it."
An article in the latest Rolling Stone places The End in a "classic alternative" trend that kicked off (Note: $5 to Manning) in late 2002 on San Diego's KBZT. Tolkoff and Rolling Stone both point to another, less lofty, driving force: the beer industry, which is now aiming its ad money at older-demographic stations. Hence the grungy oldies.
The End and K-Rock are both talking a bit of smack although since the arena is non-confrontational Seattle, there isn't likely to be a war like the one between "WKRP in Cincinnati" and its sitcom rival WPIG.
"I'm sure there's a battle brewing, absolutely," Harms says. "It would surprise me greatly if there were two radio stations like this in a year. We're in a lot better position not to be boring in a month. We've been doing this for many, many years. People associate alternative music in Seattle with The End."
Over at K-Rock, Preston repeats "War?" and laughs. "Yes, we are competing with them as well as several other stations. Our focus is on music that's broader-based, more heritage music." A year from now, Preston says, "I think we'll be providing a successful music product for folks."
Tolkoff says the odds seem to favor KNDD. "The edge tends to go to the station that's been around the longest."
But not so fast: "The End has performed a very, very risky maneuver here. Especially since they have now sent those hard-rockin' kids over to sister station KISW. If this gambit doesn't work, can they get those listeners back? Plus, Infinity never gives up easily, or soon. That's why it's hard to predict the ultimate outcome."
In fact, he says, "Seattle has a long history of alternative, going back to KJET in the '80s. It may, in fact, be one of those few markets where two alternative stations can co-exist."
On one of the front lines, aka Sonic Boom Records in Fremont, clerk Morgan Jones welcomes KNDD's shake-up.
"I think that it's an improvement. I thought their format was kind of becoming too similar to other radio stations and further from what their original goal had been. They spent a lot of time with talk-radio kind of stuff. Music they were playing became a lot more standardized, more corporate in my opinion, like what MTV was doing."
So what are customers saying?
"Most customers listen to KEXP."
Which isn't even a commercial station. So Nevermind.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or email@example.com
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