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Smells Like Top 40? : As Alternative Music Gains Popularity, So Does KROQ Radio


The management of KROQ-FM (106.7) would still like the world to think of the station as something of a renegade, even if the so-called alternative pop it plays has, in fact, become the music of the mainstream, the hits at the top of the charts.

"We don't want to be too popular," said Trip Reeb, KROQ's general manager.

"If we went to No. 1, it would probably scare us to death," said Kevin Weatherly, the station's program director. "We wouldn't want to trash our image."

But whether listeners view KROQ as rebel radio or as a comfortable old pair of Doc Martens, they're listening in bigger numbers than any time in the past decade. In the most recent Arbitron ratings for Los Angeles, KROQ catapulted to No. 5 in the market--ahead of all other rock stations including top-40 station KIIS-FM.

A year ago KROQ--which was born in the late '70s and has traditionally been the home of relatively accessible punk, new wave, British dance music and bands like the Clash, Devo and the English Beat--was No. 14 with 70% of the audience it enjoys today.

It's happened because much of the station's direct competition has disappeared. It's happened because KROQ now plays its listeners' "favorite songs" over and over again--"reflecting the market," as Weatherly puts it, "instead of always trying to lead the market." And it's happened, at least in part, thanks to Nirvana, the Seattle band that two years ago turned grunge into multiplatinum.

"I don't think Nirvana is a bad reference point," Reeb said, "but what happened is that around that time you had the beginning of young people (in their teens and 20s) developing their own musical identity and preferences. Alternative music wasn't Depeche Mode anymore and that synth kind of dance sound that KROQ used to play.

"And some of those bands that young people had been listening to for a long time were getting older, and now the whole thing has been taken over by new bands that are much younger and have become these people's groups."

Weatherly believes that the alternative boom was born out of a rejection of the music of the late '80s--when most pop-radio stations were playing nothing but "disposable one-hit wonders." On one end, he said, there were pretty-haired rockers like Warrant and Bon Jovi, and on the other end were bubble-gum pop acts like Paula Abdul, Milli Vanilli and New Kids on the Block.

Into that scene bloomed "alternative"--which wasn't so much a specific kind of music, but everything that wasn't heavy metal, glam rock, Mariah Carey and R&B. Radio consultant Jeff Pollack, who has been touting "alternative" as a hot format for the past couple of years, jokes that "alternative is everything that isn't Neil Young."

"Alternative music couldn't be hotter," Pollack said. "Mainstream rock bands are having a much tougher time getting launched and getting airplay. And where before alternative stations had to rely on a certain amount of fringe groups, they are now dealing with a huge number of talented, fresh and accessible bands.

"This music is better than it has ever been and it's happening in a way it never did before. The fact that (former college radio fave) Smashing Pumpkins can debut at No. 10 (on the Billboard album chart) is incredible."

Alternative as a record industry term now covers pop music that ranges from the mellow, melodic Cranberries to the rap group Cypress Hill to the guitar-heavy Alice in Chains to reggae-sounding UB40 to perennial superstars like U2, Sting and Peter Gabriel.

It has been pushed along by MTV, which has adopted this sound and these bands as one of its most prized possessions. And where many mainstream rock bands have had difficulty selling records and concert tickets, such alternative concerts as Lollapalooza have been big money triumphs.

Added to the sheer breadth and popularity of this genre, KROQ has imposed a more professional, more top-40 programming approach since Weatherly and his deputy, Gene Sandbloom, came to the station about a year ago. Both were award-winning programmers at CHR--certified hits radio or top-40--stations in other markets, said Ken Barnes, editor of the industry trade publication Radio & Records.

"They are now showing a greater skill in assembling a playlist, in picking the right music and rotating it properly," Barnes said. "I hesitate to say that things are tighter or that they rotate songs with greater frequency than in the past, but they have hit on a formula that works. They don't play very much that would alienate their loyal listeners, but at the same time they play enough variety to appeal to a vast number of tastes."

But fans of punk and even fans of many of the bands that KROQ regularly plays, fans who support the live music scene at such local venues as the Whisky, Bogart's and the Hollywood Palladium, lament that "if it isn't popular, KROQ won't play it."

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