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


Edgy, small-label bands such as Fugazi, Giant Sand, Sebadoh and Gallon Drunk rarely break into KROQ's playlist and even a fairly big-name performer like Paul Westerberg rarely gets a chance, even though his KROQ band of the mid-'80s, the Replacements, was a trailblazer for current mega-acts like Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fans of such music begrudge KROQ its renegade attitude because, they claim, it is nothing of the sort.

"I don't see how they can call it alternative anymore," said Dara Jaffe, 28, who has been listening to KROQ since she was in junior high. "You can hardly tell the difference now between KROQ and KIIS-FM."

"I resent the fact that they consider themselves a rebel when, in fact, they cater to a much more mainstream and juvenile audience," said Catherine Meyers, a 26-year-old former KROQ listener. "Their playlist is mostly made up of grunge schlock that is today's flavor du jour. Any new and truly original rock artists are impossible to find on KROQ."

"That is inevitable," Barnes said. "If a station becomes popular, the real music fanatics will get frustrated and will not be able to hear the more cutting edge, avant-garde acts that they like. They are always way ahead of commercial radio and their favorite bands like a group as uncompromising as Fugazi, are simply not perceived as radio-friendly. So they can turn to (college station) KXLU-FM (88.9) where they play anything they feel like playing with no concern for advertising or sales or any of those mundane things."

Reeb admits that a station concerned with making a profit cannot play everything. And while neither he nor Weatherly will say just how often they repeat the same hit songs each day, they insist that it is with less frequency than during other periods in KROQ's 15-year history.

But Reeb, who came four years ago from alternative music station XTRA (91X) in San Diego, defends today's KROQ by pointing to the enormous diversity in tempos and styles that the station showcases on a daily basis.

"We haven't succeeded by compromising or homogenizing the radio station and, in fact, I believe that KROQ is one of the most challenging stations anywhere in commercial radio," Reeb said. "We run the gamut between Julianna Hatfield to Blind Melon to Cypress Hill. We deal with all of them, and I'm not saying that every person is going to like every song. But young people today are much more open to pushing in all directions, and we are not disappointing them. I really believe that any station that tries to be more cutting edge with new music than we are right now is going to be a bad-sounding radio station."

KROQ essentially has no direct competition in this market. KQLZ-FM (100.3), or Pirate, which for a time tried to compete with a mix of heavy rock and alternative, switched to a mellow adult-contemporary format earlier this year.

KAJZ-FM (103.1), or Mars, which not long ago went off into the galaxy, tried to compete with a kind of techno-industrial, alternative mix before changing its call letters and switching to jazz.

The departure of those stations from the rock radio scene, along with the immense continuing success of KROQ's nighttime programming, especially the sex and drugs call-in show, "Love Line," have boosted KROQ's fortunes in all day parts, Pollack said. Reeb and Weatherly still believe that the station has plenty of competition from traditional album rock KLOS-FM and top-40 KIIS-FM, even though neither of those stations, because of their formats, can play anything but a handful of "alternative" hits at a time.

Despite its wide popularity, this genre still is probably not big enough to support two hot stations, even in a market as big as Los Angeles, Barnes said, and the well-entrenched KROQ would be an 800-pound gorilla for any new challenger. In San Diego, however, a new upstart, XHRM-FM (92.5), is challenging longtime alternative station 91X, and if it succeeds, Barnes said, some station might give it a whirl here.

But Reeb doesn't buy it.

"I think with what it costs for a radio station in this market today," he said, "anyone that will come in and try to compete with what we do on a different level than what's already out there is going to cut themselves in for such a small share of the audience that they aren't going to make any money."

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