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ON THE TOWN

THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED : How Do You Go About Resetting Push-Button No. 1 When Your Favorite Radio Station Has Gone?

March 19, 1995|Jonathan Gold

If you've paid a little attention lately, you've heard all the sides of the public-broadcasting debate, about the legislators eager to de-fund PBS, shut down NPR, privatize the stations with the glee of 13-year-olds given the opportunity to sell their junior high school lunchroom to McDonald's. A lot of people would be sad if the public radio stations all started playing soft hits of the '70s instead of Silvia Pogiolli. I spend more time in my car listening to public radio than I admit to even my closest friends (they think I drive around blasting Napalm Death and the Geto Boys). But when my favorite rock station went off the air last month, nobody I knew even noticed.

Some stations may always have had more nationwide pull, others higher ratings, but sometimes KNAC seemed like the most popular station on earth, with bumper stickers on half the beater cars in Hawthorne, and T-shirts on two-thirds of the audience at Kiss shows. The station did everything a hard-rock station should do, with local-music shows and deejays who sounded as if they were working on 12 cups of coffee, and a show where, once a week, bootleg collectors compared takes of a Metallica song recorded in 1987 in Dusseldorf with a 1993 version taped in Denver.

The advertisements on the station may have been for auto-parts stores, last-chance auto insurance companies and bars featuring bikini'd waitresses and Jell-O shots, but KNAC cut through a vast cross-section of Los Angeles--Rush-loving aerospace engineers listening in their beachfront condos as well as unemployed Pantera fans still living with their parents in Bell Gardens, auto mechanics and young attorneys: dudes, one and all. When they listened to the station, they were lunkheads together, caught up in the brotherhood of the mosh. Nobody weeps for these guys--a lot of people I know tend to consider the fact that Hole's current record has sold better than Motley Crue's last one morally equivalent to the Allied victory over the Germans in World War II--but people who prefer Def Leppard to the Cranberries have taken a real hit.

Not even Beavis and Butt-head claim to like mainstream hard rock anymore. But when the pop-culture battle lines shift once again, as they almost by definition do, we'll all be listening to blow-dry metal again. As with the mass closure of real '50s diners mere months before the retro thing kicked into gear, as with the wholesale demise of tiki-theme cocktail bars just before a new cocktail generation came of drinking age, a keen observer can already spot the signs of a fluff-metal resurgence a-borning. There are lavishly packaged Twisted Sister box sets in our future.

But it comes too late for KNAC. When Nirvana hit a few years ago and hard rock shifted over from the hair bands to the "alternative" thing, the station never really recovered. The deejays played a lot of the new stuff all right, the Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam and Offspring, mixing it up with songs from Megadeth and vintage Van Halen, but you got the feeling their heart was never in it, that they missed the years of giant KNAC shows at the Long Beach Arena featuring Winger and Alice in Chains and Ozzy Osbourne. Toward the end, it was often difficult to tell the difference between the metal station and the local alternative-rock station, except that KROQ tended to play Euro-pop by guys like Morrissey between its sets of Soundgarden and Nirvana, and KNAC leavened its play list with AC/DC and Ozzy. (The left-hand button on my car's radio has been set to KNAC for as long as I can remember.)

Heavy-metal stations don't have subscription drives. Their listeners sit around and come up with elaborate scenarios that involve Metallica buying the station, or a record company stepping in, or a big-stadium benefit concert starring Axl Rose and KISS. None of these came to pass. And last month, a deejay cued up Metallica's "Fade to Black" and cranked up the volume--and a few minutes later, the station was gone.

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