The Rise & Fall of My Love for LA’s Alternative Radio Stations
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
As an English person, moving to Southern California was (and still can be) an exhilarating experience. The great weather, the proximity to Los Angeles…oh, and getting to live with my amazing wife, to name a few reasons. But one concept that took me by surprise—the pleasant kind, initially—was the area’s alternative music radio stations. Sadly, my jubilation soon turned to frustration, confusion and, in the end, the abandonment of these stations, as I started to question just why they are the way that they are.
A bit of background: I grew up in small town surrounded by fields and other small towns. The nearest city (also pretty small) had a couple of local commercial stations, but I was raised on BBC Radio 1. For those unfamiliar with British radio, the BBC holds a fairly strong grip on the market, and Radio 1 is essentially its “Top 40” outlet, although it gets a bit more diverse in the evenings (RIP The Punk Show). As the BBC is paid for by the taxpayer, the stations are ad-free, and they are less beholden to the music industry monoliths.
ANYWAY, after a brief flirtation with BBC Radio 2 in my mid-20s, I landed on BBC 6Music—helped by the then-new prevalence of DAB technology—where I stayed content until my transatlantic move. 6Music is the BBC’s “alternative” offering, but in the broadest sense of the word. It wouldn’t be weird, for example, to hear Four Tet followed by Kate Bush, At The Drive-In and Toots & The Maytals. It wasn’t always to my tastes, but my time listening to the station broadened my palate tenfold.
At its best, 6Music is fun, informative and challenging. So what about LA’s two most popular alternative stations: The World Famous KROQ, and Alt 98.7?
Well, you know when you’re hanging out at a friend’s house and everyone gets drunk enough to want to hear “the classics” at full volume? That’s what these stations are, in a nutshell—but with a heavy US (or even California) bias.
The classics I’m referring to are what teenagers who didn’t wash enough were listening to in the 90s and 00s: Blink-182, Linkin Park, Nirvana…Sublime, RHCP (oh, so much RHCP), Third Eye Blind. You get the picture.
At first, it’s endearing and fun—just like it is at 1am when you and your pals are all high on life and thinking you know more of the lyrics to Come As You Are than you actually do. It’s also exciting! “Ha! Green Day into Foo Fighters into The Killers?!” you exclaim, “I could get used to this!”
Turns out, no. No you can’t get used to this. I’ve heard Santeria more times in the last 18 months than I’d heard in my entire life previously. C’mon, no one Likes Sublime THAT much. And why is each band only afforded one or two songs, max? If you’re going to keep playing the same bands, at least throw in a lesser-known track every once in a while.
Now, I can only attest to the last 18 months of these stations’ output, but it appears that things used to be even more one-track minded. The past year has seen a huge shake-up at KROQ in particular, with fan-favorite DJs being unexpectedly canned and more popular artists like Post Malone and Billie Eilish garnering top spots on the “Most Played” list.
But despite this overhaul, I’ve still heard Blur’s Song 2 (the only song they’ve ever written, obvs) what feels like thousands of times since I moved. You don’t even hear it that much in the UK.
The Magic Alternative Rock Station Formula has presumably been tough to crack since guitar music started its decline in popularity a few years back, but it feels like this recent mainstream pop injection is the first time these stations have updated their formula since the 2000s (when KROQ had the most listened to morning show in Los Angeles). IMO, it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to address the jejuneness of their playlists.
It’s sad, really. These stations have the power to influence millions. But according to the number crunchers, listeners are unwilling to handle more than one new track a week—from an artist already getting plenty of airplay on other stations.
KROQ and Alt 98.7 absolutely had to diversify their output, but it’s a shame they seem to have completely ignored the fresh, hip (OK, grandad) guitar music that’s about right now. The likes of Charly Bliss, Mannequin Pussy, Car Seat Headrest or even Phoebe Bridgers don’t seem to get a look in. Are Gen Zs really not listening to these artists?
I don’t know what the future holds for stations like these. The whole playing-the-same-few-songs-on-rotation issue is not just a rock radio problem. But considering the previous popularity of these pillars of radio history, I assume Americans don’t mind repetition that much.
I guess, it’s not that bad. I’ve been guilty of passionately singing along to the timeless Evanescence number Bring Me To Life more than once, getting weird looks from the car next to me as I launch into the “Save me from the naaaaathing I’ve become” part. If you know what you’re getting yourself into, you can pretend your commute to work is the last 30 minutes of your old university’s rock club night. Soak yourself in beer, put an arm around the stranger next to you. And just go nuts.