99X… The Beginning , Middle and End

Last night I was packing away a couple boxes of notes and scribbles associated with 99X and I thought it was time to reread the notes and do some sharing. (thanks for the e-mails on this subject)

My name is Sean Demery and for much of 99X’s saga I was there. 

From 1989 (WAPW) through 1992 (the birth of 99X) until 2000 and then again from late 2006 till late 2007.

 

The Beginning

 

In the summer of 1992 I was working at CHR Powerhouse Power99 in Atlanta.  At that time I was the music director, Rick Stacy was the Program Director and Leslie Fram was the assistant PD for the station.  We began to believe that Top 40 radio had become a bit embarrassing. This fact was hard on me because I had spent the preceding 15 years programming or working in CHR and Rythmic CHR and really enjoyed it. In the early 90’s, Pop novelty offerings such as “Ice Ice Baby, You Can’t Touch This, Baby’s Got Back and I’m Too Sexy”, did not mix well with “Nirvana’s Never Mind CD, or Pearl Jam’s 10 CD.   Mixing these opposing musical and cultural styles made it overtly apparent that Power 99 needed to pick a position:  Pop drivel or the new emerging Rock culture.  Looking back I suppose Power99 could have gone on to play both, but at that place in time both styles seemed so converse that one needed to pick sides. 

What happened next was a series of odd events, which propelled the station towards a different model. By the end of that summer, Power 99 was without a General Manager. Bill Phippin was succumbing to a terrible bout with cancer.  His passing was a personal loss, as if I were loosing a father figure. When you lose someone important in your life it has a tendency to open your eyes and mind; Bill’s passing made me (and many of us) realize that life was too short to simply be happy with the status quo or mundane. I still live by this axiom to this very day.

After the loss of Phippen, the interim GM was Rick McDonald, who was also the VP of programming for Susquehanna.  Rick, (another smart guy and a friend to this day), was amenable to trying something different as Power 99 had hit lean times in ratings and billing.

 The players at this stage were, Rick Stacy, Leslie Fram and myself. We wrote up a proposal to modernize WAPW, and bring it into the new decade.  Our proposal was simple:  We wanted to change the brand name and its content.  Rick (Stacey) and I made changes to music, Keith Eubanks spearheaded imaging, and Leslie prepared the staff for the changes to come.

The night before the ‘management approved’ music change, and switch to 99X, I called Rick in a panic, at 1am.  I had been scheduling the first day’s music and realized quickly that the changes we made to the Top40 list were not enough to make a difference or leave an impression in a listener’s mind.  Simply omitting the novelty tracks and adding a few Alternative artists wasn’t enough.  So at 1:25am October 26th, 1992, Rick, Leslie and I got on a conference call in our pajamas and changed the station even more than management had approved.  It was gutsy, and completely unsanctioned by Susquehanna; and as youthful, irreverant minds would dictate, the only right thing to do.  By 4:30am we had purged 70% of the approved library and had a music play-list based on our personal preferences, with the three of us laughing, yawning and squeeling “Oh Oh Oh how about…”  As I remember it Steve Craig and I spent most of what remained of the night desperately locating and categorizing CD’s for the new project.  Many of these CDs came from our personal collections, many we never got back and remain in the library on the wall of the control room to this very day.  (By the way Steve would end up playing a key role in 99X’s evolution as time went on.  His sound and demeanor would become the backbone of the overall station jock presentation).

By 5AM the modified 99X was ready for delivery.  Fortunately and unfortunately, management wouldn’t know this until they heard the 6am to 12noon broadcast themselves. This 6-hour show time explained what we were about to do and the actual content changes that would come starting at noon.  Yes, management was peeved and rightfully so.  They were expecting a less radical approach to the 99X they had endorsed.  If anything, Susquehanna Broadcasting was a slow methodical company that didn’t take well to careless shoot from the hip prognostication, and that’s what we were doing; dangerous, passionate, prognostication.

Frankly, if it had not been for the tons of phone calls to the front desk, the bags of mail, faxes and most importantly (in management’s eyes) the overwhelming positive response from local add buyers, 99X would have been still born on the first day. 

99X was put on the air with no research, and with no thought put forth as to how the new format would fit into the commercial sales picture.  It was simply a gut reaction, made by a group of music lovers and radio dweebs, as to where our Atlanta community was in that moment in 1992, nothing more. 

The songs picked had little to do with any published music charts, instead we asked friends what they were listening to and we went to record stores to see what was selling.  That was it.  Many of the music selections we started with were not heard again after the first year.  We had no intention of sounding like the ‘World Famous KROQ’ in Los Angeles.  The imaging for the 99X was based on feeling and vision and less on any particular message.  As a matter of fact, 99X’s first slogan was no slogan at all… “No Labels.”  It meant that our station wasn’t trying to sell you on any concept or marketing slogan.  You only needed to listen to see if it met your music and cultural needs.  No catchphrase was needed for that experience.

  Even the name 99X was a borrowed icon from a Top40 1970s/80s radio station in New York City.  We just thought the name sounded like the alternative music culture in 1992.  It was also a time that a powerful movie about Malcolm X was coming out in theaters; also it didn’t hurt that the letter X meant something just a little unseemly, like an X rated movie, which we liked. Actually now that I think of it 99X never referred to itself as an Alternative station until after 2000 which is funny because by the time some consultant decided we should call it Alternative it had become a music and cultural norm.  Within the first month on the air as 99X, entered Mark Renier.  Mark was hired as the new General Manager with a mandate to turn the station back to the preapproved Susquehanna version.  As it would turn out, Mark became a supporter of our version and over the next 8 years would actually become the major reason 99X would thrive. It was due to his mastery of sales efforts and implementation of NTR that 99X become one of the Top 5 billing stations in the market in the 90s.  Without his leadership and that revenue, 99X would have met a speedy demise. Though we thought we had created something special in 99X, it was adroit business sense and not authentic programming made that 99X viable.

Putting 99X on without all the industry standards was one of the most rewarding radio adventures I’ve ever had.  We didn’t put it on to be the number one station in the market, and it wasn’t.  We didn’t put it on to be the “cooler than you”, because we weren’t.  We didn’t put 99X on to make a whole bunch of money, even though it did in the 90’s and the staff was moderately compensated. We put 99X on the air to have a place to listen to the music we were listening to at home.  And we were hoping listeners would like it as well.  Passion for the music you can play and the ability to share it with others is one of life’s greatest gifts.

 

The Middle

 

In the beginning we thought bands like Ned’s Atomic Dust Bin, James, Charlatan’s UK, Live, Nirvana, Gin Blossoms, Pixies, The Ocean Blue, etc, etc were the “now” bands of the early 90s and they needed a station to expose them.  Many of those bands never came to fruition on 99X.  The bands that were embraced came from the bands that the listeners brought to the table via phone calls, faxes, and later e-mails.

In the 90’s, the station commonly hung in the Top 5 in ratings, in persons 18-34 (its target). And at its peak, top 5 in 18-49 persons. From these fruits of ratings prominence 99X went from billing 7 million dollars in ad revenue in 1992, to just a hair under 20 million a year in 1999.  For the programming and on-air staff, increased station revenue meant more freedom to stray from the conformity of industry music charts and radio trade standards, and more funds to put into cultural events like the Chinese New Year’s concert and Big Day Out.

During the 90’s, 99X had a play list of researched favorites, which the jocks were allowed to deviate from occasionally to insert their own musical finds. This is where many new artists/bands got their first exposure.  It was common to hear Will Pendarvis, Steve or myself delve deeper into new CDs, take 20 minutes to play the best tracks from a staple artist, play something that just came in the mail, or that we found at Criminal Records, or to just fool around for an hour every Friday in the Swinging Velveeta Lounge, whatever.  As a matter of fact, the Lounge was inspired from a comment a listener made to me; he told me that I was cheesy as hell and didn’t deserve to be listened to.  “You want cheesy!  I’ll give ya cheesey!” That specialty show of novelty records, sound effects, movie drops, and a live studio audience was the silliest thing I’ve ever done.  The program had a great following, was disliked by management, and still they spent $200 on a banner for the program.  What a station! I have the banner rolled up in the corner of my office.  It’ll make a lovely drop clothe for painting.

In those days, commonly upwards of 50% of everything heard on the station was new music.  That meant that literally every other song you heard on 99X was new or less than 3 months old. Playing new music, moving forward, building the new music culture for the moment, that was our mantra.  The Programming staff picked music and mindset for the station and the jocks cleanly rendered their version of the over all station philosophy.  This was a dream job for any jock who wanted an open canvas to paint and not a “paint by numbers” gig.

 

The End

 

The demise of 99X started long before Cumulus broadcasting acquired the station.  The blame for the station’s decline needs to be spread amongst everybody who ever programmed, managed or manned a microphone, myself included.  When you step up to the plate and swing away, sometimes you’ll get a hit, sometimes you get a home run, other times you simply strike out.  Even great players misjudge the ball and strike out.  There is no shame in failure if you try.

1998 was a troubling year for the station.  Though the ratings were good and billing was at an all time high, 99X began resting on its laurels. At least it felt that way. The station over all became a much safer place than earlier in the decade.  Internally it became over analyzed, over researched and over scrutinized.  Because of its success, management wanted to make sure that we were doing the “right thing” when it came to running a proper Alternative station.  The screws began to tighten ever so slightly.  Less chances were taken, and more and more of 99X started sounding like we were filling the agreed upon template.

After Q100 was added to the Susquehanna Atlanta family, Leslie was upped to oversee both Q100 and 99X and Chris Williams became PD. During this time and in observance of emerging market conditions 99X took a harder male exclusive turn that began to alienate women and alternative lifestyle groups that the station was originally based upon.  It was yet another calculated risk that just didn’t pan out.  I can honestly say that if I had still been there during that time I might have strayed down that path as well.  This new direction put 99X’s sound at odds with itself.  In effect, for a time 99X lost its way.  This happens to many radio stations as well as branded products in any industry.  Once you alienate a treasured listener it is hard to get them back.

 By the mid 2000’s, at least three different consultants had their fingers in 99X’s pie.  The result of this guidance from three converse advisors was something I call “programming by consensus”.  By doing this you get a down the middle compromise which ends up not serving any one listener with anything they really want.   I’m guessing that it drove Leslie Fram crazy.  She’s a smart programmer who had to spend daunting hours in meetings and on conference calls listening to multiple pundits postulate about what the station needed to do.  Leslie spent much of 2000’s having to deal with outside help that management wanted as a pacifier, help she didn’t need.  What she needed was to be left alone in the same way as when she helped create the station in the first place.

The more unfocused the station became the more the station took on a defensive posture.  Defensive posturing is boring.  No one throws a punch they just hold their hands in front of their faces and wait for the fight to end… and it has.

With Cumulus taking over several years ago there actually might have been a chance 99X could have been reborn.  But alas Cumulus is very much into centralized programming and music accounting.  Music accounting is where you depend heavily on auditorium music tests, weekly call out, and perceptuals to tell you what to play and what to think.  This process works fine for many CHR, AC, Rhythmic, Classic Rock, Country and Latin formats but not for Youth Culture offerings.  You can’t plop 100 participants into an auditorium and play them 500 pieces of songs and then just pick the top 225 songs and say “Boom, there’s your Alternative play list!”  This kind of music accounting doesn’t take into consideration music generations, cultural rifts, artists based congruity and the ubiquity of these tracks in the populous.  Music accounting is a soulless way to build a station. Cumulus seemingly programs most of their stations this way and with some good results.  Unfortunately, they didn’t understand that though it’s all well and good that Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, STP’s Vasoline and Man in the Box by Alice in Chains may test marvelously you cannot build a Youth (young adult) culture station around them.  Those bands are from two music generations ago.  In other words if you were 21 in 1992 you’d be 36 or 37 today and you might have an 18 year old.  Though you may like early grunge your offspring thinks this music is their dad’s music.  Though some youth are multi generational in their tastes, many don’t want to listen to their dad’s music.  Every generation deserves its own battle cry.  Hormones dictate it… not research.

As stated earlier in this rant, in the mid 90’s, upwards of 50% of the music 99X played was new based.  This meant that every other song was new or no older than 3 months old.  Recently 99X has been operating with a max of 19% new music.  That means that you get 3 new songs an hour, and many of those were ill focused for the 99X music community.  In the end, it seems that Cumulus was in fact programming 99X like an AC station with alternative rock hits, in the hopes of securing a 25 – 54 year old add buys.  Focusing on 25-54 with a station that was built to accrue 18 -34 year old is like putting a bicycle on the track in a stock car race.  Peddle as hard as you want… you lose the race… by miles.

Looking from a music stand point it seems like Cumulus couldn’t understand the fact that Bush, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and their ilk were the bands of yester year, and were not the building blocks for the current music generation.  It felt like that they were trying to recreate the 90’s.  The 90’s are gone.  They couldn’t understand what bands like the Shins, Silversun Pickups, Band of Horses, Arcade Fire, The Bravery, Interpol, Spoon, Against Me, Rise Against, etc had to do with 99X.  These are bands that sell out medium sized venues in Atlanta with little or no airplay; they have massive internet and magazine prominence.  These are the same types of building blocks we used in 1992; these are today’s building blocks for this music generation.

As we get close to the end it didn’t really matter.  Bert from the Bert show (on Q100) needed to be on a better city grade signal, which 99X had.  99X of late hadn’t produced enough ratings or revenue to continue to stay viable.  Cumulus depends heavily on the Bert Show to make Q100’s nut.  Boom, it’s that simple.  Keep Bert happy and switch frequencies and as a bonus do something on the new station that won’t have 99X baggage.  In other words, start anew.  Maybe not a bad idea… we shall see.

Pertaining to the frequency switch and demise of 99X, I had no idea of the events that were about to unfold when I left.  I just figures that they would lumber along long after my exit.  And contrary to the many e-mails I have received, I do not believe my leaving prompted Cumulus to give up on 99X.  I made very little difference in the molding of 99X over the last year, and my appearance on the New Morning X was benign at best. I merely thought that my leaving would create a slot for someone new to infuse the team with a new spark into a smoldering fire.

At its best, 99X was that radio station that used to be pretty damn good.  Again, it wasn’t crafted to be a mass appeal number one station.  How the hell could you be the Alternative to pop (popular) culture and also be the most popular?  99X was there to aggregate enough quality listeners to satisfy the sales department and to satisfy the programming staffs need to do something that mattered.  99X helped multitudes of bands get their start.  The station staffers received numerous industry awards and accolades.  At times 99X felt like it was making a difference. At its best 99X was a great experience on the inside.  I hope it was good for you as well, because that’s why we created the station in the first place. 

We were 99X and for the most part it was a blast.

 

To everyone I can think of who initially made 99X the talk of the industry for years…Thank you.

Rick Stacy the first 99X program director – For having the guts to implement what we were all thinking.  His chutzpah gave 99X its birth and battle cry. 

Brian Phillips the second 99X program director – His vision and moral support gave the 99X staff the fortitude to do more than the basics and have a hell of a lot of fun doing it.

Leslie Fram – One of the smartest and most decent programmers out there.  She commanded 99X for its best years and tried to rally common sense into upper management long after they stopped listening.  She is much smarter than the product you’ve been hearing for the last several years.  She knew what to do but couldn’t get a buy in from upper management.  No one could.

The Morning X with Barnes , Leslie and Jimmy was one of the better morning shows ever to grace any station.  They were one of the main reasons 99X flourished.

Steve Craig – The passionate music aficionado who infused knowledge and zeal into the daytime hours and beyond.

Will Pendarvis – Delightfully mentally imbalanced. Will understood how to build his own ethos within the walls of 99X.  In effect he infected all of us.

Axel – Smart, constant and always interesting… He rose from intern phone answering guy a very proficient talent and a genuinely good guy.

Keith Eubanks – The twisted troubled soul who gave 99X its first interesting imaged sound.  He is sorely missed from this world.

 

As for me I’m appreciative for the opportunity I initially had to be a part of the 99X team.  It afforded me freedom, inspiration, numerous industry awards and never being in want of new job opportunities.  For me the second time around not-so-much.  It’s why I left 99X several months ago.  It wasn’t worth doing something mediocre and not being with my family.  I have left several good gigs over the years sighting family needs because in the end family is more important than being a cog in the wheel of mediocrity.  Doing something that matters has been with me since the passing of Power99’s GM Bill Phippin.  Life is way to short to do lifeless work.  There are always new fulfilling battles to wage.

Bill if you can hear me now, know that you influenced myself and a lot of people’s lives, way after we were deprived of your smile.

 

sd

   

January 22, 2008 at 8:12 pm 73 comments


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