The phrase “alternative music” is such a cliche today it could mean almost anything. But for early punk rockers and new wavers who rebelled against “corporate rock,”--bands like Fleetwood Mac, Boston and Styx----alternative music really did exist. Thanks to conservative radio programmers, you couldn’t hear it on the radio.
A local alternative music family of sorts set out to remedy that injustice by putting bands like The Clash, The Smiths and The Cure on the radio, into listener’s minds and onto the permanent map of popular culture.
For anyone who remembers the almost backwater quality of life along the Wasatch Front during the early and mid-’80s, the emergence of renegade stations such as “Super 107,” KCGL, and KJQ was shocking and remarkable.
Years ago, they were the breeding ground for a new collective identity forged among a loyal band of listeners, not to mention a business model that stretched the boundaries of radio formats and marketing. Although those early stations have faded, their signals remains strong. Today, their near-forgotten call letters are the historical inspiration behind ratings powerhouses X96 and 107.5 “The End.”
Utah’s alternative-rock radio history is a strange one. It’s a story of fanatical listeners and schizophrenic programming decisions--all revolving around music that ranged from the silliest new wave trifle to some of the most powerful rock’n’roll epics ever screamed over the airwaves. It’s also the story of a group of native Utahns who, over the course of nearly 20 years, remained in the same market playing the same music on seven different stations.
Ultimately, it’s a story of success against formidable odds.
From New Wave to Modern Rock
Surprising as it may seem, Utah was one of the first places in the country to boast an alternative music radio station. In 1983, Utahns were on the cutting edge of rock with a station that actually played music from the B-52s, Talking Heads and The Ramones. Although “Super 107” was on the air less than a year, it launched the careers of Mike Summers and Biff Raff. These two high-school kids grew up with their listeners, and subsequently led X96 and 107.5 “The End” to tremendous success.
When “Super 107” died in late 1983, Summers and Raff led a band of true believers and initiated the “Modern Music Experience” at KCGL in early 1984. Located at 105.5, it was Utah’s first station dedicated to alternative music, responsible for introducing incredulous listeners to the sounds of synth-and-drum-machine favorites Depeche Mode, Howard Jones, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and New Order.
By autumn of 1984, KCGL was booking the most popular alternative-music artists for sold-out concerts in medium and large venues. Most important, KCGL served as the unifying element for Utah’s growing alternative music community.
Thousands of Utah teenagers placed KCGL bumper stickers on their cars, clubbed at venues like The Maxim in Salt Lake City and The Star Palace in Provo, and adopted the dress and hairstyles of their favorite artists. The station was a cultural mirror for its listeners. It watched for music trends and tastes among its audience, while the audience looked to the station for new songs and brash new bands.
Current 107.5 “The End” personality Jimmy Chunga grew up listening to KCGL, and admits that it helped him find his own style, one that ran against the mainstream tastes of his high school classmates.
“I remember thinking the KCGL disc jockeys were the coolest group of people in the whole world,” says the host of Mornings with Chunga and Mister.
“My early memories were just being a little punk kid and finally having something that I could kind of call mine. Where I could say, ‘This is my thing. I can have purple hair. I can wear a trench coat. I can get my ass kicked every day by a bunch of cowboys. But these guys are mine.’”
KCGL hit the big time when the Gavin Report named it 1985’s “Alternative Station of the Year.” Listeners were tuning in. The station was starting to make money. To the listener, everything sounded perfect--until they woke up one fall day in 1986 to find the station gone. People expecting to hear Summers’ morning show instead heard an hour-long loop of Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.” Obviously, KCGL’s management did.
Listeners were outraged, so much so that some launched a petition drive across Wasatch Front high school and university campuses to get the station back on signal. More than 60,000 signatures were collected, but to no avail. KCGL and the “Modern Music Experience” were destined to become fond memories for the growing number of alternative music fans in Utah.
KCGL disc jockeys took jobs where they could find them. Summers even worked briefly at KISN97 during the winter months under the “Mike Winters” moniker. But plans were already in the works for a new alternative music station.
By mid-1987, refugees from KCGL were brokering evening time on a small northern Utah station that cheesily billed itself as “Utah’s WKRP.” The station played top-40 music during the day, but allowed Summers and Raff to play alternative music during evenings and weekends.
Looking back at those days, Summers says, “We worked at KRP for a few months and then we ventured into the biggest hell I’ve ever encountered: KJQ.”
“The Fun Pigs” move to “Radio Hell”
Playing the latest hits from overblown stadium rockers like Journey, Loverboy and Pat Benatar, the original KJQ was a tiny top-40 outlet in Ogden that could only be heard in northern Utah.
Current X96 morning show host Bill Allred joined KJQ in 1979, serving as a nighttime disc jockey and morning show news guy. When he left the station in 1986 to take a promotions job at the now-defunct KOOG TV 30, his replacement was, ironically, future morning show partner, Kerry Jackson.
Eight months later, in a move that can only be attributed to dumb luck, KJQ’s general manager rehired Bill Allred and demanded that he and Jackson create a new morning show. Thus, the program that would eventually become Radio From Hell took shape.
“We called ourselves ‘The Fun Pigs,’” Jackson recalls. “We put together a pretty good show.”
At the same time, Summers and KCGL’s former sales manager, Richard Rees, were negotiating with KJQ to move their alternative format to the station. In April 1987, a time-brokerage agreement with KJQ allowing alternative music to air during the evenings was reached.
The marriage of a Top-40 station and alternative music DJs was fraught with difficulty from the beginning. KJQ’s sales staff worried about retaining an advertising base that included such conservative clients as Zions Bank and ZCMI. All assumed a station that appealed to new-wavers and Goths was the very definition of a hard sell.
Summers had his own worries. He demanded that KJQ’s general manager fire the station’s entire air staff to make room for the KCGL talent. He got his wish with one exception: Jackson and Allred’s morning show had to stay. Summers eventually agreed that Jackson and Allred could keep the morning show, but made everyone aware that he was skeptical of their ability to appeal to an alternative music audience.
Such skepticism was warranted. While Summers and others had built and nurtured the audience, in the eyes of most former KCGL employees, Jackson and Allred were nothing more than a couple of Top-40 hacks. They didn’t know the music. They had no preexisting relationship with the audience. They were destined to fail.
As expected, the audience gave Jackson and Allred a cold reception. Listeners called during the morning show, posing questions to test their knowledge of the music.
“The phone calls were so mean and so cruel for a while,” Jackson remembers. “Then suddenly, after talking with the people on the phone and understanding what was going on inside their head, and getting to know them, they started to accept us. I was already one of them because I was listening to the music. I was cynical and all that. We got to understand the audience better, and they began to accept us.”
Six months later, Jackson and Allred dropped the Fun Pigs moniker and christened their morning show Radio From Hell.
KJQ’s general manager changed the format one month into this cross-format experiment and, on May 18, 1988, “Modern Rock KJQ” signed on the air. Due in large part to long-standing client relationships, KJQ lost none of its advertisers. Within a year, the station was profitable.
Summers filled mid-days while Raff handled afternoon drive. Todd Nuke’Em ran the board weeknights from 6 to 10 p.m. and Chet Tapp handled overnights. Rounding out the schedule was the Saturday Night Cold Case with Mr. West, a newspaper writer and now 107.5 “The End” morning host, who spun instant requests, remixes, and rarities on Saturday nights.
“A Fusion of High Technology and Sub-Standard Equipment”
KJQ was enthusiastically welcomed on the air, but faced significant hurdles as it tried to make its presence known in the Salt Lake City market. The biggest problem? A weak signal that regularly went off the air for hours at a time.
The terrible signal was the result of what the air staff jokingly referred to as KJQ’s “fusion of high technology and substandard equipment.” The broadcasting booth sported a mixture of home audio equipment and an obsolete AM control board purchased in the 1950s that had only later been converted to handle FM radio.
“To play music you had single-disc home CD players that used to burn out every three months,” former KJQ overnight disc jockey and current KJQ morning show host Chet Tapp remembers. “The production room was such a piece of crap that literally, when you did a spot, you did it once. If you screwed up, you had to erase everything, cue everything back up and start over again.”
Current KJQ program director and afternoon host, Todd Nuke’Em, describes the original KJQ as a “horrible, stinky building that’s full of dust, spiders and roaches and Christ knows what else. And you’re in charge of this horrible station to make sure that all this broadcast equipment that belongs in the Smithsonian is working.”
In early 1988, KJQ purchased a translator, allowing the station to broadcast in Utah Valley as well. This marked the first time in Utah’s brief history of commercial alternative music that listeners in all three major cities could hear a single station. Confusing as it was, people in Ogden tuned to 95.5. Salt Lake City listeners found the station at 92.7, while Provo and Orem denizens dialed in at 104.9.
Current X96 morning host and former weekend KJQ personality, Gina Barberi, looks back on those years with bemusement.
“It’s amazing that [the station] ever made any money at all. We’re on three different signals when you drive from Ogden to Provo. It’s amazing one person ever bothered to do that. It was so hard to get, but people wanted the music so badly,” she said.
Jackson also remembers that time. “The rest of the Salt Lake radio market didn’t pay any attention to us. We were just a rinky-dink band of blue-haired people with weird ideas. ‘It will never go anywhere.’ That was what we kept hearing from the Salt Lake radio people. We were like the red-headed bastard child,” he said.
Considering the fact that “Super 107,” KCGL and KRP all failed to attract a large audience, perhaps ignoring KJQ made sense. It had been seven years since the demise of “Super 107.” And although the efforts of the disc jockeys had been sincere and heartfelt, who could have guessed that alternative bands like U2, Depeche Mode and R.E.M. would ever become household names?
“Even if we would have had major funding and a killer signal,” Jackson said, “we still wouldn’t have been accepted because the attitude of program directors at the time was that this music was not mass appeal, and all that they cared about was mass appeal. They wanted to sell and make their money.”
“Bessie,” the Milk Beast that Roared
The ‘80s are often maligned as a period of unchecked material greed. Corporations got rich at the expense of the worker. Consolidation and hostile takeovers first entered the lexicon of common speech. If music serves as a mirror of the times, KJQ’s management reflected the growing corporate greed down to the last detail. For nearly two years, KJQ’s air staff did what they could to stretch every dollar as far as possible. But management was taking the lion’s share of profits.
“They wouldn’t give us any money to promote the station,” Raff remembered. “We kept getting different phone numbers because the management wouldn’t pay the bills.” The disc jockeys tried to create memorable phone numbers including 570-YELL, 470-LEHI, 670-WHAT and 1-800-MOO-THIS, but as each bill went unpaid, the phone numbers changed and efforts to create recognition were wasted.
The reluctance to fund the station led to the creation of KJQ’s most easily identifiable icon: The Milk Beast. In 1989, KJQ’s sales manager, Jim Facer, decided the station needed some type of vehicle to increase KJQ’s presence at concerts and events. Nearly every station in town had some kind of van or bus. KJQ had nothing. When KJQ’s management refused to support the idea, the staff came up with their own solution.
“It’s one of those things that in hindsight looks like a stroke of genius,” recalls Raff. “But at the time it just seemed like an obnoxious idea.”
After exploring a number of possibilities, including a hearse and a cement truck, Facer found an old dairy truck. KJQ’s airstaff immediately began making jokes about how lame the station must be if they had to resort to using a milk truck. Almost by accident, jokes about the idea of a milkman passing out dairy products at concerts began to look less ridiculous and a lot more like a brilliant idea.
Once Cream O’ Weber Dairy signed on as sponsor, all that was left was to paint the truck in “cowprint” and give the thing a name.
“Bessie” had her coming-out party on the steps of the state capital as Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter unveiled the Milk Beast to thousands of listeners. The event was covered by all the area newspapers and mentioned on most evening newscasts. With that single event, KJQ began to make its presence known in the market. Alternative music began its ascent toward becoming a truly viable format.
“That’s when the really smart people in radio started to notice,” Jackson said. “And they noticed that whenever the truck showed up, so did the people.”
This Is Radio Clash
But all was not well at KJQ. Although the ratings were improving--rising to a 4.7 market share within a year of signing on the air--KJQ’s management was fast losing control of the station. Late in 1989, one of KJQ’s part-owners gained control of the station. KJQ’s former general manager was suddenly out of the picture. The arrival of a new general manager in November was followed by a gradual decline in morale. Programming and ratings followed.
When the winter 1990 ratings were released, the station had already dropped a full point. Another new general manager arrived in early 1991 with new ideas, but was gone by September.
As people started dusting off their resumes, Summers entered into discussions with an alternative music station in Seattle. Raff left the station to program an alternative station in Austin, Texas.
Dark days loomed in KJQ’s future.
In November 1991, KJQ’s owner announced he was bringing in the third general manager in 14 months. KJQ’s employees already held a deep mistrust of outside general managers and hoped that Facer, then the acting general manager, would be named new general manager. When he wasn’t, Summers and Facer quit.
Within days, two of the most important people behind the success of KJQ and the alternative music format were gone.
“We did the unheard of,” remembers Summers. “We quit at Christmas. Which isn’t a good idea.”
When it became apparent that management was turning the music programming over to consultants, talk of a mass walkout started making the rounds.
A few weeks later, “The Aces Memo” was distributed throughout the office. Essentially, it dictated how you were supposed to speak and act on the air.
“Basically, if you read between the lines, it said ‘Leave your brain at the door. We’re going to tell you what to do from now on,’” Tapp remembers.
You Can All Just Kiss Off Into the Air
Within the next few days, 20 of KJQ’s 25 employees resigned without notice. Promising salary increases, management convinced the Radio From Hell team to stay at the station, but every other recognizable KJQ voice was gone. By the end of 1991, KJQ was a shell of its former self.
While Allred had reservations about the station’s future, Jackson had little choice. Diagnosed with cancer, he could not afford to lose his health insurance.
Looking back on that time, Barberi puts the rationale for the walkout in simple terms. “Most jocks go where the money is. I don’t know what it was. KJQ was just different. We were part of a little family and you can’t tell that family to all of a sudden be someone else’s family. We just weren’t going to do it.”
Departing KJQ employees released a statement to local newspapers listing their reasons for leaving. They cited “KJQ’s neglect of Utah’s modern music tastes that we have helped develop over the years; a lack of understanding of KJQ’s format by Texas-based Abacus Broadcasting; and a high management turnover.”
Station management immediately hired new disc jockeys to fill vacant shifts. Most of the new KJQ employees were not Utah natives, nor had they participated in the grass-roots development of the station and the music’s appeal along the Wasatch Front. To the hardcore KJQ fan the new DJs were frauds, and the new KJQ was nothing more than a corporate faÃ§ade.
In January 1992, KJQ’s managers approached Jackson and Allred with a non-compete contract, stipulating conditions under which they could work at local competing stations, alone or as a team, if either left the station.
“They said, ‘Sign it or you’re fired,’” Jackson said.
With radiation therapy and surgery ahead of him, Jackson had no choice but to sign. Allred refused, and was fired on the spot.
Shake the Disease
When Summers and Facer left KJQ in November 1991, they had no intentions of starting a new station because KJQ was still financially viable. By January, however, it was obvious that KJQ was vulnerable.
Prior to the walkout, Summers spoke with many members of KJQ’s air staff about the possibility of banding together to put a new station on the air. Three months later, on Feb. 13, 1992 at 12:01 a.m., reunited KJQ employees declared war on what they called “fat, corporate rock” and signed on the air as X96.
In a direct jab at KJQ, X96’s first song to air was Depeche Mode’s “Shake the Disease.” A new chapter was about to start.
Nearly all of KJQ’s former staff resurfaced at X96. Allred and Dom Casual’s Project X morning show took the airwaves at 5:45 a.m. Summers handled afternoon drive from 3 to 7 p.m. Todd Nuke’Em left his job as “your cupid of the nighttime” at hit-radio Q99 to fill the 7 p.m. to midnight shift. Tapp continued with his midnight to 5:45 a.m. slot. Barberi joined in six months later.
KJQ responded to X96’s emergence with a fax “signed” by Bessie, welcoming the new station on the air. Now, KJQ confidently stated, the two stations would finally get a chance to compete head-to-head.
In retrospect, Summers believes KJQ’s close attention to X96’s every move led directly to its decline. “KJQ got worse and worse, to the point that it became a joke. It was falling apart,” he said.
Falling apart, indeed. Three different airstaffs came and left during the next year. Jackson teamed with three different partners. All lacked the chemistry of Radio from Hell.
“Listening to KJQ was a painful experience,” Summers said. “But it got down to the point that you listened to it out of perverse curiosity. But it was sad to us at the same time. That was, in its time, a great station.”
Everyone at X96 realized that, in order to succeed, they must destroy the very institution they had built. At the time, there simply wasn’t room for two alternative music stations in Salt Lake City.
By the fall of 1993, X96 bumper stickers and billboards were everywhere. “X-ing out” KJQ by covering old KJQ stickers with X96 stickers was all the rage among listeners. In the final analysis, X96 won the first battle, and the war, because it carried an audience loyal to Utah’s alternative music family.
Two Tribes Go to War
The rest of the story is familiar to long-time radio listeners. X96 owned the alternative music format—until 107.5 “The End” signed on the air on Jan. 1, 1996. The station’s first song to air marked an auspicious debut: R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It).”
Besides Raff’s return to Salt Lake City to mastermind “The End’s” music programming, the station welcomed the defections of former X96 personalities Jimmy Chunga and Andrea Gappmeyer. With established names and voices manning the microphones, “The End” immediately captured a large part of X96’s audience.
Although many listeners questioned whether two alternative stations could survive, six years later X96 and “The End” thrive, regularly occupying the top slots among listeners 18 to 34.
The independent spirit, bizarre promotions and amateurism that served as the hallmarks of “Super 107,” KCGL and KJQ is more subdued these days. Chalk that up to both stations being acquired by large radio groups: Citadel Communications purchased “The End” in 1997. Simmons Media Group snapped up X96 two years later.
But long before that, and even to this day, the same personalities who boosted the first signal behind commercial alternative radio keep it strong with each new alternative rock radio incarnation.
“Radio From Hell” team Jackson and Allred were reunited at X96 in 1993 after a two-year absence. Summers returned to the air two years ago, and continues to program the station with music that is rarely predictable.
Meanwhile, former KJQ and X96 air personalities call 107.5 “The End” home. Raff handles mid-days, programming a “Best of Then and Now” approach to alternative music. Former Radio from Hell producer Jimimy Chunga and Mr. West man the station’s morning radio show.
In perhaps the strangest twist of all, Gappmeyer worked at all four stations: the original KJQ, X96, 107.5 “The End” and, for a short time during 2002, the new KJQ.
Then There Were Three
How does the new KJQ fit into the national picture? In most major markets, two alternative radio stations are more than enough. Not for Utahns. It seems we’re unhealthily obsessed with ‘80s music.
Think about it: How many stations in America play artists like Tears for Fears, Joe Jackson and Violent Femmes daily? Not the hits, mind you, but obscure album tracks rarely played on the radio anywhere in the country.
“We brought KJQ back to offer something a little different to our listeners,” explains Summers who oversaw the development of the new KJQ with Todd Nuke’Em. “We wanted KJQ to play songs that weren’t being heard anywhere else, along with some newer music by bands like Coldplay that seem to naturally fit into the format. It’s a work in progress that is coming together nicely.”
Nuke’Em expands on Summers’ point: “We’re in the impossible business of trying to please everyone in our audience. Some of our listeners are new to the music while others have known this music for nearly 20 years. We throw the obscure tracks in for our longtime listeners, and hopefully the rest of the audience discovers some new songs along the way.”
The migration of Todd Nuke’Em, Chet Tapp and Cuzzin’ Brad from X96 to KJQ certainly gives the new station a share of Utah’s alternative music heritage. But in terms of ratings, KJQ is struggling. Shares are down for nearly everyone in the market, and the lack of a Utah county signal clearly hurts the station.
In one of the nation’s most competitive and conservative radio markets, few could have predicted that a handful of people with a penchant for punk and new wave music could turn an alternative format into a successful commerical radio concept. That this handful were successful--despite the limitations of antique equipment, substandard broadcasting facilities, and relentless attacks from management who thought they knew the business better than the DJS and programmers--is testament to the power of the idea and, most of all, the music.
Summers is bewildered that the format, and the people who brought the format to Utah, are still on the air.
“As I look back on our history, I think, ‘What a strange story.’”
Disc jockeys are supposed to follow the money. They aren’t supposed to remain loyal to a specific format or form family-like relations. But that’s what happened with each station in which the format found a new home.
When Utah listeners tune into one of the local dial’s alternative-rock stations today, they get a group of old friends who never quite leave. They just change stations.