9/9/2022 Dispatch: Adult contemporary alternative/National Association of Broadcasters goes “local”/what doesn’t suck?

Facade of the top-secret Freq-Amp headquarters

Adult contemporary alternative music: The unyielding blandness of Alt 92.3

Just as medical researchers analyze sewage to find evidence of viruses, we plumb the effluvia of the airwaves for traces of life. Much of what we find is disappointing. Take “Alt” 92.3, WNYL. When we say this station is a disappointment, we don’t mean because it is bad. It is a bad station, but not enough to merit any particular disdain (there’s plenty of shit on the dial). Alt 92.3’s blandness, its absolute inability to sound like anything other than a corporate marketing team’s idea of “alternative” music is its real crime.

92.3 is the same signal that hosted K-Rock for years and KTU for years before that. Howard Stern grew into a megastar here. Radio was a different world then. The latest “alternative” incarnation of the station is a result of the 2017 CBS/Audacy merger. WNYL quickly became the center of radio conglomerate Audacy’s “alternative” stations, meaning the company’s various regional alt outlets fired much of their staffs, and now pipe in content from the NYC flagship.

For a good part of its existence, Alt 92.3 seemed, at various times to be operating without DJs. Tuning in on weeknights I hear a sparse DJ presence, though it’s unlikely the poor sap has any control over the content they play anyway. The boorish weekday morning host, Elliott guffaws and chuckles along with his cohosts every few seconds. There’s nothing in any of these guys’ approaches that I can find remotely relatable. The better NYC-area morning hosts have some sense of the city, the rhythm of the hustle, what it means to commute, and so on. These people could just as well be based offshore somewhere (and probably are). Even if you haven’t heard it before, you’ve heard it before. The template was set in the 80s by Z100’s Scott Shannon, who, after landing in NYC without knowing “Staten Island from Long Island,” made a conscious decision to appeal to “the suburbs [where there] were people that I understood.” This strategy helped make Z100 the New York City’s top-ranked station. Times have changed, and that same tactic is unlikely to yield much return for Alt 93. 

“Alternative” music as a category ( I keep putting this in quotes because it’s a meaningless term) has come to encompass anything that doesn’t dominate classic rock or “oldies” station playlists. (I’ve heard one WNYL DJ refer to the station as “postmodern alternative,” an act of catachresis which makes even less sense, a pairing of two terms whose linguistic currency has been so devalued as to constitute a double shot of sheer vapidity).  The term “alternative” has degenerated from the days when the success of college radio led to the launching of commercial quasi-college stations, like Brown University’s WBRU. These stations played music that had wide appeal, but was effectively shut out of the mainstream. I harbor no nostalgia for the era, but in my youth in the 70s/80s, you could tune in one of these stations and hear the Talking Heads, Violent Femmes, REM. Writers in music industry trade pubs slapped the term “alternative” on this loose assortment of music, and Billboard established a “Alternative Airplay” chart. Still, few actual musicians used the sobriquet to describe their work. MTV eventually got in on the action with 120 Minutes. By the time Nirvana, and later Green Day and Oasis and the rest sold tens of millions of albums, this music was hardly relegated to the margins anymore. The original radio stations that played “alternative” music, like the abovementioned WBRU, largely went by the wayside long ago.

The devil is in the deets. Photo by Fashion Destructo for Freq-Amp.

92.3 traffics in a type of music best referred to as Adult Contemporary Alternative. Music that conveys a certain amount of edginess, yet is bland and inoffensive enough to serve as a buffer to the commercials it props up.

Red Hot Smashing Pearl Temple Pumpkins in Chains Against Pilots. You might ask yourself, what is the point of a musical category that was already exhausted by the time most of this stuff was recorded? Ratings-wise, the station sits down at the bottom end of commercial radio, with 1.7% of potential listeners tuning in. Parent company Audacy must still find this format profitable enough to garner ad revenue. The station broadcasts out of “Duck Duck Go Studio,” and has no shortage of major advertisers (though some of these might be purchasing blanket airtime across Audacy assets). Audacy owns so much of the NYC dial that it is not unusual to listen to one of its stations and hear a commercial for one of the company’s other stations. Corporations like Audacy will never take a chance promoting anything remotely risky, but they have enough revenue to keep underperforming stations on the back burner, always ready for the inevitable format shift to the Next Big Thing. With the prevalence of streaming services, YouTube, freely available music just about everywhere, why would anyone listen to a poorly curated selection of something that can be had with minimal commercial interruptions?

Pique, a’peel. Photo by Fashion Destructo for Freq-Amp.

NAB’s “Local” campaign

Listening to Alt 92.3 I recently heard a commercial for the National Association for Broadcasters’ (NAB) “Local” campaign. The NAB is up in arms about proposed legislation that would change music royalty rates. The tone of the commercial varies to suit perceived audiences on different stations. A version airing recently on sports radio WFAN (also owned by Audacy) decried “foreign record companies” and big government overreach by the democrats. A vulgar appeal to xenophobia is rich coming from the NAB whose membership consists of firms like publicly traded Audacy, a major corporation whose only loyalty is to maximizing shareholder profit. The “local” in the “Local” campaign is about as legit as the “alternative” in contemporary “alternative music.” There’s truly no there there in this abyss of nothingness.

Wallapaloozah. Photo by Fashion Destructo for Freq-Amp.

So what doesn’t suck?

WKCR has made some interesting schedule changes lately. The Phil Schaap reruns have been moved to much earlier in the morning. Latin-music programming serves as a nice replacement. While this site was on hiatus, KCR did its first-ever Kim Gordon birthday broadcast, a welcome addition to its usual yearly marathons. Station management is clearly adapting to new terrain cautiously without jettisoning the important jazz, much of which, even in an age of unlimited instant access to music, can’t be heard anywhere else. 

John Allen is back on WFMU, Thursdays  9 – noon. We welcome this development. Somehow Clay Pigeon manages to keep things fresh every morning. His “Wake Traffic Reports” are radio drama on par with anything Firesign Theater used to do. WFMU has also had some stellar interviews lately. Ken Freedman’s show with Don Fleming was a stand-out. Fleming, whose music I used to enjoy in bands like B.A.L.L. and the Velvet Monkeys is a world-class archivist who had a hand in the NYPL’s Lou Reed exhibit, among other things. Very worthwhile listen for the Hunter S. Thompson footage alone. Listen here. FMU’s film-soundtrack show Morricone Island recently featured guest Dan Wool who has composed many film scores, including some Alex Cox classics. While Wool didn’t score the great Repo Man, he was reportedly involved with putting together the “Repo Code” music to accompany the film’s 2006 DVD release. Morricone Island regularly has guests on this magnitude. As this post goes live (September 9) John Waters is scheduled to guest host on WFMU’s Mona ‘Til Midnight. Only a true misanthrope, or someone with no ears and no radio can deny there’s still plenty of great stuff on the radio. None of it can be found on Alt 93.

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Published by Frequency and Amplitude, an NYC Radio Roundup

Surveying what's left of the analog NYC-area radioscape.

4 thoughts on “9/9/2022 Dispatch: Adult contemporary alternative/National Association of Broadcasters goes “local”/what doesn’t suck?

  1. Hooray for a new Freq-Amp dispatch! “Red Hot Smashing Pearl Temple Pumpkins in Chains Against Pilots” made me chuckle out-loud. Here’s some housekeeping: WFMU Station Manager Ken’s last name is spelled “Freedman.”


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