The Great Rock & Roll Radio Swindle

Is ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones helping Indie 103.1 become cool or corporateand does it matter?

photo by James BunoanTune in to the midday Jonesy's Juke Box on Indie FM 103.1, and you're likely to hear host/former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones drawing deep breaths through a nose planted too close to the microphone, shuffling papers as he tries to figure out the title of the song he just played.

"Before this was . . . uh . . . um . . . Roxy Music! 'Pajamarama,'" he says. "Love that song. That was from back in the day, before I started stealing equipment from them."

He's like that. When a guest delved into politics and mentioned the power of incumbency, Jones asked, "Why are we talking about incompetency?" Then there's the merciless teasing of his on-air partner, "Mr. Shovel" (the show's producer and 103.1's music director, Mark Sovel); the witty asides; the startling honesty; the Dickensian mispronunciations; the perversely wicked giggles; and an unpredictably diverse musical mix—vintage reggae, classic rock, even Prince.

Though Jones' lack of polish frustrates some—"Unlistenable" was the one-word critique I got from a certain unnamed Weekly music editor when Jonesy's Juke Boxdebuted six months ago—more and more, you hear comments like this one, from a young man within rock radio's coveted 18 to 34 demographic who hadn't a clue as to who Steve Jones is or was: "You've got to hear this old English guy on 103.1. He's a crack-up."

And others apparently agree. Since its February premiere, Jonesy's Juke Boxhas gone from noon to 2 p.m. weekdays to having the first hour repeated during the competitive evening drive time, occasional repeats during the morning drive, whole shows rebroadcast on weekends and something of mini-Jonesy marathons during holiday weekends.

Detractors might chalk up this heavy Jonesy rotation to a lack of on-air talent at a station that only switched formats from dance to alternative rock this past Christmas night, but Indie 103.1's DJ bench is already deep with fellow celebs Henry Rollins and Dave Navarro. It's more plausible that station managers are squeezing everything they can out of what's surprisingly become the hottest show in town.

Still, Jones' ratings—or Indie's, for that matter—pose no direct threat to the ultimate behemoth of SoCal alt.-rock radio, Infinity Broadcasting's KROQ 106.7. Indie's twin transmitters in Santa Monica and Newport Beach broadcast a weak signal that can be picked up only in parts of LA and Orange counties, while an orbiting Space Shuttle could probably pull in the Roq. Still, Jonesy's rising popularity and the better-than-expected reception for his station's proto-punk-through-this-week's-buzz-band playlist had Rolling Stone's June 24 issue dubbing Indie "America's Coolest Commercial Station." And that's at least received on-air notice over at public station KCRW (FM 89.9), which jocks there refer to as "the real independent."

Indeed, there are some who say the man who layered searing chords over "EMI," "Pretty Vacant" and "Anarchy in the U.K." is being used to help a radio corporation pull off the ultimate Great Rock & Roll Swindle: pretend to be independent when they're not.

Conspiracy theorists point to the Indie overlord's bargain with Satan—a.k.a. nationwide radio and concert giant Clear Channel of San Antonio. Under what's known as a joint sales agreement, Clear Channel paid 103.1's owner, Spanish-language-broadcasting giant Entravision Communications, hundreds of thousands of dollars upfront in exchange for keeping whatever it can make in commercial airtime sales.

Clear Channel can't own Indie outright because it's already at the Federal Communications Commission-imposed limit of seven stations in the LA basin. Some believe Clear Channel will pluck Indie from Entravision and move its so-called "neo-rock concept" to the spot on the dial now occupied by Clear Channel's more-powerful-but-poorly performing Star 98.7. A more plausible supposition holds that Clear Channel wants to pump up Indie so the station can shave just enough ratings away from KROQ that Clear Channel's own KIIS-FM will assume the regional crown it wore for decades. There are two pieces of evidence to support this hypothesis: 103.1 had a dance format similar to KIIS' just before the Christmas night massacre, and Program Director Michael Steele came to Indie directly from KIIS.

Of course, it could just be that someone did their homework, determined what was missing from the LA radio market and came up with Indie. In other words, corporate radio just gave the people what they wanted, and what they wanted was faux pirate radio.

"Why doesn't anybody remember broadcasting history?" asks Max Tolkoff, alternative editor at LA-based Radio & Records magazine. "Things are manufactured for listeners. Radio for 50 years has been that way. . . . Everyone likes to point at big corporations and say they must have a programmer out of an office in the middle of Texas. It's just not true. Every programmer has to understand they are responsible for collecting an audience in their city. You can't do that by trying to cater to a national audience. If you own 1,000 stations, then you're going to have to have 1,000 programmers working to figure out what best serves their [individual] audience."

In an age of overslick, overproduced corporate rock radio, it could very well be that Jones' amateurish broadcasting style—let's affectionately call it fumbly—strikes many an unaccustomed ear as fresh and dangerous—you know, like rock (and SoCal rock radio) used to be.

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