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.

Then again, maybe it's just because he is a crack-up.

"There are many things I have to do for this show," he told listeners recently. "I'm part of the machine. . . . On the weekends, I stare like a mummy at the ceiling. Bandage me up, baby. Mmm-mmmm."

You can't hear Jonesy's Juke Box blaring from the public areas in the Mid-Wilshire building that houses Entravision corporate HQ, its stations including Indie 103.1, and such high-powered Hollywood players as Variety magazine and Spelling Entertainment Group. After a bilingual receptionist and her earpiece summon authorized personnel to open a hermetically sealed door and escort you in, you pass radio pod after radio pod, each broadcasting content to stations all over the country. Only a few seem occupied by live bodies.

The walls inside the darkened 103.1 pod belie the rest of the building's Wall Street feng shui. A large poster replicates the look of a certain seminal punk rock record album cover, declaring in large letters, "Never Mind the Corp Radio; Here's the Indie 103.1."

Today, the darkened pod's lone light is shining down on that familiar deadpan mug that was sandwiched between Sid's sneer, Johnny Rotten's wild eyes and whatever the hell was on Cookie's face. Jones is not as tall as he appeared with that axe in his hands. As he bears down on the big Five-O, this Londoner-turned-Angeleno looks good, tanned, healthy—although his tie-dyed shirt is stretched over one helluva impressive boiler. With his reading glasses clipped to his collar, he resembles your devilish uncle from across the pond who drinks too much and leers at the young lasses, but who you'd want to have your back when the nightly half-past-10 pub fight breaks out.

"It's all been 'ery pos-it-ive," Jones says of the radio gig in a Cockney brogue much too thick for someone who's lived in LA the past 21 years.

He says the Indie brass have been pleased with his ratings, but the station as a whole is holding steady with an anemic 0.9 rating among those 12 and older—barely a blip. That's nothing to hang your format on—and every hour, Indie relies on a lot of music that's not current, a strategy that has historically caused stations to implode (see LA hard-rock radio, circa the late 1970s, when KROQ was born).

"If your playlist gets too flaky and eclectic, you'll only get a tiny core audience of music heads," Tolkoff said. "They'll enjoy it, but the masses won't. You can't be too left of center if you want to be successful."

Left, right, whatever—Jones has devised a complicated formula to determine which songs make the Jonesy's Juke Box cut: "If I like it, I'll play it."

On one show not too long ago, he cued up three Prince songs in a row. Another day, it was three Iggys. Then a Clash trio weeks later. But Jones also breaks out that stuff the kids are into these days. Current bands on his radar include Cobra Verde ('70s arena-rawk replicants out of Cleveland), Franz Ferdinand (Glasgow's so-called art-wave scensters) and the Killers (retro Brit new wave by way of Las Vegas).

"I don't just want to be Mr. Retro," Jones insists. "I like playing a lot of new songs. I'd like to play more new songs if there weren't so much junk out there. I'd like to break some bands.

"I'd never play bands like Blink and New Found Glory. They're making a ton of money, and more power to them. But they're not my cup of tea. Actually, hearing them makes me feel not well. It's so mass-produced and worked-out. It's like the record's already been made before it's been made, do you know what I mean?

"Much of what is today termed punk just isn't. Don't call it punk. It's pop. Boy-band pop with spiky hair. But they're making more money than the Sex Pistols ever did."

After the Pistols' infamous meltdown in the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in 1978—legend has it Jones flew back home on the Concorde—he formed a band called the Professionals with guitarist Ray McVeigh and Pistols' drummer Paul "Cookie" Cook and pre-Sid Vicious bassist Glenn Matlock. They toured the States, and when the last show was over, as everyone else boarded the plane in New York for the flight back to London, Jones could not physically bring himself to walk up the ramp. "I knew if I went back to England, it would be damp, miserable, rainy," he says.

He knocked around somewhere for the next year—probably New York, he's not sure—where he began doing drugs heavily and eventually acquired a heroin habit. He'd spent a year in prison in England for various juvenile delinquencies and earned a reputation while starting the Sex Pistols at age 19 for stealing gear from Bob Marley and David Bowie. So as a brand-new American junkie, he already had a game face as he conned several saps into buying the "original" cream-colored custom Les Paul guitar he strummed throughout his Pistols' tenure. Actually, he'd been conned out of that beauty years earlier in London.

Jones came west because he wanted to get sober. Along the way in LA, he produced some crappy records, performed some crappy solo work, played in some godawful bands, but, most fortunately, finally got clean. Various Pistols reunions, record producing, guest appearances with other bands, film work and the recent settlement of a lawsuit that won the Pistols more income from residuals have allowed Jones to stay in LA.

He landed at 103.1 when a friend affiliated with the station asked Jones if he'd ever tuned in. "I said, 'Yeah, I've been hearing it. It's great.'" The Jonesy Stamp of Approval quickly reached Steele, the program director, who arranged a meeting during which the guitarist offered to be a DJ—as long as he could choose his own playlist.

Selecting that music has been a chore, however. "It's only two hours a day 'ere, but there is still a lot to do the rest of the day," Jones says. He has "bundles" of unheard music at home to sift through. Then there's the preparation for what's been getting him off even more than the music: "Fun With a Face on Fridays," a weekly Jonesy's Juke Box segment that has him paired up in-studio with guests who have run the gamut from Johnny Ramone and John Doe to John McEnroe and Tracey Ullman.

Jones takes a never-mind-the-bollocks attitude to all the scheming corporate radio ga-ga. He's too busy prepping for his shows, putting in his two hours of hard labor, watching English football and playing his beloved PlayStation. That's left him no time to maintain his own guitar chops.

"I'm not even noodling any more," he says without a hint of regret. "This is the first time I've had a job to go to every day, and I love doing this—I fooking love it! More people are starting to lis'en to it. They seem to like that there's someone playing records 'ere, not a robot."

He says this as his shift ends, and as a bank of CD players within arm's reach systematically shuffles and cues music and commercials—for the next several hours after Jones' show, Indie 103.1 is running on automatic.

Jonesy's Jukebox airs on Indie FM 103.1. Mon.-Fri., noon-2 p.m.
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