Sound Salvation

Photo by Rich KaneThe country boom that KIK-FM rode for 20 years faded out, and the "Cool Mix" of "hot adult contemporary" stylings that followed quickly went bust. So KMXN, the radio station at 94.3 on the FM band—one of just two commercial outlets based in Orange County and primarily broadcasting to local ears—is trying another format: independently programmed alternative rock.

The station flipped to the new format on Feb. 15, accompanied by a new slogan ("Supercool . . . Orange County's independent radio station"). Most important, of course, is the new sound, and the first few weeks suggest that programming director Mike Halloran has concocted a mix that just might pose a challenge to KROQ. At least in OC, anyway.

Halloran had already deposed 91X—basically the KROQ of San Diego—by reprogramming former classical-music station KFSD-FM 92.1. Only a few months after Halloran's makeover, 92.1 astonishingly began trouncing 91X in the always-key young-male demographic.

That turnabout appears to be a victory for the kind of personalized programming that has been disappearing as huge numbers of individual radio stations are gobbled up by a few massive corporations.

Halloran says 92.1 became a quick, big hit largely because of the stale music programming that 91X had been dishing out since it was bought by broadcasting behemoth Clear Channel Communications, which owns nearly 1,200 radio stations in all 50 states. Playlists for most of Clear Channel's music stations are determined not by individual programming directors in each city but by a centralized committee in the network's Kentucky offices.

"We realized that you had to become rooted in the city, talk about things that are happening in the community, and be community-based," says Halloran. "And with music—to find stuff that's really good that the audience may not know about yet."

Art Astor, who owns both 92.1 and 94.3, gave Halloran the freedom to go after 91X.

"Mike knows music," Astor says. "He knows what's happening with the rock bands, and he's not taking orders from some station in another state. Clear Channel stations have that cookie-cutter element to them—they're shoving McDonald's down everyone's throat, not knowing that not everyone likes McDonald's."

One of 92.1's most popular programs is a four-hour Sunday night local music show. Halloran plans to debut a similar show at 94.3 in the next week or two.

"We want to concentrate on what Orange County wants," he says. "We can't program for or worry about what the LA stations are doing because our signal doesn't really get to LA. So Orange County bands are more what we're looking for."

Halloran doesn't anticipate any trouble finding an OC feel.

"There are tons of great Orange County bands," he says. "There are things that are being ignored by KROQ and lots of elements KROQ can't touch here, anyway—like Hootenanny and the whole swingabilly thing."

So far, Halloran's 94.3—which broadcasts out of Anaheim—has been more eclectic than KROQ. While spinning such alterna-rock standbys as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, REM and Smashing Pumpkins, the station also throws in an oldie by Tom Petty or David Bowie alongside cuts from newer rockers like the Strokes or Unwritten Law. The hip-hop of Scapegoat Wax can be followed by the singer/songwriter musings of Dan Bern or Ryan Adams. Surf folkie Jack Johnson, who has been selling out theaters despite almost zero radio play, is in 94.3's regular rotation. There's stuff you'd expect only on Morning Becomes Eclectic, like the Photek remix of the Six Feet Under theme.

Unlike KROQ, you can actually hear women artists on 94.3 a couple of times each hour. The station shows strong support for Orange County bands besides No Doubt (who are played every couple hours), such as cuts off the latest Lit and Long Beach Dub All-Stars albums, which KROQ lost interest in some time ago. And we sure did like hearing Mike Ness' cover of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright."

Then there's what we call the Chain Reaction Factor—the airplay 94.3 has given to several on-the-rise bands who've performed at the Anaheim all-ages room within the past two years: Sugarcult, Sense Field, Dashboard Confessional and OC's own Something Corporate. Halloran has also exposed emo-esque bands (in the vein of Saves the Day, whom he calls "the new Smiths") who have been ignored by mainstream stations.

The station isn't perfect for our persnickety tastes: the "supercool!" nickname that's constantly repeated is annoying and cheesy; there's too much Blink-182, POD and Dave Matthews; and what was with that bad rash of INXS tunes last week? But if Halloran establishes a strong OC presence at 94.3—like, if we're lucky, the way KGSR does in Austin, Texas, where local artists are heard practically every fourth song—then the station could become something commercial rock radio hasn't been in eons: listenable.


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