The ’90s are long gone, and alternative rock — and every other form of rock, for that matter — is dead. Take your JNCOs to the DI, put away your Sony CD-Walkman, and back up your floppy disks, because it’s all over.
Except that it isn’t. “Alternative” music, a term coined in the ’80s referring to zero-budget college radio that went on to become a mainstream ’90s boom (and eventual bust), is still here, in nostalgic and contemporary flavors.
Though far outnumbered by country, pop and classic-rock formats in North America, it’s still hanging around like those Doc Martens in the back of your closet — especially in Utah, where X96 (KXRK 96.3) has been spinning alternative music for as long as some of its demographic has been alive.
The station has been recognized, locally and nationally (including by Rolling Stone), as an eternal flame for alternative rock — one of few bucking the national downward rock trend.
X96 launched in 1992, Year Zero for what’s commonly accepted as alternative rock today, which encompasses everything from veteran electro-crooner Beck to current pop-crossover ubiquities Imagine Dragons.
“Back in the day, when we started playing alternative music, it was actually alternative,” says program director and afternoon DJ Todd Nuke’em, who’s been with the station since the beginning. “But, then again, it was in the days of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails getting in the top 40. So it kind of always has been meaningless, far as a definition, because it's alternative to … what?’”
For Howie Rock (you’ll notice a trend in radio names here), music director and midmorning DJ at new-ish Salt Lake City radio contender Alt 101.9, alternative music is just that — “an alternative to the mainstream hits,” he says.
“That can include a lot of genres. Obviously, we try to play songs that flow well together, but ‘alternative’ had a new-wave sound at one point, a grunge sound at another, and now has electronic elements,” he says.
Alt 101.9 (named before the alt-right ruined the A-word for everyone) has attempted to take on the X96 juggernaut, marketing itself as both “Utah’s New Alternative” and “Utah’s Better Alternative.”
The station is owned by national radio corporation Cumulus Media, which managed to ding the hull of X96’s alt-battleship two decades ago with The End 107.5, later 101.9. The End was softer-edged, almost adult-contemporary, but the “alternative” challenge was still in play until 2010, when Cumulus ended The End.
Just three years later, though, it waded back into the Salt Lake City alternative waters with Alt 94.9 — which, true to history, became Alt 101.9 (KHTB 101.9) in 2015.
And beyond the pressure to be more “alternative” than the other guys while spinning mostly the same songs, both are trying to keep Gen Xers and millennials rapt 24/7.
Alt 101.9 and X96 consult with their audiences regularly for feedback as to what they should play on the air — and, usually more vehemently, what they shouldn’t.
“We focus on letting the audience dictate what they want,” Nuke’em says. “We reach out to the listeners and find out exactly what they want to hear.”
Older alternative songs — what Nuke’em calls the “X96 library” — have a slight edge. But it’s impossible to make everyone happy with what’s coming out of the speakers, he says.
“There’s always that one person who’s like, ‘Oh my god! Why are you playing that song again?’”
Alternative rock isn’t cohesive; it’s all over the place, and has been for over three decades. Pioneering ’80s bands like The Pixies (who receive little play on either station) and Depeche Mode (who occasionally creep into the playlist) don’t sound much like today’s The Struts or Twenty One Pilots — both in regular rotation at X96 and Alt 101.9.
And then there’s the problem of beloved alternative artists making the jump to mainstream Top 40. Nuke’em points out that crossover bands like The Killers, Neon Trees and Imagine Dragons (all acts with Utah ties, not coincidentally) received early boosts on X96. He and Rock also reluctantly admit that they played Halsey years ago when she was first marketed as “alternative,” not her current pop diva self.
“Few bands want to dodge success, and their record labels are obviously interested in it,” Rock says. “But, in alternative radio, we don’t really love it when one of our songs [crosses] over to the Top 40. It kind of dilutes what we’re doing, which is serving people who may be a little tired of Ed Sheeran.”
If self-identified alternative stations like X96 and Alt 101.9 are the proving grounds for Top 40 radio, then it could be argued that local public broadcaster KRCL 90.9, like other community stations around the country, is an incubator for alternative.
Bands like St. Vincent and Portugal. The Man may be “new” discoveries to commercial alternative radio, but largely volunteer-run KRCL has been playing them for years. (See also: previous crossover successes like The Black Keys, The Decemberists and most every banjo-fronted stomp-clap-and-chant band with a VW commercial and a Twilight Concert in their portfolio.)
“We’re an alternative to mainstream radio, but I wouldn’t consider what we do an ‘alternative’ format,” says Ebay Hamilton, KRCL program director and drive-time DJ. “At some point, ‘alternative’ music became commercial mainstream music. KRCL isn't confined to one specific format — honestly, there really is no process. If I hear it and like it, and I want to share it on the air with KRCL listeners, I do it. The same goes for all of the KRCL DJs.”
Further blurring the alternative lines, with a neon highlighter, is 103.1 The Wave (KSQN 103.1). “Wave,” as in new wave, which was “alternative” before the term even existed (also known in ’80s history as “modern music”). Barely two years on the air, The Wave is unapologetically ’80s to the max, an eerily faithful replication of Reagan-era Utah radio that can fool old new-wavers into thinking they’ve stepped into a hot-tub time machine.
“The word ‘alternative' used to hold a completely different meaning; in radio today, it almost equates to ‘mainstream,’” says Wave DJ and internet-to-broadcast founder Chet Tapp, echoing Hamilton’s sentiment. “By that definition, I suppose that we are the obvious alternative to alternative.”
And it’s not just graying Goths who are listening, “alternative” or not.
“Just the other day, a kid came to pick up a Wave bumper sticker, and he couldn’t have been more than 17,” Tapp says. “I asked him why he was listening to The Wave; he told me it was because some of his ‘outsider’ friends introduced him to the station and the songs we play. Some things never change.”