Radio Killed The Radio Star

There’s been a lot of anger and frustration among country-western music fans over the sudden switch of their flagship station KZLA last week to a more contemporary urban dance music format. Even though I’ve never once in my life listened to the station I can certainly feel their pain and relate to their cries of protest. I also know that those protests are an entire waste of time.

Back in the summer of 1994 a station dawned at 101.9 on the dial called KSCA and it was immediately and mold-breakingly brilliant. Billed as “Southern California’s Album Alternative” (whatever that meant) the station offered as eclectic and compelling a mix of music as I’d ever heard over the airwaves. Nat King Cole would follow Concrete Blonde who would follow Pink Floyd who would follow Roy Orbison who would follow Nirvana who would follow the Bee Gees and so on. You never knew what your ears were in for when you tuned in, and in a lot of ways it was the precursor to the current and popular wave of the CDs-on-random format found in stations like JACK-FM at 93.1.

On a personal level KSCA meant much more to me because that first six months of its life coincided with the six months I spent recovering from my near-fatal motorcycle accident. Discovering the station after the two weeks I spent in the hospital I ended up listening to it almost constantly and its playlist’s regular ability to surprise and delight me was deeply therapeutic. With it on in the background day and night there were many times I’d be giving over to the rage and self-pity or waking up from some pretty hairy apocalyptic nightmares and then bang Gloria Gaynor would be playing or Gordon Lightfoot or Joe Williams or Ella Fitzgerald or Canned Heat and it would snap me out of my dark places. The “Oh no they’re not!” joy of all that unexpected incongruous music was an important factor in my psychological healing. No doubt.

Despite the buzz the station created it never stopped struggling to pull in listeners, and to be honest they even had a hard time keeping me after Jerry Garcia’s death in 1995 and the station at-large went into an over-extended period of mourning, rotating in waaaay too many Grateful Dead songs waaaay too often. Every time they’d play his “Touch of Gray” they’d drive me a little bit farther away.

Then, a year later rumors began circulating that the station’s owner, Gene Autry, was selling. Station protests and letter-writing campaigns ensued to keep KCSA golden, but it was all for naught and devolved into an inevitable deathwatch. By the beginning of 1997 the sale had been made to Univision and KSCA signed off to become the Spanish-language station La Nueva.

The new ownership wasted no time ingloating and rubbing salt in the wounds of the KSCA faithful. For a full 24-hours after the switch, the only thing the new owners aired was a looped track of people uproariously and raucously laughing. It was a disgusting gesture that compounded the heartbreak. The ultimate ouch is that it didn’t take long for La Neuva to rocket up to the top of the radio ratings. And they’ve been there pretty much ever since

So in a way, the fans of the old KZLA got off easy. One moment they’re listening to Shania Twain or Faith Hill or whoever and the next song is The Black-Eyed Peas and the L.A. market is now without a dedicated country-western radio station. Poof! With the rug apparently so quickly and quietly pulled out from under them they had no time to mount any kind of concerted “Save KZLA” campaign — not that it would’ve made any difference. And in a way I’m a bit envious of such a seamless transition. Sure it left listeners WTF-ing and scrambling in the aftermath of a done deal to fight the power, but at least they won’t have to suffer getting mocked by laughter I can still hear.