Times Pop Music Critic

KMET may have dropped its rock 'n' roll format last week, but its rock 'n' roll heart stopped beating years ago.

Amid all the nostalgia over what the station once represented in this town, it is important to recognize the programming mistakes in recent years that reduced KMET to little more than an irrelevant spot on the FM dial. There's a reason people stopped listening.

KMET was one of the national leaders a decade ago in institutionalizing the most accessible elements of the '60s underground-radio movement that celebrated experimentation and daring.

Just like the best rock itself, KMET initially offered more than music: It was a chronicler and shaper of pop sociology and culture. The air personalities were like friends who understood why the music was important and were able to reflect those sensibilities in other areas, including customized newscasts. It was a place you could turn to with trust.

But success became intoxicating and forces at the station began misusing that trust by the late '70s. Eager to boost ratings even higher, the station management and its programming consultants resisted change, thus cutting themselves off from new and alternative forces in rock.

Rock became defined arrogantly at KMET in narrow terms that excluded black music and country music, and worst of all, the whole post-punk movement that grew from the contributions of such rowdy, but challenging bands as the Sex Pistols and the Clash from England, plus Los Angeles acts like X, the Blasters and Black Flag.

Despite the high ratings in those late '70s, the station's soul was rotting. Instead of championing renegades like Prince or, say, Elvis Costello, the station was almost openly hostile. By sticking to its old favorites and new acts that sounded like the old favorites, KMET began to be viewed as the enemy by those who supported the challenging new artists.

KMET's stodgy, inflexible approach led to the rise of stations like KROQ-FM, which showcased this new breed (though it, too, has succumbed to a sterile, self-reverential format) and, eventually, the recent groundswell in college radio, where underground rock has been truly reborn.

As KMET's ratings dipped in the '80s, management tried to catch up but wasn't able to find a workable mix between the old-line rock and the new contingent. Equally important, it couldn't regain audience trust.

It is sad to see the overnight dismissal of the old friends, including Jim Ladd and Cynthia Fox, but other station managers, ironically, may see the current groundswell of affection for these personalities as marketable. If a station manager does hire a batch of these veterans, perhaps he or she will also be smart enough to give them the license to renew the spirit of KMET's glory days.

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