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Sounds of the Past

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Credit the artist then known as Prince for some astute career planning when he wrote his song “1999" back in 1982. Today it’s clearly a right song for the time.

But it’s not just a matter of pre-millennial madness. The appeal of the song today has as much to do with when it was first released as it does with the year that it’s about.

The early ‘80s are back--and radio’s got ‘em.

That’s right. Having survived the disco revival and other ‘70s kitsch comebacks, we’re now under siege from memories of the Reagan years. Just as they’re turning up in the movies (“The Wedding Singer,” the upcoming “200 Cigarettes”), the ‘80s are taking over the airwaves with acts ranging from Culture Club (Boy George’s group is embarking on a reunion tour) to Depeche Mode to the Smiths.

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And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

“Lee Abrams, the radio consultant, once said that everyone’s musical tastes are defined at 16,” says Sky Daniels, general manager of the weekly Radio & Records trade paper and a former rock radio programming executive. “In those years, you really create your musical identity. Now, one of the most attractive demographic sells to advertisers is the 25 to 34 age group. So if you’re targeting a 30-year-old, where were they in the ‘80s? What were the sounds that mattered to them?”

If they were in Southern California, odds are pretty good they were listening to KROQ-FM (106.7), which, with its “Rock of the ‘80s” format, led the way with what was later to be called alternative or modern rock.

“It’s hard for anyone who was in L.A. to really know the resonance of seeing Depeche Mode play for 50,000 people at the Rose Bowl,” Daniels says. “Here it seemed normal. In Omaha it’s unthinkable.”

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That means that in L.A., the attachment to this music is even deeper than in the rest of the country, and that catalog is a treasure trove for programmers.

“We’re playing what our target demo wants to hear,” says Steve Blatter, vice president of operations for KLYY-FM (107.1), which has aggressively tied itself to ‘80s music lately. “L.A. is one of the few markets with a real history of this music--Depeche Mode, the Cure, Oingo Boingo, the Smiths. In any other market, you can play maybe two Cure songs and two Depeche Mode songs. We can go 10 cuts deep with those artists, and our target audience would be 100% familiar with them.”

Blatter says that the strategy is working. A recent weekend in which the station, known as Y107, played only live recordings by ‘80s acts drew the most response of any similar special programming in the outlet’s two-year run, while overall ratings trends have been up in the last few months. KYSR-FM (98.7)--Star 98.7--has also made ‘80s music a cornerstone of its programming, targeting a largely female audience in the same age range. And even rocker KLOS-FM (95.5), long a bastion of ‘60s and ‘70s “album rock,” seems to have upped its content of ‘80s songs.

Ironically, though, KROQ itself is not upping its identification with the music it made possible. Though it maintains its connection with that music through such features as veteran deejay Richard Blade’s daily “Flashback Lunch,” by and large the station concentrates on new acts.

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That makes it a bit vulnerable, because although there are some big hit songs coming out, few artists are seen as holding anyone’s attention very long.

“Right now may be the worst period of new music I can remember,” says radio consultant Jeff Pollack. “With four of the Top 10 albums being soundtracks, there’s a consensus throughout the industry that we’re in serious trouble, creatively.”

Still, it’s no more a gamble for KROQ to wait out the lull for a new wave of meaningful music than it is for the others to risk being caught short if the ‘80s revival proves a passing fad.

“KROQ did create this universe but has elected to remain committed to regenerating itself,” Daniels says. “It becomes problematic if the others are saying, ‘Hey, if you’re abdicating the ‘80s, great; we’ll take it.’ But I personally have problems with that attitude. I clearly applaud the station that leads with new music rather than follows.”

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Out of the Dog House: Big Boy, the morning man on KPWR-FM (105.9), has outrun a pack of hounds nipping at his heels--barely. With ratings having stagnated since he switched slots with the now-afternoon Baka Boyz in October, the station was set to replace him with the team known as the Dog House. Headed by personalities known as Elvis and J.V., the show has become the top a.m. drive-time attraction in San Francisco on KYLD-FM.

But Doyle Rose, president of the radio division of KPWR owner Emmis Broadcasting, says Big Boy has been given a reprieve.

“There was an investigation into a team, but we are no longer in that hunt,” Rose says. “We are committed to the morning show we have. We have made some additions to the show, hired a new writer, Jeff Schimmel, and we believe that Big Boy has the innate talent and we can put together a very good show.”

The pursuit of the Dog House, which word around the radio world had as virtually a done deal, seemed to fit with Emmis’ avowed emphasis on what Rose notes is “the fastest growing segment of our culture, young Latinos.” The Dog House is a primarily Latino outfit, while Big Boy is African American.

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It also was being looked at as a clue into the station’s direction in the wake of a recent shake-up, which saw general manager Marie Kordus and program director Michelle Mercer removed, with Val Mackie taking over in the former position and a replacement for the latter still being sought. Many are still expecting some big moves, given that Emmis has sat out the frenzy of media mergers and buyouts that created vast, but capital-squeezed, radio empires. Emmis, in contrast, stands as a smaller entity next to its competitors, but focused and cash-rich, making it able to spend on high-priced talent.

Still, Rose says, the crucial morning situation can be boosted with some retooling rather than with wholesale changes.

Big Boy, long aware of his tenuous status, is glad for the reprieve and eager to prove he’s up to the challenge.

“We’ve been stepping up the content of the show over the past few months and are happy to bring a new writer on board,” he said in a statement passed on by his producer, Jason Hufford. “We know where the show needs to be and we’re working our asses off to get there.”

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