Resetting the Radio Landscape

March 25, 2022 by Jimmy Alvarez

In our ongoing Industry Report series, we venture into the world of radio broadcasting and terrestrial radio. I know radio has had its challenges the past few years, but trust me when I say this: it is coming back.
There are a handful of stations in Southern California that are responsible for the rebirth, so to speak, of radio. For the alternative radio crowd, one of the leaders is also one of the pioneers: they are San Diego-based and transmitting from Tijuana, the station is 91X.
When I heard the news that 91X was changing its format, I was intrigued and worried. The first thing that passed through my mind is they would no longer be the alt rock station; they were going to become a talk station or maybe some other folky-polka type station. I was so happy when they made the official announcement, and that I was so off the mark.
What was announced is 91X is going to go against the alternative music grain. They will still play new music; the bands that put out kick-ass music and the bands we need to know about and deserve to be heard on a platform such as 91X. That news gave us all a sigh of relief, so check off that box. What followed was the news that so many 91X listeners have been waiting to hear from some time: 91X is embracing their 40-year legacy and music library. In other words, they are going to go against today’s conventional music program for what is known today’s “alternative music.”

This is a bold move that so far has been embraced by listeners from all mediums of the alternative-world. You know that good ole’ saying, “Fortune favors the bold.” There’s another saying I like to use that embodies what’s happening at 91X: “To know where we’re headed, we have to know where we’ve been.”
With that as a backdrop, it’s important to reflect on the 91X history to know how this fits into today’s 91X. The station launched in 1968 when Radiodifusora del Pacífico, S.A. de C.V., then-owner of AM 690 XETRA (now XEWW), received a concession for a new FM station with the call sign XETRA-FM, which was originally broadcasting at 91.3MHz. The station moved down the dial to 91.1MHz in 1978, and started to broadcast at 100,000 watts high atop Mt. San Antonio. Back then it was album-oriented rock format. It wasn’t until the ‘80s that 91X exploded. In 1983, 91X followed the footsteps of L.A. (Pasadena)-based KROQ-FM.
KROQ’s Program Director, Rick Carroll, was hired on as a consultant. He switched the station to “Rock of the ‘80s” and started the modern rock format at 91X. That move launched a love affair between San Diego’s music enthusiasts, and in the years to come they became an international sensation.
Bands like The Smiths, Depeche Mode, The Cure, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Oingo Boingo, English Beat, David Bowie, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Ramones became the barometer of cool. With support from MTV and VH-1, the new wave, new romantic, punk and ska genres became a very big deal.
For the next several decades, 91X became the catalyst for the soundtrack of our lives.
For context, the voices that Rick Carroll worked with at KROQ in those early days became larger-than-life characters with just one word… you know, like Cher and Madonna. Names that broke all the rules included Blade, Jed, Freddy, Dusty and Bingenheimer.
Carroll did the same thing at 91X and brought that Midas touch to San Diego. 91X has had its share of legends behind the mic; names that brought us countless memories through music. Those beloved names include West, Roth, Oz and Halloran. There have been other legendary voices at the station, but these stand out among the list of legends.

I still remember the stories I heard about those early days at the station. Johnny Vatos of Boingo once told me that he was scared for his life when the guys drove down with Steve West to Tijuana to get the best tacos on the planet (per Steve), and ended up on a Mad Hatter ride to the 91X transmitter in the hills of TJ. Per Johnny, it was one of the best and scariest days of his life.
Tijuana Broadcast Station
Circling back to the here and now, the shift to a combination of retro-future programming is turning heads and capturing a ton of well-deserved attention.

Who better to get the skinny from on the new direction than 91x Program Director (PD) Garett Michaels and Music Director (MD), Hilary Doneux.

I spoke with both of these radio veterans and I could tell immediately they were excited about what they were doing at 91X; I could feel their energy and excitement through the phone. Michaels and Doneux are well-respected broadcasting professionals, and it was imperative to get their take on this venture.
Jimmy: “So what inspired this change in music programing?”
Garett: “Well Jimmy, we care about our listeners, some have been with us since day one. We also care about what’s going on in the world of alt rock, and we merged the two and we’re doing something about it.”
We discussed the dynamics of today’s alt rock world and radio in particular. OC Music News has chronicled some of the challenges for radio the past few years, and many of the challenges that impacted radio were self-inflicted wounds. Many stations were quick to abandon their legacy; you know… the music that made them who they are. They also started losing the voices that made them. Listeners did not lose sight of this, and they abandoned these stations, some for good as they flocked to other stations who read the writing on the wall.
That vacuum gave birth to music services and podcasts. Ultimately, it’s the voices telling the stories behind the music that make the most impact. That is something online services can’t replicate or compete with.
Jimmy: “Garett, what’s the pulse of today’s alt rock and how has 91X measured it?”
Garett: “We felt that our music catalog is so vast and the music is so timeless, we had to listen to all the texts, e-mails, social media posts and calls asking us to play more from the play list from Resurrection Sunday. Add the new music Hilary programs, that has captured the hearts and souls of countless people. Over the years, one can argue many stations took their eye off the ball and we felt it was time to do something about it.”
Here’s the thing; alt rock has such a deep history in SoCal. There is a lot of great new music, but in my opinion, not enough to replace 40 years of music history. We all deserve a place like 91X that embraces uber-good kick-ass new music and doesn’t play the same 200 songs from “back in the day” over and over and over until people tune out.
This is what the new 91X sounds like; a combination of new and classic. Finally, we have a radio station that gets it and is not afraid of going against the proverbial grain. Honestly, it’s the live voices that bring us closer to our sonic heroes. 91X has an on-air staff that entertains, but also has such an understanding of the music and its history, and they constantly endear themselves to their listeners by telling the stories they love to hear.

It was Monday, Valentine’s Day 2022, when 91X began running an “A to XYZ” alphabetical music marathon of the station’s biggest hits from its nearly 40-year run. The feature wrapped up on the 23rd.
Then, a day we won’t forget any time soon, 10 a.m. on February 24th, 91X shifted its format to one focused more on ‘80s and ‘90s classic alternative while keeping the “91X” moniker, along with the new slogan, “91X, The Original, Same As It Ever Was.”
The first song played on the “official” new format was so appropriate; “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads.
The music is a big part of the sonic journey, but it’s the voices that bring these songs to life.
91X of today features a fantastic morning show with Marty and Danielle. Hilary anchors middays (10 a.m. – 3 p.m.), and as beyond entertaining as he is, Zach holds things down with drive time (3 p.m. – 8 p.m.).

The station holds on to their specialty shows with Resurrection Sunday with Garett (Sundays 6 a.m. – 10 a.m.); Church of Bob (Sundays 10 a.m. – noon) with Hilary; the institution known as Loudspeaker (Sundays 7 p.m. – 10 p.m.) featuring the iconic voice of Tim Pyles and co-host Lou Niles.
There are other voices that deliver the tunes too: Sam, Josh, and Scotty.

Then again, we have to pay respect to those voices that made 91X part of our family. Voices who will always be part of our radio lives include Muckley, Capone, Billy Bones, Dwight Arnold, Makeda Dread & Demaja Lee (Reggae Makossa), Berger & Prescott, the late Russ T Nailz, and DJ D-Rock (who you can catch at a Padres games); just to name a few.
Jimmy: “Garett, what has been the response from your listeners on the ‘format’ change?”
Garett: “Listeners have sent us e-mails, texts, and through social media they are not shy about calling us and telling us that they are loving the sound and they are just as excited as our on-air staff.”
I like to think I know a little bit about alt rock; its origins, punk reggae and ska. I have been giving the station a listen with an open mind. After a few weeks of the new format, I can summarize 91X and its format in one word, “legit!”
I asked Hilary what it is like programming such an eclectic mix of music: the new and the not so new.
Hilary: “It’s a blast! There are so many great songs to pull from, and music I have known that we have all grown up with is new to some listeners. For example, I have a 15-year-old daughter and the other day I played ‘Terrible Lie’ by Nine Inch Nails. Now my daughter can’t get enough of ‘Pretty Hate Machine.’ I also played her ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’ by Yazoo, and she loved it.”
I asked Hilary the obvious question: how does it feel to program this new format. Honestly, I thought I might get a generic PC response; instead it was heartfelt, which describes 91X today.

Hilary: “I love what I do, I can’t wait to play the next new song, or a song from our catalog that is new to someone. Programming today’s music just makes me smile and hopefully that comes through on-air.”

To address Hilary’s comment, YES… we can tell you are excited to play this music, and it makes us all smile.
A plan is for naught without planning, execution and vision. That has been the challenge for so many terrestrial stations. The vision and ability to do something different. In all fairness, that is the challenge in just about any industry, but 91X has an advantage. Local Media San Diego is the only locally and independently-owned radio group in San Diego.  In addition to 91X, it also owns Magic 92.5, Z90.3 and 100.7 BIG FM. Trust me, this is a very big deal.
When most stations need a virtual “Act of Congress” to get anything done, Michaels has the luxury other stations don’t have. That is, a participating principal working alongside staff… that is virtually unheard of. I asked Michaels what difference does it make having a principal as an active partner?
Garett: “It makes all the difference in the world. Gregg Wolfson is our President/General Manager. He is one of the owners (Managing Partner) of Local Media San Diego. There are no layers of management, I can walk down to his office, discuss any issue, and get an immediate decision.”
Jimmy: “Garett, what instructions have you given Hilary to program the new 91X sound?”
Garett: “Forget what the charts say; program music we can all be proud of and we will remind everyone what 91X is all about.”
Bottom line, all industries have their challenges. Radio is not exempt from the ebbs and flows of life. Over the years, the station has had to deal with the basic economics of the industry just like everyone else. In the end, it’s their listeners that came out on top. Credit that outcome to the people that have worked at the station (then and now).
That said, play list for a random afternoon: Rage Against the Machine, Wet Leg, Sublime, Radiohead, Bowie, Blink, and Inhaler. With music like that, the new 91X just might be the trend-setting juggernaut it was always setup to be. For Garett Michaels, it’s safe to say the new format works and people are definitely listening and taking notice.
Garett, Hilary, the on-air and support staff have a lot to be proud of. They are delivering music with passion. Not only are they introducing exciting new tunes alongside music from the soundtrack of our lives, they are also bringing people of all ages back to terrestrial radio. For that, I tip my hat to everyone at 91X.


ocmn 2022