The Death and Possible Rebirth of Alt-Rock Radio


He’s surfing! Surfing the crowd!

The thousands upon thousands of kids who turned up to the Bamboozle festival this past weekend might not have the best taste in the world; two days and six stages of straight-up emo isn’t exactly an aesthetic banquet. But now that their crazy internet-based monolithic subculture has actually emerged as something capable of supporting a massive two-day six-stage music festival, the curious and floundering cultural experiment of alternative-rock radio might yet have a future. Or not. We’ll see.

I’ve spent the last couple of years watching the fall of the DC alt-rock station WHFS with a sort of morbid car-wreck interest. This is the station I grew up listening to, and I can vividly remember how weird and fascinating their early-90s playlists were: Primus, World Party, Butthole Surfers, Soundgarden, Soul Asylum, Afghan Whigs, B-52s, the Cure, Chili Peppers, PJ Harvey, that “Three Strange Days” song constantly, Ministry. None of that stuff seems especially challenging or mind-blowing now, but hearing it all in rapid succession when I was eleven or twelve was sort of a mysterious and life-altering experience, the first thing that really gave me the idea that bands could be willfully weird and still move masses of people. In a lot of ways, it was totally milquetoast and ivory-tower: no rap, almost no dance, no black people except the occasional Kravitz or Trent D’Arby or Living Colour, etc. But it still managed to cast its tent wide enough to suck in all sorts of subgenres and subcultures, enough to make kids like me want to dig deeper. I used to tape their weekend techno shows and listen to the tapes all week, the same way Just Blaze did with Mr. Magic except that all I can remember ever hearing was “Out of Space.” Their Sunday-night indie-rock show played the hell out of Tuscadero and Railroad Jerk, both of whom I immediately decided I loved. They’d throw Fugazi on next to the Counting Crows if we were lucky. Grunge eventually changed all that, of course, as bands like Stone Temple Pilots would get heavy airplay just because the dude sounded like Eddie Vedder. But I still have fond memories of their annual HFStival shows, seeing Tripping Daisy and Lush and the Prodigy while doing my best to avoid the Verve Pipe and shit like that. Back then, the festival would sell out RFK Stadium in a few hours, and you’d have to either camp out or have a friend willing to camp out to get you tickets. And it was still a big commercial radio station that played the same shit over and over and gave massive airtime to some unbelievably lame stuff, but listening to it made a lot of high-school kids feel like they were a part of some undefinable moment.

But then jokers like Creed and Matchbox 20 and Nickelback started picking up on the Vedderian grunge vocal thing, and alt-rock radio didn’t know what to do with that, so they played the hell out of them. Around the same time, rap-metal came along, and it seemed a bit weird and fresh at first: Rage Against the Machine wearing gas masks, Korn having dreads and sounding maybe a bit like White Zombie. But circa Woodstock 99, it turned into total fratboy rape-and-pillage dominant-culture bullshit, and the songs were mostly terrible, and still alt-rock radio played the hell out of it. So everything that was ever alt about alt-rock radio gradually seeped away until these stations weren’t sure what the fuck they were, and their playlists turned into horrible unlistenable slogs: Papa Roach, Strokes, Vines, Coldplay, Godsmack, old Chili Peppers, old Beastie Boys, Staind, White Stripes, Godsmack again. They also started practicing revisionist history, playing House of Pain and Metallica and other stuff that they’d never touched the first time around. And then people stopped listening to the stations altogether, and many of them switched formats. New York’s K-Rock, which I guess was the alt-rock station here (I never listen to the radio here) is now an all-talk station. Alt-rock radio is pretty much effectively dead.

HFS disappeared for a minute, too, when whatever company owned it turned it into an all-Spanish station, the first major commercial one in the DC area. But some mass of white people objected and started firing off online petitions and letter-writing campaigns, and so the company took its own all-talk station and turned it into WHFS on nights and weekends. For a while, it was sort of great: lots of older stuff like R.E.M. and the Pixies and Pavement, stuff that never got played on pre-cancellation HFS, along with newer stuff like Interpol and the White Stripes that isn’t necessarily great but that can at least make some halfassed claim to being different from dentist’s-office waiting-room music. But then Good Charlotte and Keane and P.O.D. and everything else came creeping back in, and the playlists became a mess again.

I haven’t listened to the station since I moved up to New York last August, but they’re having another HFStival this month (two days, at Merriweather Post Pavilion, the place where I graduated from high school), and for the first time in maybe nine years, I’d totally want to go if I was 14. For one thing, they’ve finally decided to stop ignoring black music; Kanye West is headlining one day, inexplicably until you stop and think that he actually perfectly fits the bill of major artist taking musical chances, and he’s supported by (huh) Cypress Hill and (guh) Matisyahu, both of whom I guess count as being black music even though neither one is black. And both days still include a whole lot of utter dogshit (Jimmie’s Chicken Shack, Counting Crows) and old people stuff (Joan Jett, Misfits, the Fixx) and stuff I never heard of (Forty Acres? As Fast As? Dowtown Singapore?). But the most striking thing about both lineups is that they include piles and piles of emo bands, many of whom just played Bamboozle. It makes a lot of sense. The station’s first death should’ve made it painfully clear that 90s dinosaurs are not going to be able to carry radio stations anymore, the Killers and Coldplay sell records but don’t pack festivals, and Spin wouldn’t have been sold for a measly $5 million if kids were really feeling hipster stuff like the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs like that. So that leaves emo. Emo bands sell records and pack festivals and make kids feel like they’re a part of something, so emo is a gift from God to stations like WHFS. If they have any sense whatsoever, they’ll take it.