ALICE COOPER BRINGS A SNARL BACK TO FM:
April 28, 2005
There’s no hiding Alice Cooper. Even without discernible makeup, speaking in his workaday Joe Detroit accent, the shock rocker can’t help but emanate color and personality as he sits in a vast, beige boardroom at Greater Media’s sleek new digs north of Eight Mile in Ferndale.
That color will soon spill over onto local airwaves as the native Detroiter’s radio show — broadcast “from a radioactive dump somewhere in Monument Valley” in Arizona — will start airing from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. tonight on Greater Media’s WCSX-FM (94.7)
“I think it’s time that radio becomes less corporate,” says Cooper, alert and wisecracking despite the early hour last Thursday, in between sips of Pepsi. “I try to format it the way (legendary Detroit station) WABX was, free-form radio.”
Just as Cooper takes the air at WCSX, there’s a veritable explosion of celebrity DJs across the country, with former Sex Pistol Steve Jones a popular personality on Indie 103 in Los Angeles, and Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees with a new morning show on WCBS-FM in New York, just to name two. Stations are trying to compete with satellite radio’s personality-rich programming, with Howard Stern starting on Sirius in 2006, and even Martha Stewart inking a deal to appear on Sirius.
The irony is that when radio stations tightened formats to very limited music play lists and neutered air personalities, ratings dropped and helped spur the explosion of satellite radio and iPod downloads with an infinite variety of songs. Now, to bring listeners back, FM radio is forced to add personality and life to what listeners view as boring, repetitive fare.
“A lot of the guys running corporate radio, they only think as far as their black and white stats,” Cooper says. “But according to my e-mails, 90 percent are saying thank you for not playing the same Aerosmith, thank you for not playing the same Van Halen. They’re so tired of hearing these songs over and over.”
Cooper agreed to do the show a year and a half ago only if he could choose “at least 50 percent” of the music himself. He plays a variety of music, digging back for rarer cuts from top groups such as Aerosmith, but also throwing in a lot of Frank Zappa, Pretty Things, Yardbirds, and other seminal ’60s music that has been scarce at FM radio for the last decade or so.
“I tell listeners look, you want to hear AC/DC? I would love to play AC/DC,” Cooper says. “But they have 10 albums out. There’s 10 songs on each album. I don’t have to play ‘Dirty Deeds Done Cheap’ every time! E-mail me something different, and I’ll play it!”
Tom Taylor, editor of Inside Radio, thinks celebrity DJs will be good for FM radio. “Generally, I’d say that these hookups can serve both parties. Celebrities bring instant attention from the media and potential fans. And a high-profile radio gig can be very helpful to one’s career in terms of steady visibility and ability to leverage the artist’s image.”
The past year has been a time of plummeting revenues and uncertainty for the big mega-corporations that dominate radio. According to Bloomberg, shares of San Antonio, Texas-based Clear Channel, which owns about 1,200 stations, fell 17 percent in the past year to $41. New York-based Viacom, the owner of Infinity Broadcasting, which owns 183 stations, slid 9.3 percent to $35.20.
Compare that to satellite radio, which offers listeners what they seem to crave; more than a hundred channels of diverse music. Although Sirius and XM satellite radio aren’t profitable yet, stocks for both companies are on the rise as both add subscribers; Sirius has 1.4 million while XM Satellite stands at 3.2 million subscribers.
The news with younger listeners is even more dire; they are the ones who are abandoning FM radio in droves.
An injection of Cooper attitude and hundreds of fresh songs might help freshen a format like WCSX’s. Certainly air personalities say quietly that they’re hoping celebrity DJs such as Cooper “blow the station apart” and make creative radio possible again for everybody.
Cooper salts personal stories into his show, telling tales on personal friends such as Ozzy Osbourne and the Who.
“I have a story about everybody I play. And I don’t treat them with much reverence,” Cooper says with a laugh. “I treat them like my friends! So if Eddie Van Halen was here right now, he would beg me not to play ‘Pretty Woman.’ He would ask me to play another track that nobody ever hears … There’s a certain amount of Alice authority that I have, that people can’t argue with — or at least, they can have fun with it.”
A few years ago, there wasn’t much creativity to be found on the FM dial. Thus, nobody thought much of the syndicated show “Little” Steven Van Zandt started to peddle a few years ago; he was added to the Sunday night dead zone shift in many markets. But with his love of music and sense of theatricality, “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” was an out-of-the-box hit, doubling and tripling ratings in its time slot for many markets, including Detroit’s WCSX on Sunday nights.
After years of the same handful of cuts by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Aerosmith, to hear Van Zandt spin Arthur Lee and Love, the Electric Prunes, the White Stripes and the Gore Gore Girls on the 94.7 frequency was like time-tripping back to the days of WABX and underground radio.
Personality is key
For years, many air personalities who’ve have had their hands tied creatively, not allowed to inject their thoughts or choose music, now see celebrity DJs doing what they’d like to do. Detroit has many veteran jocks such as Steve Kostan of WCSX who’ve been attending concerts and talking to musicians for more than 30 years, and have a wealth of stories.
At WCSX, they’ll admit, somewhat, that Van Zandt’s success with the Underground Garage did prompt them to take a look at Cooper’s show.
“Alice has that hometown vibe, his passion for the music and the fact that the playlist is larger than the average bear,” says Bill Stedman, operations manager for WCSX.
Harold Childs, a former executive at A&M and Warner Bros. Records, wrote a column a few weeks ago in the Billboard Radio Monitor predicting that a new FM radio golden age, no less, would follow the current dark times.
Childs believes that the competition offered by satellite radio and iPods will force FM radio back into the kind of creativity that exploded in the underground radio days of the ’70s.
“A lot of these celebrity DJs are the ones who really have the knowledge of both the history of music, where it all stems from, and the personality to bring it to the forefront,” Childs says. “In the era of Clear Channel and the major radio chains they got rid of a lot of the music personalities. A lot of them were put out of work, leaving a kind of vacuum. But these personalities have a real history, they can tell stories that the people in this country need to hear. Kids don’t know the history, the nuance of where the music came from.”
In many cities, a musician with local roots is on the air, giving context to the city’s musical history. In San Francisco, Greg Kihn helms a morning show on KUFX-FM, and former Sex Pistol Steve Jones spins a variety of arcane punk and new wave on Clear Channel-owned Indie 103 in Los Angeles.
In a charming throwback to the ’70s and earlier, Jones totes the actual music in to the station, culled from his own record and CD collection, as opposed to the longtime practice of corporate-owned stations to program everything digitally from a central location.
Cooper’s roots are so firmly in Detroit that he’ll bring a potent sense of the local music history to his show.
Born Vincent Furnier, the rocker spent his first 10 years in Detroit. His family moved to Phoenix in 1958, when he was 10, in part to relieve his asthma, he says. When he “became” Alice Cooper and was working in L.A. with Frank Zappa, he decided to revisit his hometown.
“We came back in ’67, ’68, because L.A. had had enough of us,” Cooper says, laughing.
“Frank Zappa recorded us, we were on his label, but we were too intense for L.A. So we said, the first place we play where we get a standing ovation, we’re going to stay there. We played the Saugatuck Pop Festival with Iggy and the MC5 and I said, this is our audience right here. They got it. Where L.A. didn’t get it, Detroit totally got it. After all, Iggy was theater. MC5 had a certain theater, Ted Nugent had theater, and we fit like the other finger on that glove.”
With his outlandish makeup, staged executions, boa constrictors and tight band, Cooper was a fixture at Detroit venues such as the Eastown, the Grande Ballroom and the Michigan Palace.
“It would have been the Amboy Dukes, the Stooges, Alice Cooper and the Who, for like, $9,” Cooper says. “That’s a pretty good bill! Or we’d play Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at the Eastown. It was always with the MC5, the Stooges, Bob Seger or Brownsville Station.”
On his radio show, Cooper plays music from such old friends. He threw in Seger’s “Get Out Of Denver” recently, and says he’ll be opening up the show more in the future and playing even more oddball and deep old cuts as his audience matures.
For his premiere in Detroit tonight, Cooper will tip his ratty Alice top hat to the old hometown by spinning his own recent song “Detroit City,” with its lyric: “Me and Iggy were giggin’ with Ziggy and kickin’ with the MC5/Ted and Seger were burnin’ with fever/and let the Silver Bullets fly/The Kid was in his crib, Shady wore a bib/and the Posse wasn’t even alive.”
Like Little Steven Van Zandt, Cooper sees a direct line between the raw, garage rock of the ’60s and today’s music scene, which makes it imperative to play the music together.
“I think the one thing Detroit’s responsible for right now, when you hear bands like the White Stripes, the Strokes, the Vines, you can trace that right back to Detroit 1968. Every one of those bands, that’s what they’re going for. I can tell you who’s in their record collection.”
Cooper promises he’ll get wilder as time goes on and mix up more current garage rock with older stuff, although the guy who slept with his boa constrictor Yvonne in the ’70s promises he won’t be wild in the sense of being X-rated.
“Never dirty,” Cooper sniffs. “I don’t have to work dirty to be entertaining.”
Courtesy of www.detnews.com