Thursday, September 20, 2001
People cried out in rage and disbelief. Protests erupted on the streets of Lawrence, and citizens wondered if the town would ever be the same again.
No, it wasn't a result of the war raging in Vietnam or a landmark ruling on Roe vs. Wade, it was simply because a beloved radio station had changed its format.
When the Zimmer Radio Group bought KLZR on Sept. 1, 1998, from Lawrence owner Hank Booth, the station's cutting-edge mix of modern rock and local artists remained intact for a year. But the cold realities of national corporate ownership already were set in motion.
On the Tuesday after Labor Day of 1999, the programming switch was thrown. The Lazer's bright, narrow beam began to widen and dull as it took aim at a Contemporary Hits Radio (CHR) format.
Two years later, lingering questions persist concerning what kind of impact this had, and continues to have, on Lawrence. Beyond just listeners, others became dramatically affected. Local musicians, touring acts, recording studios, booking agencies and festival organizers felt the newly created void. Uncertainties remain if the entertainment industry has fully recovered.
Others ponder if the new Lazer has any influence on the current local landscape, and if so, whether the station can ever hope to win back the hearts and minds of the college town.
The root of controversy
News of the format change in 1999 was not met with passive resistance from the Lawrence community. Organized protests became commonplace. Petitions signed with thousands of names were circulated, advertisers were systematically boycotted, protest Web sites began popping up on the Internet and the town's residents could be seen wearing T-shirts that read, "The New Lazer Sucks."
"Ninety-five percent of (the protests) were presented in a positive and straightforward way," says Lazer general manager Hank Booth, whose family owned KLZR and sister station KLWN for 47 years before the sale. "There were a few e-mails that were heavy on the bad language. But most of it was not. The young people who presented that petition were just absolutely responsible in what they were doing and how they went about doing it. I have a great deal of respect for those people."
But the peaceful approach also was supplemented by some random acts of harm. On Sept. 28, 1999, one of the station's windows was shattered around 2:30 a.m. After the business made statements to the press alluding that the incident may have been unrelated to the format change, a softball with a written message confirming the connection was hurled through the other pane of the same window the next morning.
"Any kind of change is going to get a backlash," Booth says. "That just goes with our society. We just don't like to have things we like change. To me it says an awful lot about how people feel about their radio stations and their music, and how much it means to them. To get that kind of outpouring of response for changing a format was pretty amazing."
The fallout didn't just affect the public, but KLZR's personnel as well. The station's management and programming staff Â known by their familiar on-air nicknames Rodger the Dodger and Bob O Â resigned from their posts, as did high-profile DJs "Spacin" Jason and Jeff Peterson.
"I had a lot of emotions invested in the format, certainly not with the Zimmer Radio Group," says Peterson, now program director at KDVV 100.3 FM in Topeka. "I got into it for the music. I came out of college radio excited about the boom of alternative music in '93. I had emotions invested in it. So when they took it away from me, it took away part of my life, and the music I really liked a lot at that time."
Peterson felt that the deception involved with the changeover was what really angered those concerned.
"It was the way that the Zimmer Radio Group lied to not only their staff at that time, but to the entire Lawrence community, the music industry," he says. "They actually had us telling music industry people from around the country that we WEREN'T changing formats. They also lied to the press. And they got away with it. Advertisers are still with them, even though they lied to the entire community of Lawrence. I don't see how people could still support that radio station."
Indeed, the new program director at the time, Chad Elliott, was quoted in a PitchWeekly article after the Labor Day switch that The Lazer "wasn't changing its format to mainstream," it was simply "mainstreaming the format." He added, "We're going to add in some mainstream product like Paula Cole, Jewel, The Cranberries."
By the next week, those artists and other remnants of rock radio were gone, replaced by puerile boy bands and preening divas.
"When we flipped the switch, there wasn't any effort to be deceptive at that time," Booth counters. "I wasn't aware of (Elliott misrepresenting the station's intentions to the press). I don't remember that. Mr. Elliott and us (have since) parted company."
For the most part, time tends to heal wounds Â especially when those affected are the fickle music-listening crowd of a college town. The faithful supporters moved on to other stations (or simply stopped listening to the radio). The few remaining Lazer staffers started acclimating to their new responsibilities.
"The animosity and the problems we went through for about six to eight months have almost totally disappeared," Booth says. "We almost never run into it. We haven't run into a negative situation outside of the station in over a year."
Has the hostility been replaced by apathy?
"That's a possibility," he says. "I don't claim to be able to climb into the mind of an 18-year-old from Leawood."
Change of scene
"A number of things have happened in the last two years," offers Peterson, who is still a Lawrence resident. "One thing is that the lack of The Lazer supporting these medium-tier bands coming through, and a lot of the local bands from the area, has definitely made the music scene a little less than it was. A lot more things have moved to Kansas City, like at The Uptown Theatre and Beaumont Club. Our little hotbed of touring is not what it once was, due to the fact that there's no radio support for these medium-tier bands."
Without the muscle of a large FM station, the ability to promote concerts and draw national acts to town has been compromised. And the edge that Lawrence once held over nearby Kansas City in terms of being a destination stop on cross-country tours has been worn down.
"The Lazer not being around has really changed the image of Lawrence, and changed the type of music of what comes through and what this town can support," says Bill Pile, talent buyer for House of Blues. "The Lazer seemed to have such a push locally Â live music as well."
Pile recalls a specific incident in 1996 when his booking agency went out on a limb to promote a live hip-hop show at a time when the style was still kept at a distance from non-urban audiences.
"The first big hip-hop show we ever did was that Roots/Fugees show," says Pile, who will move his office from Lawrence to KC next week to the newly opened Madrid Theatre. "We spent more money with The Lazer than we did with KPRS. We really felt that The Lazer sold out that show more than KPRS. Even though that was completely different music than was played on the station at the time, it still reached that college audience that was aware of those artists at the time. An alternative rock station being able to promote a hip-hop group in '96 and selling out the event was pretty incredible."
"What happened to all these bands we used to play and who used to come to town all the time?" Peterson asks. "It doesn't seem like they're coming here anymore. Then you see them at The Uptown Theatre, and it's like they should be playing Liberty Hall. Pipeline (Productions) and House of Blues are still doing a great job of putting some shows here, but it just seems like it's not what it was. Maybe that's because I'm just getting old and bitter. I don't think that Lawrence is the place that all the bands want to stop and play at. Because the alternative Lazer is gone is one of the main reasons.
"(These bands) are not getting the spins on the radio. They're not getting reported to the trade magazines. They're not coming in for the radio interviews and playing live on the air. There are no promotions where they're giving away stuff from these bands. That really helps a show. If you can get that in Kansas City from another station, you're going to go there instead."
Another domain where The Lazer's visible absence can be felt is at area festivals. At this month's Spirit Fest, held at Kansas City's Penn Valley Park, the event lumbered through the second year in a row without the Lazer-sponsored Modern Rock Stage. (Booth confides that his station made the September '99 switch when it did to coincide with sponsoring the stage at Spirit Fest. "I had asked that it be our grand finale," he says. "After that, there wasn't much doubt that we were CHR.")
The Lazer stage once provided dozens of local, original bands with the ability to play in front of festival-sized crowds on a giant platform with state-of-the-art lighting and video screens. It was the lone event where many area acts could be given the Mark Wahlberg-style treatment. It also was home to upcoming national headliners such as Weezer and Moby, who, at the time, were still too obscure to play the massive mainstage that is now the only platform at Spirit Fest.
Additionally, Lawrence hasn't been able to count a single major-label signing of one of its own acts since The Lazer changed Â quite a departure from the town's mid-'90s heyday when everybody and their cousin had a record deal. Previously, national labels hoping to measure the success of a band's hit-making capability had a way to chart this with local play on 105.9.
"There has been a downturn in the amount of bands that are putting out quality studio-sounding releases you can play on the radio and have somebody say, 'Wow, that's local? I had no idea, that sounds so great,'" Peterson adds. "That's what I'm looking for: local bands that are putting the effort into writing great songs that have hooks and are catchy, and that have good studio sound. The way The Lazer was two years ago Â putting local bands into regular format Â encouraged bands to get up off the couch and put out some quality product to get on the radio."
The Lazer going corporate is hardly a new trend among the area's music scene. Other once-local institutions have been gobbled up by national corporations during the past two years, including the alternative newspaper PitchWeekly, which in 1999 was sold to the Phoenix-based New Times group, and Lawrence's premier booking agency Avalanche Productions, which was purchased by the House of Blues chain in 2000.
"We probably spent more advertising with them than just about any radio station in Kansas City," recalls HOB's Pile. "I would say 40 or 50 percent of the business we were doing we used The Lazer, up until the time that they changed their format.
"I don't think we've done business with them more than a couple times since Â probably less than five times. I think on stuff like the level of Green Day (at Hale Arena), that's about it. But as far as anything on a smaller club level, we've never seen the need to use them. We don't really see any impact they have at selling tickets."
While most predicted that Lawrence advertisers would universally ditch the new Lazer at the altar, the realities have been slightly less extreme.
"We've had a significant increase in our advertising revenue," Booth asserts. "That's from local advertising primarily. We had a decrease in Kansas City revenue, because so many of the venues over there no longer saw us as the way to get to their potential clientele. That took some regional advertising away from us, but we have replaced all of that and then some with local advertising."
As for listeners, it's been a bit harder to chart whether there are more or less than before. In the first yearly marketplace ratings after KLZR dumped its alternative format for Top 40, the station lost nearly two-thirds of its audience. The Lazer went from a 1.4 of the market share in the summer of 1999 to a lowly 0.5 in the summer of 2000.
Currently, KLZR doesn't subscribe to Arbitron, the company that measures consumers and retail activity in media markets. Thus it's a bit hard to numerically pinpoint the success of the station during the most recent year.
Booth claims he's sure listenership has increased. He notes the station is starting to receive more of the national and regional buys in advertising based on ratings for Topeka and Douglas County, especially for those seeking 18- to 44-year-old demographics. He doesn't believe that would be happening if listeners weren't a part of that equation.
But one commodity is known for certain: The Lazer's content is skewed toward females. The station previously enjoyed a 70/30 split weighted toward males. Now the ratio is about 60/40 in favor of females.
"Back (before the sale) we had two kinds of people: People either think The Lazer is the greatest radio station in the world, or they hate it and wouldn't listen to it on a dare. And most of the people that didn't like it were female and over 25. We did have listeners in their 40s and 50s Â I heard from all of them, I think Â but by and large, most women 25 and plus didn't listen to The Lazer. That is a tremendous part of the buying public. Those are the people making the decisions on most major purchases in our country. The 28-year-old soccer mom with the nice SUV and the $200,000 home is in charge."
Unfortunately for the rest of the public, this is the same demographic that made "The View" a hit and Jewel's poetry book a best-seller.
"I don't see The Lazer competing on a level with Mix 93 or The Rock (98.9 FM)," Pile says. "Those stations have such a wider presence, and they're in Kansas City. I don't know what direction The Lazer is going. I don't see a lot of presence in Lawrence. I don't even know what direction they're wanting to go. I rarely turn to their station. The music they play doesn't really set themselves apart from anybody else."
Hometown tunes return
Although the station initially abandoned local music altogether, recently there's been a push to reopen the airwaves to those artists. The "Local Music Show," which was originally begun by Peterson in the late '90s, is now again a staple of KLZR's Sunday night lineup. (Ironically, it stands in direct competition with Peterson's own locally focused 'Download,' which runs from 8 p.m.-10:30 p.m. on KDVV.)
"The response has been extremely good, especially lately," says Lazer morning jock Elena, who is the current host of the "Local Music Show." "In the past two months or so a lot of bands have been contacting me. And I've been having a lot of bands play live on the show. I don't have one for this weekend, but I try to get one on every week."
Elena, who takes the Cher route with her professional moniker ("My last name will not be in any papers," she says. "I have stalkers."), lists the acts Filthy Jim, The Creature Comforts, Kristie Stremel and The Clint K Band as some of her "favorites trotting around town."
The DJ first started at KLZR as an intern "right when the format flipped." She was first-hand witness to the public outcry.
"At the time, I was also the program director at (Kansas University's) KJHK," she says. "It didn't affect me too negatively. But then I graduated here and got a job the next semester. By the time I actually started being a DJ on here, the controversy had petered out quite a bit. So it didn't distress me too much."
So how does a Replay Lounge-loving, indie DJ like Elena enjoy having to now spin Britney Spears and J-Lo for a living?
"Music is music," she counters. "I really do like it all. When I'm talking to someone from the press, I 'love' it. Hey, I actually enjoy Britney Spears. I dressed as her on Halloween."
Luckily, Elena still has an outlet on Sunday nights to revisit her non-commercial roots. In fact, her "Local Music Show" was lengthened by an hour a month ago (it now runs 9 p.m.-11 p.m.) Â a testament to the area's need to hear local artists on community airwaves.
"It's gotten a pretty warm reception from the audience and local bands," she says. "I don't really feel too much negativity anymore."
Her if-you-can't-beat-'em, 'join-'em attitude has trickled down to some of the station's former critics, also.
"I've got this awesome intern named Colby Blanton, he's actually a high school kid who originally was writing mean e-mails to us about the format change. I wrote him back and said, 'Lookit, why don't you put your money where your mouth is and see what I do for a living.' So he did, and now he's my intern and does a fantastic job. And he goes out and solicits music for me."
If only area musicians could be converted so easily.
While The Lazer has taken steps to improve its relationship with local bands, many artists that were around at the time of the switch have had difficulty embracing the new station. According to KC power-pop band Thulium, when KLZR made the lethal move from alt-rock to Top-40, it marked a turning point from which the region has never recovered.
"When The Lazer switched formats, that was obviously a huge blow to the local scene," Thulium vocalist Matt Groebe says. "It kind of uninspired a lot of people about playing. What was left was the indie stuff, the emo stuff. They don't care if they're on the radio anyway, that whole go-their-own-route attitude. For bands like us that really do care about the fans and want to play for people, it made it difficult not getting any airplay, or losing the only significant airplay that we were getting in the first place."
"Plus, The Lazer made it possible for a local band to actually be somewhat famous, at least around here," bassist Drew Scofield adds.
The result, say the members of Thulium, was the demise of several area groups that hung it up after finding there were almost no outlets for providing local melodies to the masses.
"If something like that breaks up a band, it's probably not a very strong unit to begin with," counters Chris Tolle, vocalist/guitarist for Lawrence pop act The Creature Comforts. "I don't think people start bands with the idea of airplay Â or at least I never did. That's sort of a side note."
Tolle's Creature Comforts, and his former trio Action Man, were the recipient of much favorable treatment by the original station. Their 1999 debut album "The Politics of Pop" found considerable airplay, powered by the catchy single "Sentimental Bliss" that became a regional smash thanks to 105.9.
"My previous bands, and even The Creature Comforts, got an awful lot of play," Tolle remembers. "Since the change, I haven't listened to a lick of that station.
"It seems like it's had more of an effect on the scene as a whole, and maybe influencing other sort of radio stations to bail on their local programming. I can't remember the call letters of the station in Manhattan (Kan.), but when The Lazer stopped being alternative, it pretty much followed suit. (KLZR) was perceived as not being such a success anymore Â which was quite the opposite. The Lazer was hugely successful. That's why it got bought out."
However, Tolle is encouraged lately by The Lazer's shift in policy toward playing local artists again.
"The fact that there's a local show happening is the best thing to happen to newer bands who can get played in that slot," he says. "From what I hear, we're played on The Lazer now. But I honestly have no radio whatsoever. My antenna is broken on my car."
KJHK steps up
Just as it was in the 1980s before The Lazer became such a juggernaut, KU's student-run KJHK 90.7 FM has witnessed a return to prominence. While the community often viewed the station as merely a training ground for undergrads during the '90s, few understood KJHK's previous role as that of the city's most influential outlet for modern music. It's an identity that the decades-old institution is delighted to adopt again.
"We've been doing a lot to make us the voice of the Lawrence music scene," says Ty Haas, who's been the station's music director for a year and a half. "I don't know if everybody out there is going to say that. But as far as radio stations go, we're more so than The Lazer or anybody else."
Haas had just started at the Sound Alternative when its competitor made the programming switch. He recalls that KJHK weathered some internal battles concerning how to respond to the situation.
"We went through small format changes of our own Â more tweaks in programming than changes," he says. " We were just trying to play some of that more recognizable music, but not really jump on what The Lazer had been doing. We felt like our audience that was with us the whole time The Lazer was here would hate that."
Currently, Haas hosts KJHK's local show, "Plow the Fields" (Saturdays, noon-2 p.m.), which is receptive to any type of music by area artists. Beyond that, he also points out that many Lawrence acts, such as Tijuana Crime Scene and The Anniversary, are already spun in regular rotation. (The station mandates that at least one local song be played per hour on regular rock shows.)
"If it's good and it's local, it's usually played throughout the day," he says. "We've tried to do what we can here. We are a college station, and our resources are limited. We just don't have the money as The Lazer. And we're all students, so we've got school to tend to."
End of the dial
Ultimately, The Lazer's demise can't just be traced to the Zimmer Radio Group, which owns a total of 30 stations in five states. It's indicative of the condition of contemporary music in general. Other markets aren't exactly running to embrace the underground rock format. And those that have are still being buried in the ratings by urban and country stations.
"The Lazer definitely doesn't have much of a following in Topeka, and they are not the big station in Lawrence anymore," Peterson says. "They realize that fact, but they're not going back. They couldn't go back anyway, because the music climate has changed."
"I'm not even sure where modern rock as we evolved it is today nationally," Booth says. "But I know that at the time we moved out of it, lots of stations were. It was becoming like trying to grab a glob of Silly Putty Â you can't hold onto it. We would delve into one area and suddenly find out that two or three stations in Kansas City were playing the artist, and "Oh my God, that's not alternative or modern rock anymore. Commercial stations are playing it.' So we'd go another direction."
Does Booth regret having sold the station?
"No," he replies. "There are some things that happened that I wish hadn't happened. But so far there isn't anything that's been done that hasn't proven to be a good move for the radio station.
"As far as KLZR, is there a responsibility for us to play music that nobody else is playing? I don't think so," Booth adds. "The kind of response we get now is, 'It's just nice to have a station that I can have on at work or listen to in the car with my little kids.' Frankly, I didn't get that response from moms when Marilyn Manson was on at 10 in the morning."