Interview: Mark Sovel Talks Indie 103, Radio, and More

Interview: Mark Sovel Talks Indie 103, Radio, and More

 

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Angelenos are lucky. Our FM airwaves are second-to-none in terms of diversity and quality of programming. We’ve got two bona fide classical stations, a true (i.e. non-“smooth”) jazz station, a dedicated old-school R&B station, quality classic rock, and Phil Hendrie. You’d think we’d have no complaints. But then you’d be forgetting that this is L.A.; if Kobe doesn’t go for 45 points a night, somebody’s writing a letter. And who was throwing up bricks night after night on our radio dial? None other than the radio world’s Air Jordan: 106.7 KROQ FM. In case you didn’t know, KROQ is the world’s biggest (and L.A.’s most dominant) rock station. After the grunge thing died in the mid-’90s, KROQ contented itself with squeezing out eminently mediocre, marketing-team-approved sludge, and the natives were getting out their pads and pencils. We needed something with taste.

And so, in a big fuck-you to Lenin and Marx (who only listened to the Volga Boatmen’s Song anyway), rising demand in the marketplace created a business opportunity, and Indie 103.1 FM was born. “What’s so great about Indie 103?” you ask. Well, where else can you hear the likes of Sex Pistol Steve “Jonesy” Jones cussing out wannabes and sellouts on his very own radio show? What other station gives you access to the sultry tones of Rob Zombie as he drops witty eschatological tidbits between Alien Sex Fiend tracks? And would your hometown rock station follow up AC/DC with Puffy Amiyumi?

What goes on behind the curtain at such a carnival of wonderment? I headed down to Indie’s Hollywood offices for some investigative reporting/seeing what free stuff they’d give me.

Indie is owned by Entravision, one of the largest Spanish-language broadcast corporations in the state. Thus, all the signage at Indie’s offices was in Spanish, the radio show playing over the loudspeaker was in Spanish, the magazines on the tortilla-shaped coffee table were in Spanish. And so, when I got up to the receptionist, I figured “Estoy aqui por Mark Sovel, de Indie 103” was the right way to go, but she curtly responded, “Okay, just a moment.” For those of you not from California, that translates to: “Keep practicing, white boy.”

At the broadcast booth, I sat in with TK (real name Todd) while he did his afternoon show. Pop-rockers Morningwood (or at least lead-singer Chantal Claret and bassist/awesome-name-possessor Pedro Yanowitz) showed up for a brief interview. Before the studio mics went on, the conversation revolved mostly around cunnilingus and breasts, as The Ramones thumped “The KKK Took My Baby Away” in the background. On the air, the duo turned to music-Morningwood’s own, of course, but not exclusively. “[Gang of Four] make middle-age sexy,” offered Pedro, and Chantal had some advice for fellow crooner Ashlee Simpson: “Put the machine away! Just put it away!”

It’s indicative of Indie’s musical philosophy that they’re willing to showcase a band like Morningwood. Indeed, if you’ve heard Morningwood’s songs, or even heard of Morningwood, chances are Indie 103 had something to do with it. Not just because of interview spots, but also because Indie is largely responsible for breaking the band’s singles and originating the push for their album. KROQ and its ilk have limited incentive to generate interest in what could be uncharitably described as a band cobbled together from members of other, failed bands. And yet, Morningwood’s single “Nth Degree” broke the top 40 on the Modern Rock Charts not long ago. Obviously, there are people out there who are glad to know that the Morningwoods of the world exist. And they have Indie to thank for that.

I think management expected me to sit through all of TK’s show, but with what Slant was paying me, I still had to budget enough time to panhandle for bus fare home. So I took matters into my own hands and sought out Mark Sovel, music director, producer of Jonsey’s Jukebox, host of his own radio show, and general master of disaster at Indie. He was in the middle of eating something that I like to believe was pizza when I showed up at his office, but fuck that, I was hungry too; neither of us was getting any food until he answered my questions (and gave me my kickback check for doing this ass-kissing article):

So, before we start, give me a little background on yourself, your radio history, etc.

I got into radio right out of high school in the early ’80s and I landed…on this station in Detroit, WABX. It was a freeform FM rock station through the ’70s when I was a kid, and I pretty quickly landed on the air there. I got very, very lucky. Just like I’m lucky to be working here. See, that was when a new form of music was going on. The Clash, Elvis Costello, and the whole new wave thing was happening-the Smiths and the Cure. But none of that was being played on the radio. So, my angle or my goal on the radio was to work toward exposing that music. We’re used to a format called alternative now, but there wasn’t a whole alternative format then. It was just, you know, Allman Brothers and Zeppelin. Which I don’t have a problem with either, but, you know, it was a dead end. And that resulted in it becoming classic rock, because they didn’t continue to move forward musically. So my goal was to try to expose that new stuff. It’s not about discovering it, really, because the people discover the music, it’s just about exposing it.

What makes Indie 103 “indie?” What is “indie” music?

There’s a great debate about that. I’m not hung up on the idea that we have to play only “indie” music. The moniker, maybe, is an albatross, because we’re not playing just indie music. The Clash, you know, was never an indie band. They were always on Columbia. But when we first came out, we were playing a lot of stuff that was on indie labels, although in addition to some good stuff from major labels too. Indie as it applies to us, is that we’re independent of any outside influence. We’re independent of consultants or research or—

So, you don’t have a marketing department or anything like that? You don’t do market research?

Well, we have a promotions department, but we don’t do research.

That’s pretty unique. So, why make an indie radio station?

Well, it’s a very expensive property. They wouldn’t do it just because it was “cool.” Entravision, I’m sure, saw the opportunity to make money. There was a market share that wasn’t being served. A share that was falling in between KCRW and KROQ, you know, people who couldn’t listen to KROQ anymore because it was too…horrible.

Okay, so take me through the situation with the foundation of the station in terms of money. Clear Channel was originally with you guys, and then the FCC forced them out, right?

Not exactly. That’s the story that they gave. I mean, they were going to have to divest of us eventually, but they did so quicker than they needed to. And that was because the heads of Clear Channel heard about the station, saw that they were being portrayed in the media as the “evil entity” in stories about us, and they went: “Who the hell’s this? Make it stop, make it go away. The few million bucks we’re making off this, we don’t give a crap.” Which, actually, was the best thing that could have happened to us.

Why is that?

Well, for Entravision, they make a bigger piece of the pie. And the stigma of being a Clear Channel station while also being an independent, free-thinking station-people thought they were being duped. I tried to explain over and over again that, hey, [Clear Channel] doesn’t control the programming, but it was tough to get across. So, divesting ourselves of that association was not a bad thing.

Okay, so who are your most popular DJ’s, and who are your personal favorites?

Well, Jonesy is our, you know, quarterback. He gets the best numbers. I don’t have favorites.

Come on.

Hey, I love Jonesy. What can I say?

So, you guys have a number of celebrity DJs. Jonesy, of course, but also Camp Freddy, Rob Zombie, etc. How did those guys get involved?

Each one was different, but most of them were just guys who lived in L.A., heard the station and said, “Cool, I want to be a part of this.”

Speaking of cool, how do you guys choose the music you play?

It’s not the way it’s traditionally done. It’s always on the fly. Most stations will have a music meeting, where everybody sits down and votes to decide what they like, etc. Never happens that way here. It’s always like [Program Director Michael] Steele’s running down the hall like: “We need some new music! Let’s meet about it tomorrow!” And then we’re too busy. And then we’re too busy the next day. And suddenly, I grab a stack of CDs, and I’m like “Let’s go over this!” Boom, boom, boom. And normally, through just bumping into each other a few times about it, we’re already on the same page. Like I said, it usually happens on the fly, there’s never any regular time frame to it.

Would you characterize the music, then, as “free-form”?

No. No, Jonesy’s freeform. Jonesy chooses his own music. Most of the shows on the station are free-form. But the regular format is not free-form, you know-it’s a format.

And what is that format?

Urgh…well, it’s called “modern rock” in the trades….

Hard to swallow a label, huh?

Ah, sometimes.

Well, speaking of “modern rock” stations, as far as the L.A. music market is concerned, KROQ is obviously the dominant force. I’m going to be euphemistic and say they’ve “appropriated” some of the music you guys play. What’s up with that, and what’s your relationship with them?

Hang on. [Sovel searches around for a second and produces a Postal Service Gold Record] See this? This was our first Gold Record. It’s also the first song [we broke] that KROQ started playing. At the time, most of what we were playing, you know, wasn’t being played on the radio. Nowadays we think of Interpol as a really mainstream band, but at the time, Interpol wasn’t being played at all. Anyway, Postal Service: When we started playing it a bit, we heard through our sources that it had become KROQ’s number one most requested song-and they hadn’t played it. And then they had to start playing it. That, to us, was like, “Whoa. They know we’re here. Wow. We’re having an impact.” You know, it’s smart programming on their part. And for us, we feel good because we know we’ve had an effect.

Is that the goal of a radio station like this: to change the face of music in L.A.?

Well, the people in the sales office will tell you that the goal of this radio station, like any radio station, is to make money.

Yeah, but what would you tell me?

You know, it’s a lot like ’82. The goal is playing music on the radio that belongs there that’s not getting exposed. If we can impact KROQ, and by that we affect the whole alternative format, great. Two years ago, when we came on, KROQ was playing nothing but crap. And now you look at them-well, they’ve actually kinda swung back toward crap-but there was a period about six months ago where everything that was in there, you know, the top 50 songs or whatever, was something we were playing as well.

You mentioned crap. What’s crap? Give me an example of crap.

Ah, jeez, I hate to…

Come on, name some names, man. Let’s hear it.

All right, well, at the time we came on, the big band on KROQ was Linkin Park. That just sort of epitomizes what crap is, as far as I’m concerned. And, you know, God bless the guys in the band. They’re not untalented or anything, but there was a genre of music being pumped down the pipeline of commercial radio and major labels that had nothing to do with guys in a garage creating music. It had to do with “Let’s create a group that looks right, sounds the same, KROQ’ll play it because they’re indebted to CBS or Columbia for some other crap, and we’re just gonna keep shovin’ down the pipe until people say ’enough!’” And, you know, it got to that point.

So, Indie is helping to provide an alternative to and a reduction of crap from the mainstream. That’s awesome. But there’s still plenty of crap. Will it ever be gone?

No. There’s always been crap, there’ll always be crap. You know, even when the Beatles were at their height, they never got a Grammy. You look at the Grammy awards, and there’s crap everywhere. Fuckin’ Pat Boone, you know?

Let me make my final question a comic book-inspired one. What is the bizarro Indie? What music would you guys never play?

Well, I don’t know, exactly. I remember one time [Henry] Rollins came on, and he played 45 minutes of bebop. I’m sure a lot of our audience was confused to turn on the radio and hear Eric Dolphy at drivetime. But, you know, Jonesy’s played classical music, so I’m not sure if there is any music that we wouldn’t play.

Leaving Indie’s offices, I pulled on my headphones and turned on the FM tuner. Just for shits and giggles, I flipped over to KROQ, where Matisyahu was just finishing up “King Without a Crown.” I admit, I was struck: would the biggest, most commercial rock station in L.A. even go near a Hasidic reggae-rapper’s live album if Indie 103 hadn’t forced it to? Let’s just say I doubt KROQ has many talent scouts in Crown Heights.

Check out Indie 103 at www.indie1031.fm, or, if you live in the L.A. or O.C. area, at 103.1 FM on your radio dial.