When Audacy announced that Kevin Weatherly was coming back to his longtime home at Los Angeles’ KROQ after two years at Spotify, it signaled another return: to the programming that defined the alternative sound of Southern California for much of the 1990s and 2000s.
It was a little over two years ago when KROQ decided to pivot from mainstays like Green Day, Sublime and Foo Fighters towards more pop-leaning fare like Post Malone and TikTok hits like POWFU’s “Coffee For Your Head.” The experiment wasn’t entirely a success as the format tweak alienated the station’s longtime listeners and changes in on-air talent (especially the exit of beloved morning host Kevin Ryder) caused consternation between the staff and management. The blame largely fell on Audacy’s brand manager for alternative Mike Kaplan, who has since stepped down from his role at KROQ. Kaplan told Variety in May 2020 that listeners looking to hear artists like The Cure or Depeche Mode should head over to sister station Jack-FM, and acts like Blink-182, Weezer and Green Day “will certainly be part of the fabric of who we are for a while, but others have taken that step to a different format and for a different target consumer.”
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By others, Kaplan was referring to Alt 98.7, iHeartRadio’s rock alternative frequency in L.A. That station is headed by program director Lisa Worden, VP of Rock and Alternative for iHeartMedia, who worked under Weatherly for some 20 years. Since May, KROQ has trailed its competitor in ratings and audience — L.A. is the No. 2 radio market in the U.S. — but the gap has narrowed slightly.
Weatherly acknowledges that the alternative format has changed, even in the time that he was at Spotify heading up North American programming, but sees room for both legacy and newcomers at KROQ. “There are younger artists that stream a lot and then you have releases this year from Hot Chili Peppers, the Black Keys, Blink-182 — it’s sort of a return to the roots of the format,” he says.
The lineup for KROQ’s holiday tentpole Acoustic Christmas reflects that range. On the bill are mainstays like the Black Keys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Death Cab for Cutie and Jimmy Eat World as well as more contemporary acts like Imagine Dragons and Måneskin and up-and-comers Yungblud, the Interrupters and Wet Leg.
“Every time we book one these shows it’s to reflect the current state of alternative music, “says Weatherly, whose title at Audacy is senior vice president of programming. “Much like what we play in the air, it taps into different parts of our audience.”
The Acoustic Christmas show marks its 30th edition in 2022, minus two years for the pandemic. In the ’90s, bills included the likes of Rage Against the Machine, the Cranberries, Blind Melon and Fiona Apple; even Radiohead played, in 1995. As rock got harder towards the end of the decade and into the 2000s, the lineup would include bands like Korn, Disturbed and Linkin Park. Weezer has played at least five times, as have Blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World.
“If you look just at the history of the show, there are so many artists that have opened Acoustic Christmas one year and headlined at the next year,” says Weatherly. “It’s been amazing to witness and be on the sideline to watch how these shows have impacted artist careers through the years.”
Balancing nostalgia with what’s current has long been KROQ’s calling card, but seeing that new music discovery has slowed in the last year — with many hit songs carrying over from 2021 and even 2020 — leaning on the old may not be such a bad idea after all. As Weatherly explains: “With fragmentation today and personalization and algorithms, everyone is getting served up what they already know and already like, so it’s harder and harder to reach critical mass with anything new. In the chair that I sit in here at KROQ, the appetite for older music is bigger than it’s ever been, even with younger people.”
Weatherly points to “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush, used in “Stranger Things,” as the perfect example. “It’s one of the biggest songs globally this year and it’s 40 years old,” he marvels. “So there’s discovering not just what’s current, but what came before and what you may have forgotten.”
It’s a sentiment that could apply to KROQ’s current identity. Asked what his vision is for the future, Weatherly says it’s to return the station’s place “as a meaningful part of Southern California culture. … It’s always been about more than just the music: it’s about the personalities; it’s about the events; it’s about the lifestyle and being true to all that. … I think we have to prove to our listeners that we’re back and delivering on what they expect from KROQ. I’ve spent most of my adult life at this station and I care about what it means to Southern California. To know its legacy and have the opportunity to come back … we’re kind of in an underdog role and and I’m having a blast.”
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