Sunday, June 22
It’s going to be one of the weirdest weeks in local radio history, one that presents a cautionary tale about what happens when an independent-minded commercial station fails to make its corporate numbers.
A few days ago, Entercom, the parent corporation of KRBZ 96.5 the Buzz, made a few personnel moves. It hired Jason Whitlock, who formerly held down an early morning gig at WHB 810. Former Chiefs Bill Maas and Tim Grunhard also abandoned their post at the station, the 9 to 11 a.m. program Crunch Time. Initially, this news mattered little to regular 96.5 listeners. Whitlock, Maas and Grunhard are the jocks and bullies Buzz-favorite groups such as Good Charlotte and Blink-182 despise.
Soon, though, Buzz employees learned that this transaction was more than a footnote. Upper management remained mum, but leaking news trickled down to the staff. Entercom, rumor had it, was considering pulling the plug on the progressive yet ratings-challenged Buzz to clear the way for an all-sports station. It looked as if WDAF 610 was poised to take the Buzz’s place on the FM dial.
The news is still fresh when host Danny Boi and interns Brand New and the Cooz convene at 8 p.m. for their weekly punk program, Drive-In. Fearing this will be their last show, they put together an apt playlist. “Idiots Are Taking Over,” “We’ve Had Enough” and “Everything Sucks” are among the featured titles, and the show ends on an alternately hopeful and wistful note with the track that opened the first-ever Drive-In: Millencolin’s “Fingers Crossed.”
At least the airtime affords the Drive-In hosts an opportunity to mention the next morning’s Save the Buzz rally at the J.C. Nichols Fountain from 6 to 10 a.m. A few listeners, all of whom seem to be hearing about the plight for the first time, announce their intentions to attend. Several more bitch about the early start time, at which point Danny Boi, an amiable Ashton Kutcher look-alike who shares his doppelganger’s eager-puppy personality, snaps. “Get your ass up if you care at all about the station,” he shouts. “Or else this is all you’ll get.”
He starts playing samples of Entercom’s other stations’ content, moving from a 50 Cent tune to Deliverance-style banjos. Then he launches into an impression of Jason Whitlock, which is amusing despite bearing no resemblance to its target’s voice. “Hi, I like to talk about sports,” he declares, sounding like a generic, animated Santa Claus.
Danny Boi’s show differs from anything else on commercial radio in several ways. Either he or Brand New provide all of the music from their personal collections, and there are no programming constraints (other than FCC regulations) on his playlist. Some of these groups are platinum sellers, but Danny Boi plays them because he loves their music, not because they’re popular.
During his regular slot, 7 to 10 p.m. weeknights, Danny Boi and the Cooz play a blend of hits and hopefuls that’s not of their making. “[Drive-In is] the one time I don’t have to play Coldplay,” Danny Boi says. That’s why he calls 9 p.m. Sunday “the worst time of the week.” It marks both the end of his show and the point furthest from the beginning of his next one. Tonight, he realizes that the wait might never end.
Monday, June 23
Drizzle and dark skies don’t dissuade fifty or so die-hard supporters from appearing at the Save the Buzz rally. A few attendees not only set their alarms for 5 a.m. but also made elaborate signs: “Entercom is out of tune,” “Down with the Suit,” “We woke up at the butt-crack of dawn to save the Buzz.”
Two impossibly manic teens, Cathy and Kayla, attribute their incessant bouncing and frequent giggle-spiked outbursts to a peculiar hunger-strike diet they’ve adopted since hearing the bad news about their favorite station two days earlier: Mountain Dew and doughnuts. That, plus they stayed up all night puff-painting their jeans with the names of every Buzz personality.
“There’s nothing else on the radio,” Cathy gripes. “We love Lazlo — he’s so funny!”
“He’s the voice of the bitter,” adds a brawny, suit-clad man who identifies himself as Listener No. 9, a nod to Lazlo’s estimate that he has only nine listeners. “He says what he wants to say, and he gives the people the music they deserve.”
Lazlo, the station’s edgy afternoon DJ, riles some listeners — and occasionally the station’s manager, Mike Kaplan — with his liberal use of “Goddammit” and his brusque responses to seemingly innocuous callers. He’s also made fans in the music community by embracing groups such as Sunny Day Real Estate and the Sugarcubes — bands that haven’t dented the dial since the alt-friendly version of the Lazer left the air. He champions fast-breaking acts such as the Postal Service and Hot Hot Heat, fitting them into stretches of music — Radiohead, White Stripes, Roots, Get Up Kids, Queens of the Stone Age — that play like hipster mix tapes.
Later this afternoon, he’ll shout down a string of concert-ticket and song requests with a peeved “I don’t care! I need a job!” Here, he’s warmly shaking fans’ hands and thanking them for listening.
With Lazlo under control, it’s up to Afentra, cohost of the station’s 7 to 10 a.m. Showgram, to stoke the revolutionary fires. “Pretty much everyone is here — except [program director] Todd Violette and Mike Kaplan,” she says during an on-air remote just after 8 a.m.
Both could be considered excused absences; Violette, whose on-air shift starts at 10 a.m., is preparing for his show, and Kaplan is locked in maddeningly vague conversations with Entercom higher-ups. But a rabble searching for villains immediately embraces Afentra’s insinuations. Soon, every update that mentions Violette or Kaplan inspires a chorus of boos.
After branding the offending no-shows “corporate ass kissers,” Afentra occasionally breaks in with news from Kaplan. “He says we can’t give out the Entercom corporate phone number [for the Philadelphia headquarters] anymore,” she reports. “He says we should just pack it up, prerecord and just pretend like we’re broadcasting live.”
The crowd swells to several hundred, but the event gets washed out when a downpour begins around 9 a.m. The protesters remain willing, and the Homegrown Buzz staple Moaning Lisa, which has rented its own generator to play in the park, stubbornly continues to set up its electrocution-baiting stage show. But a representative from the Parks and Recreation Department ushers the Buzz party away, and the station plays music without a break-in until Violette’s shift begins. Though nowhere near as audibly peeved as his peers, Violette interjects his own “save the Buzz” plugs between some tunes.
Soon after he takes the air at 3 p.m., Lazlo starts looking for other jobs. He calls stations in other cities and announces his availability, recording the conversations and playing them back during his show. It’s a smartly subversive segment, one that illustrates how Lazlo’s critics are off-base in comparing him to standard boobs-and-insults shock-jocks. If he weren’t so serious, this bit could pass for a spoof on why corporations often terminate formats without giving the stations advance notice.
Lazlo’s nemesis, Kaplan, isn’t paying much attention to his on-air auditions or to Afentra’s mutinous commentary. He’s in an unenviable position, branded “one of them” by the DJs yet not privy to information about his own job security. In person, Kaplan weirdly embodies the middle ground between the corporate and alt-rock worlds. He looks like a hard-living power-trio frontman along the lines of Art Alexakis, but he frequently and comfortably speaks of the “global mass market,” the “upper demo,” the importance of being “consumer- and product-savvy” and selling a “viable product.”
“The Buzz has the lowest ratings out of its cluster, which could foretell doom,” Kaplan says. “But we’re a station in transition. We recently moved over to the alternative format [96.5 previously played adult-contemporary material], and we’ve assembled an air staff and musical image to represent that. According to Arbitron, the listeners’ habits haven’t caught up yet, but that’s quite natural, especially for a format such as this.
“If you look nationwide, there aren’t many alternative formats that are number one in the ratings,” Kaplan continues. “It’s a passionate niche, but it takes time to develop that community.”
This past February, the Buzz saw some of the older members of that community migrate to KLPZ 97.3, which adopted the Buzz’s discarded Matchbox Twenty tunes.
“They had a huge marketing campaign, and people checked them out,” Kaplan admits. “But now they’re coming back once they see that product isn’t as acceptable as this one.”
A few hours later, Kaplan encounters a more pressing problem. The station’s Homegrown Buzz concert, which has been advertised for months, must find a new home after the Beaumont Club’s last-minute admission that it failed to acquire an all-ages permit. Kaplan phones El Torreon manager Brian Saunders, who is at his venue’s parking lot, watching as a semi truck owned by the death-metal act Darkest Hour rolls in and the band’s freakishly pigment-impaired members unload their equipment quickly to minimize exposure to the sun. Saunders informs Kaplan that he already has a show booked for the evening. So Kaplan tries the Madrid, which agrees to host an alcohol-free event. This might hurt attendance, but there’s no time to be picky — the show is scheduled to start soon.
Amazingly, the concert becomes an overwhelming success. The line in front of the Madrid snakes around the intersection of 38th and Main streets and continues a half-block up the sidewalk. There are a few tykes here and there, but mostly this is an adult crowd: men’s men with beer bellies and backward caps are discussing the finer hollow points of guns and ammunition, belly-baring Westport babes are already planning an after-show bar crawl, weathered hippies are talking about a Phish-following road trip. The fact that this many people are paying $5 each to see an all-local bill with no available alcohol might be the strongest argument yet for the Buzz’s influence.
Tuesday, June 24
Hours before the gates open for the Vans Warped Tour at Verizon Amphitheater, Danny Boi, Brand New and the Cooz are setting up a tent in the parking lot, next to the event’s entrance. To look on the bright side of a possible death sentence, the condemnation could not have come at a better time. The Homegrown Buzz concert will serve as Exhibit A; station staffers were on hand taking pictures of the massive turnout. Now, here’s an event that will draw thousands of fans, all within 96.5’s target audience. By planting a “Save the Buzz” petition in front of a captive crowd waiting to see Vendetta Red, Anything But Joey, the Used and Rancid — a Buzz playlist come to life — the station stands to push its signatures well into quadruple digits.
Rancid’s Tim Armstrong sings Radio, radio, radio/When I’ve got the music, I’ve got a place to go. But as Vendetta Red singer Zach Davidson points out, the converse is also true. When relevant radio disappears, listeners — and local musicians — have nowhere to turn. Currently, 96.5’s Homegrown Buzz, Sundays from 9 to 10 p.m., presents a high-profile opportunity for local bands to get spins.
“If there’s no place in Kansas City that will play their songs, bands will go somewhere else,” says Davidson, who played with Anything But Joey at a hastily arranged Buzz-sponsored benefit concert for flood victims in May. “It’s important to nurture the local arts community and give it a voice.”
Warped offers several forums for local performers. The Guild and Ces Cru freestyle in a hip-hop tent, and a dozen or so Midwest natives play the regionally focused Local Heroes stage. It’s a valuable resource, but Warped’s history in Kansas City is endangered, and not only because the Buzz might soon be out of commission.
Warped’s organizers, discouraged by soft sales, have decided that 6,000 is the ticket-sales figure Kansas City must meet to rate a return visit next year. Buzz DJs had been encouraging listeners to keep KC on the Warped calendar, until they encountered a more personal crisis. But this matter is still on the minds of Danny Boi and Brand New. It’s bad enough to be potentially jobless without having your city branded as a black hole for touring acts in your favorite genre.
By the end of the day, pop-punk fans have less cause for alarm. Warped attendance rebounds from sluggish early advance sales to reach the 7,000 mark; when he hears the news, Danny Boi high-fives the Cooz and says, “They’ll be here, even if we’re not.” The Buzz collects more than a thousand signatures at Warped, pushing the total number north of 4,000. There’s reason for optimism at the station, at least until a message about a mysterious meeting the next day with Entercom executive Bob Zuroweste delivers a bracing dose of reality.
Wednesday, June 25
The afternoon meeting turns out to pose no immediate threat; Zuroweste merely presents the staff with a fresh “no comment.” Vexed, Lazlo calls Pat Paxton, senior vice president of programming at Entercom. “You’re on the air, is that OK?” Lazlo inquires. Paxton sighs, then consents. “You’re smart to ask,” he says.
Paxton mostly provides another string of no comments, but he does say something peculiar. Without prompting, he says, “What if this were a big publicity stunt? The whole market is talking about this now.” A caller to Lazlo’s show had said something along the same lines the day before, and the host had shouted him down. If it were true — if this really were just a marketing gimmick — then karma might be coming back to haunt radio personalities for their years of on-air prank calls to unsuspecting dupes. Or it might just be a new level of efficient corporate cruelty, a way to exploit the frantic energy of employees who feel their jobs are on the line. Regardless, Paxton’s comment surprises Lazlo.
“That got me thinking,” he says after the call. “But I don’t think anybody could keep it a secret this long. And it would be so unfair, not only to us as people worried about our paychecks but also to listeners. I’m going to bet my job that it’s not a stunt.”
Thursday, June 26
A curious calm has come over the station. The Buzz staff, based on this week’s positive developments, has cautiously upgraded its condition from terminal to critical. Kenny and Afentra revert to pre-crisis behavior, bantering about single life and bargaining away White Stripes tickets. Lazlo still asks listeners for job openings, but for the most part he sounds upbeat, and the show proceeds as if it had been taped months earlier. However, at 6 p.m., listeners who wait too long to turn back after a commercial break get a jolt when the Buzz begins broadcasting the Royals game. Those who were paying close attention caught the brief warning from Lazlo: “This is what you’ll be getting soon.”
Listeners panic about what seems to be a sudden format change. Danny Boi arrives in the studio at 6:30 p.m. and sees every call-indicator light glowing. He notices that the game is being simulcast from another Entercom property, Royals flagship station KMBZ 980. It’s just a case, he says, of “Lazlo being Lazlo,” testing his listeners’ cardiac conditions and possibly violating that omnipresent Major League Baseball warning about inappropriate broadcast, transmission or reproduction of the game in any form without express written permission.
Back at the studio, Danny Boi soothes jumpy callers. Then, like many others who have survived near-death experiences, he decides to find religion. He places an on-air call to The 700 Club‘s prayer line and tells the operator his woes. “What’s happening is, we’re losing our jobs,” he explains. “We need God’s help.”
“Father God, I lift Danny Boi up to you,” begins a two-minutes-plus response that soon takes an unexpected turn. “We pray right now for this station that this station will become a Christian station and your word will be preached over this airtime,” the volunteer improvises.
“We’re saved,” Danny Boi rejoices. Until he signs off for the night, he describes the station at each break as the “divine-protected Buzz.”
Sunday, June 29
At the end of a relatively low-key weekend that allowed the Buzz’s sleep-deprived, stress-ridden, full-time personalities to rest and enjoy a White Stripes concert at Memorial Hall, the Drive-In cast reassembles. Not coincidentally, there’s been a surge in both listener and commercial interest in the show since Danny Boi announced the station’s tenuous status a week ago. Advertisers have bought ten minutes of air time; two weeks earlier, not a single spot had been sold. And the Drive-In attracts 26 request calls; during several of them, listeners express their willingness to do anything they can to help the station stay afloat.
Such promising signs can only go so far toward alleviating the painful uncertainty. Danny Boi still has no guarantee that he’ll be around for another Drive-In, and he vows on the air to enjoy this show as if it were his last. But the past week’s shows of support suggest that, contrary to conventional corporate wisdom and recent ratings, attracting listeners and embracing local music and progressive programming might not be mutually exclusive. They’ve also made a disc jockey who identifies with the songs of the alienated feel as if he belongs.
“Whatever happens, I take the stance that Kansas City wants us here,” Danny Boi says.