Bad to The Bone

With an unorthodox take on classic rock, The Bone has become the Bay Area's newest radio sensation

On Sept. 15, a San Francisco radio station set a record that most likely won't show up in the Guinness Book of World Records. That day, KSAN-FM (107.7) -- or, as it's known in common parlance, The Bone -- played all 154 recorded AC/DC songs in alphabetical order, starting with "Ain't No Fun (Waiting Around to Be a Millionaire)" and ending with "You Shook Me All Night Long." With a thoroughness both impressive and nutso, the station included every concert track as well, playing live and studio versions of the same song back to back. It was the kind of blatant disregard for variety that either lures listeners in or makes them toss their receivers into the bay.

"We got a few calls from people saying we were crazy," Program Director Larry Sharp says with a laugh. "But sometimes you have to say, "The heck with the risks.' You've got to show what you stand for."

What The Bone stands for is "classic rock that rocks." That means '60s, '70s, and '80s artists like Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Def Leppard, and Guns N' Roses -- hard rock for headbangers. Sharp explains the format this way: "It ain't Elton John because that's not classic rock that rocks. It is AC/DC because that is classic rock that rocks."

Sharp doesn't bother to delineate for me the different kinds of rocks in his head.

There are approximately 75 radio stations in San Francisco; the number of frequencies that can be picked up in the Bay Area hovers closer to 150. Of all those stations, it seems improbable that a classic rock station would stand out. But, in this era of niche-marketed radio, The Bone has carved out a territory so specific that it really has no competition. KFOG (104.5) switched to the adult contemporary format -- new and old soft rock -- eight years ago, while KITS (105.3) airs a mix of modern hard rock, alternarock, and electronica. KSJO (92.3) is the closest in style to The Bone, but it aims for younger listeners by airing current bands like 311 and Creed. So The Bone is unique in its own very small way; that doesn't mean it's tolerable listening.

OK, a confession: I am not a Bonehead. As I see it, The Bone is about nostalgia, and I just don't get that warm, fuzzy glow when I hear Boston's "More Than a Feeling" or Rush's "Tom Sawyer." But there are a lot of people who do. And so, with my brain spasming in horror at the idea of listening to The Bone nonstop for a week, I resolved to find out if there was more to The Bone than meets the ear.

At the beginning of this year, KSAN was just plain KSAN. Its tag line was "rock 'n' roll classics," a motto that didn't exactly inspire passion in its listeners.

"It was "Rock 'n' Roll' by Led Zeppelin and then "Daniel' by Elton John," says former KFOG afternoon DJ and recent KSAN morning addition John Grappone. "Both great songs ... but you can get some Elton John on other stations." (Grappone doesn't bother to mention that you can get Led Zeppelin on a hell of a lot of other stations as well.)

But the format wasn't meeting the expectations of Susquehanna -- the corporation that owns KFOG, the two local sports talk stations KNBR and KTCT, and two dozen more stations outside of San Francisco -- so the company began doing research to find out what people felt was lacking. Calls were made; songs were played; beer was drunk. Susquehanna considered 22 different styles, from adult contemporary to country.

"They found out there was room for a classic rock station with a little harder edge," Sharp says with a kind of radio-ready inflection that is so smooth I check to see if my wallet's still there.

After the format was decided upon, Susquehanna hired Sharp away from Sacramento's No. 1 station, KSEG (which played "mainstream classic rock"), and set about finding a suitable name. "The main goal was coming up with a name that people would remember," Sharp explains. "When we first came up with it, people would say, "The Bone?' and then they'd get it and start coming up with the same kind of [puns] we did."

Ah, yes, the puns. Over the course of a day, listeners are treated to "Bone Voyage" (a listing of interesting events around the Bay Area), "Bone Appetit" (lunchtime requests for two songs by one artist), "Bon-us Cash" (for the "Bonehead Work Force"), "5:00 Funny Bone" (a comic interlude), along with any possible plays on song titles or artists the DJs can come up with ("That's a classic from Bone Jovi"). While Sharp admits that they don't want to make anyone sick with their punning, the incessant jocularity is one of the things that keeps the station from being a radio crypt, stuck far in the past. And the station's tone -- lowbrow but good-natured -- sets it apart from the subhuman aural farts that pass for humor at KSJO, where the DJs sound like frat boy surfer dudes who just snorted their first gram of coke.

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