What's the Frequency, Kenneth?

Can Live 105 become a kool thing again?

There is a light that never goes outWhen I first moved to the Bay Area in 1990, I worked as a temp in the reservation department of a hotel in the Tenderloin. I was hired to enter a large amount of old guest information, and in order to keep me from being disturbed -- or, more likely, being disturbing -- they had me slave away from midnight till 8 a.m. My only company was a computer and a clock radio that got very few stations, one of which was KITS-FM (105.3). Thank God for Live 105: It pretty much saved my life. Just when I thought I couldn't input one more guest gift package, Sonic Youth's "Kool Thing" or Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealing" would come buzzing out of the tiny speakers, reminding me that there was salvation in the post-collegiate world.

Over the next few years, Live 105 became my commercial station of choice, the one I'd turn to when KUSF ran the Polish show or KPOO's signal faltered. Unfortunately, following the hideous Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed corporations to own up to eight stations in a single market and unlimited ones nationwide, Live 105 was sold to radio conglomerate CBS/ Infinity. The company then bought KITS's competitor, KOME-FM (98.5), and retired the South Bay frequency, bringing many of KOME's workers north to work at Live 105. The San Jose station's former program director, Jay Taylor, took over at KITS in 1998, easing out popular DJs such as Big Rick Stuart and Steve Masters and skewing the format toward a younger, more suburban, more rockin' audience. (I could say dumber, but that's a value judgment -- and, more important, it'd get me lots of nasty letters from dudes who love Limp Bizkit and spell just as badly.) The station's new sound was awful -- a bland maelstrom of white-boy faux angst and grinding guitars -- so I tuned out.

After several dark years, however, there's a light at the end of the dial. Sean Demery, who took over as Live 105's program director on May 1, is making some serious changes. "I want to play music that fits what San Francisco sounds like," Demery says via phone from his office. "To me, hard hard-rock doesn't match the city -- it doesn't sound like what you see when walking around town."

Demery admits he's not going to throw out all the old music. He still plans to play popular altrock bands like Linkin Park, Papa Roach, and Staind -- but fewer times a day. "I think that life's more exciting than playing seven songs a week," he says, estimating that in the past the station played 20 to 25 artists almost exclusively.

To fill those newly opened slots, Demery has added songs by the hip-but-as-yet-not-hit bands of the moment -- the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, the White Stripes, the truly uncommercial Clinic -- as well as more salable up-and-comers such as Jimmy Eat World and Ben Kweller. He recently ran the station's first local band weekend, in which Bay Area acts like Track Star, Enda, the Pattern, and, oddly enough, rap trio Foreign Legion were highlighted. That last selection makes more sense when Demery explains that he's putting hip hop acts like Eminem, N*E*R*D, and Jurassic 5 into rotation, along with electronic artists such as Moby, Fluke, BT, and Paul Oakenfold. He's also given Music Director Aaron Axelsen's electronic show, Subsonic, two extra hours; it now runs on Saturdays from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. (Demery says the response to the increased time has been "good, not incredible" because, he believes, "electronic music is an acquired taste, like broccoli.")

The show with the most potential is Fast Forward (Wednesdays at 4 p.m.), during which label execs go head-to-head with local writers and promoters, all of them playing what they think is new andgood. I took part in one segment, and even though five of the six songs the label dudes brought in made my head hurt, I was still impressed that a commercial station in this day and age would turn over the controls to journalists and other reprobates. "It's just like that line in Indiana Jones," Demery says. "I'm making it up as I go along."

"I just wish people would try us for 15 minutes, to see if there's a freaking difference," Demery adds. "I don't even want 20 minutes, just 15."

It may be too early to tell, but right now 15 minutes of Live 105 will get you a couple of good tunes, a slew of bad ones, and a bunch of commercials -- which is a hell of a lot better than what the station offered five months ago.

 
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