"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.
There's a reason The Bone's jocks sound mellower and, frankly, more human.
"We go through the same stuff listeners go through," Grappone says. "We've got the mortgage, we've got the car that broke down, we've got the kids. We know what they're going through, and if we can give a listener a smile on the way to work, [that's great]. I'll be the court jester if I have to, because it's a rough world out there."
For Grappone, The Bone's format is something of a homecoming. Before serving up KFOG's adult contemporary fare, the Brooklyn native got his start on Long Island in the early 1980s at a station that mixed older rock groups with emerging "hair metal" bands like Ratt and Mötley Crüe.
At the same time, Sharp was DJing at KISW in Seattle. "I was playing the same stuff [as Grappone]. We have pictures from that time with the same rock stars."
To come up with The Bone's playlist, Sharp looked back on old lists from his DJ days, thumbed through old charts, and talked to people with similar backgrounds to his. "We weed out what we don't think fits," Sharp says. "We see how it sounds -- if it doesn't sound right then it goes. We had a couple of Eagles songs that didn't seem to go. I would submit that there are Eagles songs that rock ...."
I would submit that no Eagles songs rock. I would also submit that the Allman Brothers and Santana -- both Bone favorites -- don't rock, either. Those bands are just too wussy. They do not inspire the urge to jerk your head like a yo-yo or play furious air guitar or throw your hands up in the air, give the devil sign, and yell, "Dude!" That's how you know a song rocks.
Around day four of my own Bone vigil, I found myself actually enjoying a song: Billy Squier's "In the Dark." I hadn't heard it for a long time, and was surprised that a moldy oldie could sound fresh. A number of dedicated listeners have informed me that this kind of where-have-you-been-all-these-years shock is one of the main reasons to listen to The Bone.
"I'm always thrilled when they play a forgotten nugget, like Helix's "Heavy Metal Love' or The Tubes' "White Punks on Dope,'" says Russ Blackmar, music director at the UC Berkeley-affiliated radio station KALX. "Someone at that station is having a lot of fun coming up with these songs."
It was these "Boneyard Classics" that first interested Grappone in working for the station. "I'd bump into Larry in [the two stations' shared] kitchen and say, "Are you playing Rainbow's "Street of Dreams"?!' and I started seeing we were on the same passion level."
Grappone was also impressed with The Bone's "Three-fer Madness Weekends," in which the station plays three songs in a row from the same artist. While classic rock stations have been doing this since the dawn of dinosaur rock, The Bone uses the feature to dig deeper into a band's back catalog. Sure, you'll hear a three-fer of Led Zeppelin. But when you do, you'll hear a song off Presence, the band's least-played album.
Other listeners rave about the "Bone Bash," which took place on Sept. 30. Nearly 10,000 people packed the Cow Palace to see live performances by Heartbreaker, Pat Travers, Night Ranger, and the Scorpions with the San Jose Symphony.
"The Scorpions just blew us away," Sharp says with a fan-boy level of incredulity. "I mean, we knew they would be good, but not this good. The difference between this and Metallica is that, with Metallica, the symphony was just background. Not with the Scorpions. People couldn't believe a symphony could rock like that."
Not everyone in the business is so keen on The Bone. Bill Mann, former radio columnist for the Examiner and current writer for Radiodigest.com, says, "I'm not hearing anything I haven't heard at tons of other stations. There are two here in the Bay Area -- KUFX and KXFX -- doing the same thing and doing it better." (In The Bone's defense, KUFX (98.5) plays mellower rock like KFOG, while KXFX (101.7) skews toward newer bands like KSJO does.)
While Sharp is pleased with The Bone's summer ratings, which saw the station jump from 17th to seventh among 25- to 49-year-old males, Mann suggests that the results are unimpressive, financially speaking. "Women are whom you want: They buy things. Men only buy trucks, car stereos, and beer."
Despite Mann's assertion that The Bone is "only for guys who want to fire up a joint or drink a beer on the way home from work," the station's appeal seems to be spreading far and wide. After the AC/DC weekend, I couldn't take public transportation without hearing someone mention The Bone. Grappone says he keeps discovering the station playing in offices where he expected far softer fare. And there seems to be an unusually vocal following among local music industry people.
Dennis Mitchell, head honcho for local label Future Farmer, says he listens to The Bone more than college station KUSF (90.3). "I love The Bone!" he says. "I had a station just like it in the San Joaquin Valley growing up. For our generation, people 25 to 35, it's very nostalgic."
People with apparently disparate tastes such as Jason Rosenberg of local punk label Alternative Tentacles and Bill Evans, keyboard player for local pop band Beulah, listen to The Bone at work. "It hits me on a visceral, caveman level," Evans says. "On Friday afternoon, you must have The Bone when you need that hard rock fix."
Bottom of the Hill publicist Nancy Kravitz is a dedicated listener, especially at night while driving. "It brings back a lot of memories for me," she says. Bassist John Benson, whose former band A Minor Forest bent metal into intricate rock, is obsessed with the station.
After much listening to the station, I found that it was hard not to like The Bone on some level, whether it be ironic, symphonic, or just plain moronic. Sure, the station has way too many commercials and some questionable tuneage and a fair amount of just plain stupidity. But at its best, The Bone offers something that has become a scarcity on commercial radio: the unexpected.