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January 2008

End of an Era: 99x
January 20 2008 07:10 PM ET (Permalink) (Comment)

99x Sticker from 1993
I spent the last years of the 1980s listening to Top 40 radio. By the end of the decade, it was a station called Power 99. In hindsight, I'm not sure how into it I was. Going back through tapes that I recorded during those years, I was stunned by how many songs I didn't recognize. And, honestly, for me, that's a surprise - I can still recall some songs that I heard as a kid that I haven't heard since. But it was still my first choice when I turned on the radio.

By early 1990, I was starting to get dissatified with Top 40. I picked up Michael Penn's March and Midnight Oil's Blue Sky Mining, and starting picking up 45's of songs from the early 80s that I loved. At the time, 80s retro didn't exist, but there I was.

I spent the summer of 1991 diving through the R.E.M. catalog. Nirvana's Nevermind caught my interest at the end of the year, followed by Pearl Jam's Ten the next spring.

In September of 1992, Power 99 debuted a nighttime show called On the Edge. They'd brought in a dj named Will Pendarvis to host it. I remember being absolutely stunned. It was like someone had picked my brain and pulled out some of my favorite songs from the 80s that I hadn't heard on radio in years. It was the first time that songs that I'd put those songs under the same banner - "alternative". Power 99 (and Z93 before it) had played songs like World Party's "Ship of Fools" and New Order's "True Faith", but I'd never done the math to put them together.

Once On the Edge started running, I felt like "our" time had come. The calls the show received said everything I wanted to say - how much I loved the idea, and how much I wished the station would play that kind of music all day long.

Within the month, Power 99 announced that they were changing formats. They teased it without specifying what the new format would be. But I knew, and I was excited. Monday, October 26th, 1992. It was scheduled to happen at 12pm. I made sure to be in the Senior lounge to hear it.

And so it debuted: 99x.

Within weeks, it was like everything had turned on its head. It seemed like every time I walked into a record store (particularly Turtle's Rhythm and Views on Peachtree), I was greeted by new and interesting music. Alternative music more or less became my obsession.

A year later, when I went to college, I was disappointed to discover that what I was accustomed to hearing on the radio simply didn't exist in the area. My dormmates found me to be a good bit of an oddball. They loved classic rock (and specifically, for some reason, Billy Joel) and found my obsession a little off-putting. During the first break home, I recorded as much of 99x as I could. Every now and again during the rest of that school year, I'd send an email through Prodigy (the closest thing to the Internet before Internet usage was widespread) to 99x midday dj Steve Craig to find out what the latest songs were. I also somehow convinced my mother to tape the weekly airing of 99x's Live X, where bands would perform half-hour in-studio (usually) acoustic sets.

Within a couple of years, alternative stations started cropping up nearby, from 106.5 The End in Charlotte to 106.5/104.7 The Buzz in Richmond to 94.5 in Greensboro. Unfortunately for me, you couldn't actually hear any of these on campus. But it showed me that tastes were changing.

My junior year, I noticed that the freshmen knew alternative music. I was no longer (as much of) an oddball.

Every time I was home, I found my dial back on 99x. It wasn't just the music, though. I loved what the dj's brought to the station. There was an odd quirkiness across the board - the station wasn't just a playlist with announcers. The epitome of that quirkiness was dj Sean Demery and his Friday afternoon show, the Swinging Velveeta Lounge.

I remember turning on the radio one afternoon in 1997 and hearing The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony". The song ended, then started again. Demery popped in, sounding audibly affected, explaining that the song had struck him personally. It turned out that he'd locked himself in the studio, and ended up playing the song seven times in a row. (Rumors abounded that Demery had had a nervous breakdown, but radio folks believed it was simply a stunt to get the song and the band some attention.)

By the end of the 1990s, my tastes began to shift. I was more and more exposed to indie music, and 99x began to shift more toward pop-alternative fare. It was still my station of choice, but some of the shine had worn off. The quirkiness began to disappear as well.

As the new decade began, the station turned its focus on the new nu-metal sounds. It's ratings were never better, but the music was awful. They dumped it a few years later, returning more 90s alternative to the playlist, but the damage had already been done.

This Friday, January 25th, marks the end. After fifteen years, 99x is going off the air. (Okay, for sake of full disclosure, it will still survive as a streaming Internet station and on HD radio - but just as music, without dj's. It's more of a modest effort to keep the brand going.)

I'm a little bit split by it. Despite my declining interest in the station, that part of me that was so attached to it in the 90s still enjoyed having those reminders active, particularly when Demery returned to the station in late 2006. But the realist in me knew that it wasn't the same. It hadn't been a quirky tastemaking station in a long time.

I remember when WDRE in Philadelphia and WHFS in DC went off the air, and thinking of what a travesty it seemed. And I remember the disappointment at seeing so many alternative stations slowly drop off the air across the country.

But this, to me, feels like an understandable passing. All things have their time and place, and I think 99x's time has passed.

But it's been one heck of a ride. The station had a pronounced influence on my tastes in the 1990s, and, for that, I offer my gratitude.

Yesterday, I threw in one of those tapes from 1993. And it felt good. It reminded me of everything that I loved about 99x in its day. I even found a couple of songs I didn't recognize. Not sure how that happened.

Clip for Today

That particular tape of 99x from 1993 included a story that a concert by The Sundays had collapsed into an on-stage brawl. The band cancelled the remainder of their tour, and rumors were starting that they might break up. (They ended up taking a hiatus, returning with 1997's Static and Silence.) After telling the story on-air, 99x dj Steve Craig followed it up with this song, which seems pretty fitting for this post:

The Sundays - "Here's Where the Story Ends"


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