Without 89X, FM radio is REALLY dead

posted by Jeff | Saturday, November 28, 2020, 4:40 PM | comments: 0

Right at the end of my freshman year in college, May, 1992, the big Cleveland top 40 radio station flipped formats to "modern rock." It was called 107.9, The End, because it was at the end of the radio dial, when some radios still had dials. That first year of school was musically weird, because while I already was in to some of the "new wave" and "weird" stuff out there, like Jesus Jones, anything on the Pump Up The Volume soundtrack, and bigger acts like U2 that were strangely not getting airplay, we were also seeing the last popular wave of music from bands like Def Leppard, Poison and Motley Crue. It was the year when Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten came out. INXS put out the brilliant Welcome To Wherever You Are, and R.E.M. released Out of Time.

Impressionable almost-19-year-old me who wanted to work in radio was absolutely electrified with this new radio format. It seemed like a transition to something that combined the best of the 80's music with obscure bands that never quite got their chance. It embraced the Seattle sound, while it wasn't afraid to play female-led bands and singers. It was the radio format that popularized The Cranberries, The Breeders, No Doubt, and yes, even Sarah McLachlan. Think about that for a minute... the same radio station played Sarah and Nine Inch Nails. It was glorious, and it was glorious because like those of us who identified proudly as Generation X, it did not want to be defined. (Yes, of course I see the irony in identifying with something not wanting to be labeled... that's the paradox of my people.)

I couldn't get The End very well at Ashland University, about an hour south from the outskirts of Cleveland. I also didn't make a lot of headway getting alt rock on our college station, which followed a classic rock format, mostly. It was cosmically stupid that we had a format at all, but by my junior year, with me as the creative director and a friend as music director, we started going where the rock music was, which was a lot of grunge at the time. Our college station's frequency was 88.9, and with 3,000 watts, adequately covered neighboring Mansfield. But when the transmitter was off, we could hear something amazing at 88.7: a station from Detroit called 89X.

89X was actually out of Windsor, Ontario, south of Detroit (that sounds weird, Canada being south, but for real, look at a map). "CIMX Windsor-Detroit is 89X!" I don't know if it's because they were Canadian or what, but they gave few fucks about the conventions of radio formats in North America. While The End seemed to combine these weird unrelated sub-genres of music into something of a wonderful mix tape, 89X just let it rip and would abruptly play Sarah McLachlan right after Nine Inch Nails. And with Canadian content rules applying, you'd not only hear a lot of Sarah, but also great bands like The Tragically Hip and a fair amount of Barenaked Ladies, before they really caught on. I loved it, and when I was home the summer after my junior year, I put an antenna on my parents' roof so I could easily hear it from the Cleveland south suburbs. It would be the station of choice for years when visiting Cedar Point, too.

My academic advisor and chief engineer for the radio/TV department once showed me a little device he wired up to hear 89X while our college station was on the air. He would point his high gain antenna at Detroit, and then with this thing that had an alligator clip and a wire, he would essentially use phase cancellation, the same phenomenon used in noise-cancelling headphones, to block the college station and let 89X in. He also had to rewire his receiver to include a more narrow frequency filter (most allow +/- .4 MHz, because normally stations don't geographically overlap much). This way, he could isolate 88.7 from 88.9, which was amazing considering on-campus the station bled into the phones!

I listened to 89X when I was in Sandusky, Ohio, back in January, for a conference. It was still pretty weird, but seemed to lean more on older stuff. Any station that goes nearly 30 years without changing much is pretty crazy. They oscillated a bit between "old" alternative and newer stuff over the years, but it was always a delightfully strange mix. When I had my last shift on a commercial radio station in 1996, I had largely accepted that it was a terrible business getting worse because of the rapid consolidation occurring in light of the deregulation that lifted ownership limits. Everything was becoming automated, and programmed by some dicks in New York or LA with no regard to the local scene. I'm sure it helped that 89X was Canadian, but what a comfort that it was still out there.

Now, it's not. A little over a week ago, after 30 years, it flipped to another f'ing country station. Terrestrial FM radio is crap, and it has been for a long time, but it felt good knowing that 89X was still out there. These days, I still listen to a combination of AltNation and Lithium on SiriusXM, and between those two stations, offer a good, curated mix of music spanning the decades. Satellite radio is clearly making a transition to streaming, and I hope that it survives. They have a great thing going when they're not stuck having to survive on advertising and can make these genre stations. It's a great way to discover stuff, and humans still do it way better than algorithms.

Interestingly, The End came back as a streaming station, and they do a pretty solid job of it. It leans a little heavy on nostalgia for me, but it's solid.


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