Jan. 23 2013 08:29 AM

It’s an older, wiser, slightly less cool alternative rock station

91X deejay Michael Halloran embraces Flavor Flav at 91X’s 30-year anniversary party.
Photo by Josh Hammond

The party was bopping at House of Blues on Saturday, Jan. 12. The alternative-rock station 91X was celebrating its 30-year anniversary, and hundreds of listeners had turned out, their tickets secured solely through 91X contests and promotions.

As ska outfit Buck-O-Nine tore through an upbeat set, dozens of current and former 91X staffers gathered in an adjoining room, mingling over cocktails, tall-boys and a spread of tiny, gourmet cupcakes.

“It’s like a family reunion,” says Loretta Emery, a former programming assistant. “I had my 20-year high school reunion this year, and this is better than that.”

After 30 years, 91X—one of the first stations of its kind—is still going strong. While many rock stations have changed formats, the iconic local station still has decent ratings and a devoted following. Indeed, in some ways, it resembles an aging rocker: 91X isn’t as big or as cool as it used to be, but people still love it.

“It’s part of the fabric of San Diego,” says Christy Taylor, 91X’s program director. “People are so familiar with 91X. When they see that black-and-yellow logo, they just know.”

When 91X first came about, it dealt a swift kick to a tired local radio market. In the early 1980s, it was the least popular of three rock stations, which all played the same old hits by the likes of Journey and Led Zeppelin.

In 1983, 91X general manager John Lynch (now the CEO of U-T San Diego) brought in Rick Carroll from KROQ in Los Angeles to reinvigorate the station. Carroll had shifted KROQ’s focus to hip new music, and he came down to 91X, then based in Tijuana, to give it a “Rock of the ’80s” format.

91X, or XTRA-FM, officially made the switch at 6 p.m. on Jan. 11, 1983. In the first hours, deejay Todd Ralston, aka “Mad Max,” kicked things off with Berlin’s seedy synth-pop tune “Sex (I’m A...),” segueing into The Clash’s “London Calling,” Musical Youth’s reggae anthem “Pass the Dutchie” and The Rolling Stones’ “When the Whip Comes Down.”

Throughout the ’80s and much of the ’90s, 91X ruled the rock charts, and deejays helped cultivate a local audience with all sorts of wacky stunts and promotions. But while the station was edgy, it wasn’t too edgy, says Kevin Stapleford, 91X’s program director from 1989 to 1996 and vice president of programming and marketing from 2005 to 2008.

“You have to design a station in a way where the people listening to it feel like they’re a part of it,” Stapleford says. “If you fall too far behind, they’re going to get pissed off: ‘Wait, you’re not living up to your end of the bargain.’ If you’re too far ahead, they’re going to think, ‘I don’t understand you anymore.’” 

The station’s street cred started to fade in 1996, when it came under the ownership of Jacor Communications; in 1999, Jacor was taken over by Clear Channel Communications, the media giant notorious for snapping up radio stations and imposing cookie-cutter programming. Listeners grew frustrated with 91X’s stripped-down playlists, and FM 94/9 sprouted up as an alternative in 2002.

The station was faced with new challenges when Clear Channel sold 91X to Finest City Broadcasting in 2005. Online media was on the rise, less money was coming into radio and 91X had to worry about the bottom line, Stapleford says. Still, in the coming years, the station had cool programs like The 91X Morning Show with Mat Diablo, a hip take on the traditional morning show, which ran from 2008 to 2010.

The station changed hands again in 2010, when a debt-stricken Finest City Broadcasting sold off its assets in a foreclosure sale to what’s now known as Local Media San Diego, a company backed by a private-equity firm Thoma Bravo, LLC, which currently owns 91X.

These days, the station maintains an edgy—though not too edgy—vibe, serving up a mix of old standbys and new alt-pop hits by the likes of Imagine Dragons and Mumford & Sons. The station also hypes locals like Grand Tarantula, whose blistering pop-rock tune “Drugs” has been getting play lately.

But the station is now one among many options, and some of the programming is old hat. Back in 1983, in a recorded message announcing 91X’s format change, general manager Lynch wondered, “I mean, how many times can you listen to ‘Stairway to Heaven’?” Now, you could ask the same about 91X picks like Cake’s “The Distance,” or “Santeria” by Sublime.

Still, music director Robin Roth says 91X must stay true to its roots. “91X has always played these bands,” she says in an email. “We wouldn’t be 91X if we didn’t play Bob Marley, Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers.”

At House of Blues, toward the end of the night, the 91X family piled onstage, along with three surprise guests—Katt Williams, Suge Knight and Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav. As longtime deejay Michael Halloran introduced staffers past and present, Flav gave out handshakes and hyped up the crowd.

Later, Ocean Beach reggae act Slightly Stoopid came onstage, kicking into a laidback groove. Soon, yellow beach balls rained down on the audience, and the smell of weed wafted across the room.

Indeed, 91X may be older nowadays, but it still knows how to throw a party. 

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.