21st: Metal Madness

Andrew Leonard on the battle over heavy metal radio station KNAC on the Web.

By Andrew Leonard
February 14, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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Headbangers rejoice! The spirit of Quiet Riot, Motorhead and even Britny Fox lives on. KNAC, aka "Pure Rock Radio," is back. On Sunday, Feb. 15, at 2 p.m., three years to the minute after the much-beloved-by-metalheads Los Angeles station signed off the air, KNAC will be reborn, this time as a Web-based radio station.

The new incarnation comes complete with members of the original cast of hard-rocking disk jockeys -- Nasty Neil, Long Paul and Philthy Phil -- and promises plenty of Pure Rock attitude, a style perhaps best summed up by the once omnipresent-in-L.A. KNAC poster, a rearview portrait of a leather clad woman's buttocks with the superimposed slogan "Slap One On Your Bumper!"


Rock 'n' roll will never die, indeed. The '90s have been tough for hard rockers, from hair bands to death metal diehards. But on the Net, everything survives. KNAC's relaunch actually comes rather late in the game. Like every other pop cultural niche that, for whatever reason, barely registers on mainstream society's radar screen, heavy metal is alive and well on the Web, and has been for years.

"The long-haired metalheads of the '80s are all into computers," says Tracy Barnes, president of the pioneering Web-based hard rock radio station HardRadio. "All of the bands are Internet freaks now, everybody we know has a connection. Ozzy, the Metallica guys, Motvrhead, Mvtley Cr|e -- everybody is wired."

But KNAC has the brand, and in today's consumer entertainment market, even the call letters for a defunct 3,000-watt radio station whose puny broadcast range barely covered the Los Angeles basin are worth something. They may even be worth a lot, if the current squabble between several parties that each claim to exemplify the true spirit of Pure Rock is any evidence. Oh yes, the hard rockers are on the Net, and they're not just banging their own heads, they're banging on each other's.


The defining moment in the demise of the hard rock heyday came when MTV rejuggled its format in favor of the Nirvana-led grunge invasion. In a flash, a score of bands saw their careers aborted in mid-screaming solo. Ever since, album sales have declined and bands that once played sold-out stadiums have been reduced to strutting their stuff in half-filled nightclubs. But in terms of pure pathos, no single hard rock disaster matches up to the tragedy that befell KNAC.

KNAC was the station where Motvrhead's Lemmy could be found swigging whiskey in the studio with morning "jock" Thrasher, where bands like Guns N Roses and Metallica received their first big-time radio exposure. It was, as former KNAC program director Gregg Steele remembers, "a very pivotal radio station in a lot of people's daily lives in Southern California for a great period of time."

But even at its best, says Steele, now the program director at Miami's WZTA, "KNAC was just a little Long Beach radio station. KNAC was never about large, massive Arbitron ratings and market share. KNAC operated with a pretty minimal budget, with a very niche format."


As such, KNAC couldn't fight the forces sweeping the radio industry in the early '90s, an era in which stations began to be bought and sold like used records at a flea market. In 1995, a Spanish-language broadcaster purchased KNAC, and L.A.'s only source for Pure Rock vanished.

Enter impresario Rob Jones Jr., vice president for new media at the Internet broadcasting company DemoNet. Jones, a long-time hard rock promoter, is convinced that there is a market for advertising to hard rock-famished metal fans on the Net. Not only are there countless fan sites for virtually every hard rock band that ever existed, but there's also the sterling example of the 3-year-old HardRadio, which has long been home to industry refugees, including several former KNAC staffers.


But to Jones, HardRadio is little more than a "commercial free automated jukebox. Half of the essence of KNAC was the jocks as well as the music and the attitude. There is an audience out there that isn't necessarily getting served in this genre."

Like any good promoter, Jones is a fast talker full of bold visions, which makes him perfect for the nascent world of new media. Jones says that "KNAC on the Net" will provide round-the-clock live broadcasts brought to listeners by the latest audio streaming technologies, complete with live jock banter and news reports and, eventually, streaming video as well. As of a week before launch, he had yet to secure firm advertiser commitments, but he seemed confident of his business model and even suggested that the Web radio version of KNAC, like the old broadcast version, might include commercials in the audio stream.

There's no disguising the gamble. Listeners on the Web, accustomed to being able to pick and choose what they hear and see at their own discretion, may balk at being force-fed old-media-style ads. And it's far from clear whether audio streaming technology is quite up to the job, even if more than 650 radio and television stations have already put live broadcasts on the Web, as Kevin Epstein, a product manager at RealNetworks, the industry leader in streaming technologies, asserts.


If you have a powerful computer, the latest software and a fast connection to the Net, you can, occasionally, get what Epstein calls "CD-equivalent sound." But most Web music still sounds, as one critic points out unkindly, "as if it is being played underwater." And there's always a better-than-even chance that congestion somewhere on the Net will disrupt the audio feed, causing irritating "rebuffering" pauses that tend to hamper appreciation of a Megadeth speed metal riff. "Is it quadraphonic?" says once-and-future KNAC jock Long Paul. "No, it's not, but as the Net grows and the technology grows with it, we will obviously grow with it also."

Everyone in this business is betting on the future. Certainly, audio quality on the Net is now far superior to those long ago days in 1993, when the first intrepid Web explorers had their socks knocked off by the sound of Mark Andreessen's voice emanating from the Mosaic home page at the University of Illinois.

Jones himself is hoping to leverage a successful KNAC relaunch into possible future syndication, with an eye to perhaps getting back into the over-the-air broadcasting biz. His goals throw an unusual twist into the Internet name brand game. Examples abound of old media entities extending their brand into cyberspace, and there are a growing number of new media darlings who are now branching back into the worlds of print and broadcast. But the KNAC model, in which a dead brand is reborn on the Net with the hope of one day returning to the offline world, is rare, and may even be unique.


"I think it is," says Jones. "We are going to build the case for it. KNAC has inherent credibility for what it was, and there will be a lot of people who want to see it for what it will be ... It's going to be a headbanger's oasis," said Jones.

Fans are hopeful.

"Time will tell if the magic is still there," said one former KNAC listener who is "excited" about the return of KNAC on the Net. "If it is, I hope Pure Rock radio will return to the L.A. airwaves. The rest of the country can't believe we have no hard rock radio in L.A. This should be the first step. I still listen to the tapes I made of KNAC during the last three months of broadcast."

So just how valuable is KNAC? Well, valuable enough for people to be fighting over it. Valuable enough for HardRadio to have included the word as a "metatag" on its home page, hoping to attract search engine attention and to lure KNAC-deprived Web surfers to its own oasis of metal madness. Valuable enough so that Rob Jones wasn't necessarily the first entrepreneur to try to turn its call letters into gold.


The Web page address for KNAC on the Net is "knac.demonet.com." But if you pop the address www.knac.com into your browser, you get whisked away to the "Official" KNAC page, where you are urged to join a grass-roots campaign to get KNAC back on the air and invited to attend a series of KNAC Pure Rock nights at Southern California rock clubs.

Www.knac.com is registered to Radi Todorov, a Bulgarian imigre who has lived in southern California for some 20 years, and who registered the name KNAC as a business trademark in L.A. County last April. Further complicating affairs is the fact that the call letters KNAC themselves have been assigned by the FCC to an educational foundation in Earlimart, Calif., a small town just outside of Bakersfield.

The raging aggression of true metal lives on in the relationship between Todorov and Jones. Todorov claims that Jones "stole my idea to bring KNAC back" for impure reasons.

"Obviously if people are fighting over it, it's worth something," says Todorov. "Basically it's synonymous with hard rock and heavy metal. I started out purely trying to revive the music and the lifestyle. Rob Jones' motives are completely different -- he wants to start a chain of radio stations."


"To give Mr. Todorov any credibility as KNAC is utterly ridiculous," says Jones, who does admit to seeing the KNAC-on-the-Net launch as the first step in a series of Web-based radio shows. "KNAC is a broadcast entity, was and always will be -- only the delivery and method has changed. The perception of what was KNAC and what is KNAC today are the key issues ... Radi is good for a few tickets to local promoter's events and that is about the extent of his validity to anyone in this business."

Long Paul says that KNAC on the Net is registered as a federal "class 33" trademark. But Jones, citing "pending litigation," refused to give any details as to how, when or from whom DemoNet had acquired the rights to the KNAC name.

The plot is further thickened when HardRadio is brought into the heavy metal mix. Although Jones says he wishes "the utmost success" to Tracy Barnes and HardRadio, he hasn't always been so polite. In late December, he posted an anonymous message to the Usenet newsgroup alt.rock-n-roll.metal trumpeting the return of KNAC and announcing that it "Smokes Hard Radio big time" -- earning the not inconsiderable ire of Barnes.

Jones says Barnes initiated hostilities when he told some former KNAC jocks to choose between HardRadio and KNAC on the Net. Barnes denies that charge with the counter-accusation that Jones was requiring his jocks to sign exclusive contracts. Whatever the truth, one thing's for sure, that good old crosstown radio rival mentality has made a seamless transition to the Net.


"It's actually a detriment to us to have our name even associated with the poseur attempt that they are making," says Barnes. "The only reason that they mention HardRadio in almost every article that they have done is that they would love to try to capitalize on our traffic and our own brand name. KNAC is virtually unheard of outside of Southern California. HardRadio has become an international phenomenon."

Ultimately, all the infighting over who has the rights to the KNAC legacy may be irrelevant. Beneath all the sound and heavy metal fury remains one basic question -- if we grant that for every niche, no matter how small, there is an adoring audience in cyberspace, then does that mean there is a business model for serving each and every one of those niches?

Jones and Barnes obviously both think so, at least in the context of the underserved hard rock marketplace.

"When we talk to our advertisers," says Barnes, "they say, 'heavy metal - oh, you're going after the teenagers.' But we're talking about the No. 1 music sales genre of the 1980s. Our listeners are all over 21 years of age, if you look at the domains [Web addresses] that our listeners are tuning in from, they are Boeing, Nasa, IBM ... The black T-shirt crowd that was driving a beat-up Pinto in the '80s has now cut their hair and is doing software or hardware development and driving a BMW. But as far as mainstream pop culture is concerned, they're a whole lost generation."

There are no lost generations on the Web. There's time enough, and space, for every community to be found. If, as Barnes proclaims, hard rock is poised for a comeback, then couldn't the Web be the place where critical mass will first gather, or is already gathering? It might not be easy, its ascent may well be plagued with new technological problems and old industry infighting, but whoever said headbanging was supposed to be a free ride? After all, when the radio station KNAC first launched its hard rock format in 1986, it kicked off the first set with the AC-DC song "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock 'N' Roll)."

On or offline, that's good advice to live by.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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