Free-Form Radio Lives

Los Angeles' 103.1, America's coolest commercial station

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At a time when corporate-owned radio stations play the same proven hits in the same niche formats over and over, a new Los Angeles station, Indie 103.1, is finding success the opposite way: by spinning an unpredictable mix of new groups and old favorites in the spirit of free-form FM stations of the Seventies.

"It's a little band of renegades terrorizing the dial," says Michael Steele, 103.1's program director. On one recent afternoon, listeners heard the Chemical Brothers, the Descendents and underground goth-metallers H.I.M., as well as Jet, Bright Eyes and Johnny Cash.

And while its listenership is small so far, Indie is on the cutting edge of a larger trend at alternative-rock radio to replace hard-rock staples such as Korn and Limp Bizkit with younger bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Franz Ferdinand.

Indie is owned by Entravision Communications, a Santa Monica, California, media company with fifty-eight stations nationwide, most of them broadcasting in Spanish. It was a dance station until Christmas 2003, when executives decided to plunge into rock. The format is dominated in L.A. by Infinity Broadcasting's KROQ 106.7 and Clear Channel Communications' KIIS 102.7. Indie 103's signal can't match the giants' range, but Entravision says that Indie is profitable.

"The demographics were perfect for a modern rock station that concentrated on things that KROQ isn't playing," says Jeffrey Liberman, president of Entravision. "Giving our programmer more freedom to play what isn't on the other stations is good for business. It fills a need in the community."

Clear Channel, the nation's biggest radio-station owner, actually buys Indie's advertising inventory space and resells it -- a business relationship that's not uncommon but has sometimes created confusion about who owns the station. In fact, Steele is a former Clear Channel employee (he once worked as a music director for KIIS). But the station operates far outside the realm of corporate radio. At the moment, Indie 103 has only four employees -- including music director Mark Sovel, who cut his teeth volunteering at a local pirate radio station, KBLT. "Clear Channel is off in their other building selling the commercials," Sovel says. "Nobody is really telling us what to do, programmingwise."

A sampling of 103.1's playlist:

1. "Maps," Yeah Yeah Yeahs
2. "Ball and Biscuit," the White Stripes
3. "They," Jem
4. "Inertiatic ESP," the Mars Volta
5. "Turncoat," Anti-Flag
6. "Chain," the Fire Theft
7. "Big Brat," Phantom Planet
8. "Ride," the Vines
9. "1974," Ryan Adams
10. "Dynomite," Ima Robot