Radio station FM 94/9 is at a crossroads. Admitting that its current Arbitron rating status (21st place) is “unacceptable,” station manger Rick Jackson made a move on June 13. At about 10 a.m., Jackson informed program director Garett Michaels that he was no longer part of the team. Michaels had been running the alternative-rock station for almost ten years. Station employees say that Michaels was then escorted out of the building. This is a common practice at corporate-owned radio stations, insiders tell the Reader, to ensure that departing employees don’t leave with proprietary information.
Michaels’s last public appearance was at 94/9’s sold-out SPF (Sandy Parts Festival) concert at the Oceanside Amphitheatre June 3. He played guitar in the opening band, Federal Reserve of Consumption, which included other 94/9 DJs.
Michaels, who was the afternoon DJ, was the only original on-air staff left from when 94/9 launched in November 2002 (Anya Marina and Mike Halloran were also on the original crew).
Over the years, 94/9 has been lauded with national radio-industry awards for its left-of-center playlist. Rolling Stone said 94/9 was one of a handful of stations “that doesn’t suck.”
When it launched, 94/9 positioned itself as a station that cared more about quality music than their Clear Channel–owned competition, 91X, and 94/9 occasionally beat 91X in the ratings in certain time periods. But it seemed to score biggest in the public-perception battle, where 94/9 positioned itself as “independent,” 91X the corporate tool. When Clear Channel spun off 91X in 2005 to a new owner, the station “relaunched” itself and its DJs went on the air to decry Clear Channel. “We must embrace the suck,” said one DJ.
In the past two years, 91X has rebounded while 94/9 has lagged. Now Jackson says that 94/9 must turn itself around or change to something different: “We had to make a change.”
Jackson says Lincoln Financial spent a lot of money on audience research, polling listeners in auditoriums and over the phone. He says it was determined that listeners want 94/9 to go in a more adventurous direction and that they want to hear a wider variety of songs and “deeper cuts” off of albums: “They don’t want to hear the same Linkin Park or Soundgarden song over and over.” Jackson says listeners want to be “surprised” by a station that takes chances with its music.
Jackson’s decision to move 94/9 to a more progressive format surprised almost every radio insider contacted for this article. “Our research shows San Diego is one of the best cities in the country for alternative music,” says Jackson.
Kevin Callahan, currently the program director of KSON, has been named to take the reins at FM 94/9. (KSON, 94/9, and KIFM are all owned by Lincoln Financial.) Callahan will be assisted by music director Jeremy Pritchard.
Michaels did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, he said he was proud of his work at 94/9 but that the past three years were “particularly challenging.” When the all-talk Mikey Show signed on in January 2010, many core 94/9 fans complained that the station had lost its way. At a station-sponsored concert headlined by Black Keys in December 2010 at RIMAC, Mikey Esparza was heckled when he took the stage.
The FM 94/9 Independence Jam, which Michaels booked for September 16 at the Oceanside Amphitheatre (Fiona Apple, Best Coast), will go on as planned.