The rise of 91X, the demise of its original DJs

Leave Mexico out of it

91X crew of 1987: Oz Medina, Susan DeVincent, Billy Bones, and Wreckless Erik
  • 91X crew of 1987: Oz Medina, Susan DeVincent, Billy Bones, and Wreckless Erik

Erik Thompson wonders why no one has made a movie about the 91X he worked at 30 years ago. Driven by an exploding new wave and punk culture, 91X was one of the first commercial alternative-rock stations to serve a major U.S. city. Thompson was one of the DJs onboard who were inventing the new radio format as they went along.

“I got hired in ’83, right after they switched to alternative,” says Thompson, who used the on-air name Wreckless Erik. “For the whole time I was there, we had to drive back and forth across the border.” 91X used a Tijuana-based broadcast studio until the late ’80s. “To get to the studio you had to drive up this hill to get to this dingy, cinder-block building. We had to create this fantasy for our audience from a shit-hole studio. When it rained you had to park at the bottom of the hill and walk up the hill unless you had a four-wheel drive. There were moths the size of birds. A three-hour wait back across the border wasn’t unusual. Yet it was kind of fun at the same time.”

In keeping with “the whole pirate-radio aspect,” 91X used this Tijuana-based broadcast station

In keeping with “the whole pirate-radio aspect,” 91X used this Tijuana-based broadcast station

He knew 91X was onto something. “You heard 91X coming out of vans, cars windows, at the beach...it was everywhere.” 91X beat longtime rock powerhouse KGB in its first Arbitron quarterly rating in the Spring of ’83.

Thompson was a DJ/newsman/production director (responsible for making commercials and station-identification spots). He loved the 91X buzz. But not its pay.

“I was living under the poverty level. Firing me [in 1988] was the best thing they could have done.”

Thanks to his radio experience, Thompson started voicing TV commercials and he narrated the TV series The Universe for the History Channel. He now has four agents in three cities who get him work voicing promotional spots for Showtime, HBO, and Fox. He’s narrated Crimes of the Century for CNN and America’s Most Amazing Videos for NBC.

To record his work he uses his home studio in Leucadia or the one in his cabin on Palomar Mountain. He then sends his audio tracks to L.A. or New York via telephone line. “I rarely have to go to L.A. anymore...and I now earn in one day what I used to make in one month.” Thompson says some A-list voice-over artists have their own managers and publicists. “I drive my own bus.”

Thompson, 54, says his voice-over career became a lot easier once he became established. “One producer refers you to another producer.” He says it’s theoretically easier to get into the voice-over business than it was when he started 20 years ago: “All you really need is a home studio and the Internet. You can be in South Dakota and do this.” He says, however, the voice-over industry is getting competitive. “Now there may be 500 people trying for one gig. It’s become cut-throat.”

Thompson says he was fired from 91X in 1988 because “They wanted me to talk up records like I was a Top 40 DJ. I thought we were supposed to be a peer of the listener, which is what they were doing at [L.A.’s] KROQ. Plus, I always thought we should use the whole pirate-radio aspect, since we were actually coming out of Mexico. They wanted to leave Mexico out of it.”

Then there was the big boss.

“John Lynch never liked me.” Lynch, who was general manager and co-owner of 91X, now runs the UT media conglomerate. “At some of the staff parties, [Lynch] would pull names out of the hat to give away prizes, like trips to Hawaii. It was their way of compensating their staff to make up for the shitty money we were getting paid.”

Regarding the format that gave him his break: “Radio has become a corporate mess,” says Thompson. “Radio as we know it is coming to a close.” He says the lack of DJs with personality and the reliance of outside consultants to determine what music gets played has left rock-radio irrelevant.

“Now that corporations have sucked the personality out of radio, why would someone not just use their iPod [to listen to music]? When you follow the bottom line, you get the bottom.”

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I still have my black corduroy 91X hat. I agree with the view that radio as we knew it is coming to a close. I allow the kids to listen to three rotations of FM SCAN before I get to choose where we will get our road music from. It ends up being a personal electronic device or satellite radio. DJ’s served a purpose that a computer can not mimic. Listen to classis rock and you would think that the Rolling Stones only had four songs worth radio play.

Eric was a fellow classmate at KSM at Palomar College. He deserves his success in voiceovers. 91X was the coolest thing to happen in radio since the format of Top 40 hit KCBQ and KGB in the 1950s/60s. For all us guys that used to "play" radio station by playing our Beatles records over and over again on our record players and announcing commercials by reading ads in the yellow pages, thanks for the memories Ken L. and Eric

Great blurb. Let us not forget Billy Bones, Steve West, Juan Grande and all the others for making it as fun as it was

Nor lets not forget the bigger-than-life Find the X contest....Or Sunday night original music godheads Lou Niles and Marco Collins...Or the Sheep People station promos or any of the other great station promos created by Kevin Stapleford. Don't forget underrated DJs Tom Perry, Pam Wolfe or The Rossman. The 91X legacy was so huge that within a few years it triggered the launch of "The Flash" (92.5 FM) which was basically capitalizing on the 91x music from its first five years or so in operation (hence the Flash-back part of the name). If you notice, KPRI relies heavily on much of that 91X heritage library form the 80s in its playlist today. What is interesting is that the folks who organized the 91X tribute concert at the House of Blues earlier this year did not bother to invite Makeda or Erik Thompson to the 30 year reunion show. Not cool. Sidebar 1: I was actually part of the Howard Stern show. When that show came to 91X in 1994 they invited the local writers down to the station to interview Howard from a live remote they had set up in the 91X studios. It was the first day his show was syndicated to San Diego. I was writing for the Escondido Times-Advocate at the time. Because I had already been listening to Howard via KLSX-FM from L.A. I knew more about Howard than some of the other local writers. I knew what made him tick. I knew what he wanted. My first question: "Howard you are number one in uptight urban cities like New York and Washington DC. But here in San Diego we are generally happier and not so tightly wound. What makes you think a whiny, uptight Hebrew from New York can relate to us here in San Diego as well as you do in those East Coast cities." After a short pause...."You are one of the three most annoying people on the planet..." Someone wrote about it in Blurt. If you remember, the Stern show used to be carried on the E! network. An E! crew was here taping that "press conference". We were on the radio but for whatever reason that footage never made it on E! TV. Sidebar 2: Did you know that Detroit DJ Mike Halloran and UCSD student DJ Robin Roth started at 91X on the same day in 1986? Sidebar 3: Did you remember when, after Stern moved from Mexican station 91x to U.S. station Rock 105.3, there was a furor over Stern's bawdy comments on the airwaves. Chris Cantore who was doing mornings on 91X (he replaced Stern) was interviewed by the U-T at the time and Cantore had this big dramatic rap (paraphrasing) "We have to be so careful with the FCC,...etc." When in fact 91X was a Mexican station and has no dealings with the FCC regarding content. But the U-T ate up this fake concern with a fork and spoon. Sidebar 4: Differences between 91X and KROQZ: 91X played a lot more Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry. 91X played Tom Petty, KROQ did not. KROQ had Rodney Biggenheimer and its regular lineup (Jed the Fish, Poorman) who were a lot more out there than the 91X guys were.

As we celebrate mediocrity All the boys upstairs want to see How much you'll pay for what you used to get for free?

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