THE

HEADBANGERS'

FALL

Fans mourn rock station whose power

was great though its signal was weak


It's a long way to the top, if you wanna rock & roll..."

This was true, in 1986 of brand-spankin'-new station hitting the airwaves on the fair right-hand side of the radio dial. This new Long Beach-based station banged heads but hard, cultivating a whole lifestyle revolving around the music. Nine years later, as KNAC-FM 105.5 signs off, it can honestly claim it reached heights taller than Gene Simmons' silver elevator boots, higher then Tommy Lee's hair.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, KNAC switches to a Spanish-language format. Officially management will not reveal the day and time, but many fans seem to know already. One longtime fan known only as "Iguana Bob" found out through a source close to the station , and some fans simply called.

Last Thursday, hundreds lined up outside the studio to snatch up the last T-shirts. "Losing KNAC competely wipes out a lifestyle for a lot of people," says listener David Neff. "It sucks,"

"We're devastated," and "It's a loss," were just a few of the sentiments heard in line. Other fans insisted that their comments couldn't be printed in a family newspaper.

"This station was run out of love for the format," says program director "Brian Shock, who emphasizes that the station was still profitable and that its sale was purely a moneymaking decision by its owners. "I'm disappointed, it hurts. Everybody here is out of work," he adds. "Its almost like we've been diagnosed with some killer disease and we had three months to live."

Whether you loved it or hated it, KNAC epitomized the headbanger's lifestyle - loud, angry and defiant, playing music by everyone from icons Iron Maiden and Judas Priest to shock-rockers Alice Cooper and W.A.S.P. to glam-stylized Cinderella and Britny Fox.

You went to the shows - every one of them. Ya remember tuning into "Mandatory Metallica" on Dangerous Darren's nighttime shift. And of course, ya boasted that black 'n' white sticker (or two, or three) on your '66 Ford Mustang.


KNAC had been through a sale once before. In December 1993, owner Fred Sands Realty sold it to Atlanta-based Key Market for $7.1 million. Lieberman Broadcasting Inc, owners of Southern California stations KKHJ and KWIZ, paid $13 million for it last October in a market that commands $40 million for a radio station. "They are a business, and their No. 1 priority is to make money," Shock says. "I can't blame these people for almost doubling their profits in 12 months."

In January 1986, KNAC switched from a pop/punk/KROQ-ish format known as "Rockin' Rhythm" and ushered in the hard-rock era with AC/DC's anthem, "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)."

The new all-heavy metal format filled a void in L.A. radio: Album oriented rock station KMET was gone, class-rock KLOS aimed for the baby-boomes with rock hits,and alternative KROQ for the followers of new wave and pop. Metal fans who previously had to depend on records and cassettes now could tune into their favorite bands and listen to jocks who enjoy Motley Crue and Metallica as much as they did. It became a scene by which fans defined themselves as much as a musical preference - the infamous Pure Rock bumpers stickers have been seen as far away as Kuwait, pasted on U.S. tanks.

"When I started in 1986, I'd only been on the air for two weeks but the phones never quit ringing," says Tawn Mastrey, a.k.a. "The Leather Nun," who for five years helped put the station on the map and made the music and the lifestyle not only to a male audience, but also to women and kids not even in their teens. "People are dying to communicate with us. We had constant feedback."

Morning jock "Thrasher" (Ted Pritchard) has been on and off the KNAC airwaves since its inception. "I played and did whatever I wanted. It was fun music," he says. "The station filled a need and had an upswelling of support."

Metal's heyday

During metal's reign, KNAC increased its rapport with listeners by bringing major artists into the control booth for interviews.

"This was one of the few stations that at any moment a rock star would be seen walking down the hall," Shock says. "We were able to pull of a lot of very cool things. Bands like Guns n' Roses started here before they ever got signed. We were the first in the country to play Metallica, the biggest hard rock band in the world. Every major star, Ozzy, you name it, they've come through here."

Stories abound of bands getting smashed in KNAC's kitchen. One station employee recalls how they used to run to the liquor store to get members of the groups Ratt and Guns n' Roses the "poison of their choice" when they came for interviews." Thrasher says he was on the air one recent afternoon with Lemmy of Motorhead, drinking bourbon and eating chocolate cookies "at his suggestion - and liking it."

But the KNAC style was not simply about long hair and liquor. DJ Mastrey says fans and the industry have banded together "like a family" to help the hungry and homeless. The station's sellout fifth anniversary show in February 1991 raises $200,00 for charities.

Listeners didn't just bang their heads, they also used them to discuss issues and conerns facing young people on the weekly Talk Back call-in show.

Just because you have long hair and you like the music, it doesn't mean you're a low life," says fan Iguana Bob, who became so closely affiliated with the station both on and off the air many people thought he worked there. "It's the one station where they treat the listeners like celebrities."

Despite one of the weakest signals in the Los Angeles area, KNAC drew crowds of thousands for shows as huge as the Monsters of Rock concerts and the sold-out Rose Bowl shows with Guns n' Roses.

"It was crazy as you could imagine," says Gregg Steele, who worked as KNAC's program director from 1991 to 1993 and recently returned as a DJ to fill in for those who have already left. "KNAC was riding very high as the wave of hard-edge rock music was hitting its peak in the late '80s early '90s. It was profitable in a format of music that no one thought would ever be profitable."

Ratings never reflected the devotion of the listening audience, but the station sold advertisers on performance. The audience's loyalty at "Pure Rock" nights at local clubs and promotional events proved to advertisers that the station had staying power and a solid demographic base. The station captured an audience of 18 to 34-year-olds, with its average listener to a 26-year-old male.

Ironically, up until the end, KNAC was still profitable, but heavy metal has declined in popularity. Gone are the days when Iron Maiden could sell out the Long Beach Arena four nights in a row. Many of the hard-edged bands - Judas Priest, AC/DC, Anthrax, Armored Saint - that attracted KNAC's core audience have quit. Others, like Aerosmith and Queensryche, have toned down their music to make it more accessible to a mainstream audience.

KNAC did attempt to combine the elements of old metal with the new alternative acts like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and even Black Crowes, but maybe it's better the station die with its boots on rather than assimilate too much and become totally different. "Things are meant to live a certain life and I guess this was our time span," Shock says.

So what about this yawning black hole left by the station that was pure rock? Flip around the FM dial and you may find other stations picking up the slack, but it's doubtful you'll catch Black Sabbath's "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" or Megadeth's "Anarchy in the U.S.A." anytime soon.

A big, empty void

Mastrey predicts that it'll be a year before another station comes along to fill the space left by KNAC. "Those in charge with big money don't really have a compassion for the listeners and only go with what's happening now," she says. " I predicted two years ago that it will be three years before someone comes along with a proper signal to supply the demand. KLOS won't take up the slack."

In 1991 Pirate Radio (100.3 FM) attempted to hook metal fans with a similar format that wasn't as hard core. The station was short-lived. Shock believes KNAC devotees won't be snowed by imitators. "Pirate proved you can't fake them out. You have to be able to relate to the people listening." He laughs. "It's hard for me to listen to (ex-jock) Long Paul introduce an R.E.M. recorded on KLOS."

The music community also suffers a loss with the death of the "Pure Rock Local Show," which played demo tapes by local bands once a week. "It's really going to hurt the local scene," says Steve sumwon, singer for the band Lost Cause, as he waited in line Thursday at the station to buy one of the T-shirts. "There's nowhere to advertise. I hope someone else will pick up the format."

As the last day approaches - gold records gone from lobby walls, even the office plants distributed among staffers - the upbeat mood around the station is tinged with melancholy. "I'm a little bit sad, it's really an emotional thing to see people this supportive," says Thrasher, looking at the people lined up to buy shirts.

"We're very disappointed," says Gary Price, general manager. "We're like a family and we really worked hard to make the station successful. This station will be very much missed."


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