The Future of Rock and Roll: 97X and the fight for true independence—Final Draft Introduction

As many of you know I wrote a book on 97X WOXY–it’s all going through copy editing right now and should hopefully be out in the world as a printed Thing in spring 2023. In the meantime, however, I thought I’d post the final draft introduction here to give you a taste of what’s in the book. Expect A LOT more 97X/WOXY content here starting early 2023. And of course I’ll let you know where to pre-order it once that info is available 🙂

“97X’s vision of the future was totally based, at least for me, on independence”–email from WOXY listener Chip to station owner Doug Balogh

“For me, 97X is an idea, a state of mind, a representation of what most people our age fight to achieve: independence.” Sharon Tjaden, in Miami U student paper Amusement 

From 1989-2010, “97X, [sound effect] the future of rock and roll” was the recorded station ID for the modern rock radio station WOXY. This sound effect could be an alien spaceship or a ray-gun, and it was often transliterated as the word BAM!. Shocking sonic disruptions of normal reality, these sounds are microcosms of the station that distil the identity it broadcasted 24/7 into just a few seconds of airtime.

WOXY’s identity is not grounded in a style of music or market segment, but in an idea of independence. According to WOXY’s signature philosophy, truly progressive, transgressive, futuristic disruptions of the status quo were possible only when practiced with and for other people. This philosophy is easy to identify in the station’s mission statement: “97X is the Rock & Roll station for educated, socially- and environmentally-concerned, individualistic, free-thinking, open-minded serious music lovers that presents Modern Rock in a relevant environment.” For WOXY, breaking the rules only works when you are supported by and working for the people and world around you. 

This philosophy guided how the station was run as it navigated the very conditions–such as the deregulation of terrestrial radio and the rise of startup culture–that remade the world Boomers and Gen X knew into the one we know today. This world is shaped by an ideology that co-opts punk’s DIY (Do-It-Yourself) ethos and turns it into a way to exploit people. Pushing the idea that it’s best if everyone fends for themselves, this ideology is the root of many of today’s most serious problems, like the gig economy, the student debt crisis, and climate change. 

Because these problems affect everyone to various degrees, the idea of independence expressed in WOXY’s mission statement and infused in its programming offers an alternative way of thinking and relating to one another. Practicing this ideal of true independence, we can make music, friendships, social groups, and organizations that disrupt our present with forms of community that make possible the kind of future WOXY represents.

From WOXY’s perspective, the future was something that disrupted society’s regularly scheduled programming with forms of community that were better for the people that programming left out and devalued. Broadcasting an omnivorous range of genres and a diversity of artists while being staunchly committed to local, independent art and media, WOXY was a sonic disruption to a region so conservative it literally put post-punk’s modernist values on trial. The station’s original liner—“Cincinnati’s Only Modern Rock Station Isn’t In Cincinnati”—is evidence that the station offered staff and listeners a way to be in southwest Ohio geographically but not culturally, to live the future one wanted despite being stuck in a very conservative place. 

In the 1990s, as alternative rock went mainstream and radio grew increasingly homogeneous, WOXY gained international renown as one of Rolling Stone’s “Last Great Independent” radio  stations. In 2004, WOXY was the #1 most listened-to commercial internet radio station in the Arbitron rankings. However, just as the concept of “disruption” was coming to be associated more with tech entrepreneurs than the artistic avant-garde, WOXY broadcast its last song. In March 2010, the startup that had purchased WOXY went bankrupt, sending the station suddenly and permanently off the air. The very values that defined WOXY as the future of rock and roll had been co-opted and turned against it. 

That co-optation isn’t merely rhetorical: as the new millennium unfolded, the values that once made the music WOXY played different were increasingly embraced by mainstream institutions from which it had originally tried to distinguish itself. Modern rock traces its roots to 1970s punk and post-punk, whose DIY ethos was an “Up Yours!” to the recording and broadcast industries. Back then those industries turned a profit through standardization and mass production; independent musicians were underground and outsider artists free from the constraints of boardrooms and mainstream tastes. But in the Reagan/Thatcher era, capitalism itself began to change: standardized mass culture (a.k.a. “the monoculture”) gave way to an “indie capitalism” that turns everyone and everything into its own distinctive brand. From hip-hop’s idealization of “the hustle” to management gurus’ (mis)use of jazz improvisation as a metaphor for entrepreneurship, the DIY musician became an aspirational and inspirational figure for powerful institutions rather than a thorn in their side. This widespread co-optation of progressive modernist values is why, for example, major chain grocery stores carry numerous varieties of local, craft-brewed beer, or why freelance writers pay the bills with Substack or Patreon subscriptions while private equity firms eviscerate the local and national press. In the era of “mass indie,” the DIY values that once disrupted a homogeneous mainstream now contribute to a new mainstream reconfigured to funnel the benefits of diversity and independence to elites at everyone else’s expense. 

From the deregulation and austerity that put the station’s original owners in a position where they were forced to sell the FM license, to later owner Lala’s failed attempt to monetize unwaged user labor, every time WOXY faced an existential crisis that sent it off the air and into some other medium, it was the result of conditions created by this new mainstream. However, even though the government and venture capitalists repeatedly left WOXY and its listeners to fend for themselves, WOXY’s community did not. It has continued to exist as an internet radio station and, now, as an idiosyncratic type of internet community radio, because staff and listeners never stopped putting their original philosophy in practice. If we show up for each other—even when public institutions and the music industry won’t—we can still foster and experience the kind of innovative and creative independence expressed in both WOXY’s philosophy and the music they played.

The power and efficacy of WOXY’s philosophy can be seen in the fact that it still exists even after it ceased any sort of broadcasting in 2010. That’s a bold claim, I know, but it makes sense if you consider the fact that technological advancements have de-centered broadcast’s place in radio. In his book studying the history of internet radio, media studies scholar Andrew Bottomly argues that radio isn’t defined by any one particular technology or other; rather, the thing that makes radio radio is its ability to create a sense of “liveness” or being there “in the moment” with others using a range of multimedia practices that comprise 21st century radio. For example, as anyone who’s listened to BBC Radio 1 DJs shout out to and interact with social media users on air knows, social media is increasingly part of the experience of radio. Moreover, in the age of podcasts, broadcasting appears less like a necessary component of radio and more like one modality among many. WOXY still exists today, as radio, in the vast network of new and old WOXY-based web content curated by a grassroots network of WOXY listeners and former staff. 

WOXY is able to persist today because liveness, the feeling of being together in the moment with a community of media users, is elemental to The Future of Rock and Roll. Because WOXY thinks genuine independence can only be practiced in community with others, it wasn’t just the broadcast that fostered an awareness of and sense of connection to the broader WOXY community. WOXY’s post-broadcast existence makes it clear that practicing The Future of Rock and Roll has always been a way the WOXY community experienced a sense of liveness.

Exercising their independence with and for other people, the WOXY community continues to keep the station alive, disrupting a new mainstream with a better alternative. Thus, although our present is only nominally the future modern rock imagined in the 1980s, we can still use other means to achieve the things its modern values aimed for–the disruption of everyday reality by a new, better one made by and for the people on the margins of that old status quo. And, as rising reactionary politics in the U.S. and across the globe threaten to rewind what nominal progress we have made, this ability to make space for a better future amid retrograde circumstances is all the more essential. 

This book tells WOXY’s history as a way to explain what their concept of independence is and to give concrete, factual proof that their philosophy works: WOXY’s existence is proof that this sort of independence is realizable and sustainable even amid the significant challenges WOXY has faced over the past four decades. Using archival research into station materials, the music press, fan curated online archives and the Wayback Machine, analyses of the station’s two annual countdowns (the Modern Rock 500 and 97 Best Of), interviews, and media and popular music studies scholarship, this book tells the story of WOXY, looking at what the station was, why it worked, and how it offers a model for true community-rooted, future-oriented, and diverse artistic and (inter)personal independence. 

Though this book is not a memoir, it draws upon my own experience as a member of the WOXY community. As I explain in the preface, I was a listener (1990ish-2010) and Cincinnati/Oxford resident (1978-2000) during the height of the station’s broadcast years. And although I certainly do miss the WOXY broadcasts, this book is about as far from a nostalgia trip as you can get. You don’t need to know or even care about WOXY to get the point I’m making through telling WOXY’s history. If you care about independence, about finding ways of creating and relating that aren’t limited by the narrow and harmful boundaries of today’s corporate mainstream, then this book is for you. 

This book will also be of interest to you if you care about philosophy and ideas generally, and about the history of music and media specifically. First, WOXY’s idea of independence is very similar to theories of freedom and independence that emerged in 20th century feminist philosophy, most prominently in the work of Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler. For both Beauvoir and Butler, human freedom is a fundamentally collective project: other people’s work, effort, care, and ideas are the ground that gives me the resources and skills I need to exercise my own independence. I offer this book as concrete proof that this idea of independence actually works; WOXY’s ongoing existence is hard evidence against the more widespread and popular idea that independence is individualistic autonomy. 

Second, as a history of one of the first modern rock radio stations in the U.S., an early internet simulcaster, and likely the first terrestrial FM station to move its broadcast entirely online, this book contributes to the histories of popular music and media. Moreover, my study of WOXY’s post-broadcast existence as a form of decentralized internet community radio contributes to media studies scholarship on internet radio by both illustrating this form of radio practice and arguing that it really does count as radio. And though I’m not really a historian (or rather, I’m a historian in the same way Michel Foucault is: we are philosophers who study historical archives for the ideas behind their contents), this book is a record of one of Cincinnati’s most important 20th and 21st century cultural institutions. So, even though this isn’t written in the style of an academic book, scholars from these various disciplines (and others) will find its contents and its arguments useful.

The book is broken down into five main chapters, which chronologically account for the evolution of WOXY and its philosophy by synthesizing the histories the station and its programming, the people who ran and listened to the station, and the values that defined the station and the community that formed around it.  

Chapter one, “Becoming The Future of Rock and Roll” covers the station’s first eight years of existence (1981-89) and chronicles how its philosophy emerged as the station tried to navigate a pair of contradictory demands. On the one hand, to succeed as a small-town small business, 97X had to fit in with its local community and become an active and respected participant in the area’s economy and culture. But on the other hand, as a commercial radio station broadcasting from a 3000 watt antenna in rural Ohio halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton but fully covering neither market, 97X needed to find a way to stand out from other radio stations and become something people would go to great lengths to hear. 97X had to both conform and rock the boat, and these competing imperatives led 97X to adopt a modern rock format, adapt that format to fit both their management style and the station’s evolving identity as an outlet for music locals found quite challenging, and transform an initial “more new, less of the same” programming strategy into “The Future of Rock and Roll.” WOXY’s idea that real independence is possible only when practiced with and through other people is the culmination of nearly a decade of experimentation as the station tried to figure out how to establish and maintain its own independence.

Committed to practicing this idea of independence, WOXY flourished throughout the 90s and early 2000s, despite–and in part because–of the challenges that the alt rock boom and radio industry deregulation posed to the modern rock format and the radio business generally. Taking its title from a phrase 97X printed on across the front of some T-shirts during this period, chapter two, “Corporate Radio Sucks,” is about how WOXY’s philosophy led it to become what Rolling Stone called “the last great independent.” Focused primarily on the impacts of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the ensuing alt rock radio bubble, this chapter explains how WOXY’s strategy of programming and packaging the station in terms of the values its ideal listener holds (i.e., independence) drove it to survive and thrive at a time when both alternative music and the radio business were in crisis. From 1989 through 2004, this strategy allowed WOXY to successfully adopt unorthodox programming strategies, to speak out about injustices like the Gulf War and conservative ‘family values’ politics, to raise money for local charities, to feature programming and events that spotlit local independent musicians, and to build a website where WOXY community members could exercise their own independence (e.g., in a community art gallery or interactive modern rock archive) and eventually listen to an internet simulcast of the FM broadcast. Cultivating a devoted listener base committed to independence, WOXY was able to exercise its own independence and evolve into an internationally-renowned and history-making institution.

WOXY’s philosophy continued to guide it through the 2000s as a Silicon Valley-driven corporate mainstream and an austerity-focused federal government dealt the station new challenges. Both of these sectors grew ever more invested in an idea of independence centered on private individual responsibility. This made it harder for the station and the people behind it to get what they needed from others in order to be independent themselves. Chapter four, “See You In The Future,” covers the sale of WOXY’s FM license and its various reincarnations as an internet-only broadcaster–funded first by anonymous 97X listeners, then by the used CD selling startup Lala, and finally by the music website Future Sounds. In this chapter and the next, I argue that the strongest proof that WOXY’s philosophy works is that its own survival has always depended on listeners chipping in and exercising their own independence in support of the station’s. The two times the station dramatically shifted formats in order to survive the end of the FM broadcast and, later, the end of the internet broadcast, it is listeners and community members who have provided the backing and the elbow grease needed to keep The Future of Rock and Roll alive. By cultivating and contributing to a community dedicated to the collective and collaborative practice of independence, WOXY maintained and maintains its own.

Now, you might be a bit puzzled by my claim that WOXY still exists–it stopped broadcasting for good in 2010. However, as I argue in chapter four, if you follow the lead of some radio studies scholars and consider broadcast to be one modality of radio practice that is neither necessary nor sufficient for radio as such, it’s easy to see how WOXY continues to exist as a decentralized internet community radio station. This chapter, titled “WOXY’s Undead,” studies the various ways community members have kept the station going via web archives, social media posts, podcasts, and other forms of internet media practices. Living WOXY’s idea of independence, former listeners and staff keep The Future of Rock and Roll alive to this day, close to 40 years since Labor Day 1983 when the station debuted.

The final chapter, “The Future (of Rock and Roll)” wraps things up by reflecting on the present state of American society, the radio industry, and the modern rock charts. From the emergence of hipster capitalism, to Spotify’s programming playists for values-based communities, to a renaissance of modern rock influences on the pop charts, today’s world resembles WOXY in many ways. However, this resemblance is merely superficial. Co-opting punk’s DIY ethos and turning it into an ideal of private individual responsibility, today’s mainstream–including to some extent the radio and music industries–has reshaped itself around hollowed-out versions of WOXY’s values that replace communal practices with individual ones. Because it has a nearly 40 year track record of concretely and tangibly fostering people’s actual independence, WOXY’s philosophy is a tested and evidence-based tool that we can use to successfully fight against these institutions that sell us a faux notion of independence so they can exploit us more efficiently. Living and applying WOXY’s idea of independence, we can create communities, creative projects, and lives that are actually independent because they support and are supported by others. 

WOXY is more than just a radio station. It embodies an idea of true independence that shaped how people listen to music and how they relate to each other. Its ongoing existence is concrete proof that independence is possible if practiced with and for a community. And while WOXY certainly has had a huge impact on the musical tastes of a worldwide listenership, the careers of countless musicians, the Cincinnati/Dayton music scene, and the lives of its community members, its most enduring legacy is its philosophy.