X is for X-treme!!! For now…

On New Year’s Eve, the newest radio station in town, X92.9, hosted a bash at Mac Hall on the University of Calgary campus. The party doubled as a kick-off for the radio station and a free all-ages concert featuring Hot Hot Heat. X92.9 labels itself as the new rock alternative and is placing itself to compete for listeners with the current reigning rock station, CJAY92. Though X92’s marketing campaign and sloganeering intentionally places it as an alternative to what’s currently offered in the Calgary radio market, there isn’t really much difference between it and the stations it’s trying to distance itself from.

The new rock songs X92 plays are essentially the same as CJAY92, with a few different Canadian artists thrown in to appease CanCon regulations laid down by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommuncations Commission. Where CJAY92 will likely play Nickleback ad nauseum, X92 will replace it with Metric or Billy Talent. Amusingly, one of the principles X92 was founded upon is the hatred audiences have developed for Nickleback after being force- fed their sub-par frat rock for so long–the radio station glowingly showcases its “No Nickleback” guarantee. X92 now risks audiences developing the same hatred for Billy Talent and Metric, two bands who–despite being played much less than Nickleback–are about as mediocre as the boys from Hannah. Sure, Metric is catchy, but so was Nickleback two albums in, before everyone started hearing them umpteen times a day.

As laughable as their “No Nickleback” guarantee is, X92’s willingness to play the Tragically Hip is worse. Though there’s nothing wrong with the Hip, if a station truly wanted to distance itself from every other stop on the dial, avoiding Gord and friends would be a good way to do it. Even Q107, the “classic” rock station, play the Hip’s mostly ’90S-based singles.

X92’s selection has been a welcome change from the fare offered on CJAY92 but part of the station’s initial attraction is based on its currently low percentage of commercials. If the station is to survive, that will change and presumably, so will its alternative content. If a radio-station sustaining population really wanted to hear the hits that X plays and CJAY doesn’t, they probably would’ve called in to CJAY and requested them already.

The viability of three straight-up rock stations in a city with a population of one million is questionable, especially with satellite radio, CDs and iPods cutting into the audience. Those who were discouraged by the offerings on CJAY and X are likely to turn away once X starts the heavy commercial rotation typical of mainstream stations, returning to what they were listening to before to get their ‘alternative’ fix.

Tom Waits had it right when he accepted the Grammy for best alternative album. “Alternative to what?” he asked. “Silence?” The label ‘alternative’ is ridiculous when it comes to music, as it is completely perspective-based. Everything is an alternative to something else. x, as a radio station based on being an alternative, really offers much less than that. Though it does have a different rotation of singles, it plays by the same radio rules, overplaying mediocre Canadian songs to the point of nausea. Though currently a welcome change, there’s no guarantee it’ll actually last. New is exciting, but that initial excitement usually fades. In Calgary’s market, and in a world where, overall, radio listenership is falling, the chance of X making a mark for very long is highly unlikely.

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