97X and the Meaning of True Independence

Robin James recalls the heyday of ”the Future of Rock and Roll” in a new book discussing the importance of WOXY-FM to Cincinnati and to the music business.

West Chester native and Miami University grad Robin James recalls the 1980s, ’90s, and early ’00s heydays of WOXY radio—the mighty 97.7 FM signal beamed from Oxford, Ohio, to much of Greater Cincinnati—in her new book, The Future of Rock and Roll: 97X and the Fight for True Independence (University of North Carolina Press). It’s been published just in time for the 40th anniversary of the station’s launch, which is also being commemorated online this week and across Memorial Day weekend with a revival of its annual “Modern Rock 500” countdown via the online station Inhailer Radio.

Photograph courtesy University of North Carolina Press

The author of three other books (most recently The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics), James was formerly an associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and is now an editor for Philosophy, Literary Theory, and Music & Sound Studies at the scholarly publisher Palgrave Macmillan. She discusses her teenage memories of 97X, which was about so much more than music; its role as an historical footnote in the development of iTunes; and why we’re still crazy for a station that went off the air in 2010.

What’s your most enduring memory of being a young 97X listener?

I remember listening with my friend Emily, who lived up the street. There was this song by Meryn Cadell called “The Sweater,” a kind of spoken-word, weird little song about a teenage girl wearing her boyfriend’s sweater. We sang lines from the song to each other, and I think we did a parody version at a talent show. We didn’t have social media back then, but if there were, we would have memed it.

When did you realized how unique the station was?

Probably when I moved to Chicago for grad school in 2000. Chicago is so much bigger than Cincinnati with such a huge music scene, but there wasn’t anything exactly like 97X. They had college radio, but both WLUW and WNUR were more like community radio stations with programming all over the place from whoever wanted to be on air. There wasn’t the coherence of vision and voice that we experienced with WOXY.

You argue in the book that the station still exists via websites, playlists, and a podcast and, most of all, as a community.

Andrew Bottomley, a radio studies scholar, argues that what makes radio radio is this idea of liveness—of being there together in the moment. So if radio is really about a shared experience that listeners have, you can argue that WOXY still exists as a decentralized community radio project today. It brings people together in shared and communal experiences. And I think that’s what really matters about art generally.

Refering to the “fight for true independence” in the book subtitle, you see WOXY and its community as a form of pushing back against neoliberalism and the music business and American culture in general.

Yeah, because a lot of the challenges that WOXY faced throughout its broadcasting existence—deregulation, austerity, things like start-up culture when it was owned by Lala—are the sources of a lot of challenges people face today. You can see the lack of COVID response from the government as a form of deregulation of public health.

So if it’s the 97X idea that independence is only possible if you practice it with and for other people and if that helped the station survive these challenges, then it can help us survive the same challenges in our own life. It’s only together that we can really sort of be independent in any meaningful way.

OK, since you mentioned it, for those who don’t know or haven’t read the book yet: What the heck was Lala, and what did it have to do with the station?

So, Lala was a music startup in the early aughts. It started off as kind of like Uber but for used CDs—a platform where people could buy and sell CDs. And Lala bought WOXY after the station sold its license and closed down for the first time. There was the big sad goodbye in 2004, and the station was off the air. And then, like, the next day, one of the interns for Lala founder Bill Nguyen told him about WOXY and he got on the message boards on the website, which were still live, and he said, I have come to save the station! And he flew out to Cincinnati and bought the station and just folded it into Lala. I guess the value proposition for him was he had this startup he was trying to build, and WOXY brought reputation and brand recognition.

And then that somehow became part of Apple Music?

WOXY was sold to Future Sounds, its final owner, because Nguyen was in the process of selling Lala to Apple. This was in 2009. And some of the library infrastructure of Lala became part of the library infrastructure of iTunes. So, if you’ve ever used Apple Music or iTunes you’ve actually used a part of Lala (i.e., a part of WOXY).

The 97X brand returns online this week and over Memorial Day Weekend with a 40th anniversary revival of its Modern Rock 500 countdown. What are a few songs that you think have to be there?

Well, as someone who has spent hours closely analyzing the spreadsheets of all the Modern Rock 500 lists, I have some really educated guesses. I think we’re gonna see “How Soon Is Now” by The Smiths because that was No. 1 for many years. The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind” was No. 1 on the last Modern Rock 500. We’re gonna see The Breeders for sure. A lot of Wax Trax!

I think Royal Crescent Mob is gonna be on there. Probably “Get on the Bus.” A Columbus band, so they were kind of adopted locals that featured very prominently early in the station’s history.

And some modern rock classics, or modern rock “one-hit wonders” that the rest of the world forgot but that continually reappeared on the Modern Rock 500. Songs like The Nails’ “88 Lines About 44 Women” or The Dead Milkmen’s “Bitchin’ Camaro.”

What I think we’re not going to see is a ton of what you would classically think of as “alt-rock,” like Green Day and No Doubt. There will be a little Pearl Jam, but not a ton. Nirvana will be there, but not rank in the top 25. What you stereotypically think about as alternative or grunge WOXY saw as narrowly for, and marketed for, men 18 to 35. They saw their audience as much broader and a little older.

So that’s that’s kind of my scholarly take.

And personally?

“The Sweater,” of course. L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead,” another one of those songs that my high school friends and I shared. In fact, L7 played Lollapalooza at Riverbend in 1994, my first rock concert. KMFDM’s “Juke Joint Jezebel,” which 97X played a ton. And I’ll just conclude with my personal view that “Divine Hammer” is the superior Breeders song to “Cannonball.”

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