For nearly 30 years, a little radio station started in the cornfields of rural Ohio made a name for itself. Now, more than a decade after it played its last song, it’s doing that again.
At the end of May, WOXY, known to legions of fans as 97X, will resurrect its “Modern Rock 500” one last time. It’s a tribute, organizers said, to a small-town station that rocked the radio world, first locally, then nationally and beyond.
Back to the Future
Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, 97X was the modern rock radio station in southwestern Ohio. And it was my radio station from my first days on campus at Miami University. From its first song — U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” — until its last internet broadcast in 2010, the station was the center of the new music universe for a generation of young people, like me, who lived for something different.
Essentially, 97X and I were both freshmen at Miami then. The radio station had previously been WOXR, playing Top 40 hits, and uncensored versions of Steppenwolf’s “The Pusher,” and Neil Young’s “Cowgirl in the Sand” to appeal to Miami’s college crowd. When Doug and Linda Balogh bought the station in 1981, they asked Miami students what they wanted to hear. The answer was modern rock. So the Baloghs delivered, playing music no one else in the area was giving airtime to.
According to music historian Robin James, WOXY was the sixth modern rock station in the U.S. In her book, “The Future of Rock and Roll: 97X WOXY and the Fight for True Independence,” she says FCC regulations kept the station small, but what it lacked in strength it made up for in individuality.
“The station started off in ‘83 basically copying L.A.’s KROQ (pronounced Kay-rock) playlist,” James said. “By the ‘90s though, 97X was sort of the place for new and different music.”
I spent my first semester at Miami that year trying to figure out who I was and where I fit in. In my world, you smiled at people you met on the street and “punk” was something you dressed up as on Spirit Day if you wanted to be really edgy. My roommates thought I was a rube. But when I heard 97X for the first time, I realized there was more to life than Journey. 97X didn’t play the big hair bands and southern rock my roommates were listening to. They listened to “Faithfully.” I started listening to “Burning Down the House.”
Listening to 97X set me apart. Suddenly, I had this sense I belonged to a new club of shared interests and ideals that were different from most of the rest on campus.
Behind the Music
Oxford back then was just a jumble of concrete amidst miles of cornfields between Dayton and Cincinnati. It was a primarily Republican college in a primarily Republican area in a primarily Republican state.
But 97X was a ministry of liberal ideology in the midst of a campus full of trust fund babies and future country club members. Transmitting to Dayton, Cincinnati, and Northern Kentucky, it broadcast a new sound.
“In high school, I lived in Northern Kentucky at what must have been the very outer edge of their broadcasting radius,” recalled Chris Eddie, now one of the owners of Smiley Pete Publications in Lexington, Kentucky. “I’d have to say my most memorable experience happened at 97Xtra Beats … an all-ages, monthly event held at Bogart’s in Cincinnati … (It) was right as Nirvana‘s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Give it Away’ had recently come out. The usual, gothy/mopey alterna-girls exploded into dance like it was a New Kids on the Block concert. I knew something had changed in the world of music.”
In 1988, the station rose to fame in the Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman film “Rain Man.” Filmed in Cincinnati, the movie featured Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt repeating the station’s tagline “97X, BAM! The Future of Rock and Roll.”
From there its notoriety grew.
“They grew to have a national reputation,” James said. “’Rolling Stone,’ for several years in the ‘90s, named them one of the top radio stations in the country. Then later on, ‘Rolling Stone’ named them the last great independent radio station.”
And it was too. Until it wasn’t.
By ‘88, I had left school and was living in Cincinnati, a single girl listening to alternative tunes, hitting raves and pub crawls when I could. I worked as a reporter for the alternative newsweekly “Cincinnati CityBeat,” and 97X was our media partner. As time went on, though, I moved into more corporate jobs and listened to the station less. Then the ‘90s came, replacing concerts and clubbing with marriage and kids.
But during that time, 97X kept its own unique sound and purpose, even as other stations all started to sound the same, James said.
“Basically, everyone was buying up radio stations then syndicating content nationally,” she said. “It was kind of like the ‘Walmart-ification’ of radio.”
WOXY maintained its modern music focus and its independence. It may have even been the radio station that broke Coldplay into American markets, she said.
Former program director Mike Taylor isn’t too sure about that. But he does know it became harder and harder for independent radio stations like WOXY to compete with the corporate big boys. In 2004, Taylor said, the Baloghs sold the license to 97.7 FM, but kept the WOXY name and the station’s music library. The station went online as WOXY.com, one of the first radio stations in the country to have a primarily online presence. Taylor said the station’s reach was suddenly the world.
“I was looking to try and reach people in New York, L.A., San Francisco, and London,” he said. “If we would get an internet request from somebody from some far reaching location, that’s what really primed my pump.”
Online, the station’s reach was international.
“In the early 2000s, a music critic in Brazil was a really strong advocate for 97X,” James said. “The station had a huge Brazilian audience to the point that when (WOXY) had a Brazilian band called The Mosquitoes in for a lounge act, they had them record [the tagline] ‘97X, The Future of Rock and Roll’ in Brazilian Portuguese.”
The station moved to Austin, Texas, Taylor said, and new investors helped keep it afloat. The station couldn’t sustain itself, though, and in 2010 Taylor played the station’s last song, “Answer to Yourself” by The Soft Pack.
Fans of the station, however, continued to talk about it. A podcast sprung up, Rumblings from the Big Bush, hosted by former WOXY DJs Dave Tellmann and Damian Dotterweich, that recounted the days of 97X. In other online spaces, fans put together 97X Reddit threads, blogs, Facebook groups, and Spotify playlists. Some fans say they continue to listen when they can.
“My first memory of 97X was walking into a store in Tri-County Mall that (was playing) these fun, different tunes that I had never heard before,” Jo Ivey, a former ad rep for “Cincinnati CityBeat” said. “To this day, Morphine’s ‘Cure for Pain’ will stop me in my tracks. Concrete Blonde’s ‘God is a Bullet’ reminds me how little time has changed, and I still find time over the Memorial Day weekend to find the Modern Rock 500 online.”
In recognition of that lasting impact, during this year’s Memorial Day week, WOXY will stream the “97X Modern Rock 500 Countdown” online on Inhailer Radio. The broadcast will be a 40th Anniversary “chef’s kiss” to the station’s beginnings, Taylor said. Featuring five 100-song sets led-in by former WOXY disc jockeys, the countdown will air on Inhailer’s website and apps from May 22 to 26, and will re-air over the Memorial Day weekend, with an archived version available after May 29.
Taylor said it’s like getting the band back together.
“I had over 30 people, myself included, that responded with wild enthusiasm to do this,” he said. “We crafted kind of an all-time 500 if you will. We had to kind of limit things a little bit, so the only songs that would be eligible were songs that had previously appeared on the Modern Rock 500 at least once.”
The result will be a mash-up of 20th century “modern rock” songs put together with 21st century technology, he said.
Times have changed since WOXY was at its prime. Radio isn’t the same now that everyone has the opportunity to be their own DJ, he said. But he hopes, like the original, this 500 will have an impact.
Now that I’m older — much older — I can see the impact the station had on me. I still listen to alternative rock, and routinely share new music with my kids. I introduced them to K-Flay and Shakey Graves. They told me about The Bahamas and Twenty One Pilots. They tell me I’m not like other moms. Apparently, other moms my age are still listening to Journey.
Taylor said he doesn’t know if the station will continue to affect listeners.
“I know once this finally hits there’s going to be some outlet out there that’s going to label this as the most pathetically boomer thing ever,” he said. “But my take away from doing this is that it’s just like anything else — how can you tell the impact of something as it’s happening?”
For many, WOXY was an introduction to a world of music we never would have heard otherwise. And it left indelible memories.
This last Modern Rock 500 may be the last memory 97X creates, Taylor said.
A memory of the future of rock and roll.