Dialing up an alternative

Area 108 reaching out for valley listeners tired of cookie cutter pop music

By Kirk Baird

The News | March 8 – 14, 2007

Joe Sib, host of “Complete Control”, is a guest on the radio show “Gonzo In The Morning,” the Area 108 morning radio show. Cary Edmondson / News Staff Photo

When Larry Mac interviewed in November 2005 for the program / music director job at KVGS 107.9-FM, otherwise known as Area 108, he knew he was in for a challenge. 

The station office was squeezed into a small office building, with a room slightly larger than two cubicles as its studio.

Its transmission power would be half that of some of its FM competition.

And there were no disc jockeys.

“The station was bare bones,” he said, “but I worked at bare bone stations before, at an AM station. And I worked at stations I would call ‘signally challenged.’”

Area 108, found at 107.9 on the FM dial, struggles to find listeners due to weak transmission signals, but offers audio on its Web site, area108.com. Cary Edmondson / News Staff Photo

So the 15-year radio veteran knew what he was in for when he accepted the position, leaving his job at a successful hard rock station in Phoenix for the challenge of creating the closest thing to college radio Las Vegans have heard since UNLV’s KUNV 89.7-FM went to an all Jazz format nearly a decade ago.

Nearly 18 months later, Mac acknowledges his work at Area 108 is still a struggle.

The station generally places in the bottom five in ratings.

The signal is weak enough that, depending on the part of the town, a radio may not be able to pick it up.

And, despite being on the air for more than a year, there are still many Las Vegans who have never heard of Area 108.

Everyday I get a phone call … “Hey man, I just found your station. How long have you been here?” said Mac, who can be heard from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. weekdays.

It’s those calls, though, that give him encouragement that the station is being discovered. He’s also optimistic about rumors the Federal Communications Commission will allow the station to boost its signal sometime this year.

Oh yeah, and Area 108 is now fully staffed with “people that are passionate about the music.”

So when Mac sits at his desk and talks about how far the station has come, he can’t help but smile.

“It’s turning out pretty good,” Mac said.

 Alternative Radio

There are approximately 70 commercial alternative stations in the country — the majority of which are run by corporate media giants, such as Clear Channel, which owns KXTE 107.5-FM, Extreme Radio, a hard rock / alternative station and Area 108’s chief marketplace rival, along with more than 1200 radio stations nationwide.

Mike Boyle, Senior Editor for trade publication Radio & Records, said even as the alternative radio format remains strong and viable, there’s increasing criticism that the lack of diversity in station ownership is hurting the format and radio in general with a “homogenization of sound.”

“These big corporations have made them all cookie-cutters,” Boyle said. “They all sound the same.”

Area 108, though, “represents a breath of fresh air,” he said.

KVGS is owned by Riviera Broadcast Group, a small media group that also owns KOAS 105.7 FM The Oasis, as well as two other stations in Phoenix.

“There are a few real gems out there that will step out and not be cookie-cutter Alternatives and take some chances and have some really diverse and interesting programming … such as Area 108,” Boyle said. “It is rare, but it’s a breath of fresh air.”

KVGS features a steady mix of 1980s and ’90s college radio favorites, mainstream alternative, and independent label Indie artists as well as new bands.

Listen long enough and you’ll hear The Clash, Depeche Mode, Nirvana, The Cure, Pearl Jam, Talking Heads, Bjork, Elvis Costello, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Soul Asylum, The Pixies, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Snow Patrol, Mazzy Star, The Charlatans UK, and Las Vegas bands gone big, The Killers and Panic! At The Disco.

“Alternative music has become increasingly splintered into subgenres, and everyone now has a different definition of what alternative is,” Mac said.

“I’d like to think that we meet a good portion of the definition, while still keeping our focus,” he said.

Even if the station does feature some of the same bands as other stations, Mac said Area 108 tends to dig deeper into the group’s catalog to unearth obscure or forgotten songs, rather than regurgitating hits.

“We’ll surprise you sometimes,” he said, “but you know you’re going to get alternative music.”

“Gonzo” Greg hosts “Gonzo In The Morning” on Area 108. Cary Edmondson / News Staff Photo

It’s the station’s willingness to expand its playlist that attracted Gonzo Greg to Area 108.

“The radio industry doesn’t want to take a chance,” Greg said. “Anything risky, not safe, they’re not going to try.”

A 40-year-old disc jockey with more than a quarter century of radio experience, Greg left his job at an alternative / hard rock station in Indianapolis for KVGS. His AM drive-time show Gonzo In The Morning, which airs 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. weekdays, debuted in February 2006.

The show has done well enough and is growing a dedicated following, much like Area 108 itself. And just like the station, Greg said the biggest challenge for his show is simple: being heard.

“The signal is a big issue that’s being worked on,” he said. “People like the station. I hope they find a way to listen.”


When George McCabe first learned of Area 108 last summer, he felt an instant connection to the station.

“I love to hear New Order, Pearl Jam, and Smashing Pumpkins,” he said. “I like the fact they’re in the market.”

Still, he acknowledges getting frustrated with the station’s weak transmission.

McCabe, who lives in Summerlin, said he often loses Area 108 signal during his drive to work on the 215 Beltway to Green Valley.

This reason, combined with the low ratings, is why McCabe, public relations director at Brown and Partners, an advertising and public relations firm, and other coworkers are hesitant to recommend their clients purchase advertising time on the station.

“It’s ironic. We know the station as listeners, but we can’t in good conscience let our clients advertise on that station for those reasons,” he said. “Until their signal covers the entire market as strong as their competition, I think they will face some challenges.”

Gonzo In The Morning show co-host Nicole Padberg, though, counters that the weak signal gives the station indie cred.

“Not having a strong signal helps with the alternative vibe,” she said. 

“Gonzo In The Morning” co-host Nicole Padberg talks to a guest in the Area 108 studio. Cary Edmondson / News Staff Photo

Mac, however, takes an optimistic appraisal of Area 108’s situation. The ratings are a reflection of the station’s signal strength, and when it boosts its transmission he expects more listeners to tune in. 

Until then, Mac said Area 108 will continue to employ a grassroots approach to increasing its audience, including street marketing teams, contests, a website club for listeners called Alien Nation, and, of course, a MySpace page; however, there is no budget for billboards or TV commercials. “We’re a real word of mouth station,” he said. 

It’s a marketing plan not unlike that of a typical College radio station. Mac likens Area 108’s struggles to that of a college station, too.

“In this market, we’re the underdog,” he said. “If you’re a College radio station, you’re usually the underdog.”

Kirk Baird can be reached at 990-8931 or kirk.baird@hbcpub.com

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