Hang the DJ
After 20 years of playing alternative music on Birmingham radio, Coyote J. Calhoun has it coming.
September 04, 2008
It's Sunday night, and Coyote J. Calhoun is pulling up to the offices of WZRR—Rock 99.5. His car stereo is blaring a Skinny Puppy song from 1990's Too Dark Park album. Coyote just got the CD back from his adult children. He loaned it to them about six years ago, when they were teenagers. "Listen to that," says the veteran Birmingham disc jockey. "Skinny Puppy still holds up after all those years. That sounds like it could've been recorded last week."
Well, maybe. Coyote J can get a little too enthused about a band—but that's okay, since it has taken lots of enthusiasm to keep his show, "The Edge," on the air for more than 20 years. The forty-something DJ has built a reliable Sunday night franchise over the years, always finding a home on Birmingham radio for several hours of new wave and alternative rock, in all its forms.
It wasn't easy for "The Edge" to survive for more than two decades. Coyote started playing alternative music on Birmingham radio in 1982, when it was still called new wave. At the time, Birmingham radio wasn't playing anything more innovative than Blondie, The Knack, and The Police.
|"There were death threats. . . . Some of the locals considered my playing Soft Cell to be promoting the gay lifestyle." (click for larger version)|
Men at Work and Duran Duran were just starting to put a harmless face on edgier pop. Meanwhile, Coyote—fresh from California—was quietly staking out airtime on 95 Rock with a playlist worthy of any Los Angeles DJ steeped in the hippest scenes. But in 1982, not everybody was ready for Romeo Void, an unknown band called The Cure, or even a post-punk oldies act like Joy Division. "There were death threats," Coyote recalls. "I was called a fag many times. Some of the locals considered my playing Soft Cell to be promoting the gay lifestyle."
| (click for larger version)|
History's been kind to Coyote. His show has documented the underground years of bands like REM, Depeche Mode, Nirvana, and stars of lesser but respected genres such as industrial and hardcore. Coyote's story is also the history of fringe music becoming mainstream rock. He has the fans to prove it, too. Ticketholders to Edgefest 2008 will be arriving from Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia, and points farther north. That's an unlikely achievement for a guy who began his radio career playing Top 40 tunes in Birmingham during the 1970s.
| (click for larger version)|
"I usually drop that off my résumé," says Coyote, settling in his studio at Rock 99.5 with armloads of CDs. "That keeps me from looking so damn old. I was in high school when I started out in Nashville, and then WERC hired me away in 1975 to take out Chris Fox [a.k.a. "Superfox"], the evening guy on WSGN."
That was when WERC's management turned young Jim Battan into Coyote J. Calhoun, the DJ with a cartoonish voice backed by plenty of funny sound effects. Calhoun quickly stole Fox's audience and remained a popular Birmingham radio presence through the decade. Birmingham radio was pretty interesting back then, but in a quirky and mild way. Nobody was expecting a clown like Coyote to end up as Birmingham radio's sole innovator.
"I first left town in 1981," says Calhoun. "By then, the whole Birmingham market had degenerated. I was playing things like 'Boogie Wonderland' for the 16th time. That wasn't my music. I got the chance to go out to California to be the new-wave guy for a San Diego radio station. They brought me in to raise hell and get on the air and call people whores and bitches and play new wave and punk. What they didn't mention was that at the end of the road, they'd can me publicly. It took a year and a half, but I finally got fired for pissing everybody off."
A smart DJ could have landed in a major market. Coyote came back to Birmingham, where he surprised himself by getting to play the music he wanted.
"I came back with all my alternative rock and new wave and post-punk in tow and got a show called 'Inside Tracks' on what was then 95 Rock. They let me play alternative for two hours. None of the bands had broken through, and the reception was less than enthusiastic."
Coyote survived by playing alt-rock in Birmingham on weekends while working in Mobile as a drive-time afternoon DJ. "Post-punk started building," he recalls. "U2 started to break, and there were acts like Psychedelic Furs and Echo & the Bunnymen. It wouldn't be much longer before Pretty in Pink came out in theaters." Calhoun laughs, grateful for the charms of Molly Ringwald. "That's when I started to come out of fagdom, and began to be perceived as the masculine man that I am."
Those changing times briefly brought Coyote to New Orleans, where he enjoyed a run as a DJ whose tastes were actually in fashion. By 1987, though, he was back in Birmingham. "The Edge" debuted on Z-102 in the spring of 1988, providing an alternative for alt-rock fans who'd rather drive around than spend Sunday night watching "120 Minutes" on MTV.
The stint with Z-102 eventually ended with Coyote being fired on the air (for not "sticking to the format") during his regular weeknight shift at the time. (He lowered the volume on a song by Boston so that listeners could hear him getting the ax from his program director.) "The Edge" then began a nomadic, syndicated life through the mid-1990s on whatever radio stations would give Coyote airtime on a Sunday night.
Over the years, Coyote's cartoonish delivery gained some control. Today, he mainly sounds like an overaged college-rock DJ who got stoned before his shift. That's a welcome alternative in itself. Too many similar DJs trot out the aloof tones of a professional hipster. Coyote didn't go into radio to be aloof or hip. He has fond memories of the glory days of Birmingham radio, when local stations launched national pop stars.
"Nowadays," notes Coyote, "a disc jockey has no input. The corporate office in some other city chooses the playlist. The DJ is supposed to do the weather, do the traffic, and let the computer play the music. Back in the '70s, we could have regional hits. 'I Go Crazy' by Paul Davis first broke big in the Birmingham market. Starbuck's 'Moonlight Feels Right' was a Birmingham hit before it went national. I've got a gold record for 'Ring My Bell' by Anita Ward. That was during one of my rare corporate jobs, when I was a music director at WERC. I remember saying, 'I can't stand the damn thing, but it's going to be a monster if we play it.'"
Coyote laughs and makes a quick disclaimer: "I'm not saying it was all good music, but you could make a song a hit. Birmingham and Louisville were the only cities that played the Buckingham/Nicks album, before Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were in Fleetwood Mac."
It should be noted that 1970s-era disc jockeys had motivation for breaking bands; Coyote was around for plenty of payola.
"I never had cash handed to me," says Coyote, "or drugs, but promoters used to come to town with their cars full of stuff. They would leave the music on your desk, and tell you to come down to their car. The trunk would be full of VCRs and cameras and all the fun gadgetry of the day. They'd say, 'Take what you want'—except for the guy from Warner Brothers, who said, 'If you ever stick your hand out, I'll cut it off.' The smaller labels couldn't wait to give you a little gift. Back then, of course, an outfit like Elektra was considered a smaller label."
Coyote eventually found one station in Birmingham that felt like the right fit. He was a natural addition to the staff for the late and lamented WRAX—better known as 107.7 The X. Coyote began his time with Birmingham's former big league alt-rock station in 2003, during a brief period when "The Edge" went on hiatus and almost wasn't needed.
"It was the highest rated alternative station in the country back in 1996," recalls Coyote. "That's when Dave Rossi was the program director. He had really good ears in the '90s. There were stations in Los Angeles and New York that were following what he was doing. WRAX broke Sponge, Train, Counting Crows—all of which was sold as 'alternative.' To me, that was like telling people that trees were purple."
The X was still a station where exciting new bands were welcome on the playlist. Sadly, Coyote was around for Rossi's departure and WRAX's downfall.
"From 2001 on," he recalls, "The X was in its dying days. I couldn't get bands like Interpol on the playlists. I could only get The Editors on 'lunar' rotation, which meant they were played around 5 a.m. Then the station was moved to 100.5 on the dial, and I told everyone there that was going to be the end. The signal couldn't get over Red Mountain. We were losing half the listening population."
Things got worse: "We had a meeting where management announced they were going to re-create the glory days of The X. I was thinking, 'That sounds great. The DJs will have input again, and we're going to get back on the edge of the alternative music scene.' Then they explained how they were going to take the station's 1998 to 1999 playlist and put it back into rotation. We were going to play Train and Sublime and Everclear five years after the fact, like they were new acts—and everyone in that room was sitting there and nodding their heads. That was April of 2005, and I made bets with everyone at the station that we'd be gone by December of 2006. They pulled the plug on December 3, 2006. Everyone there took that bet, and they all still owe me $50."
That's a believable story. Most DJs never work in a town long enough to really become a local. A proud resident like Coyote is the rare on-air talent with an informed view of Birmingham's radio history. You might be wondering why he isn't running a station himself.
"That's a damn good question," declares Coyote. "I ask myself that all the time—but the answer is that I don't play the corporate game. I'm a very poor bullshitter. When someone brings you in their office, they want you to compromise and work with them, and I say things like, 'You're out of your freaking mind.' And then there's my on-air persona. Some people can't believe it's an act. In reality, I barely drink. On the radio, I sound half drunk all the time. That's worked out sometimes. There have been people who didn't fire me probably because they just didn't want to confront me. And I have been known to throw chairs at people who disagree with me."
Coyote—along with "The Edge"—also stirred up controversy over the years. The show was taken off I-95 back in 1991, after the Focus on the Family watchdog group caught Coyote playing a song with a refrain of "Sit on my face" late one Sunday night. To his credit, Coyote also once retired "The Edge" on his own in 2003. He wouldn't shill for an alt-rock scene that he couldn't endorse because he felt the scene had stagnated.
"I didn't have the music," says Coyote. "All the new bands were pretty damn weak, and I pulled the plug. Then I got excited about the scene again in 2004. I still think industrial music has seen its day, and I can give you a long list of bands that suck in the screamo/emo/hardcore genre. From Autumn to Ashes is good, Thursday is good, Thrice is brilliant. The rest of it bores the hell out of me. I know where it's going before it gets there. If you're 14 years old, and you're in the suburbs, then that's your music. It's aggressive and it's kind of snarling, and it's all pose and bullshit."
That's some refreshing honesty from a disc jockey heavily invested in a genre. Of course, it helps that Coyote's chosen genre is something as vague as "alternative rock." A typical night of "The Edge" covers everything that's ever been crammed into the alt-rock niche, with Coyote drawing the line at genres such as overblown metal or earnest power pop. This helps to explain how he has kept going as an older guy playing new music.
"Most people want to be part of a scene," says Coyote. "That's why I haven't been replaced. The new blood comes along, but they always pick a genre. They want to be the industrial guy or the goth guy, but then that genre dries up for a while, and they've got nothing left to say. I want to hear it all. Maybe I don't like hardcore, but I'll listen to it to find out what's being done well—even if listening to most of it is like having nails driven into my ears."
The big Edgefest concert won't be nearly as demanding. Despite a generally glam-gothish mood, the line-up is as eclectic as Coyote's show. His financial motivation is also pretty much the same.
"If the show sells out," Coyote explains, "I still lose money. I haven't even made a profit off 'The Edge' in the past five years. It's been a labor of love since 2001. My contract with this station's up in December, so one way or another I'll probably fold up my tent around then. That's partly what Edgefest is all about. What's the worst that can happen?" &
"The Edge" can be heard every Sunday night on Rock 99.5 WZRR, and at www.wzrr.com, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. For information on the Edgefest concert visit www.theedgefest2008.com. Playlists for recent Edge shows can be found at www.myspace.com/104295722.
The Playlist Goes Live
Coyote J. Calhoun on the edgy artists of Edgefest.
"This is all about that enthusiasm of seeing great bands play live," says Coyote J. Calhoun, "and it all started with seeing IAMX in Atlanta. [Band leader] Chris Corner started out in England with the Sneaker Pimps in the '90s. Now he's on his second album with IAMX called The Alternative, and that's the one that really got me. The stage show is great, too. It's like glam dance music. I contacted their manager about a Birmingham show. We agreed on a date, and that's when I knew I was going to do Edgefest."
IAMX is a fitting choice for lots of reasons, including that blatant album title. The music reflects both Coyote's and Corner's devotion to bands like The Cure and Depeche Mode—as well as the devotion that one segment of the alt-rock scene has to drug use and kinky sex. Coyote also sees the show as a tribute to the other pioneering acts that played Birmingham clubs early in their careers.
"IAMX is selling out stadiums in Europe," Coyote explains, "so this is where you get to see a band like them outside of a big venue. I'm also bringing in all these American bands, like a dark-wave, post-punk band called Feeding Fingers, and Black Tie Dynasty from Dallas, which is dark-tinged new wave. I've also got Kristeen Young, who's been opening for Morrissey. The whole bill is like my radio show. In the '80s, 80 percent of my playlist was from Europe. Nowadays, 80 percent is from the States."
The evening also includes several other bands who—no surprise—have all been recently featured on "The Edge." It's still nice to see Coyote's enthusiasm for introducing Birmingham to some new alt-rock acts. On a Saturday night, too, with the promise of a very personal experience.
"They're all great bands," Coyote says, "and you'll be able to see them eye to eye and touch their shoes."