Clockwise from top left: Awolnation, Meg Myers, Mumford & Sons, Alt-J & Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches
Clockwise from top left: Awolnation, Meg Myers, Mumford & Sons, Alt-J & Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches
Courtesy Photos, Getty; Design by Chris Elsemore

The Buzz's Rocky Year: Inside the Kansas City Radio Station That Helps Alternative Bands Get Big

by Justin Curto
December 14, 2018, 9:02am EST

Kansas City's KRBZ 96.5 The Buzz has claimed for years that "KC breaks bands" -- like Mumford & Sons, alt-J and Glass Animals -- before they blow up elsewhere. Yet the station might not be the tastemaker it once was.

The sun hadn’t even set yet, but Landon Jacobs, the frontman of electronic rock band Sir Sly, wanted to party.

A few songs into the group’s performance at Boulevardia, a Kansas City music festival put on by Boulevard Brewing Company this past June, he stripped off his black mesh shirt to a roar of approval from the crowd. Soon he was climbing up a stagepost and instructing an audience of thousands to “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” during the song “High.” 

At the end of the set, Jacobs launched into a 10-minute performance of the band’s pulsing single “&Run,” then shoved the microphone down his throat while his bandmates left their instruments to enjoy a bottle of champagne. “Thank you for letting us come and celebrate a really special day with you guys,” Jacobs said after pulling the mic out of his mouth.

Indeed, there was plenty to celebrate. Just before the band took the stage, Hartzell Gray, who hosts nights on alternative radio station KRBZ 96.5 The Buzz, introduced Sir Sly as “the No. 1 alternative band in the country.” The band learned hours before that “&Run” was the most-played song on alternative radio that week according to airplay-tracking service Mediabase.

And there couldn’t have been a better place to celebrate than Kansas City: When The Buzz started spinning Sir Sly’s “Gold” back in the spring of 2013, it was the first time the band had received any radio support. By the end of the year, the track was the station’s 35th most-played song of the year. For a band just starting out, 35th is a big deal. For The Buzz, supporting Sir Sly was another example of its foresight -- the song didn’t even enter Billboard’s charts until the following year.

The Buzz has claimed for years that “KC breaks bands.” There’s a trend, both the station and longtime listeners say, where bands like Mumford & Sons, alt-J and Glass Animals -- a few of the station’s most frequently cited success stories -- become popular in Kansas City before they take off across the country, thanks to substantial Buzz airplay and successful local shows put on or sponsored by The Buzz. In turn, many of these bands explicitly credit The Buzz with playing a substantial role in their success. “They have a unique personality and are not afraid to take chances,” says Richard Sands, a former program director for alternative station KITS 105.3 in San Francisco who also writes a newsletter about alternative radio. “You can’t say that about many other radio stations.”   

Yet The Buzz might not be the tastemaker it once was, and you don’t need to look further than the past few months to see why. A few days after Boulevardia, market ratings for May came out, and The Buzz dropped nearly a full point, from 3.9 to 3.0 -- not uncommon, but enough to shock a station. Then their shows took a hit: For the first time ever, the station did not hold its annual summer concert series, Buzz Under the Stars. Its yearly summer festival, Buzz Beach Ball, reverted back to a single day of programming after it expanded to two in 2016, and it struggled to fill its 18,000-capacity venue in late July. Just a few days after the festival, Entercom, the station’s parent company, chose not to renew a contract for Afentra Bandokoudis, who’d been a lineup mainstay for over a decade as the lead host of “Afentra’s Big Fat Morning Buzz.”

All this comes at a national turning point for radio, marked by two major radio networks’ recent bankruptcy declarations, a competitive field that now includes streaming and blurring genre lines that are redrawing the radio landscape. Even listeners are sensing a shift as the station’s once guitar-driven sound becomes more diverse and its concert lineups get thinner. “It’s definitely going in a direction I haven’t seen it go before,” said a 20-year-old named Rhyan whom I met at the front of the line for Buzz Beach Ball. “I want to see it go back to the old Buzz.”

The Buzz is no stranger to adjustment -- it flipped formats a few times since it started broadcasting on 96.5 FM in 2000 before landing on alternative by the summer of 2003. Not too long after, there were rumors that The Buzz’s parent company, Entercom, wanted to replace the station with an FM sports station. That led to the station’s first “Save The Buzz” campaign, and it worked -- well enough that The Buzz has urged listeners to “listen longer, save The Buzz” multiple times since, during ratings rough patches. Hartzell knows this approach isn’t sustainable, though. “The shelf life of a ‘Save the Whatever’ campaign is only as long as you need saving,” he tells me a few days after May ratings dropped. “At some point you don't anymore, or at some point you flip.”

For The Buzz, that ultimatum looms. “What's our next big move?” he says. “We're still trying to figure that out.”

* * *

How a song or band blows up is a complicated and sometimes mysterious process, and attributing an artist’s success to any single factor is likely oversimplifying it. Still, if you look closely at The Buzz’s programming choices and follow movement on the charts, it’s easy to see the station’s influence at play.

Take the song “You’re Somebody Else” by alt-pop husband-and-wife duo Flora Cash. It’s The Buzz’s most-played song of 2018. The station added it to its list of currents -- the radio term for new songs in rotation -- in February and played it 46 times that month, placing more confidence in it than any other station in the country at the time. By May, fewer than 10 of the top 50 alternative stations were playing it. The Buzz, meanwhile, booked the band for its prom show and played the song 167 times that month, in part to promote the concert. By June, enough alternative stations were supporting the song that it charted at No. 40 on Billboard’s radio-based Alternative Songs chart for the week of June 9. Once “You’re Somebody Else” broke into the charts, more stations picked it up. It’s currently in the top 10.

That’s how The Buzz breaks bands: A combination of local events and early, confident airplay that introduces artists to Kansas City’s vibrant alternative scene -- and tips off other stations. It’s behind many of the cases The Buzz prides itself on. In 2010, The Buzz booked Mumford & Sons for a Kegs and Eggs show -- a free morning acoustic concert where doors open at 6 a.m. -- and spun their debut single “Little Lion Man” heavily in the weeks leading up to it. (The band also had a sold-out club date booked for that night.) The song cracked the Alternative Songs chart at No. 40 just a few days before the day of the shows, rose to No. 37 a few days after and eventually topped the chart that October. Now, Mumford & Sons keyboardist Ben Lovett recommends Kegs and Eggs shows to all the bands on his record label, Communion. 

The following year, the Buzz booked Awolnation for VD Party, a free Valentine’s Day show, after discovering the band’s debut single, “Sail.” A week after the gig, “Sail” entered the Alternative Songs chart at No. 30 and eventually peaked at No. 5 that August -- a week after the band returned to perform at Buzz Beach Ball. “[VD Party] was one of our first epic shows, where I’m like, ‘Oh wow, people actually like us, this is crazy,’” Awolnation frontman Aaron Bruno told Afentra on-air in 2016. 

The Buzz’s list of bands it claims to have broken continued to grow in the next few years: alt-J, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Chvrches, Misterwives, The 1975, Glass Animals. Many of these bands first got on air thanks to “Mail,” a Friday afternoon segment in which longtime program director Scott “Lazlo” Geiger and assistant program director Reid “Slimfast” Mathews play some of the music they receive throughout the week. Sometimes they’ve heard the song before, but most of the time, they haven’t. Listeners give immediate feedback on the station’s text line, and if they like it, it goes into rotation. German folk group Milky Chance, for instance, took off after The Buzz found “Stolen Dance,” an eventual Alternative Songs No. 1, through “Mail.” The band’s manager, Björn Deparade, calls The Buzz “one of our biggest radio supporters in the U.S.”

It’s hard to talk about what makes The Buzz different without focusing on Lazlo, whose willingness to reject trends and go out of his way to support bands makes him a walking personification of the station. And he does go out of his way, using his connections to help local bands book shows and even occasionally co-managing them. That’s what happened to The Greeting Committee, a Kansas City group that sent him their debut single to play on “Mail”; now the band is signed to Harvest Records and released its debut album, This Is It, in October. “It all really began with that one song we played on the station,” says Peyton Marek, the band’s manager. “I'm not sure what would've happened if it hadn't.”

Lazlo came from a Detroit country station to host nights at The Buzz in 2002 and oversaw the station’s flip to the alternative the format the following summer. He also took over the afternoon-drive slot and launched “The Church of Lazlo,” a show that blends provocative news commentary and candid conversations about its hosts personal lives -- like two guys talking at a bar, he and Slimfast often say. The first time I ever heard Lazlo’s gruff voice on air, he was complaining about his 80-something neighbor who worked on his garden in his “tighty-whities” every morning.

Slimfast remembers The Buzz playing “Creed and stuff like that” before Lazlo introduced newer artists into rotation. “They told him, it's not going to work. You’ve got to play stuff that’s successful -- you can’t play these little cool, what they call ‘boutique artists,’” Slimfast says. “But he believed in it and he did it and he made it work.” Lazlo, who declined to be interviewed for this story, developed a reputation for talking with managers and label reps and actively scouting showcases like South by Southwest to give the station an edge.

“A lot of the [programmers] in other markets are just going off of the trend-based thing and looking at charts and seeing what the other stations are playing, and Lazlo marches to his own beats,” says Neill Smith, a talent buyer for AEG Presents who helps book Buzz events with input from Lazlo. “It’s provided a bed for artists to really develop and flourish here.” (Lazlo was so successful that, in 2006, Entercom moved him to Seattle alternative station KNDD 107.7 The End, though he moved back two years later -- between the gloomy rain and the lack of Midwestern Nice, Seattle didn’t just feel the same.)

Without an open-minded PD like Lazlo, Hartzell says, the station’s whole outlook on music would change. “Lazlo's the guy who takes chances on music because he has built those relationships,” Hartzell says. “If we're a top 40 station that's by the charts, we couldn't play 60 currents. Are you kidding me? Oh, no.”

Before Lazlo and The Buzz, there wasn’t much of an alternative scene in Kansas City. Most bands played in Lawrence, a college town 45 minutes away that was a fixture of the ‘90s emo circuit. That changed as The Buzz grew and organized more shows that often featured the bands it helped break -- there are summer shows, Halloween shows, Christmas shows. (That’s on top of the dozens of tour stops it co-sponsors at local venues each year.) Concertgoers in the city often refer to their community as the “Buzz Family.”

Artists notice the difference too. “It kind of becomes this one energy there -- it sounds weird to say it that way, but playing other shows and then going there, something is different,” says singer-songwriter Meg Myers, whom the Buzz booked for a prom show in 2014 on the strength of her song “Desire.” She played three more shows in Kansas City that year.

As I went to shows this year, bands regularly told crowds how good Kansas City had been to them. “Any band I’ve ever been in, there’s something about playing in Kansas City that feels like coming home,” Jack Antonoff said when Bleachers headlined Boulevardia in June, where he also covered Kansas City heroes The Get Up Kids. Frank Turner and Walk The Moon both apologized for taking so long to get back. 

Because of the Buzz, “Kansas City isn't just another date on the route -- it's not just, ‘I'm coming from Columbia and going to Des Moines,’” Hartzell says. “Kansas City's word means something now.”

* * *

In mid-June, a few days after the ratings drop, the office doesn’t seem shaken. It’s a bit quiet with Lazlo on vacation for the week. Jeriney, the music director and middays host, works at her desk with her dog; Hartzell cracks jokes with hosts from Entercom news-talk station KMBZ 98.1. “If you walk in here and your keycard still works, you're fine,” Hartzell says. We were supposed to talk the day before but had to reschedule so Buzz staff could meet about ratings. “Yesterday’s meeting wasn’t awesome,” he says, “but that’s just radio.”

Hartzell is often lax like this about the state of alternative radio, although he doesn’t deny that the format is going through some changes. For starters, there’s a new competitor in streaming. It won’t replace terrestrial radio -- satellite radio didn’t either, he reminds me -- but the staff still talks about it. The Internet has moved faster than radio for years, but the on-demand ease of streaming does chip away at what makes The Buzz special: It’s hard to debut a “new” single on-air when listeners have had access to the whole album for weeks, and The Buzz’s endorsement is a little less novel when algorithms and curated playlists are ready with their own recommendations for you.

The boundaries of alternative have been shifting, too. The format continues to expand -- last fall, New York City got a new alternative station, WNYL ALT 92.3, after a six-year void -- but in the past few years, it’s moved away from guitar-driven alt-rock toward a more electronic sound. Hartzell dismisses that as “shit, but whatever,” and he doesn’t keep that opinion from listeners: “It’s going to take a little bit of time for me on that,” he says one night after testing out a song by LSD, a supergroup made up of Labrinth, Sia and Diplo.

If you want to listen to new, guitar-driven rock on the radio in Kansas City, you have two other options: You can turn your dial to KQRC 98.9 The Rock, which is Entercom’s best-performing station in the market -- it’s been in second place since August ratings -- and plays active rock, a catchall format for new and classic rock, with an emphasis on the harder stuff.

Or you can go to The Buzz’s direct rival. Cumulus Media, Entercom’s closest competitor, introduced its own alternative station to the market in 2015. “Kansas City rock fans have been asking for a true alternative station for years,” went Cumulus’ announcement, indirectly attacking The Buzz. That station, now called KCJK X105.1, consistently rates below The Buzz, but it still draws listeners who’d otherwise all flock to one major alternative station.

To be competitive, Sands, the former San Francisco PD, says alternative stations need “to be more experimental, take more and bigger chances and be hyper-local focused,” all of which is how the Buzz first made its name. Hartzell is confident The Buzz can weather fluctuating ratings by doing more or less what it’s been doing: Keeping a list of about 60 currents, where some stations have less than 10, and having hosts who actually talk, compared to what he calls “iPod DJs” who just introduce songs. He thinks people want to hear real people playing new music. Streaming and other stations don’t provide that full experience. “At the end of the day, we have all these different options,” he says, “but sometimes the easiest route is just to turn up the volume because the radio's already on.”

That becomes difficult, though, when the station itself goes through changes. In early August, Afentra learned her contract had not been renewed. Since 2003 -- barring a brief stint in Seattle with Lazlo, whom she was married to at the time -- her loud, raspy voice and sometimes disorganized show had polarized listeners. After her exit, some fans wrote online that they’d stop listening, and others said they’d finally tune back into the morning show. (Reasons for her departure have not been made public; Afentra and Entercom didn’t respond to interview requests.) Still, she had a loyal following -- she won “best local radio personality” in alt-weekly The Pitch’s annual Best of Kansas City awards this year -- and she was certainly part of The Buzz’s identity, supporting Buzz-broken bands like Glass Animals and Awolnation and freely playing whatever she wanted.

The Buzz’s first major lineup change in almost a decade sent a shock through the station. Her co-host Danny fought back tears as he said on-air, “It’s like I lost an arm and a leg.” Slimfast, however, says her long tenure at The Buzz was the exception, not the rule. In radio, it’s common to change markets or stations every few years -- industry veterans often tell new DJs to always rent, never buy. “Something happened here,” he says. “A few of us got lucky enough to stay in the same place.”

In September, Entertcom added Jordin Silver, who had hosted evenings on The End in Seattle when Lazlo was there, for a new morning show, “Jordin Silver and Friends.” Entercom’s market manager said Silver would “provide our listeners with a fresh show” in the announcement. Since her arrival, she’s comfortably settled in during mornings, and listeners seem to have taken to her. Her program, though, with its games and news commentary, resembles a more traditional morning show than “Morning Buzz” did. (Silver has said she and her team plan the show on Trello, and it’s hard to imagine Afentra ever having that much structure.) It’s a slight shift toward convention from a station that has long valued the unconventional.

The fact that Afentra’s departure came a few days after the downsized, single-day Beach Buzz only added to the feeling that The Buzz was in flux. Many fans worried the slimmer lineup was a bad sign. Buzz concerts and events are such an integral part of how The Buzz exercises its influence; if lineups shrink, what does that mean for the station? The answer, according to Smith, the booker who works on these shows, is not much. “You want to do quality over quantity,” he says. “The alternative crowd is very, very supportive on stuff, but I want to make sure it's unique.” It’s also true that the talent pool varies year-to-year: Some of the biggest alternative acts of 2018 -- Arctic Monkeys, the 1975, Florence + the Machine -- are arena-sized acts, hardly fit to play the middle of a festival or headline a theater.

Still, this year’s Buzz Beach Ball visibly struggled to sell tickets. The Buzz wouldn’t provide specific numbers, but even after the station announced discounted four-packs of tickets and dropped lawn prices to $9.65 -- less than a dollar per band -- the crowd only seemed by my estimate to peak at around 10,000, just over half the amphitheater’s capacity. (The last one-day Buzz Beach Ball, in 2015, sold out a slightly larger venue: Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City’s major league soccer stadium.)
 
That doesn’t mean the day was lost, though. At one point during the band’s set, Awolnation frontman Aaron Bruno looked out at crowd with a look of wonder on his face. “We met some of y’all way back in 2011 when we first came out [to Beach Ball],” he told them later, adding that Kansas City was one of the first places to support Awolnation -- as if Buzz listeners didn’t already know. “I see a lot of familiar faces in here.”

Portugal. The Man bassist Zach Carothers continued the praise during the band’s headlining slot: “Thanks to The Buzz, the best goddamn radio station around.” No one in the band said much for the rest of the night -- they didn’t need to.

* * *

It’s hard to forecast The Buzz’s future. September ratings had the station at a 3.2 market share -- the first time it passed 3.0 since the drop in May. It dropped to 2.7 for October, but now sits at 3.3 for November, its highest in half a year. October saw the Buzz curate multiple events, including the Halloween “Basic Witch Party” concert and a beer and wine-tasting festival, but the station only put on one “Night the Buzz Stole Xmas” show for the first time in years. (For comparison, the Chicago alternative station 101WKQX booked five Christmas shows this year for the first time ever.) The station still makes bold programming choices: It played The 1975's new album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, in full on its release day.

“It all comes in waves,” Hartzell tells me. That might sound like he’s just shrugging off a tough season, but he has a point. Sometimes bands like Mumford and Sons and Awolnation thrive, but then you’ll get hit with an alt-electronic wave and your station is suddenly playing Diplo. Sometimes there’s a period of steady calm, when everyone’s contracts get renewed, but then you’ll wake up one day and lose a one-of-a-kind host you consider your friend. Sometimes your station rates above 6.0 and sells out 20,000-person festivals, but you know the next wave is bound to come eventually, and your station could do about half of all that.

Remember the station you listened to on the drive to high school? Google it. Is the morning show lineup the same? Is it still playing the same genre of music? Does it still exist? I’d guess something’s different. Radio stations are ships on the ocean, and change is inevitable. Few stations have lasted longer than two decades in Kansas City, and alternative stations in particular had a reputation for coming and going quickly before The Buzz entered the market. When a new wave comes, most stations respond by adjusting course. But when a station like The Buzz got this far by not following rules like that, why should it start now? They have plenty of reasons to think a good wave could be on the horizon any day.

My biggest assurance about where The Buzz is heading came in the middle of Buzz Beach Ball. It was early evening and Blue October was playing on the main stage. I had taken a break from the pit so I could sit down and eat before the night’s big sets. That’s when I met Kyle, a 20-something with messy hair wearing a tie-dyed Grateful Dead T-shirt. He held a near-empty 24-ounce cup of PBR in one hand and a full one in the other, and it seemed like he’d had a few more beforehand.

Kyle sat down next to me and started talking, asking what bands I wanted to see. He told me he was most excited for Awolnation and lit up when I said I’d never seen them live. I mentioned that Rainbow Kitten Surprise played the main stage next, and he told me he couldn’t wait. He explained to me that the band got pretty big -- not wildly popular, but still big -- this year, and it wasn’t a coincidence that The Buzz started playing their song “Fever Pitch” before that happened. Because that’s what The Buzz is all about, Kyle told me: playing bands and bringing them to Kansas City right before they blow up. “The Buzz fucking does that shit,” he said. 

And nothing’s stopped The Buzz yet.

Billboard Year in Music 2018