The following is an excerpt of The Future of Rock and Roll: 97X WOXY and the Fight for True Independence by Robin James, which is available wherever books are sold.
Becoming the Future of Rock and Roll 1981-1989
Between 1988 and 2010, “The Future of Rock and Roll” was 97X’s “liner” or recorded station ID. Broadcast on air and printed on T-shirts and other station promo items, this phrase was the main way the station represented itself to listeners and advertisers. The phrase represents WOXY’s core feature: its philosophy of independence. The idea that you can only be truly independent—creatively and otherwise—if you pursue that independence with and for other people shapes everything about 97X, from the music to the website to the business decisions staff made as the station navigated challenges that foreshadowed some of today’s most significant threats to our independence. Practicing its signature form of independence is what made WOXY The Future of Rock and Roll.
WOXY’s history is proof that this sort of independence really works when you practice it, and by studying this history we can learn more about what this philosophy is and how and why it works as a tool for navigating our own world, where corporations have co-opted punk’s DIY ethos and turned it into a business model where people are left to fend for themselves. “The future of rock and roll” is what makes WOXY more than just a radio station or a curious piece of Cincinnati local history: it’s living proof that true independence really is possible.
The phrase represents WOXY’s core feature: its philosophy of independence. The idea that you can only be truly independent—creatively and otherwise—if you pursue that independence with and for other people shapes everything about 97X . . .
97X’s journey to become “The Future of Rock and Roll” began in 1981 when owners Doug and Linda Balogh bought the struggling small-town station, and culminates in 1989 when, one year after debuting “The Future of Rock and Roll” liner, the first Modern Rock 500 airs on Memorial Day Weekend. A countdown of what station staff decided were the 500 songs in the station’s library that best represented WOXY’s history and identity, the Modern Rock 500 explains what “The Future of Rock and Roll” means in comprehensive musical terms.
97X’s evolution into The Future of Rock and Roll was shaped by two potentially conflicting commitments: WOXY was both a small business deeply invested in being a responsible member of the local community and a station devoted to diverse musics that expressed sounds, politics, and values that were shockingly divergent from the uniquely conservative local culture. 97X was a literal mom-and-pop shop supported by ads from local businesses such as Frank Eavy’s Oxford grocery store, Jungle Jim’s International Market in Fairfield, and Scentiments Rock City on Vine Street. However, despite the wholesome image the station’s business model evoked, local journalists described the music 97X played in terms that suggested it was a salacious, even queer threat to family-values-minded Cincinnatians. For example, in a 1985 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Steve Rosen writes that 97X plays “angry, … pro-pacifism, pro-homosexuality, and pro-vegetarian bands … with names that sound as jarring in these conservative times as Big Brother & the Holding Company, Moby Grape, and Country Joe & the Fish sounded a generation ago.” This was the era of Reagan’s so-called moral majority, and with the founding of Citizens for Community Values (the group pushing for obscenity charges against the Cincinnati art museum that exhibited some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos) the same year 97X adopted its modern rock format, Cincinnati was well on its way to becoming an epicenter of conservative activism in this round of the culture wars. 97X tried to be responsible to the community while at the same time expressing values in explicit opposition to its overall cultural milieu.
WOXY was both a small business deeply invested in being a responsible member of the local community and a station devoted to diverse musics that expressed sounds, politics, and values that were shockingly divergent from the uniquely conservative local culture.
WOXY’s paradoxical desire to fit in and rock the boat at the same time drove it to understand independence as something inherently cooperative and relational. 97X figured out that the best way to bring about something genuinely new and more progressive than the reality sold to us by corporate overlords is to work with and for a community and against the ideology of individualism. By tapping into and supporting a community of listeners who shared its values, 97X was able to establish itself as an independent voice.
Robin James is a writer, editor, and philosopher. She is author of four books including Resilience & Melancholy and The Sonic Episteme.