Posted // 2012-08-05 -
For anyone who's been following local radio for the past decade, the abrupt removal of Todd Nuke'Em from X96 came as a shock, especially with it being the #1 station in the state. In December of 2011, Nuke'Em found himself without a job from the station he helped build over 20 years ago. Fast forward seven months after a new program director and implemented changes had taken hold at X96, and Nuke'Em found himself once again back on his old afternoon-drive shift, leaving thousands of loyal fans to ask, “...What the hell!?!”
Today, I chat with Todd about, well, everything -- his broadcasting career and time with X96, his writing career, managing a local musician, his departure and return to radio, thoughts on local broadcasting and music, and a few other interesting topics in this extended interview with the mohawked DJ. (All photos courtesy of Todd Nuke'Em.)
Gavin: Hey, Todd. First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Todd: I’m just a dork with a passion for music. Besides my love of music and broadcasting, I like to write books, read, officiate football, go to concerts, and raise ducks.
Gavin: What first drew your interest in broadcasting and what were some early influences on you?
Todd: When I was a teenager, I remember listening to KCGL all day and night. It was the station where I discovered alternative music, and I thought it was cool that a bunch of renegades put a station together just to play the music they loved. It was very much an alternative to mainstream radio at the time, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. My favorite host on that station was Biff Raff.
Gavin: Prior to college, what really sparked your interest in radio and what did you do to get involved?
Todd: My brother and I had a mobile sound system and all the records you could dream of. This was in the '80s, before you could download any song you wanted on your phone. We played high school and church dances everywhere. It was like being a DJ every Friday night in a different gymnasium.
Gavin: How did the big opportunity come about where Bill Allred brought you on as a board operator at KJQ?
Todd: I had secretly been making demo tapes, pretending like I was on the air at KJQ, when one of my friends found an ad in the newspaper -- how quaint. Anyway, it said that KJQ AM was looking for a board operator to work the graveyard shift. I was working at Golden Corral at the time, and I saw it as a huge opportunity to get some experience in radio. Bill interviewed me, and must have been impressed enough to give me the job. It was a whopping $4.50 per hour!
Gavin: Within a year, you had your own shift at the station, and you hadn't even turned 20 yet. How was it for you working at KJQ at that time and working there in the later days of the station?
Todd: It was a dream come true. I was in heaven! I was playing the coolest music on the coolest radio station and I was only 19, working the evening shift. These were some of the best years of my life.
Gavin: You attended Weber State University and received an associate of arts. What made you decide on WSU and what was its program like for you?
Todd: I had started attending WSU when I was still in high school. Oddly, I never took a broadcasting or communications class during my college career. I was learning about radio on the job at KJQ.
Gavin: How was it for you during the KJQ fallout and the tine spent putting X96 together before it launched?
Todd: When KJQ fell apart, it was very difficult to not be a part of it. I ended up getting a job at Q99.5, which was a top-40 format at the time. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for top-40 music, and it was fun to do that format.
Gavin: You were right there at the start of the whole launch and helping it along the way in the early years. What was it like helping build a station from the ground up and becoming the main alternative station in the state?
Todd: I remember the day they called us and told us to come to work and start going through our personal CD collections to amass the music library for X96. We spent about a week sitting in the tiny sales office in Salt Lake, entering song titles and song lengths into our primitive computer database. The studio was in Provo, and we had to wait a week before the lease on that facility took effect. When we finally made the drive to the Provo studio hours before our 12 a.m. debut, it was magical. We had no idea if it would even work. We knew that we would have some support from listeners, but when we signed it on, response was overwhelming. KJQ was staffed by a bunch of different out-of-town jocks and was still trying to be an alternative station at that time. We beat them in the ratings immediately. Eventually, KJQ changed formats and went away. It was a rare chance to build a radio station with a little bit of money and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. The fact that it became so incredibly successful was amazing. Looking back, none of this should have ever worked out, but it did. We were, and are still, fortunate to have loyal listeners that love what we do. Of course, we let the listeners tell us what they want, and we try our very best to deliver.
Gavin: What were your thoughts on the station being sold to Simmons in 1998 and the changes that came along over the next couple of years, from Arrow Press Square to South Temple and then to Trolley?
Todd: When Simmons purchased X96, we were terrified. At the time, they owned FM 100, and we thought they would sterilize us. It turns out that they were very hands off, and let us do what we needed to remain successful. The management team of Simmons Media, ultimately, are savvy broadcasters and were fascinated at what we had created. There is a rumor that the owner of the company bought it and then said, “Now let’s not screw it up!” We moved from our own studio in Arrow Press Square to the seventh floor of a building at 57 West South Temple. It was across the street from the Salt Lake Temple. I think the LDS Church owned the building we were in, and it was funny to play Marilyn Manson on the air, and then walk out of the studio and look out the north windows of our suite and see the angel Moroni playing his golden trumpet. Simmons built a state-of-the-art broadcasting facility in Trolley Corners in 2001, and we’ve been there ever since.
Gavin: What was your reaction to taking over as program director from Mike Summers, and what kind of approach did you take to the job that separated you from his work?
Todd: Mike Summers is a brilliant programmer and knew exactly how to create a solid brand for X96. We had a great time working together, and when he exited the station in early 2003, I was terrified. At the time, Simmons had started a revival of KJQ on 103.1 FM, and they had moved me to that station as program director and afternoon host. I never really sought the job at X96, but they offered it to me and I would have been a fool to pass it up. My main approach was to unify the station. I wanted to make sure that Radio From Hell listeners would get along with the programming during the rest of the day. We started to open different avenues to communicate with listeners to deliver a product that they would want.
Gavin: As the PD, I'm sure you got a lot of grief for changes in the station's music and programming, especially at a point where “emo” was becoming the big thing and a lot of rock was sounding formulated. How did you handle the criticism from fans at the time who disliked where the station was going?
Todd: Running a radio station is like trying to please everyone all of the time and that is impossible. There is always a segment of the audience that might not be into certain changes in the music scene. Think about the people you know right now that want to throw up every time they hear Mumford & Sons. The important fact to remember is that the audience drives the station, and we play what they want. If we utilized the station to drive our own musical tastes, it would be out of business in a year.
Gavin: On the flipside, what did you think of the praise from newer listeners who enjoyed the music you were playing and the way the station was going?
Todd: Again, we play what the listeners want. Different genres come and go, and that is what keeps the alternative format interesting.
Gavin: During that time, how did the idea come about to bring back a local program, and what was it like launching Live & Local with Andy and then Portia?
Todd: We were excited to revive the Live & Local show. Portia did a wonderful job connecting with the local scene, and I have the highest respect for her hard work and dedication. Andypants took over after she left, and he did a wonderful job. It had since gone away, but Corey O’Brien recently started a Live & Local feature on Thursday nights. The first episode was just last week.
Gavin: On the side, you also started writing books and became a self-published author. What made you decide to start venturing into writing, and how was it for you to express yourself in a different medium?
Todd: I’d always been a book nerd through high school and into my adulthood. I self-published Path of Totality in 2001, and then a few years later I released Rated F. It got picked up on a traditional imprint after a re-write and some editorial input. That earned me a trip to New York and a brief national-advertising campaign. My most recent novel was co-written by Zack Shutt and is entitled Blogs of Wrath. I love to write, and I’ve got 15 other novels sitting on my hard drive right now, and I have two more ideas that are rattling around in my head and driving me crazy.
Gavin: A few years ago, you started managing your stepson, Brogan Kelby. What were your first thoughts on his music and what made you decide to manage him yourself rather than set him up with a company?
Todd: First of all, let me clear up something about Brogan. He has no relationship to me whatsoever. He did what any struggling musician has done. He’s been in bands, he’s played shitty shows in awful venues and at various events where the audience is there for other reasons than musical entertainment. I heard his music because he e-mailed me a song a few years ago. As with most local musicians, I never got around to listening to the song. My e-mail is filled with all sorts of stuff, and it is difficult for me to listen to everything that I receive. Oddly, it was Andypants who first listened to Brogan’s music and played it on Live & Local. He played a song called “Paper Wings” early in the show, and then replayed it later due to a bunch of requests to hear it again. I finally opened one of Brogan’s many e-mails and listened to his song. He was only 15 at the time, and I did not believe that he actually wrote the song. Once I vetted him, I began to share it with labels and management companies. These folks were also impressed and have been helpful as his career has been evolving. The goal is to get him attached to a major management company with far bigger opportunities than I can provide.
Gavin: Shortly after that, Kelby's music starting appearing on X96 and he was one of the few local musicians in regular rotation. What made you decide to put him in the mix and what was the reaction from listeners?
Todd: We had seen the response from listeners and saw what happened with his music sales. We also researched the song and saw that it was receiving a very favorable score from panel. It was handled in the same fashion as any song we play.
Gavin: The general feeling in the local music scene at the time was that Kelby didn't pay his dues in the scene, and was undeservedly promoted and highlighted -- specifically, receiving heavy airplay and high-profile concert spots through X96, while most locals were ignored or had to partake in competitions to get mentioned. How do you respond to the criticism that he only got that kind of attention and help because he was related to you?
Todd: This kind of griping and whining from a few assholes in the local music community is the most pathetic behavior that I have ever seen. Whenever any local band or artist gets any slight bit of success, there are always a few little pricks that have to bitch and moan about it. Any time we have embraced any local band, someone always has to find a reason to be unhappy and jealous about it. I’ve seen this kind of shit for years, and it always angers me. I remember back in the '90s when X96 was championing the band Clover. A few little dickheads in other bands had to gripe about it in their own covetous and disdainful manner. I remember when we first started playing The Used. The so-called local scene had to proclaim that they were undeserving of their success, and how dare we play them and not every other local band in Utah. The simple fact is that some bands make it and some don’t. We do everything we can to support local bands; too bad a vocal minority in the local scene creates such a negative and jealous atmosphere. I’ve championed local bands throughout my career, and with every one there has been someone that has had to bitch about it. I’m going to attempt to list the many bands I’ve played on X96 over the years. I’m sure I’ll forget a couple, so forgive me: Clover, The Obvious, Elbo Finn, ECO, Swrvon, The Market, The Used, Off The Veil, What Went Wrong, The Brobecks, Agnes Poetry, King Niko, The Suicycles, and several others that I can’t recall at the moment.
Gavin: Do you feel like any of the criticism is warranted or deserved, or do you feel more like there will always be people to complain just for the sake of complaining?
Todd: People get jealous and people bitch. Haters gonna hate.
Gavin: In 2011, you brought back the Big Ass Show, and returned it to downtown SLC. What caused it to go away, what made you decide to bring it back, and what was the day like for you to see it return?
Todd: We had been anxious to bring the show back downtown, and it took some hard work to get it there. In 2010, we skipped the show because the recession had rippled into the concert business and a Big Ass Show was not feasible. The return of the Big Ass Show to Salt Lake City was a glorious event, and we were very thrilled at the outcome.
Gavin: What led to your dismissal and firing from X96 in late 2011, and did you know they were planning to bring in Sean Demery to replace you?
Todd: My contract expired on December 21, 2011 and they opted to not re-new it and go another direction. The whole situation surprised me, but in broadcasting, these things happen. There is a saying for people in radio that “you’ve either been replaced, or you are about to be replaced.” I waited nearly 20 years to be replaced. I was shocked when it all went down.
Gavin: During your time off, you explored other options and even reconnected with some old X96 friends working at Cumulus. How was your time away, and what drove you to stay in radio?
Todd: I did my best to remain sane and to try to enjoy the break. I did appearances in KENZ with Jimmy Chunga, and my friends from Z-Rock let me do a weekend show when they needed help. Nothing fulltime ever came along. In March, there was an opening at the legendary 91X in San Diego, and they flew me in for interviews and to meet the staff. That would have been a great station to work for, but the cost of living in San Diego was a bit more than what I was prepared for. I also had little desire to leave Utah. This is my home.
Gavin: Did you listen to X96 at the time, or were you just unable to listen to it after what had happened?
Todd: I couldn’t listen to X96 for months. It was simply too painful to hear the station that I helped create. It had been a part of my life for nearly 20 years, and being away from it broke my heart. Every once in a while, I had to satisfy my craving for Radio From Hell, though. It was difficult because I was still friends with everyone on the air and with everyone behind the scenes at X96.
Gavin: Probably one of the biggest shocks of the year was your return in July of this year to X96. What were the circumstances that led to your return, and what made you decide to take the job rather than forget them altogether?
Todd: The lesson for everyone to learn is this: Don’t burn any bridges! My exit from X96 was professionally handled, and I returned the favor by remaining as cool as possible. Oh, I went through a variety of emotions during the first few months, and I’d lie if I said that I didn’t harbor anger. But I had to just pick up and try to move on. When my old boss called me and invited me back, it was like getting my first job in radio. I felt like I was 19 again! It was as shocking as the day I left the building for what I thought was my last time. I can’t thank the X96 listeners enough for their support and my co-workers at X96 for their assistance in bringing me back.
Gavin: Now that you're back at X96, what are you most looking forward to with the job?
Todd: We just want to do what we’ve always done, and that is to keep X96 focused on what the Utah audience wants to hear. I am grateful that listeners and fans stuck with me on Facebook while I was away, and I am forever indebted to them for helping me come back.
Gavin: Moving on to local material, what are your thoughts on local radio in Utah, both positive and negative?
Todd: When I went to San Diego, I listened to all of the stations in town, and I am pleased to say that Utah radio is as good as, if not better than, many larger markets. Salt Lake/Ogden/Provo is ranked market #31 in the country, but our radio stations sound like they should be in the 10 biggest markets.
Gavin: What's your take on the recent changes at KRCL and the changes community radio as a whole is going through to start competing with the bigger stations in the state?
Todd: I honestly haven’t been following the changes at KRCL. It is unfortunate that they have moved away from the many specialty shows that they used to offer.
Gavin: With a vibrant local music scene such as ours, with plenty of music to fit X96's format, why is local music not in regular rotation or receiving its own programming block on X96?
Todd: We have Corey O’Brien featuring local music every Thursday night at 9:30. Like the X96 Live & Local Facebook page
for more details. If this continues to receive positive results, we will expand the feature.
Gavin: Considering where radio has been headed over the past few years, competing with podcasts and losing advertisers, what do you believe the medium needs to do to bring itself back up or change to adapt to today?
Todd: Oddly, radio listenership is remaining extremely healthy. I think a lot of corporate chains are diluting the local product with national playlists being forced upon multiple markets, but the stations that remain locally focused and live ultimately will win.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and X96 over the rest of the year?
Todd: We want to have fun doing what we love. The best part of my day is when I am live on the air from 3 to 7 p.m. I hope that the fun I’m having translates to a good time for the listeners.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Todd: Besides my books, which I am happy to autograph at any time, and the other stuff I mentioned in this interview, I am a car salesman. True story! Just before X96 brought me back, I was hired by my friends at Cutrubus Volkswagen
in Layton. I am working part time there just to make a few extra bucks to dig me out of the debt that accompanies a few months of unemployment. So, if you want to buy a car, drop by and ask for Todd Nuke ‘Em.
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