99X 25th anniversary: where are they now?

Photo I took of Jimmy Baron in 2016 with a bobblehead I owned of him from the Morning X heyday. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

This was posted by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog on Tuesday, October 24, 2017

99X, during its heyday from 1992 to 2008, generated a slew of great on-air personalities, from the weirdness of Sean Demery to the cerebral rock encyclopedia of Steve Craig to the sharp wit of Fred Toucher.

Amazingly, most of the on-air folks are still in radio, a testament to the quality of talent they generated.

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the station’s launch on Thursday, October 26, here’s a summary of what key players are up to. (The Morning X will reunite on 99X at 98.9 on Thursday morning to reminisce from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. A free concert at Live at the Battery Atlanta with Drivin’ n Cryin‘ and Shawn Mullins is scheduled for that evening.)

Steve Craig of X107.1 and 97.1/The River, has warm memories of The Ramones. CREDIT: The River

Steve Craig (1992-2006): The former mid-day host at 99X spent much of his time on the station as the mid-day host. After stints in New York City on a rock station there and the now defunct Dave FM, he is now hosting mornings on classic hits station 97.1/The River and is also music director.

Sean Demery (1992-1999, 2006-07): As 99X’s music director during the 1990s, he helped formulate and create the original 99X and build up its success. He later worked in San Francisco and came back to 99X for a brief, ill-fated morning stint. Since then, he became a morning host in Seattle and recently began working at a rock station in Portland, Ore., KINK-FM, as program director and afternoon host. In 2008, he wrote an extensive blog about his experience. As for his first stint: “It afforded me freedom, inspiration, numerous industry awards and never being in want of new job opportunities.” The second time around? “It wasn’t worth doing something mediocre and not being with my family.”

Rick Stacy (1992-93): Music director at the launch of 99X, he was fired not long afterwards. He has worked at major stations in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Sirius/XM. He is now morning host at Sunny 105.9 in Orlando.

He regards his experience with a mixture of pride and regret. He and Demery were originally going to just tweak the top 40 format Power 99 had. But instead, they dumped most of the playlist and went with their gut playing the hot alternative rock music of the day, especially the Seattle grunge. “99X would never have happened if I had told the bosses” ahead of time, Stacy said. “I lied to them. I was a martyr for the music.”

Stacy acknowledged that Georgia State college station WRAS-FM influenced them at the time though in his mind they had “two listeners listening 24 hours a day.”

Jimmy Baron (1993-2006): After 13 years at 99X as a morning host, he joined mornings at the now defunct Dave FM from 2009 to 2011 but decided to stop doing radio after that. He has found a new career as a top-selling realtor at Keller Williams and many of his clients have been radio folks like Steve Barnes and Larry Wachs.

He said he originally resisted leaving Chicago for this new alternative rock station. He was a classic rock guy. “I didn’t know anything about alternative rock,” he said. But Demery and Phillips convinced him to give it a try as a producer. In the end, it clicked with him, Leslie Fram and Steve Barnes.

“We were the right show on the right station at the right time,” Baron said. “If the Internet were as prevalent as it is now, we would not have lasted simply because of all the things DJs get fired for now.”

NASHVILLE, TN – JUNE 07: Senior Vice President of Music Strategy for CMT Leslie Fram and Dierks Bentley attend the 2017 CMT Music awards at the Music City Center on June 7, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)

Leslie Fram (1992-2008): The former Morning X host, 99X program director and operations manager ran a rock station in New York City before joining CMT in 2011 as senior vice president of music strategy. She was recently in Atlanta over the summer to host a talk with Sheryl Crow.

“I will always be thankful for our longevity” as the Morning X, Fram said. “Most morning shows don’t have that opportunity.”

Steve Barnes’ Linkedin photo

Steve Barnes (1992-2003): The Morning X host left to pursue acting. He became morning host with Holly Firfer on Dave FM from 2004 through 2006 and created a web TV series “High Rise.” He now runs Barnes Creative Studios which uses drones to develop videos for high-end resorts and real estate properties.

Christopher “Crash” Clark now wears a suit every day on 11Alive to do traffic. CREDIT: 11Alive

Christopher “Crash” Clark (1992-2005): The former party-loving traffic guy on 99X has grown up – somewhat. After working with Fred Toucher and Rich Shertenlieb in Boston, he returned to Atlanta to work at Dave FM and V-103, briefly working with Ryan Cameron in mornings. In 2014, he landed a new job on TV covering traffic for 11Alive’s morning show and now wears a suit to work though he’ll occasionally don a crazy outfit when the mood strikes him.

In the 1990s, “I was the wild child,” he said. “I don’t think I made anything musically, that’s for sure. I just added a big personality to a big station.” At first, he was Teflon Crash, getting fired and suspended, yet somehow getting his job back. “It eventually wore thin,” he said. “I think Leslie had 1,000 talks with me.”

When he gave away 311 concert tickets at a remote to a couple who were willing to do a sexual act in a bathroom, that was his end at 99X in 2005. “I thought it was funny at the time. The client thought it was funny. Leslie Fram didn’t think it was funny.”

Axel Lowe was a consistent presence on Atlanta radio going back two decades. CREDIT: Twitter profile photo page

Axel Lowe (1993-2008): He was an afternoon host for 99X for much of its run and remained at Cumulus even after it changed to Rock 100.5. In 2016, he moved to Cincinnati to be program director of a rock station called 96 Rock and does an air shift, too.

Fred Toucher worked at 99X from 1999 to 2006 but has found his calling in Boston doing sports talk. CREDIT: 98.5 the Sports Hub

Fred Toucher (1999-2006) – He started as a jock at night, found his quirky voice, then helmed the 99X morning show for two and a half years. Unfortunately, the new 99X owners didn’t want him so he moved to Boston. There, he co-hosted a talk show on a rock station, then moved to 98.5 The Sports Hub where he has thrived with Rich Shertenlieb.

He recalls how loosey-goosey things were at night. One time, he had Sharon and Ozzy Osborne on. “They were swearing, swearing, swearing,” Toucher recalled. “There was no dump button. Two operatives from national were there. We had a glass door. One of them walks up and just shakes his head no. But in the end, there were no repercussions. Nobody complained!”

Once he was on mornings, he drew an avid following. One fan, Jim Voris, even started a website about 99X with a focus on Toucher. “It was comprehensive,” Toucher mused. “I probably made fun of it. I thought it was weird and flattering at the same time.”

Voris, in an interview, said Toucher’s political leanings went super conservative after the 2004 election and he wanted to chronicle it. “My favorite performer had gone Republican,” he said. “Then he went back to being Toucher. And when ownership was about to change, they began talking about and I began following all the people leaving. My most popular entry was when Barnes sued Toucher and the 99X team over that making fun of his movie.”

What drew Voris to Toucher in the first place was Toucher’s absurdist musings when he was doing nights.

“He was capable of doing more than your standard shock jock humor,” Voris said. “He used to do this thespian Toucher where he would read a song or movie part in the voice of a Shakespearian actor. It was just hilarious. He would read lyrics in the voice of the guy from the B-52s.”

Rich Shertenlieb (1999-2003) – He was the Morning X’s merry prankster, whether it was giving away fake “Star Wars” spoilers in front of a hostile movie theater crowd or mocking Martha Burk at the Masters. He later worked with Dallas’ Kidd Kraddock, then joined Toucher in 2006 in Boston, where he has become a star.

His coolest memory at 99X was writing a song with Courtney Love:

“She happened to be in town and listening to the radio station, and called into the morning show. After we invited her up to the station, Todd Phillips who worked for the show picked her up at her hotel room, and when she answered the door she was completely naked. He then brought her to the station, she said on the air she was in the middle of writing a new song, and asked if anyone knew how to play guitar. When I told her that I did, we spent the next six hours sitting in a conference room writing a song that would eventually appear on her next album called “Hold Onto Me”. Around 5 p.m., we performed it live on the air the first time. And if things couldn’t get more surreal, in the middle of it all, a fire alarm went off…so there was Courtney Love sitting on the front lawn of the 99X building telling stories about Kurt Cobain and the tracks on her arm right next to random employees from the accounting firms and real estate companies in the same building as our radio station.”

Jill Melancon (1992-2008) – An often unheralded jock at 99X, she was there the entire run both full and part time. She later worked at Dave FM and All News 106.7 but recently landed at news/talk WSB and The River as a traffic reporter and DJ, respectively.

Jill was the night jock at 99X at Centennial Olympic Park in 1996 during the Olympics when Eric Rudolph set off that bomb that killed one person and injured dozens others. “I was on air when it went off,” she said. “I have a tape of it. Boom! I thought it was thunder at first. I went outside of the tent. It wasn’t raining. It felt different. You felt the ground shake. I called Brian [Phillips, the boss.] He made fun of me later. I was super calm. I woke him up. I just kept going. I had a little black and white TV and put a mike to it as the breaking news was happening. An hour passed and the police came by. They didn’t even know we were still there. They made us leave. By then, Brian had Jimmy, Barnes and Leslie go to the station live. I ended up trapped there. They had me call in live. Later, the police found a piece of the bomb right outside our tent.”

Facebook profile photo of Yvonne Monet.

Yvonne Monet (1992-1999) – She hosted the weekend dance show ‘The Pleasuredome” and other specialty programs for the station. She spent several years at Dave FM and has been an event DJ for that entire time.

“It’s funny to hear people talk about EDM,” Monet said. “Yah. That was kind of what we were doing 25 years ago. Every generation has its own name for it. The ratings were through the roof for my show in that time slot. It was a great experience.”

Melissa Carter (1995-2001) – She was a newsreader and helped out Leslie Fram for years at 99X but when Q100 started, management gave her a chance to shine as part of the new Bert Show. For more than a decade, she thrived there. Later, she hosted mornings at B98.5 but recently departed and has started a national podcast on Progressive Voices called “She Persisted.”

She deeply admired Fram, a rare female voice of authority in a very male-dominated rock radio world. “I am still in awe of her,” Carter said. “She was as calming presence. She was inspiring. Seeing her as program director of a big rock station was like a dream come true. It proved to me as a woman that I could do anything. She was always supportive of me, very upbeat, very intelligent. I never saw her lose her temper the five years I worked directly with her. Never once. Never saw a diva moment, an ego moment. She enjoyed seeing others succeed.”

Jeff Clark (1993-1996)The still long-time publisher of rock magazine Stomp and Stammer hosted a Sunday night underground indie music show called “Fear the Music.” “It was probably the best job I ever had,” he said. “I had a lot of fun there.”

Twitter profile photo

Will Pendarvis (1992-1995) – Will was the wild and woolly night guy on 99X in its burgeoning years. He worked at the legendary K-Rock in New York before landing at what is now Sirius/XM, where he remains as a top-flight rock music programmer.

When he interviewed for Power 99 in 1992, he told then music director Rick Stacy that he thought the grunge scene was the future. “I told him that if it was up to me, I’d play that,” he said. “I never thought I’d get the job. But then he called me. I remember him telling me he would let me play Pearl Jam and Nirvana. So from 7 to midnight, I did something called ‘On the Edge.’ I would bring in a big box of CDs and play stuff.” He’d play the Legendary Pink Dots, Henry Rollins spoken word, Pink Floyd. The feedback was so good, it became a template for what would become 99X.

Gary “Wally” Wallace (2003-2006) – Toucher’s morning show producer switched gears and left the secular rock world to become host of a nationally syndicated contemporary Christian music radio program, Total Axxess, which ran from 2004 to 2011. Now he hosts the syndicated Wally Show on more than 100 affiliates nationwide.

He recalled the crazy stuff the Toucher show did to torture Christopher Calandro, a producer:  “He had a wish list and we’d fulfill it in messed up ways. He wanted a year’s worth of beer. So we filled up a bathtub full of beer and he had to drink from that. He wanted maid service. So we hired some homeless people who cleaned his house and stole from him. He was so indignant about stuff which is what made it funny.”

CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Matt “Organic” Jones (1993-2008) – He spent many years doing overnights and a popular Sunday morning show called “Organic X” which focused on the lighter, more acoustic side of rock. He stayed around after 99X ended, working for various Cumulus stations in marketing and promotions but recently left the company and is now working at Atlanta-based Career Sports and Entertainment in experiential marketing.

Jeremy “Fat Kid” Powell (2003-06): He was a morning show producer for Toucher’s show and often was the butt of many pranks and stunts. Since then, he has worked in Chattanooga and Minnesota before producing morning shows at B98.5 and Kicks 101.5. He recently lost his gig with Cadillac Jack at Kicks and is seeking fresh employment.

Jay Harren (1997-2006): Music director and host of “Sunday School,” he put together many of 99X’s biggest events, from Big Day Out to Downtown Rocks. He is now head of A&R and artist development at Descendent Records, a boutique label for Sony.

Brian Phillips (1992-1999) – He was the 99X program director during the station’s rise from feisty underdog to powerhouse until 1999. In 2001, he joined CMT as a programming manager and eventually became president. He just left that post over the summer.

He said most of the people who created 99X – Steve Craig, Sean Demery, Leslie Fram – came from that Power 99 top 40 lineage.

“They were just great radio people, funny, fast, glib music heads with some top 40 training,” Phillips said. “There’s this weird commonality of top 40 that made 99X better than others. It’s the most demanding of formats. Sure, we were playing Nirvana. Rather, it’s a discipline It makes you better at what you say and how you say it. The talent were like Navy SEALs. They can go into any assignment and make it work.”

Mark Renier (1992-2006): He took over as general manager in 1993 and helped build 99X’s revenues to its peak in 2003. Since his departure, he has worked at various outdoor advertising companies. He is currently sales manager at Link Media Outdoor.

Before the ratings reflected 99X’s success, he said he knew the station was special based on how listeners reacted to promotions and advertising. “It could be a retail store or Best Buy or Smith’s Old Bar. We’d bring an artist over and have no time to promote and listeners would show up. Back in the day, there was the Turtles chain. We’d start playing something and they would see the sales spike.”

Chris Williams (1999-2004): He was assistant program director, music director, then program director at 99X during its transition to a harder sound. After leaving 99X, he started Project 96.1, an active rock station that was basically what he wanted 99X to be and ultimately took away a huge swath of 99X’s younger listeners. Although IHeartMedia killed Project in 2012 in favor of a top 40 station, Williams was given more responsibility at the company because they knew he was smart. He’s now chief product officer for the IHeartRadio app.

Williams and Fram ultimately fought over how 99X would evolve as the music changed and its original audience aged. Keep the old audience and grow with them or keep the station young and let the 30-somethings naturally age out to other radio stations.

“I believed we were best served if we stayed fixed and allowed people to age into and out of it,” he said. “It meant we’d always attract younger listeners. Aspirationally, older folks would check back and find out what’s contemporary. If we age too far, we’d lose some credibility. That was my viewpoint.”

At the same time, Williams saw how well the Bert Show was doing with authenticity and the Regular Guys with outrage. The 99X morning show as flagging. He wanted to bring in Toucher and Wally and overhaul the morning show with new blood. But Fram insisted they keep her and Baron there. This created an awkward marriage.

And Williams was soon sent out the door.

“I lost politically,” he said. “The strategy that won was straddling the fence. We don’t have to pick one or the other. We can maintain both and have the best of both worlds. I didn’t agree – maybe a little too vigorously.”

In the end, he was right. 99X lost the cool factor with the younger fans while alienating its older ones. It got the worst of all worlds. And when Cumulus took over, the station had reached a point of no return and by 2008, the company decided to dump 99X and most of what was left of its original staff in favor of Rock 100.5 and ultimately, the Regular Guys.


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