Excavating the History of Modern Rock With Tom Calderone

Before beginning his illustrious tenure at VH1, which recently concluded, Tom Calderone was a co-founder—with our own Karen Glauber and a small handful of other Alterna-geeks—of the Modern Rock format at radio. Once, as a consultant for Jacobs Media and an architect of the Edge format, he famously declared, “The Internet is the CB Radio of the ’90s.” He recently joined Karen for a walk (or perhaps a forced march) down Memory Lane.

TC: So congratulations on—I’m going to say 10 years.

KG: We are in fact marking my 25 years in the career cul-de-sac. Where were you 25 years ago?

TC: I was at the tail end of WHFS, and I was going back up 95 to go program WDRE.

KG: You started in college radio.

TC: I actually started in high school radio.

KG: Where was that?

TC: WSHR 91.9fm on Long Island. It was a 3,000 Watt, Class A, full-power FM broadcast station. It was one of two high school stations in the area, and that’s where I got my start playing Talking Heads, The Clash and things like that.

KG: Is that when you decided you wanted to be in radio? Then you went to Buffalo, right?

TC: Yeah. I had no plan B. I knew since I was five that I wanted to be in radio. I got a tape recorder from my parents and that was it.

KG: Who were your radio influences then? Who were you listening to when you were growing up?

TC: Definitely WABC, Dan Ingram, those guys. Then, I made a real sharp left and started listening to a station called WPIX, which was—in a sense—a New Wave station.

KG: With Joe from Chicago and Meg Griffin.

TC: Yep, exactly. So that was the Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Talking Heads, and Clash station. When I segued up to Buffalo, besides WBNY, CFNY in Toronto was my favorite station.

KG: For me, it was always Meg Griffin and everybody at WNEW. Vin Scelsa was another one.

TC: Right. Vin Scelsa and Joe From Chicago. Dammit, he was great. Meg Griffin and Don Berns on CFNY were the two DJs that I definitely looked up to. A lot of the musical influences that I grew up with went from pure Top 40 to Alternative—there was no bridge strategy from WABC to maybe some Classic station to Alternative. I say this with pride: I could not tell you a Led Zeppelin song title other than “Stairway to Heaven.” That was never my world. It never crossed my path.

KG: So were you DJing your high school prom?

TC: Karen, look at me. Do you think I went to my prom?

KG: You know what? That could be the common denominator of our peer group: None of us was asked to prom.

TC: Nope, I did not go to prom. Most of the people at the high school radio station were playing whatever was popular—I don’t even know what it was—and then I did a show with this kid, John Davis, The Captain Punk Show, and we would play The Clash and The Buzzcocks and things like that.

KG: When you got to college and were working at WBNY, when did it occur to you that the programming could be a career more than just being on air?

TC: When I was at the high school station, I really wanted to be the program director, and I didn’t get it for whatever reason. When I went to college, you were allowed to be on-air as a freshman, but then as a sophomore you could be on the management team. I went right for program director, and we changed the format to Alternative—I guess it’s the best way to put it—off of a Top 40 station. It wasn’t well received by a lot of people, but it was the right decision. We had a really good group of people, just incredibly creative and incredibly personality-based. We took risks and God, R.E.M.—Karen, how many times did they play Buffalo? It’s got to be probably eight or nine times a year.

KG: I’d just started at A&M when they played with The Dream Syndicate in Buffalo.

TC: That’s right. Then, the year after—I think you were with me—Michael Stipe said, “Is there a local band that could maybe open for us next time?” and I said, “Yeah, there’s this band 10,000 Maniacs and this girl, Natalie Merchant; they’re really cool. They’re from Jamestown. You should have them open next time.” That was it. They played the Skyroom in Lackawanna, and they became best friends after that.

KG: Absolutely. So after college, when did you get your first programming job? Did you go to WRCN after? Where were you after college?

TC: After college, I stayed up there for a bunch of years. I worked at WGR when it was more like a full service station, so I worked in the programming department there. I was doing music logs, scheduling shifts, really learning the job. I knew to be a good program director I had to learn other parts of the business. So I went to WRCN in Long Island to be the marketing director.

“I had no plan B. This is it. This is all I had to do.”

KG: Were you that methodical about it?

TC: Sadly, I was. Karen, I had no plan B. This is it. This is all I had to do. I did not trust myself or have the confidence enough to know that I would be a good program director until I knew what everybody else’s jobs were. I did that for a couple of years, and they knew my goal was to be a program director someday; when the PD left, I got the job. That’s how I met our dear friend, John Loscalzo.

KG: Were you doing mornings then?

TC: Not yet. They put John and me on mornings about a year into John’s arrival there. We kind of knew of each other from CMJ reporting and stuff. My favorite story: God rest his soul, Rick Sklar—the consultant, the guy who created WABC, the station that I admired forever—was hired to consult WRCN for a week. For some reason, the owner of the station brought him in. I was like, “Oh my god, John, Rick Sklar is coming, and maybe he’ll love us and you and I could do this morning show forever.” Rick Sklar did a 10-page report about how awful John and I were, how we didn’t deserve to be in radio, let alone the entertainment business, and just freaking ripped us apart. We just kind of took it as a badge of honor, actually. It was truly the funniest and worst show ever in the history of radio, but we had a blast.

KG: John Loscalzo passed very recently and sadly; he was a genius. He was Peter Sellers. There was nobody like Loscalzo. Do you have a story you want to share?

TC: I remember one day we did a thing where—this is so dark—there was a character on the show that John and I did with John Moschitta called “Ed from Mastic.” Mastic is a town in Long Island that not a lot of people know about. Anyway, we decided we were going to kill Ed from Mastic on the air in a car accident while he was on a cellphone.

KG: How long did this go on? How long did ‘RCN allow you to do this?

TC: We did mornings for a little over a year.

KG: So of course they gave you a station to program.

TC: Of course they did!

KG: Who were your mentors during this time? Did you go to HFS after that?

TC: You know, it’s funny; I’ve rarely talked about the show other than in this conversation and at John’s memorial service. When I became PD, we flipped over to New Rock or whatever the reporting title was at that point. Then, Dennis Constantine called me and said, “There’s an opening at WHFS. Would you be interested?” I was like, “Yes. Why not?” I interviewed with Alan Hay, who was the station GM and also, to be honest, Max Tolkoff championed me for the job. I didn’t stay there as long as I wanted to because I had the opportunity to go back to New York. RCN was one of my favorite memories because of the people I met there and the risks we took. HFS was great because it really truly gave me the programming chops and an opportunity to do some really great format change.

KG: There was a lot of history in that station that you had to get through.

TC: A lot both on and off air.

KG: A lot of Livingston Taylor library cuts.

TC: Yeah, a lot of Bonnie Raitt three-hour interviews. But it was a great station with a good team. We started this talk show called Speak Your Mind with Howie Greene. That was on Sunday mornings, and that was great for DC. That got a huge rating for us. Then I went to DRE and I was lucky enough to get called by a friend named Paul Jacobs and worked for them for a while, then started at VH1 in 1998.

KG: You essentially put Modern Rock radio on the map. You proved that it was a viable format. It went from six stations to—how many stations did you have at its peak?

TC: 39.

KG: Wow. The influence you had is immeasurable. Because you were the first person who understood that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and when you were enthusiastic about a project, all of your stations would add it at once. Now the things that iHeart does with On The Verge or any of these sort of cumulative adds or group supports for artists—you were the first one to do it.

TC: Thank you.

KG: And it had never been done before in Modern Rock, where there was a collection of stations that could really break artists.

TC: I so appreciate you saying that. It was great to be a part of these stories and to see these young program directors around the country, and some veterans as well, champion things and really feel part of these stories as well. Back then, all you needed was one successful moment and the feeling that you broke a band. For me, the music was so good at that moment, it was fun.

“I say this with pride: I could not tell you a Led Zeppelin song title other than 'Stairway to Heaven.' That was never my world. It never crossed my path.”

KG: Since you launched all of these stations working for Jacobs Media, how did you convince station owners that this format was viable? Was it because grunge was happening and Generation X had now been identified as a consumer group?

TC: Yes, and also, as hard as it was to see the industry change, the sense of duopoly and the sense of multi-station ownership in markets actually helped the cause too. A standalone Alternative station couldn’t really make it in a major market, but if you were part of a cluster with a Classic Rock station and a Top 40 station, they usually had this other FM signal, and there was a void—a nice sliver of slot that we could fit it in as a great Alternative station. Maybe one would lean more Rock, one would lean more Pop female, but either way, you had that support at all these Modern Rock stations. Sometimes, quite frankly, the Modern Rock stations would do better than the Heritage Rock stations.

KG: Who were some of the great talents that you discovered during that time? Amy Doyle definitely comes to mind

TC: Oh yeah, definitely Amy Doyle. John O’Connell, John Moschitta, Lenny Diana.

KG: Is what you were looking for then, in terms of talent, similar to what you look for now? What is it about a person that sparks your interest and makes you want to work with them?

TC: It’s not about the résumé. It’s about the vibe and the fit. I could teach the job, how to navigate a company or whatever, but if they have that X factor of knowing show business and they’re a fan of the medium, that to me is 90% of it. Once you have that, the rest falls into place.

KG: I’d like to interrupt for a second and say that I’m still mad at Rick Krim for rejecting my show pitch of Indie Rock of Love.

TC: I’m sorry about that. It would be Conor Oberst trying to find love and then Morrissey comes in with gladiolas, and Sleater Kinney could be the house band.

KG: After working in TV for years, what is your perception of the current state of radio?

TC: It seems like there’s more choices. I probably listen to more radio stations now than I did when I was in radio—with the TuneIn radio app and other things, I’m able to listen to radio stations from all markets, which I love. I still believe that when radio is as local as it can be, there’s nothing better than that. I think that that’s the edge they have over more passive radio services, so to speak. The TuneIn app has been a lifesaver for me; the station that I listen to the most is BBC Radio 6 Music.

TC: Oh, I haven’t thought about it. You’re right.

KG: You and I came up together. We’re of the same age group and have the same interests; yet I’m here. Where did I go wrong? I know that people I work with have taken an active interest in your career along the way and that you’ve always been a favorite of the HITS family. You’ve been family for many, many decades. Yet you’ve done nothing for me.

TC: Let me explain something to you. You can write. Have you seen my emails? I can’t write. You’re a great writer. You’re funny. When your column came out, I cannot tell you how many people called and said, “Oh my God! Did you read this? What a line!” I mean, people would dissect your column.

KG: That was when people read my column [laughs].

TC: But it’s different now, Karen. Anything that you can consume now is just done in different ways. People may read your stuff on the site, but you have to remember that not only your stance but your point of view was directional for a lot of radio stations, managers, and labels at that time. There were a lot of us stirring that stew to make this thing work, and you had access that, quite frankly, no one else had. You were able to tell stories and give us a sneak peek back when there were no leaks. You were able to write that you were in the studio with so-and-so listening to the new record; that was important and incredibly addictive to how we all created. You were a tastemaker, plain and simple. You did nothing wrong. If you worked for FMQB or Arby’s, then I would say you probably messed up.

KG: I’m just saying, “Save me.”

TC: Okay. Here’s what we’ll do: We’ll fire up Indie Rock of Love, release an EP for it, still keep your day job, and we’ll come in and we’ll figure it out. Maybe we could bring back emo—not just emo music, but Emo Philips. We’ll figure it out.

KG: I really appreciate it. So what do you do for fun?

TC: I still go to shows. It’s still an important part of what I do. It’s still something that makes me feel alive. I just got back from the Glastonbury Festival.

KG: Any parting thoughts?

TC: I can’t believe it’s been 25 years. It’s so nice that we still reconnect. I appreciate your support, particularly around the radio years, because I think we were doing some fun stuff. I have been lucky and blessed that in every job I’ve had such amazing teams—people that pushed me, didn’t think like me, and more importantly, inspired me to come to work every day. Oh, and made me laugh. That spirit of risk, innovation and fun that I nurtured and took from college radio has never left my soul. And I hired and worked with people with that same DNA. That has been an important element throughout my career, and I don’t take that for granted. The people I’ve met along the way have been incredibly important to my life and hopefully I’m able to take some of that energy and give it to the new people I work with.

KG: Without fisticuffs!