Erik Thompson wonders why no one has made a movie about the 91X he worked at 30 years ago. Driven by an exploding new wave and punk culture, 91X was one of the first commercial alternative-rock stations to serve a major U.S. city. Thompson was one of the DJs onboard who were inventing the new radio format as they went along.
“I got hired in ’83, right after they switched to alternative,” says Thompson, who used the on-air name Wreckless Erik. “For the whole time I was there, we had to drive back and forth across the border.” 91X used a Tijuana-based broadcast studio until the late ’80s. “To get to the studio you had to drive up this hill to get to this dingy, cinder-block building. We had to create this fantasy for our audience from a shit-hole studio. When it rained you had to park at the bottom of the hill and walk up the hill unless you had a four-wheel drive. There were moths the size of birds. A three-hour wait back across the border wasn’t unusual. Yet it was kind of fun at the same time.”
He knew 91X was onto something. “You heard 91X coming out of vans, cars windows, at the beach...it was everywhere.” 91X beat longtime rock powerhouse KGB in its first Arbitron quarterly rating in the Spring of ’83.
Thompson was a DJ/newsman/production director (responsible for making commercials and station-identification spots). He loved the 91X buzz. But not its pay.
“I was living under the poverty level. Firing me [in 1988] was the best thing they could have done.”
Thanks to his radio experience, Thompson started voicing TV commercials and he narrated the TV series The Universe for the History Channel. He now has four agents in three cities who get him work voicing promotional spots for Showtime, HBO, and Fox. He’s narrated Crimes of the Century for CNN and America’s Most Amazing Videos for NBC.
To record his work he uses his home studio in Leucadia or the one in his cabin on Palomar Mountain. He then sends his audio tracks to L.A. or New York via telephone line. “I rarely have to go to L.A. anymore...and I now earn in one day what I used to make in one month.” Thompson says some A-list voice-over artists have their own managers and publicists. “I drive my own bus.”
Thompson, 54, says his voice-over career became a lot easier once he became established. “One producer refers you to another producer.” He says it’s theoretically easier to get into the voice-over business than it was when he started 20 years ago: “All you really need is a home studio and the Internet. You can be in South Dakota and do this.” He says, however, the voice-over industry is getting competitive. “Now there may be 500 people trying for one gig. It’s become cut-throat.”
Thompson says he was fired from 91X in 1988 because “They wanted me to talk up records like I was a Top 40 DJ. I thought we were supposed to be a peer of the listener, which is what they were doing at [L.A.’s] KROQ. Plus, I always thought we should use the whole pirate-radio aspect, since we were actually coming out of Mexico. They wanted to leave Mexico out of it.”
Then there was the big boss.
“John Lynch never liked me.” Lynch, who was general manager and co-owner of 91X, now runs the UT media conglomerate. “At some of the staff parties, [Lynch] would pull names out of the hat to give away prizes, like trips to Hawaii. It was their way of compensating their staff to make up for the shitty money we were getting paid.”
Regarding the format that gave him his break: “Radio has become a corporate mess,” says Thompson. “Radio as we know it is coming to a close.” He says the lack of DJs with personality and the reliance of outside consultants to determine what music gets played has left rock-radio irrelevant.
“Now that corporations have sucked the personality out of radio, why would someone not just use their iPod [to listen to music]? When you follow the bottom line, you get the bottom.”