Josh Venable's office is decorated in music-industry contemporary. A Coldplay picture here. A vintage I.R.S. Records poster there.
But when the program director and DJ at KDGE/102.1 FM reaches across his desk on a recent afternoon, it's not to show off a CD by some hot, new young band.
"Prison mail," he says matter-of-factly, pulling out a couple of letters.
"This is what I get every single week." He unfolds one and reads it aloud. "'Can you please pull out of the vault Portishead, Lykke Li or Mazzy Star?'"
And one more. "'I've been listening for the last 18 months of my incarceration, and I'll keep listening to it after I get out of this insane asylum,'" says another, who goes on to request Portland hipsters the Decemberists.
Venable puts the letter down and laughs. He has a message for his fans among the incarcerated. "Stop telling people you listen to Mazzy Star!" he says. "You're going to get f---ing shanked. You're going to get killed in there."
If it's difficult to reconcile hard time with Mazzy Star's soft, gauzy pop, it's emblematic of the sonic tightrope that KDGE -- better known as The Edge, North Texas' leading "modern rock" radio station, to use industry terminology -- is walking these days. After nearly a decade of frustrating the fans of its original, more expansive alt-rock style by moving in an increasingly post-grunge, headbanging direction -- heavy on Staind and Seether -- the station is returning to its more eclectic roots and reclaiming its musical edge.
Now, you're just as likely to hear the pumped-up kicks of Foster the People as you are the fury of Foo Fighters, the Peter Gabriel/Sting-like croon of Gotye as the angst of Green Day. Throw in some M83 and Jack White, and you've got a station -- which had gone from unconventional to unlistenable -- that has the potential to surprise again.
Even its popular annual Edgefest concerts, which had devolved into dreariness, now include a wider variety. This year's lineup included the Arctic Monkeys' raucous indie-rock, Cake's trumpet-inflected smart pop and the Ting Tings' dance-pop, as well as the harder sounds of Evanescence.
And Venable, 37, who celebrates his 20th anniversary at the station next year, is the man most responsible for the changing course.
Best known as the host of the weekly and more experimental Adventure Club (the Sunday-night specialty show that has sparked much of the jailhouse ardor), Venable was named the station's program director last July, and in less than a year he has helped The Edge maintain its audience amid aggressive competition from other FM stations, streaming, satellite and Internet radio, all while still keeping a wide swath of listeners, his corporate bosses at Clear Channel and more than a few inmates happy.
"He's completely changed the way the station sounds for the better," says Mark Schectman, host of the Sunday night's local-music show, Local Edge. "And that sound is more of a complement to what I'm playing on my show and what he plays on The Adventure Club. It's less of a hard sound than we had."
"I wish I could take all the credit in the world for killing Saliva's career," Venable says, referring to the Memphis band whose middling metal became symbolic of The Edge's old sound. "But it's not just me. It's a very good time to be a fan of good music right now. If you look at the alternative-radio charts, eight out of the 10 songs were first played on The Adventure Club. That's never happened before, ever.
"There were the dark years where these god-awful bands were headlining every Edgefest and everything sounded so hard, mad and angry.... I have nothing against angry music ... but there were some bad, bad records being made in the late '90s and early 2000s. But that was the climate of alternative music at the time."
Back to the future
When The Edge went on the air over July 4 weekend in 1989 -- back then at 94.5 FM -- with an alternative-rock format, it was something of a lifesaver for local fans of the genre. It was the go-to place for bands you couldn't hear anywhere else on the commercial dial.
"The Zoo [KZEW] was playing some of that stuff in '86 -- an R.E.M. track or a 10,000 Maniacs -- but it was mostly AOR [album-oriented rock, focused on commercial appeal] stuff," recalls George Gimarc, the man who pioneered alt-rock radio in North Texas in the late '70s with his legendary Rock & Roll Alternative radio show, originally heard on UNT's KNTU and later KZEW and KNON/89.3 FM.
Gimarc and DJ Wendy Naylor were hired to help shape the early Edge sound. "Nobody in town was playing that sort of music," he says.
The audience responded. "The station was racking up great numbers back in the day," says Gimarc. "We were being competitive with all the rock stations."
It's this tastemaking heritage that Venable has tapped into with The Adventure Club and is trying to duplicate with the shifts he has been making to The Edge's current format by leavening the heaviness and providing more of a musical mix.
Granted, Venable's not alone in this; he's part of a national programming trend.
"The '90s have gotten far enough away that Pearl Jam and Nirvana are no longer the core artists of the format. So the acts that are still channeling them 20 years later aren't as potent," says Sean Ross, executive editor of music and programming for radio-info.com and author of the Ross on Radio newsletter, via e-mail.
Now it's bands like "Mumford & Sons that have both indie cred and dude-appeal at the same time," he continues.
"Mumford, Muse, Coldplay, Florence and the Machine -- these are really popular right now, and it just so happens that this is the music I like," Venable says.
"But who's to say it's not going back? I told someone the other day that I feel as though all the people in Mastodon and Lamb of God are sitting in some mountaintop retreat" -- and here Venable begins strumming his fingers together like Dr. Evil in Austin Powers -- "saying: 'Our time is coming. Be patient, my pet. We will take the world back from Mumford & Sons soon enough.'"
Venable's path to becoming a hero to the alt-rock crowd began in 1990 when the 15-year-old moved to Grapevine with his mom from his native Lake Charles, La. He can clearly remember the day the lightning of realization struck.
"We were leaving my aunt's house in Bedford. We were pulling out of her driveway. I looked in the Star-Telegram, and they had a radio guide in there. They had one for KDGE and 'modern rock' is what it said," recalls Venable. He got his mom to change the station, and "the three songs that I heard, the Cult's Fire Woman, INXS' Never Tear Us Apart and the acoustic version of Pop Song 89 by R.E.M., these three songs in a row, which I still remember today, changed my life."
Not long after, he was listening to Gimarc interviewing Depeche Mode's Martin Gore and Dave Gahan on the eve of two sold-out shows at Dallas' Starplex (now the Gexa Energy Pavilion). "I thought, 'This is what I have to do,'" Venable says. "'I have to meet this guy.' I thought, 'He gets tons of women, gets paid exorbitant amounts of money, gets free tickets, meets rock stars and has all the best records in the world.' Granted, only a few of those are true, but he does have the most amazing record collection."
So Venable cold-called Gimarc and, after a while, ended up talking his way into an internship.
"He was this Morrissey fan who wanted to make sure we played as much Morrissey as possible," says Gimarc, who now runs 24/7 Comedy, an all-comedy radio network. "He reminded me of a younger version of myself. He was way into his music and very knowledgeable about it and super-enthusiastic about it, which are great qualities."
"The only job I'd had until that point was shagging carts at Albertsons in Grapevine in 110-degree weather, and I knew I didn't want to do that," Venable remembers. "Music was so important to me at that point in my life because that's all I had. I was never into sports. I didn't care about school. Once I heard really good records in 1989 or 1990, nothing else mattered at all."
He compares his early days at The Edge as being like the movie Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's 2000 film about a teenage rock writer. "I was 17, going to pick up rock stars," he says of when he began interning in 1993. "I had to hide things that happened [from my mom] or not immediately tell her that Evan Dando from the Lemonheads had passed out in front of me and Nic Dalton from the Lemonheads kicked him in the stomach in front of me and called him a junkie. I just saw a rock star pass out in front of me in the alley behind The Bomb Factory in Deep Ellum, he's probably jacked up on heroin, and the other guy just kicked him in the stomach and threw him in the van. I was like, 'Uh, I have school tomorrow.'"
Venable moved up from gopher/lackey to being a co-host of The Adventure Club in 1994, when original host Alex Luke moved to St. Louis. Then-co-host Keven McAllister left in '97, and it has been Venable's show ever since, one of the few places in local commercial broadcast radio to hear more nonmainstream rock.
Venable was later bumped up to music director, but it all came crashing down in 2007, when he was laid off as part of a wave of corporate cutbacks. He immediately got an offer to be an afternoon drive-time DJ from a Clear Channel station in Los Angeles, KYSR/98.7 FM. "They were in the process of flipping from a John Mayer station to one that was going to take on [pioneering alt-rock station] KROQ," says Venable. He couldn't resist the opportunity.
But The Edge proved to be like The Godfather: Even if you think you're out, it pulls you back in. While living in L.A., he was offered the chance to do a nighttime shift at The Edge. A few months later, he revived The Adventure Club and it was almost like he'd never left Dallas.
Still, after three years out in the land of beaches and bling, he wanted to come back to Texas. So when the program director position came open, Venable pushed for it.
"My time in L.A. was well-spent, and I definitely learned a lot out there that I apply here," he says. "[But] this is my home. Not only Dallas, but this station.
"It's funny," he says, turning to his office's picture window in the Clear Channel offices in North Dallas and pointing west. "You look straight out there, and you can see the airport in between those two big buildings. That's where I grew up. One of my first apartments is right over there near that water tower. This is where I belong. I don't belong in L.A. It's a nice place. I got to meet U2 and see Morrissey three times. But being in this little room is where I always wanted to be."
Local musicians are glad to have him back.
"I worshipped Josh along with all my other middle/high school music-nerd friends," says Chance Morgan of the popular Fort Worth band Burning Hotels. "I know Josh loves good music, and to have someone with a core knowledge of vast amounts of music -- he is doing the best he can to get good music into the ears of listeners."
Having said that, Venable is no fire-breathing musical revolutionary; he hasn't jettisoned all of the heavier, brand-name rock in favor of newer names like Of Monsters and Men and Imagine Dragons. The Edge has maintained a solid 3.1 share in the Arbitron ratings over the past three months, making it the second-place rock station in the market (Clear Channel's classic rock KZPS/92.5 FM is first) and 13th overall among the 50-plus stations in the market. A year ago, it had a 3.2 share, so the audience has remained steady. Venable doesn't want to upend that apple cart.
"This station is meant to reach as many people as possible. Ratings are what drive me," he concedes. " The Adventure Club, Local Edge and [Sunday show] Old School Edge are there to play the stuff that we can't play on [regular rotation]. I want to play what the masses are going to like. Right now, it just so happens that they like Gotye, Foster the People and Muse."
And, yes, he still includes a lot of the '90s/'00s rock that's not always his personal favorite. "We play enough of each genre that they're still represented," he says. "We play enough Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Staind. We still play Tool and System of a Down. I don't want this station to sound like all we play is Mumford & Sons."
He thinks he can keep the various pop tribes happy by not leaning too far in one direction. "It's never going to be Mumford & Sons into Muse into Florence and the Machine into Coldplay," he says. "You're going to hear some harder and more mainstream rock stuff in there because I want to keep everybody."
As for whether more challenging alt-rock is ignored in regular rotation in favor of easily accessible acts like fun. or Grouplove (who, some might say, are this generation's Chumbawamba, more novelty than novel), Venable simply says, "It's really on a song-by-song basis."
Then there are the '90s warhorses for which Venable is unapologetic. "A lot of those songs are classics," he says. "When we go out and do music tests, the songs you think people are extremely sick of always come back in the top three or five. If I ask you, 'Do you ever need to hear Smells Like Teen Spirit again?' you might say no. But believe me, you go to any mall in America, and you will see one kid in a Nirvana shirt."
Plus, he says, these songs strike a chord with those at the upper end of the Edge's demographic, who were teens in the early '90s. "I remember the first time I heard Teen Spirit. I was pulling out of my driveway in Grapevine. I went to my friend Alex's house and said: 'This song is going to be enormous. It's going to kill off every band that we like. The Cocteau Twins are about to die a slow death.'"
Still, even though Burning Hotels' Morgan is grateful for the exposure the station has given his band -- the group headlined an Edge-sponsored all-local show at Dallas' Granada Theater in January -- he still thinks the station leans too much on mainstream rock. These days, he only listens to KDGE consistently for Local Edge. "Clear Channel is beyond the reach of even a music impresario such as Josh Venable," says Morgan, who says he's more likely to listen to noncommercial, public-radio adult-album alternative rock outlet, KXT/91.7 FM, classic hits on KLUV/98.7 FM or even Top 40 on KISS/106.1 FM.
Despite Venable's competitive streak when it comes to The Edge's ratings, he says he's not too concerned with much of his competition, whether it's from KXT, which plays some of the same music, or from satellite and Internet radio.
"Not to be smug, but I'm not worried about people who play that much Matchbox Twenty," he says of KXT. "I'm sure they're all very nice people, but it has nothing to do with us."
He says satellite, Internet radio and streaming are cool, but they lack what a local radio station provides.
"You don't feel connected to anything by listening to the Internet -- nothing," he says. "[On the Internet], you don't get somebody saying 'I was almost late for work because of some moron on the Tollway.' And you say, 'Hey, that's right by my house.' Or they might say, 'I went and saw [local band] the Toadies the other day.' You have a connection with someone on the radio that you can't get anywhere else.
"The Internet doesn't put together Edgefest and have a fireworks show after the Black Keys play. Growing up, I could have had people make me tapes all day. It's not the same as someone on the air explaining to you about a band that's coming to town. It's not going to replace radio by any stretch of the imagination."
Which, of course, can lead us back to Venable's popularity with certain members of the prison population.
"That's why I want to do this," he says. "How awesome is it that I can make somebody's life -- who probably has the worst life ever -- better by listening to Mazzy Star for three hours a week? If that's what's going to get this guy through, more power to him."
Preston Jones contributed to this report.