The Zone Diet

Alt rock eats it with another radio format change

Mary Lucia and Brian Oake sensed that the end was nigh. The rumor mill had been churning for weeks before Zone 105 management told employees to turn in their keys, and by the time the two morning-show hosts were wrapping up their final broadcast on March 8, they were girded for the worst. During their last minutes on the air, Lucia turned to Oake and said meaningfully, "Brian, there's something I've always wanted to tell you."

Oake stared back anxiously. "Mary is always willing to say a little bit more on the air than I am," he explains later of that moment. "So I expected her to ask something like, 'Would you rather have anal sex with John Popper or listen to this station for another hour?'"

After a pregnant pause, Lucia deadpanned, "I'm your secret Santa. Merry Christmas."

So ended the sometimes surreal on-air life of Zone 105. Within minutes, the DJs were brought into an office and informed that their services would no longer be required. Within an hour, the signal's three frequencies (105.1, 105.3, and 105.7 FM) were handed over to V105, a format switch from "alternative" rock (e.g., Radiohead and Coldplay) to "rhythmic gold" (e.g., Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye). It was the signal's third such makeover in five years, motivated, according to a press release, by the need to fill a "void in the Twin Cities radio market." Low ratings couldn't have helped the Zone: A recent Arbitron survey placed them 11th among listeners aged 18 to 34.

Yet only hours after the letdown, Lucia and Oake seem almost philosophical about the matter. They are three cocktails into a lunch at Grumpy's in downtown Minneapolis, where bar manager and buddy Dave Peil opened his doors early to accommodate an impromptu gathering of canned Zone staff. "We've all done this a couple times," says Oake, huddling with midday jock Shelly Miller, and Lucia, who wears a characteristic Clash T-shirt. "It's the nature of the business that you're going to get fired every five years or so."

Lucia seems a little more rattled. "I have a skill," she laments half seriously. "I can't exactly go somewhere else with this skill. Maybe Starbucks."

A few feet away from the Zone table, a location manager for a new made-in-Minnesota movie starring Tim Allen scouts Grumpy's for a setting. "Can I be an extra?" asks Oake. "I'm looking for a new gig." Oake and Lucia are arguably the smartest and funniest morning-show hosts in Twin Cities radio, with the infotainment-parodying Oake recalling a more liberal Craig Kilborn while Lucia patters like a rapid-fire Janeane Garofalo. Lucia also helmed a live local-music and talk show, Popular Creeps, (now discontinued) every Sunday from the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

But the news here may be that there's no news here. Most listeners have grown accustomed to abrupt station turnovers that leave ardent music enthusiasts cold. Fans of Lucia, a sort of older-sister figure to the postpunk scene, can track her career through two previously snuffed alt stations: KJ104 and the now legendary Rev 105.

Mass station firings have become almost routine in corporate radio. "In their defense," says Oake, "the powers that be were genuinely sorry, but it's business, man. They're ABC and they're owned by Disney. But I think this pained them. When Rev 105 ended, it was like the fall of Saigon--people grabbing every CD they could. This was quieter, more civil."

Commiserating with a growing crowd of friends from other stations who've heard the news, the former Zone DJs chalk up their lack of indignation in part to age--they're all in their mid-30s--and cynicism. But they have prospects: Shelly Miller says she will take a job announcing at Saints games. Program director Billy Berghammer says he may land a job with V105. Oake hopes to work with Lucia again-- "You can't manufacture chemistry," he remarks.

As for Lucia?

"Will that be a half-caf grande or a latte?" she grumbles.

 
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