Radio station 89X to change format Thursday after 30 years

Melody Baetens Adam Graham
The Detroit News

After three decades playing of modern and alternative music, Canadian radio station 89X (CIMX-FM) is changing formats. 

The Windsor-based, Bell Media-owned station announced the format change on its website, saying that "a very new and VERY different sound" would be coming to 88.7 FM starting Thursday at noon. 

The website offered no details on the new format, saying only that fans of new rock are "probably not going to like it." 

"89X was a unique station and we have some great memories," reads the statement. "Thirty years is a long time though and it's time for a change." 

Launched in spring 1991 with Jane’s Addiction’s “Stop,” 89X rode the wave of the alternative rock format as it exploded through the music of bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins. 

The station’s “Birthday Bash” and holiday-timed “The Night 89X Stole Christmas” concerts brought a bevy of alternative rock groups through town over the years, from Oasis to Beck to Deftones to No Doubt, My Chemical Romance, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Killers, Fall Out Boy, blink 182 and many others.

"I think it will always be remembered as 'the cool station.' There was no one cooler in town for so many years," says Dave Hunter, who launched the "Dave and Chuck the Freak" morning show on the station in 2001, and spent several years as 89X's program director. 

Hunter calls 89X "a groundbreaking station" that took chances on young artists.

"So many artists got their first taste of airtime in Detroit thanks to 89X, artists that went on to be massive," says Hunter, who began working at the station in 1999. "A lot of them were thankful they were given a break and some airtime years before some other stations would ever touch them."

He remembers Thirty Seconds to Mars frontman (and Oscar-winning actor) Jared Leto personally calling members of the station's staff and thanking them for playing the band's music, and turning around later and performing concerts for the station and doing appearances on 89X's behalf. 

Hunter, whose morning show jumped to WRIF-FM (101.1) in 2012, said Wednesday he was "super sad to hear the news" of the station's format switch. "I feel like 89X will always be a part of me," he says. 

89X was elemental in fostering Detroit listeners' relationships with Canadian artists such as the Tragically Hip, Sloan, Our Lady Peace and the Gandharvas, due to Canadian laws that dictated the station play a certain quota of homegrown artists.

"That, to me, was where the real underground connection started to happen," says Ryan Allen, a fan who grew up listening to 89X as a teenager in Livonia, and taped the station's weekly "Canadian Exports" show, which specifically focused on artists from the Great White North.

"The Canadian part of the whole thing was really what drew me in. Even back then, I had an awareness of like, 'they’re playing stuff that I don’t think is popular,'" Allen says. "You kind of knew this isn’t American grunge, this is something different. They took it a step further and they gave a spotlight to that stuff, which is so cool. It was my highway to this other world that I totally fell in love with, and was super influential to me and my friends."

In addition, the station's long-running “Homeboy Show” celebrated local artists, and its Sunday morning “Time Warp” program brought listeners the sounds of classic alternative, hosted by the station’s Cristina, who said Wednesday she was "shocked" to hear the news of the format switch. 

"89X was ingrained as the place you go to for alternative music," says the DJ, who worked at the station from 1991 to 2017. 

"Back in the day it felt like you were really making an impact. It was a fantastic place to be," she says.

The station's influence in a pre-internet, pre-streaming music world was felt immediately, she says: "People finally had the opportunity to hear Joy Division or XTC on the radio. These were bands that people only saw on MTV, and Detroit radio had long given up them. So when people finally found a station that was playing this music, there was a big buzz.

"The people that worked there put so much love and passion into that radio station," says Cristina. "I hope people remember it as a place where you could go to hear new music, the cutting edge, and you could hear it there before anywhere else." 

Cal Cagno grew up in Royal Oak as a fan of 89X — "it was a big part of my teen years," he says — and went on to work at the station for almost 20 years. 

"I remember that first day thinking I wasn’t cool enough to be there," says Cagno, who started in promotions and eventually hosted the station's morning show, "Cal & Co.," from 2012 to 2017. 

He has plenty of memories from working at the station: the time Kid Rock hosted one of the station's Christmas concerts; the time Eminem came to the station's Windsor studio; the time he drove the members of Blink 182 to the Phoenix Plaza Amphitheatre in the back of his Chevy Malibu. 

"Getting to be a part of something so important was huge," says Cagno. "I'm amazingly grateful for the time I spent there." 

89X closed its American office in March 2017 and cut its morning show, part of a larger restructuring at Bell.  

Another local Bell station, 93.9 The River, may also change formats at noon Thursday, although fewer details are available on its website

Twitter: @melodybaetens