In The Early '90s, MARS FM Channeled The Sounds Of LA's Underground House And Techno Rave Scene
If you were in the know in L.A. in the early '90s, a new underground sound was bubbling up: techno, house and rave culture. And to get clued in on where to go and what was happening, there was one place on the dial that had it all — the short-lived radio station, 103.1 MARS FM.
Freddy Snakeskin recalls an early rave at the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes’ famed aircraft then stationed in Long Beach, where MARS FM blasted from the cars in the parking lot.
“It was an amazing experience,” the L.A.-based DJ recalls, “hearing it from all these different cars and all of these people on the same music page, digging the hell out of it.”
Between May 1991 and August 1992, MARS broadcast the sound of the new decade. With Snakeskin as program director and fellow L.A. radio vet Swedish Egil as music director, it became best known for playing the dance beats percolating in L.A.’s underground party world, particularly techno and house.
“We were the first radio station to play techno and house music in regular rotation,” says Swedish Egil, “meaning, we would take a song like Moby’s ‘Go’ and put it in rotation so often. It would play maybe every three hours.”
He adds, “When you do that, you really make a station because the identity, the sound, the feel of the radio station is so prominent.”
But MARS was never exclusively a rave station. They dropped the latest singles from the established alternative music stars, like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Marc Almond, The Human League and Morrissey.
They played new rock from Teenage Fanclub and Nirvana, as well as ‘80s party jams like “Don Quichotte” by the French group Magazine 60.
We were the first radio station to play techno and house music in regular rotation
If you tuned into the commercial breaks, you could find out about anything from a show promoted by goth party Helter Skelter to teen night at Fashions on the Redondo Beach Pier. It was a radio station that reflected and reached out to the city’s various scenes with a broad take on alternative music and, out of that, something new emerged.
History Of MARS FM
“We wanted to approach the ‘90s in the same spirit that the original KROQ had approached the ‘80s,” says Snakeskin of the MARS mission.
In the early 1980s, KROQ 106.7 cultivated what people now know as alternative music. Both Snakeskin and Egil had been DJs there and a good chunk of the Mars crew had KROQ on their resume.
“MARS probably wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for the KROQ roots that a lot of us had,” says Rick Rippey, who went from a part-time employee at KROQ to operations manager and assistant program director at MARS.
There was another connection too. That was Ken Roberts, who owned KROQ during its early ‘80s heyday and, in 1986, sold it for a record-breaking $45 million to national corporation Infinity Broadcasting. That’s what made MARS FM possible — and necessary.
“Early KROQ had a wonderful marriage of the complete world of alternative, which would include a heavy dominance of an electronic influence,” says Michael Ivankay, a former intern at KROQ who became MARS DJ Mike Fright.
New ownership led to changes in staff and, ultimately, the sound of 106.7 FM. According to multiple people interviewed, that included an increased emphasis on rock music.
Snakeskin parted ways with the station in 1990 and teamed up with Roberts on a then-unnamed radio project. The following year, Roberts bought two small stations along the Southern California coast. Both KSRF in Santa Monica and KOCM in Newport Beach sat on the 103.1 FM spot on the dial and Roberts, who paid $17.8 million for the pair, planned to simulcast them. New technology enabled them to do this without the signals jamming when they intersected around San Pedro and Long Beach.
“It hadn’t been done,” says Frank Martin, who was the station’s chief engineer, of the synchronization process. “This was a test case.” And it worked.
The Launch Of MARS FM
MARS FM officially launched on May 24, 1991. As program director, Snakeskin assembled the on-air Martian crew, which included a mix of radio stars and up-and-comers. Amongst them was Raechel Donahue, whose distinguished career in radio included gigs at influential stations like KSAN in San Francisco and KMET and KROQ in Los Angeles.
Donahue, who describes Snakeskin as a “generous and creative boss,” says MARS presented an atypical opportunity for DJs in the early 1990s. “There was a certain amount of freedom to it that I was aware was going to happen with Freddy,” she says.
"As long as you were paying attention to what you were doing, you could pretty much roll your own program, which was very unusual."
As long as you were paying attention to what you were doing, you could pretty much roll your own program, which was very unusual.
Don Bolles, the former drummer for The Germs who was then a member of the band Celebrity Skin, landed the “Late Night Truck Driver Show” and soon added earlier time slots to his schedule.
“It was a little scary,” says Bolles, whose radio experience was slim prior to MARS. He asked Snakeskin why the program director would schedule him for regular programming. The response, he recalls, was “It’s a lot easier to teach a guy who has a personality how to do radio than it is to teach a guy who knows how to do radio how to have a personality."
Spotlight On Rave Culture
Similarly, MARS became a radio station with a personality that was reflected not just in its DJs, but in the music that aired. They played club mixes of songs that might pop up elsewhere on the radio dial, import releases that were difficult to find in the U.S., deep cuts from superstars like Depeche Mode.
You might hear a DJ drop some seemingly random throwback from a band like The Kinks that perfectly fit in the set. Then, there was that new dance sound, bombastic and sample-heavy, that you might have only heard if you were already entrenched in L.A. nightlife.
At KROQ, Swedish Egil was a DJ who had an ear for new dance music. As music director for MARS, though, he was able to develop the sound of the station to reflect what was happening in local nightlife. “We had already felt it coming from the street,” he says.
“That’s really when rave culture started to happen in Los Angeles,” says Jeff Adachi, better known as DJ/producer Simply Jeff. Back in 1991, Adachi, then known as DJ Spinn, came to MARS to work with Swedish Egil on the station’s Top 30 program.
MARS became an introduction to raves for both listeners and some staffers. “I had seen flyers and heard about them,” says DJ/producer Christian B., who had moved to Los Angeles from St. Louis shortly before landing a gig on MARS. “Of course, when I got to MARS, I learned about all the great club promoters, some of which are still around today.”
A lot of these records were made specifically, and only, for clubs. They didn’t really think anyone would play them on air, so they didn’t have short versions.
Recognition For A New Approach
Part of what made MARS’ inclusion of techno and house so memorable is that this music was so different from what people were used to hearing on the radio. It was designed for dancing all night. Some followed a conventional, vocalist-led pop song structure. Many others, however, didn’t. Instead, the artists experimented with cut-up samples from movies, TV shows, even recorded interviews to create hooks that resonated with listeners.
Plus, since these were tracks were intended for clubs and raves, they were typically much longer than what you would hear on the radio. “A lot of these records were made specifically, and only, for clubs,” says Daniel “The Brat” Barassi, who edited some of the tracks down in length for airplay on MARS. “They didn’t really think anyone would play them on air, so they didn’t have short versions.”
Yet MARS was playing this music in the middle of the day. “There were all these people coming through and they just couldn’t believe that we were playing their music at 12 noon. That’s unheard of,” says Adachi. “In a short time, it got so much recognition because they were the only station in the U.S. doing it at that time.”
This all struck a chord with listeners. “People were calling to find out names of songs all the time, just to express their joy in listening to the music,” says DJ Holly Adams. “It was a very positive environment for music and music exploration.”
Challenges For Long-Term Success
But the mission hit a few snags. “I think the biggest challenge was not all the salespeople really understood the format. In their own mind, they couldn’t figure out why anyone in their right mind would listen to this shit,” says Snakeskin. “They couldn’t be expected to do a really effective job of convincing advertisers to come on board.”
That, however, was a challenge they were willing to meet. “I think that, as it progressed, we won most of those people over,” says Snakeskin. “They were some of our most enthusiastic boosters by the time our first year was up.”
Another issue was the station’s range. Simulcasting the stations in Santa Monica and Newport Beach extended the range in coastal areas, but heading inland was another story. For the San Fernando Valley, or other parts of greater Los Angeles where mountains posed an interference, tuning into MARS was a tricky endeavor that likely still resulted in listening to the latest Orbital or Future Sound of London single through static.
“It was impossible to get the ratings of other stations in the marketplace because we just didn’t have the coverage,” says Adams.
Without killer ratings, the pressure was on at the station. At one point, they received a directive banning techno. “Somebody got to Ken Roberts, the owner, and he was never a fan of techno music himself. They convinced him that was the reason they weren’t getting more advertising,” says Snakeskin.
The station’s fanbase responded with a protest, as well as letters and petitions that were kept together in a binder.
“Ken took this big binder to the bank that lent him the money and said, see, we’re playing what people want,” Snakeskin recalls. “All of a sudden, techno was welcomed back.”
He adds, “That was a rare case of ownership actually listening to people for once.”
The station had fans. They had the respect of other U.S. radio stations who would call asking for copies of their playlists. But, ultimately, the mission to MARS was aborted on August 20, 1992, when the staff was let go and KSRF/KOCM prepared to shift to a smooth jazz format.
Even in its time, MARS was a commercial radio oddity. “No corporate entity is going to take a chance like that, then or now,” says Snakeskin. But, Roberts, who died in 2014, was not averse to risks. “It takes a unique and special person like that, that can see the advantage of letting something like this happen.”
In the aftermath of MARS, Snakeskin, who currently hosts “Party Out of Bounds” for Portland station KINK, returned to KROQ for a bit and tried to bring some of the MARS jams with him. “They didn’t really go for it that much,” he says, adding that just a few made the cut. Swedish Egil launched Groove Radio, first as a syndicated show, then as a full-time station that lived on MARS’ old frequency between 1996 and 1998. Today, Groove broadcasts online. Meanwhile, several of the Martians, including Holly Adams, Jeff Adachi, Daniel Barassi and Christian B., made names for themselves in the dance music world as DJs, producers and/or remixers.
By the end of the decade, a number of the artists that MARS championed had become critical and commercial successes, including Moby, The Prodigy, Orbital, Future Sound of London, The Orb and Massive Attack. But MARS’ demise also marked the end of an era, where an independently owned commercial radio station could make a major impact.
“It put rave culture and rave music on the map for a lot of people,” says Snakeskin. “It’s really unfortunate that it wasn’t allowed to continue because who knows what music might be in the mainstream today if it had.”
The MARS FM Playlist
Want to hear more? Check out the top songs from MARS FM in the playlist below: