Skip to main content
Arts & Entertainment

Live 105 resurrection: The ‘crazy’ story behind the radio station’s rebirth

Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph of Twenty-One Pilots perform at Radio Station Live 105's BFD concert at Shoreline Amphitheatre in May 2013 in Mountain View. | Steve Jennings/WireImage

When Live 105, San Francisco’s long-running alternative rock radio station returned earlier this month, it made headlines around the Bay Area, as chatter from elated listeners swirled on social media and local news outlets picked up the story.

“Live 105 fans overjoyed as legendary radio station returns to airwaves,” one such report read.

Stacey Kauffman, regional vice president for San Francisco and Sacramento for Audacy, the media company that owns Live 105, was instrumental in resurrecting it. The career radio veteran stressed just how rare it is for a mainstream radio conglomerate to reverse course after it kills a station.

“I cannot remember a time where we’ve ever brought a station back,” Kauffman said. 

Aaron Axelsen, Live 105’s former music director and assistant program director, said Live 105’s return says a lot about the uniqueness of San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area. 

“The Live 105 army may not be as massive as Top 40 and Pop Radio formats,” Axelsen said. “But (listeners) were very vocal about its demise. It was a continued wave of passion.”

From Alt 105.3 to Dave and Back

In December 2017, Live 105 became Alt 105.3 as part of a corporate strategy common across mainstream radio: Find a basic playlist that works in multiple markets, syndicate certain on-air personalities—such as morning drive-time shows—and sprinkle in a little bit of regional customization where it makes sense to give the station a local feel.

To the casual listeners, Live 105 and Alt 105.3 may not have sounded much different. But Alt 105.3 turned more toward electronic- and pop-inflected acts. Imagine Dragons and Billie Eilish started getting more airtime, alongside alternative rock mainstays like the Strokes, the Killers, Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Still, it wasn’t catching on as well as executives had hoped.

“There’s an expectation here, I think, to be a little bit different,” Kauffman said of the San Francisco market and how Alt 105.3 fit within it. “The standardization didn’t work here.”

In October 2021, Audacy scrapped Alt 105.3 and Dave FM made its debut. Billed as “totally random radio,” Dave was supposed to appeal to everybody, Kauffman explained. It worked—to an extent.

But ultimately, she said, “we were still getting these calls to bring Live 105 back, six years later.” On June 5 at 10:53 a.m., Audacy officially reversed course, reinstalling the station they had wiped from the dial more than half a decade before.

‘National Tastemakers’

Kauffman and Axelsen said the station’s return is a testament to the team that guided the brand through three decades of shifting alternative rock tastes, from 1986 until 2017.

But as rare as the station’s resurrection may be, it is not unique. At least one other market on the other side of the country has seen a similar about-face. 

Brian Philips, chief content officer for Cumulus Media, was the first program director of 99X, an Atlanta-based alternative rock radio station that played hits from the likes of R.E.M., U2, Nirvana, Green Day and other titans of the genre during its time on the air. The station, which first signed on in 1992, eventually changed formats in 2008 due to slumping ratings.

In November of last year, Philips and others on the Cumulus team in Atlanta began playing with the idea of bringing the station back—along with much of the station’s original team of on-air talent. 

Philips said that some at Cumulus had doubts. But he and others ultimately pushed the concept through, and 99X returned in December 2022. Since then, he said, “it’s taken on a life of its own.”

For his part, Philips said that the time might be ripe for a wider nostalgia-driven revival of the alternative radio format—adding that if the idea is working in San Francisco, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s got legs nationwide.

“San Francisco radio listeners historically are culturally aware,” he said. “They’re ahead of the curve. They’re extremely trend conscious. They’re national tastemakers.”

Community Impact

Audacy—much like Philips and the team behind 99X in Atlanta—is bringing back many of the people who made Live 105 a success the first time around, including Axelsen. This time, he is coming back in a more limited capacity. Soundcheck, his long-running Live 105 show focused on local music and rising national acts, is scheduled to return to 105.3 FM on July 9 at 8 p.m.

Axelsen said he is excited to reintroduce local listeners to Bay Area bands and upcoming indie artists. He will also continue to work at the online radio station Flood FM, which he launched after leaving Live 105.

When asked if he was surprised that Audacy was bringing Live 105 back, Axelsen said that “surprise” wasn’t quite the right word.

“It was crazy watching what happened after the demise of Live 105,” he said. But to him, it made total sense.

“It was the glue that kept the whole alternative music community together. It was kind of their badge,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t realize the impact that you have on the audience when you’re inside the station.”