It’s 8 o’clock and Will Pendarvis - prince of Prozac and hip heralder for the disaffected masses - is on the air.
“My name is Will Pendarvis and I think my Prozac is kicking in tonight!” he says. “I’m haaaaaappy!!”
And if Will’s happy, everybody’s happy - especially management at WNNX-FM (99X). Since changing from Top 40-oriented WAPW-FM (Power 99) to a more alternative rock format a year ago, the station has carved out a niche among listeners too sophisticated for pop dance tunes, too bored by dinosaur rock and too passionate about new music to listen to anything else.
Although the format change hasn’t done much for the station’s overall ratings - it still hovers around 10th place in the market - Pendarvis’s show has been a hit. “On the Edge,” which airs weeknights from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., is the second-highest rated show in that time slot, behind urban dance station WVEE-FM (V-103), which consistently ranks No. 1 in Atlanta.
99X is essentially a college radio station for grown-ups, mixing music by such alternative bands as Smashing Pumpkins, Crash Test Dummies and the Cranberries with such better-known acts as U2, Peter Gabriel and R.E.M.
This format is becoming trendy in other cities, following the blueprint set by alternative rock station KROQ-FM in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, according to radio experts.
“In the last year, there’s been twice as many stations that have signed on to this format,” says Shawn Alexander, new rock editor for Radio and Records magazine.
“We know that in five years’ time there’s going to be somebody like us in every city in America,” says program director Brian Philips, who came to Atlanta from a Top 40 station in Philadelphia. “So we feel like we’re in on the ground floor.”
Philips describes 99X’s listeners, who have a median age of about 27, as intelligent, savvy music lovers who want to know about the hottest new rock. “They’re people who have been alienated by pop radio and pop culture in general,” he says.
And many listen not just for the music, but also for Pendarvis.
“If you’ve got a song you want to hear or if you want me to pick something up from the grocery store on the way home or you want some fresh towels in your room, just call . . .,” says Pendarvis during a typical show. Lots of listeners do.
Wes Bryant, 18, of Clairmont, Ga., north of Gainesville, got hooked six months ago and tunes to Pendarvis every night. “I think he plays the best selection of anybody on 99X,” he says. “I used to be a big classic rock fan but that got kinda old. I was looking for something new.”
“Atlanta’s this market for people who want to break away from the conservative, convenient Southern lifestyle,” says Philips. “It’s the beacon that sort of brings in everybody from the south.”
Pendarvis, who grew up in Irvington, Ala., outside Mobile, is himself a wanderer from the Southern woods who came to Atlanta to play more alternative music and live in a city that doesn’t shut down at 10 p.m.
Pendarvis is a combination of Christian Slater’s in-your-face attitude (remember the moody DJ from “Pump Up the Volume”?), David Letterman’s goofy, left-field humor and every confused and befuddled baby buster who’s ever sought sonic salvation.
“One night at midnight, he gave birth to puppies on the air in this long labor. It was a classic,” says Leslie Fram, part of 99X’s morning team and the person who gave Pendarvis his first job in radio at a Top 40 station in Mobile when he was 17. He made appearances as the station’s mascot, a giant rabbit with buck teeth.
He worked his way up to running the overnight show in Mobile, eventually dropping out of the University of Southern Alabama after two years to do radio full time. He then moved to Memphis, where he worked for a pop station for two years before coming to Atlanta in 1992.
Pendarvis proposed an alternative rock show at Power 99 that would feature music he liked - the Cure, Elvis Costello, the Smiths, Depeche Mode. He hosted the program for a couple of months before the whole station switched over to the new format. “On the Edge” has evolved with the station, often reaching outside the standard alternative play list and including as much emphasis on the DJ’s shtick as listeners usually find on drive-time shows.
On and off the air, Pendarvis is alternately edgy and shy, depressed and giddy, confident and worried. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s battled depression his whole life. (He really is on Prozac, and talks about his experiences with the drug and depression on the air all the time.)
“If I wasn’t doing this I’d be working at a shoe store or something. I can’t do anything else,” says Pendarvis, who spends his off hours hanging with his girlfriend, Melanie Ferguson, playing Nintendo and eating at the Buckhead Diner.
“He’s got that same personality - he comes up with weird stuff,” says Ferguson, 25, who met him through another 99X DJ but is not an avid radio listener. “He’s not real social. He doesn’t like to go out much. He’s more animated on the air.”
Sitting in the booth one night, Pendarvis is a whirling dervish fueled by Classic Coke and Kools. His baby face and huge shirts - he only shops at big-and-tall men’s stores even though he isn’t either - make him seem younger than he is.
“I don’t usually say anything good about myself because I have really low self-esteem and I’m paranoid,” says Pendarvis nervously. “But I do think I do a good job with my music.” Besides alternative rock, he loves big band music, the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Occasionally he’ll slip some Tony Bennett into his show.
While Beck’s “Loser” plays, Pendarvis answers calls from people who want to win concert tickets or know the name of a song or tell him that they’ve killed and eaten their cat (this guy calls three times). He takes tons of calls from gushing listeners who tell him he’s the greatest thing since compact discs. He politely thanks them all but his ice-blue eyes say he isn’t quite sure what they mean.
“Will has a little bit of nervous anxiety while he’s on the air,” says Philips, who admits he almost never calls Pendarvis during a show for fear of jarring him too much. “He’s very sensitive.”
“I’m real susceptible to that because of my paranoia,” admits Pendarvis. “If somebody says they didn’t like something, I assume I suck and I should only die.
“It’s also kind of scary to get everything you want,” he adds. “You wonder, n ow what? I guess the negative way of looking at it is it’s got to be only downhill from here.”
He stops pondering the nature of success to take a call from his mom, who phones him from Alabama every night during the show.
“Sometimes I put her on the air, too,” says Pendarvis, who is close to both his parents and two siblings. “She just gives advice like call your mother, go to church, wear clean underwear - stuff moms say.”
“Will always wanted to go on the radio,” says his mother, Jackie Pendarvis, who says she’s glad her son is happy even though she always wanted him to be a forest ranger.
In addition to his mom, Pendarvis’s roommate, Wendell, his friends and anybody else with something interesting or weird to say end up on “On the Edge.” He has a way of drawing everybody into his world.
“Listening to Will is like living your life,” says Fram. “You relate to everything he says. He’s been there. He lives the lifestyle.”