Atlanta’s 99X is back: What happened to the players from its heyday?

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Gen X catnip in the 1990s, alt-rock station returns with original jocks and music.

Three decades ago, Gen Xers in Atlanta fell in love with 99X.

It combined the groundbreaking music of its day from bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and No Doubt with heavy doses of personality and a heavy flow of concerts and promotions that made 99X in the 1990s more than just a radio station but a lifestyle brand.

Its Music Midtown stage each year was mobbed. It held frequent Live X concerts at small venues, hosting everyone from David Bowie and the Dave Matthews Band to Tony Bennett and R.E.M. Fans happily used the 99X Freeloader card for discounts and freebies from local retailers and eateries. For years, the station distributed its own monthly magazine, 99Xpress.

“99X was as much a cultural statement during the decade as flannel and Doc Martens,” the late Sean Demery, an on-air personality who helped launch the station in 1992 and was music director until 2000, told the AJC in 2006.

But in the 2000s, the station lost its mojo as musical tastes shifted and rivals picked away at its core audience. Atlanta-based Cumulus Media took 99X off the air in 2008. And though management has kept the station’s brand name alive in recent years on secondary FM signals, it was basically a jockless jukebox.

99X’s effective replacement ― a harder sounding station called Rock 100.5 on a weaker signal ― survived for many years but was frequently trounced by 97.1/The River. This past fall, on a whim, Cumulus management posted 30th anniversary memories of 99X on social media and its website.

The reaction was so strong, Cumulus Chief Content Officer Brian Philips ― who was part of the early 99X success in the 1990s ― decided to dump Rock 100.5 and bring back a vintage sounding 99X, with music the station played in its early years, voice-over sweepers and slogans from the era. For now, the station has two confirmed original 99X deejays, with more to come, management promises. The station also plans to resurrect its Freeloader program, Live X sessions and the annual Big Day Out concert, among other features.

Scott Mahaffy, a 56-year-old Douglasville bus driver, started a 99X Facebook fan page four years ago that had only about 150 followers until 99X officially relaunched in December. It has since raced past 2,000 followers.

“People my age missed 99X,” Mahaffy said. “Radio had become so boring. Now people are re-energized and re-activated.”

Jimmy Baron, a key former member of the Morning X show, said he is too busy as a successful full-time Realtor to join 99X but will call in from time to time. “They’re trying to tap into nostalgia by hiring previous air staff and using old sweepers and promos. I think from that standpoint, it’s a great play. When was the last time you heard somebody say that they listen to the radio for the DJs? It connects viscerally.”

For now, the morning show will feature “best of” clips from the 1990s and 2000s from the Morning X, which Baron enjoys ― except when he hears his younger self utter things that wouldn’t pass muster in 2023 such as “chicks” for women. “And there is no way I’m that quick anymore,” he added, “no way I could come up with jokes like that now.”

Can Cumulus, at a time when more and more people are listening to on-demand subscription apps like Spotify and the ever expansive world of podcasts, find magic by embracing 99X’s storied past? It’s way too soon to say.

Here is an update on key talent from the prime-time years of 99X. Many are thriving in other places, some still in radio, some not.

Credit: PUB

Credit: PUB

Steve Barnes (1992-2004, present): Barnes was the glue that held the Morning X together, the man who kept the show flowing in and out of commercial breaks. He ensured the content was varied, the interviews were tight and the laughs came early and often. He left the show in 2004 to pursue film and production work. While he didn’t end up becoming the next Brad Pitt, he did find a niche with his own production company. He was an early adopter of drones, using them to create promo videos for resorts and hotel chains. He continues to travel the world for clients such Four Seasons and Marriott.

He was lured back to 99X late last year to helm the morning show again and curate old 99X material while continuing to juggle Barnes Creative Studios. “This isn’t corporate bull crap,” he said on air the day he returned earlier in January. “I wouldn’t have come back for that.”

Leslie Fram (1992-2008): Fram was a pillar of the Morning X, considered the “adult” in the room sandwiched between the sometimes irascible Barnes and the often goofy Baron. And as program director, she often worked 15 hours a day, hitting concerts at night and waking up at 4 a.m. to handle the morning show. Her presence ensured the station’s appeal to women as she fully embraced the Lilith Fair sound of Sarah McLachlan, the Indigo Girls and Tori Amos. She also helped the careers of artists ranging from Shawn Mullins and Collective Soul to Matchbox 20 and Smashing Pumpkins.

After the end of 99X, she oversaw New York City alt-rock station 101.9/WRXP-FM for three years before joining Nashville-based CMT, where she is now senior vice president for music strategy. She has been a major voice promoting female country singers and now lives on a farm outside Nashville.

She is temporarily co-hosting the 99X morning show with Barnes until a new co-host is announced (and it could ultimately be her on a more permanent basis).

Credit: RODNEY HO/

Credit: RODNEY HO/

Jimmy Baron (1993-2006): Baron was the Morning X producer as well as resident on-air jokester. He was adept at phone pranks and April Fools’ shenanigans. He stayed on the morning show for 13 years. He then hosted a morning show at rival Dave FM from 2009 to 2011 with fellow 99X alum Yvonne Monet. But after Dave canned him, he became a Realtor and has since become one of Keller Williams’ top sellers in the city.

“We were the right show on the right station at the right time,” Baron said, regarding the Morning X. “If the Internet were as prevalent as it is now, we would not have lasted simply because of all the things DJs get fired for now.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Axel Lowe (1992-2008, present): Lowe was originally going to become a record label rep but instead fell in love with radio. At 99X, he started as the overnight guy, moved to late nights, then evenings, then afternoons by 1998. He had more of a hard-rock mentality than many of his peers so when 99X was dismantled, he stayed on at Rock 100.5 for its entire 14-year run.

Lowe, 54, one of the longest continuously employed music jocks in Atlanta, is now programming the new 99X as well as hosting afternoons. Wearing a new black 99X T-shirt, he said he’s psyched to rebuild a brand that meant so much to so many people. “I just did a remote appearance to promote a boat show in Gainesville and a dozen people came by just to share stories about 99X with me,” he said. “The passion is incredible!”

Steve Craig (1992-2008): The former midday host at 99X is considered an encyclopedic music guru, and his love of punk band the Ramones is legendary. His noon show “The Retroplex” delved into the deeper side of 1970s and 1980s alternative rock. After 99X’s initial demise, he worked with Fram at the rock station WRXP in New York, hosted mornings briefly at Dave FM back in Atlanta before its demise in 2012, then established a home at rock leader 97.1/The River. There, he was music director and worked afternoons, then mornings before resigning last month.

There is wide speculation that he will return to 99X after his six month non-compete clause ends at The River.

Credit: CONTRIB

Credit: CONTRIB

Sean Demery (1992-1999, 2006-07): Demery is a primary reason 99X even existed.

The quirky music impresario helped launch rock station 99X in 1992, fully dumping the station’s top 40 format without permission from top management. “I firmly believe that if it wasn’t for the 10,000 faxes and phone calls we received in the first weeks of that change, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today,” Demery told the publication “Virtually Alternative” in 1999. “We were trying to create a radio station that was outside of anyone’s category. We never paid attention to if it was right. It just was.”

Brian Philips, chief content officer at Cumulus Media, said Demery on air was like a “young Andy Rooney contrarian on air. He’d go into his high range for comic effect. He introduced people to new music, made you laugh and think and most importantly, he made you feel like you weren’t alone.”

Over the years, he also worked at stations in Seattle, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Portland. He died in 2018 after a major stroke.

In 1997, Demery was so taken by the new Verve song “Bittersweet Symphony,” he broke from regular programming and played it six times in a row. “I guess you could say it was a combination of a good song and not enough Ritalin,” he joked to the AJC at the time. In honor of Demery, when Rock 100.5 ended on Dec. 2, the station played the song over and over again the entire weekend until 99X was relaunched on Dec. 5.

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Christopher “Crash” Clark (1992-2005): The hard-partying traffic guy on 99X was perpetual comic relief for the Morning X. He was suspended and fired multiple times.

“I was the wild child,” he said. “I just added a big personality to a big station.”

After he was canned one last time by 99X in 2005, he worked for a few years with DJs Fred Toucher and Rich Shertenlieb in Boston, then came back to Atlanta and worked briefly at Dave FM and V-103. In 2014, he landed a job covering traffic for 11Alive’s morning show and now wears a suit to work, though he’ll occasionally don a crazy outfit when the mood strikes him.

Credit: BEASLEY BROADCASTING

Credit: BEASLEY BROADCASTING

Fred Toucher (1999-2006) and Rich Shertenlieb (1999-2003): Toucher started at 99X as the night jock where he honed his edgy on-air persona, then helmed the 99X morning show for a couple of years. Shertenlieb began at the station as the Morning X’s merry prankster, whether it was giving away fake “Star Wars” spoilers in front of a hostile movie theater crowd or mocking feminists at the Masters. After both left 99X, they reunited in Boston, first at a rock station, then 98.5 The Sports Hub in 2009. They are now the top-rated sports talk show in the market, building huge numbers among men 25-54.

Credit: Twitter public photo

Credit: Twitter public photo

Yvonne Monet (1992-1999): Monet hosted 99X’s popular weekend dance show ‘The Beat Factory,” a talk show “The Pleasuredome” and other specialty programs for the station. She later worked at stations in Dallas, then returned to Atlanta at Dave FM while owning a restaurant and bar. Over the decades, she has also DJed at clubs and special events. In 2021, she joined 99X’s sister top 40 station Q99.7 as midday host. She is likely to contribute to the new 99X as well.

Credit: MARS

Credit: MARS

Melissa Carter (1995-2001): Carter, the first openly gay on-air talent in Atlanta, started her radio career as the news reader for the Morning X, but she is better known for her 10 years on Q100′s the Bert Show. Later, she hosted mornings at B98.5, then did a podcast called “She Persisted.” She is currently doing media-related freelance work.

Credit: FB profile/CUMULUS/YOUTUBE

Credit: FB profile/CUMULUS/YOUTUBE

Matt “Organic” Jones (1993-2008): He did overnights for 99X and hosted a popular Sunday morning “Organic X” show that featured the lighter, more acoustic side of rock. Since then, he did marketing and promotions for Cumulus, experiential marketing and now business development at a health care company.

Brian Philips (1992-1999, present): He was the first program director at 99X, establishing its powerhouse branding and musical direction. For 16 years after 99X, he was president of CMT, then joined Cumulus as chief content officer in 2019.

Will Pendarvis (1992-1995): He was the wild and woolly night guy on 99X in its burgeoning years. He then worked at the legendary K-Rock in New York before landing at what is now Sirius/XM, where he programs rock stations.