How 99X brought Steve Craig back

He was comfy at 97.1/The River but joining the influential station’s revival was too enticing.
Steve Craig is the new mid-day host and program director for 99X, where he previously spent 1992 to 2008 as mid-day host. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO

Credit: RODNEY HO

Steve Craig is the new mid-day host and program director for 99X, where he previously spent 1992 to 2008 as mid-day host. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Steve Craig was in a super comfortable space last year as morning host of 97.1/The River, not just the top FM rock station in Atlanta but the top station period.

But then his former employer 99X was resurrected last December after a 15-year absence just as his contract was up at The River. He had a choice: coast to retirement on a hugely popular radio station or come home.

He chose home.

Craig quietly departed The River in December, adhered to a standard six-month non-compete clause and came back to 99X this summer. He is now both program director and midday host, the same time period he manned during the entire original 16-year existence of the influential alternative rock station from 1992 to 2008.

“Steve’s availability made the reinvention of the station possible,” said Brian Phillips, who ran 99X during its peak popularity in the 1990s and is now chief content officer for Atlanta-based Cumulus Media, which owns the name 99X and the 100.5 signal. (Top 40 station 99.7 now operates at 99X’s old, stronger signal.) “He wanted to work where his heart was. And he wanted to lead. He was ready to lead.”

Steve Craig in the studio at Cumulus Atlanta. It's not the same space as he had when he last left but it is now decorated in 99X memorabilia. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO

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Credit: RODNEY HO

In contrast to the jittery quirkiness of afternoon host Will Pendarvis (another original 99Xer), Craig is a calm presence, a fountain of alt-rock knowledge and a confident talisman of 99X’s past glory.

“It’s just so much fun to play this music again,” said Craig in a recent interview in his new office space at Cumulus Atlanta headquarters near the nexus of I-285 and Ga. 400, which also houses New Country 101.5 and Q99.7. “This is stuff I’d play when I was home, away from Aerosmith and Billy Joel and Lynyrd Skynyrd.”

Scott Mahaffy, a 57-year-old Douglasville bus driver who started a 99X Facebook fan page that now has more than 3,500 members, said Craig “brings experience and stability to the craziness. And any time you meet him, he is just friendly and grateful.”

Craig is thrilled to host his House of Retro Pleasure noon show again, which focuses mostly on New Wave hits from the late 1970s and the 1980s, a staple of his original 99X run.

“The first day we did it when I came back, the phones lit up,” he said. “People were actually calling a radio station. I brought back my original bag of CDs I used 30 years ago.”

99X, which is on a weaker signal than The River, is performing better than its predecessor Rock 100.5 had in its final couple of years of existence. And while it lags far behind The River in ratings and is unlikely to ever catch that station in total listeners, 99X’s core fan base seems psyched by its return, Craig said.

“People are wanting this,” he said. “I’m having the time of my life here.”

Craig harbors no ill will toward The River. “The people over there are my really good friends,” he said. “They were good to me. They created a wonderful environment. It was a great ten-year run.”

But 99X was a special time in Craig’s life. He was part of a movement when the station debuted in 1992, a time when Nirvana, Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were ascendant. 99X captured the Gen X zeitgeist with its “Freeloader” card for listeners to get discounts at restaurants and retailers, its concert events like Big Day Out and its oddball cast of on-air characters.

Steve Craig and Leslie Fram sit in front of a wall of CDs in the 99X studio in 2005.

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

The station in its new form has brought back many of its 1990s-era staff including key morning hosts Leslie Fram and Steve Barnes, Matt Jones on Sunday mornings doing an acoustic set and Pendarvis, the original 99X night guy. (Axel Lowe, who ran Rock 100.5 and was an afternoon host on 99X back in the day, started with the new version of 99X but chose to leave in the spring and will likely end up in Craig’s spot at The River, which plays a broader array of classic rock than 99X.)

At a recent Counting Crows concert, 99X's Will Pendarvis, Steve Barnes and Steve Craig introduced the band on stage and hung out together. 99X

Credit: 99X

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Credit: 99X

99X has also been actively promoting concerts this summer from core acts like Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Garbage, Blink-182, the Offspring, Counting Crows and the Cure.

Craig, who is also the stadium announcer for the Atlanta United soccer team and arena announcer for the Atlanta Gladiators minor league hockey team, is now primarily responsible for 99X’s playlist. Currently, it’s almost entirely oldies, with a heavy emphasis on the 1990s. He said there are almost 1,000 titles, triple the number of songs on the regular River playlist.

He said the station is currently doing tests with listeners and may add new music at some point. But in his mind, “the state of alternative music now is very, very bad,” he said.

99X will occasionally play new cuts from legacy bands and provide context. “The Foo Fighters have a couple of great cuts from their new album,” he said. “Smashing Pumpkins have a great new song on their current album. We’ll occasionally do a ‘that was then, this is now’ feature.”

And he is open to bringing back a “Locals Only”-style show again focused on new music from bands in metro Atlanta.

Phillips said he is giving Craig wide berth, noting how Craig is always open to ideas and suggestions from others on staff.

“There’s a beautiful lack of autocracy at that station,” Phillips said. “Steve’s the right guy for the gig as well as a beloved radio personality. This is his sweet spot. He knows the 99X code. He knows its parameters. He knows the station’s voice.”

For many years, 99x simulcast a Sunday New Wave afternoon party at American Pie, a once legendary but now defunct bar and restaurant off Roswell Road. (That space is now taken up by the Plaza at Sandy Springs, a strip mall featuring Mod Pizza, a Tin Drum and Salon Lofts, among others.)

Steve Craig brought back 99X's Resurrection Sunday at Olys Tavern in Johns Creek on Sept. 3, 2023. This was a temporary location. A permanent one is still being sought. RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

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Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Last week, the station is debuted a revived Resurrection Sunday party from 2 to 4 p.m. at Oly’s Tavern in Johns Creek with Craig at the helm in person.

“I will probably be there at noon,” he said. “I’ll be playing the Smiths, the Cure, Psychedelic Furs, etc. I’m looking forward to talking with our listeners about what they like, what they dislike and what we’re planning for the future.”

He said this is a kick-off event while the station hunts for a permanent spot with a big outdoor deck.

“It’s very exciting where we are going to take this station,” Craig said, “to just watch it progress and watch listeners get involved.”


IF YOU GO

“99x Resurrection Sunday” live gathering with Steve Craig

2-4 p.m. Sundays at Oly’s Tavern, 9945 Jones Bridge Road, #301, Johns Creek. 99xatl.com.

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