Poor headbangers :
Steve Portigal was on the way to the gym in his Miata, looking for an AC/DC fix on his car radio, when he drove smack into the changing face of California.
The dial was tuned to 92.3 FM, but instead of the screaming hard-rock guitars that have blared from KSJO for 36 years to the delight of Bay Area listeners, what Portigal heard were accordion-tinged Mexican oldies.
"I was confused and surprised," said Portigal, 36, of Montara. "I could almost always press that button and an AC/DC song would be playing."
With no notice other than its final song -- Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" -- radio giant Clear Channel switched KSJO to a Spanish-language format of Mexican favorites on Oct. 28, giving a nod to the region's burgeoning Latino population and pulling the plug on a Bay Area rock institution.
The move has left a generation of aging headbangers scanning the dial in vain for their Scorpions, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.
"There are times I just need to hear Ozzy (Osbourne) or Metallica," said Terence Curtis, 36, of San Jose, who had listened to KSJO since he was 12. "Yesterday I was driving, scanning again, and I practically fell asleep because now Bay Area commercial radio is like a sedative."
Kim Bryant, San Jose-based KSJO's new general manager, said the station has gotten plenty of complaints from longtime listeners but enthusiastic responses from new ones.
"It's emotional because it's a brand. It's legendary," she said. "But it was time."
Bryant said the station had lost listeners as they aged and their tastes mellowed from metal to classic rock, at the same time the Latino population has exploded.
Bryant said KSJO's ratings had fallen "drastically'' over several years. In the latest ratings period for the San Jose market -- which is tracked separately from San Francisco -- KSJO had fallen to 24th place with 1.8 percent of the area's 1.46 million listeners older than 12. And for the first time, a Spanish-language station topped the list. KSOL (98.9 FM), whose regional Mexican format is simulcast on KSQL (99.1 FM), had 7 percent of listeners, beating out longtime leader news station KGO's (810 AM) 6.5 percent.
The switch at KSJO is part of a broader initiative by Clear Channel -- the nation's largest radio station owner, with more than 1,200 stations nationwide and 10 in the Bay Area -- to bring Spanish-language programming to its stations in more than 20 markets.
KSJO's new format, called "La Preciosa," is geared toward Mexican immigrants and "brings back memories of their country," Bryant said, with artists such as Vicente Fernandez and Juan Gabriel, whom she compared with Frank Sinatra and Elton John, respectively. The station also has the only locally produced morning show, with host Alex Lucas.
When the format premiered in Monterey and Salinas 18 months ago, it immediately became No. 1.
Industry expert Adam Jacobson predicts the same for KSJO.
"This is a home run," said Jacobson, radio editor for industry news source Radio & Records, who described KSJO's new sound as "KOIT for the Mexican population." He said the music, which is popular with a wide age range, fills a niche not covered by other Spanish-language stations.
"Clear Channel has put an exclamation point on the enormous growth of Spanish-speaking Hispanics in the Bay Area," he said.
According to the 2000 U.S. census, there were 1.3 million Hispanics in the nine-county Bay Area, almost a fifth of the total population and a ratio that continues to grow.
More change is coming. KBAA (93.3 FM), now adult contemporary, also plans to go Spanish, bringing to five the number of full-strength Spanish signals on the FM dial in the Bay Area. At least five more stations reach parts of the region.
By spring, Jacobson said, there could be three or four Spanish-language stations in the top 10.
While disappointed, some rockers saw the change coming.
"It was only a matter of time. When companies are looking to increase their bottom line, they're going to go where the listeners are," said Dan LaFever, 42, of San Francisco. When KSJO's morning team, Lamont & Tonelli, moved to classic rock station KSAN (107.7 FM) -- "The Bone" -- LaFever went with them and now tunes in to the Friday night Metal Zone.
But he still listened to KSJO for that harder rock and fondly remembers the lineup for KSJO's Day on the Green 3 at the Oakland Coliseum his senior year of high school, where he stood in the front and got a wicked sunburn watching AC/DC, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and Mahogany Rush.
He kept the T-shirt for years.
On Saturday, fans of the old KSJO -- which broadcast its rock format on multiple frequencies to reach much of the Bay Area -- hoped to add more T- shirts, bumper stickers and other swag to their collection before they're all replaced with the "La Preciosa" logo. They gathered at Jersey's Cheesesteaks in Campbell to reminisce, say farewell to the DJs and stock up on free stuff.
Many listeners say it will be hard to fill the void.
"It's hard to find a good hard-rock station that isn't just oldies," said Suzee Barrett, 43, among the listeners who liked that KSJO sprinkled in newer bands such as Linkin Park and Korn.
Barrett, who grew up in San Mateo and started listening to KSJO in 1974, has turned to college radio. But her car radio remains programmed to 92.3 because she can't find a replacement.
"I've been trying to hit seek and see if anything good comes in," she said, "but I haven't had much success yet."