Radio stations that become successful by programming alternative music run the risk of alienating their core audience and need to work hard to avoid being perceived as mainstream.

Those were two of the conclusions reached by a panel of programmers and station owners at the Gavin Seminar, which concluded Saturday at the Westin St. Francis Hotel here.

The “Critical Balance: Ownership & Programming” panel balked at the term “alternative,” noting that the popularity and demographics of the format begs to be called something that won’t frighten advertisers.

“Our listeners are not blue-mohawked kids with pierced eyeballs,” said Pat McNally, general manager of radio station Live 105 in San Francisco. “My demographics are highly desirable, yet the term alternative still concerns some (potential) advertisers.”

McNally said some advertisers realize that the format attracts the demographics they seek. “Airlines, banks and computer companies advertise with us,” McNally said, though he admitted that beer, soft drink and entertainment advertisers were easier to obtain.

But Ron Morey, owner of WDRE on Long Island, N.Y., cautioned that unless strong imaging is used, advertising by banks and airlines could cause a radio station to be perceived as mainstream, the kiss of death for any outlet wishing to be viewed as cutting edge.

Morey pointed to the tag line used by his sister station WIVS in Philadelphia (which simulcasts WDRE’s signal) as an example of conveying attitude. “Being an underdog means we can lift our leg to anyone,” was the slogan used in television spots promoting WIVS.

Jon Lynch, owner of San Diego outlet 91X, said Houston was likely the next market to spawn an alternative station, as broadcasters begin to “put their second or third station into alternative. Why be the No. 4 adult contemporary when you can be the No. 1 alternative?”

Although station owners criticized Arbitron for consistently under-representing those listening to alternative formats, Tom Calderone, programming director of WDRE, said the format is also being hurt by the number of college radio staffers who take posts at record labels instead of alternative radio stations.

“If alternative stations would hire more (former) college radio guys instead of guys who used to be classic-rock DJs, the new blood would benefit the format and the station,” Calderone said.

The Gavin Seminar selection for a keynote speaker delivered its own alternative twist.

Rather than present a music industry executive as its keynoter, noted author and monologuist Spalding Gray gave this year’s speech.

His appearance was tied to the recent release of his spoken word performances on compact disc, via the newly formed Gang of Four record label.

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