To All the Call Letters I’ve Loved Before
This is a post about cool local radio stations that I grew up loving in the ’80s and ’90s. Back then the industry was run by real people who loved music and not some crappy demographic chart cranked out by a computer. In hindsight, we can now see that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 pretty much ruined everything.
Writing about these stations makes me think about how much more passive the act of listening to the radio is these days. Local radio now? Sucks. Having a deep aversion to commercials and stupidity, my car’s dial never strays away from the local NPR affiliate. But there is an upside — the internet is where true, passionate radio lives on. Ironically, I don’t find myself listening to much online radio either. Sure, I’ll occasionally tune into Pandora, Luxuria Music, or somebody’s Last.fm station for a radio fix. But it’s not the same. I don’t get the same excitement of wondering what song will come up next (except maybe Luxuria or WFMU on a good day). Let the wistful nostalgia begin:
Years of Operation: 1981-87
Typical Songs: Echo & The Bunnymen — “Bring On The Dancing Horses”; The Police — “Synchronicity”
KSTM or “The Storm” is fondly remembered by Phoenix-area listeners as much for its “anything goes” format as for its weak signal emanating from the dusty faraway hamlet of Apache Junction. Back in my high school days I used to tune in sometimes and hear wonderful and completely unfamiliar new stuff from England. Although the station was very DJ-centric and often succumbed to its own quirkiness, the music planted a seed in my young mind to be more adventurous and not fear the unknown. The best thing I remember about The Storm is that they’d play an entire album from beginning to end every night at 10:00. That was unheard of, even back then, but it allowed me to listen to things like Sgt. Pepper’s for the first time. (Many former KSTM staffers are now at the internet station Radio Free Phoenix.)
Years of Operation (Alternative format): 1989-c.92; 1994-95
Typical Songs: Love & Rockets — “So Alive”; Michelle Shocked — “Anchorage”
The station that all the cool kids listened to. Originally a straight-up contemporary R&B station, as of 1989 KUKQ became the first place in the Valley (indeed, the entire U.S.) where one could hear all Alternative Rock, all the time. Prior to this fans had to wait for the occasional KSTM song or strain to hear the faint signal of KEYX, a short-lived but adventurous station that specialized in Alternative and R&B (and likely the only place where one could hear Ministry and Aretha Franklin played back-to-back). The KQ atmosphere was a wild and loosey goosey place with a casual crew headed by the affable Jonathan L. During the station’s height (just before Alternative got commercialized to death), it was an eclectic place that wasn’t hemmed in by any agenda or preconceived notions of what it should be. The euphoria was pretty short-lived, however. KQ was revived in the early ’90s with a harder-edged sound, but by that time I moved on to the next eight call letters listed below. (Jonathan L’s KEYX and KQ memories; a fan’s KUKQ memorial site.)
Years of Operation (Eclectic format): c.1992-94
Typical Songs: Tina Turner — “Nutbush City Limits”; Lee Michaels — “Do You Know What I Mean”
I would describe the early, coolest years of “The Coyote” as Oldies With Attitude. The playlist was a little bit of everything, new and old, rock and R&B, interspersed with DJ patter and soundbites from campy movies. This was the only time I heard nuggets like Shorty Long’s 1966 gem “Function at the Junction” on the air. It was a fantastic station, which only made it harder when after a few short years the owners converted it to a lobotomized “Smooth Jazz” format. To this day, I can’t overhear KYOT in restaurants or shops without throwing up a little.
Years of Operation: c.1993-95
Typical Songs: Al Martino — “Volare”; Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 — “Going Out Of My Head”
The most obscure station listed here was also the most influential on my own musical tastes today. KTWC was a mysterious Easy Listening station with no deejays and very few commercials — just lots of music interrupted by news breaks every 15 minutes. The playlist was a bizarre bunch of pop songs from the previous 40 years thrown into a blender, foreshadowing the “iPod Shuffle” format of so many internet stations. On a typical day you’d hear Robin Ward’s orgasmic “Wonderful Summer” followed by a schmaltzy instrumental like “Theme From A Summer Place” followed by Brenda Lee’s rockin’ obscurity “Is It True” followed by Olivia Newton-John’s roller boogie masterpiece “Xanadu”. It was here that I can remember being bewitched by a weirdly atmospheric tune with fake bird calls, only to find out years later that it was Martin Denny’s Exotica classic “Quiet Village”. Honestly, hearing that station was like being let in on some cataclysmic and wonderful secret.
Years of Operations (Adult Alternative format): c.1994-99
Typical Songs: Big Head Todd & The Monsters — “Bittersweet”; The Barenaked Ladies — “If I Had A Million Dollars”
In the mid ’90s, I worked at a suburban satellite office of the local newspaper. Me and my co-workers, all young professionals in their mid to late twenties, loved KZON. Of all the stations listed here, this one was probably the most tightly formatted — in this case, Adult Alternative. Remember AA? Very flavor of the month. Although it often verged on the too-mellow, this was the last local station I can think of which was guided by what the deejays wanted to play. A big chunk of the playlist was popular stuff, sure, but occasionally you’d hear a lesser-known single or an interesting older album cut from an established artist. Little did we know that it was the beginning of the end for truly creative local radio in the Phoenix area.