22 August 2008

The radio not taken

The other day, my recent "salute" to KGMO got the attention of a couple of folks from its loyal competitor, Q-99.

And they've created a Facebook page dedicated to the station, as a gathering place for the people who worked there, as well as those who listened and fondly remember this one-lung FM which toppled a full-power "heritage" station.

The minute I pulled up the page and saw the default picture - what you see to your left - well, it's hard to describe what I felt. I remember the "Q-99 Rocks Me!" bumper sticker, and my first encounter with it. The logo dates to around 1983 or so, a year after my parents (who hated Cape) eagerly jumped at the chance to move when Sears offered my Dad a gig at their new store in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

This encounter took place on the way to school one morning, as I came up behind a car with a Missouri tag, and a car dealer logo on the back indicating a Cape Girardeau lineage. On the car's bumper was that very sticker.

On my radio at that moment was KKYK 103.7 in Little Rock, at the time the city's only top-40 station. Craig O'Neill was the morning jock, and the song playing was Willie Nelson's "Always On My Mind", which that damned station still played as if it were current.

There was, flatly, nothing good about central Arkansas radio in 1983, and seeing that Q-99 sticker unleashed a lot of pent-up frustration. Suddenly, not only did I miss Q-99, but the lack of KGMO in my life contributed to this screaming void. Why could a city less than 1/4 the size of Little Rock have not one but two rockers engaged in what was termed "guerrilla warfare"?

And Hot Springs, Ark., with a population greater than Cape's (HS: 34,000 versus CG's 32,000) had zero rock music stations. Zero. Nada. Hell's bells, the damned place didn't even have a Burger King!!

Compare the 1982 radio dials of both cities:

960 - KGIR: Adult Contemporary/Top-40
1170 - KJAS: Adult Contemporary/Oldies

1220 - KZYM: Country
1550 - KEWI: Country

90.9 - KRCU: college rock - 10 watts (would eventually become a full-power station and convert to NPR status)

99.3 - KJAQ "Q-99": Top-40/Album Rock

100.7 - KGMO: Top-40

102.9 - KFMP: Easy Listening (run out of a converted garage on Independence Ave., very much a shoestring operation in its day)

590 - KBHS: Country (my first radio job, 11th grade)

1340 - KWBO "The Cowboy": Country - would soon change to KZNG and Music of Your Life
1420 - KXOW: Adult Contemporary (and very downtempo at that)

96.7 - KSPA: MOR/Easy Listening (sister to KBHS - babysat this puppy 6-12 Mid. 5 days a week)

97.5 - KGUS: Easy Listening

106.3 - KACQ "The Country Q": Country

But Hot Springs had nothing, not even a nighttime rock show. Nothing for the teens to gather around. No hallway battles over which station was better. No button spotters. No lockers decorated with station bumper stickers.

People said "Nobody wants to listen to local radio when there's Little Rock 50 miles away." To that I said, ummm, bovine stink pickles. Why, then, did Troy, Alabama - a city barely 12,000 in population, and more backwards than Rot Springs - have WTBF, which rocked after dark; plus, before 1983, they had a fulltime FM top-40 (WRES). And Troy was within reach of stations from not one, not two, but three larger cities, all with competing rockers with good signals over the city. Five alone, not counting WRES. And WTBF, with a lousy 500-watt night signal, competed nicely with all of them.

I was behind this Cape vehicle for no more than three miles, but that's all it took. That day at school, I'm sure I was wearing my ass for all of Lakeside High School to see. I felt like Kevin Bacon in Bomont. And the movie Footloose hit close to home, because there were lots of cities around me in that part of Arkansas that banned dancing. No proms. Can you say "Senior Banquet"?

Others said, "You can't sell a radio station catering only to teenagers. Wrigley's Gum and Coca-Cola can't cover the overhead by themselves!" That last sentence was said more than once by the GM of KBHS/KSPA. Well, explain to me, pray tell, how both KGMO and Q-99 were able to do just that!! And 70 miles to the east in Pine Bluff, KOTN and its FM station KFXE rocked out. And they were closer to Little Rock.

Those in power in Hot Springs back then clearly didn't grasp the concept of, ummmmm, dayparting. True enough, you cannot program to teenagers at 10:30 a.m. during the school year. That's why contemporary stations leaned AC in middays ... tweaking the music to include a larger percentage of oldies, and not playing the harder stuff. The dominant audience in middays were the housewives. And they weren't fans of Deep Purple or Jimi Hendrix, so you didn't play 'em. On the other hand, you kept the MOR-leaning or crossover-country product away from "teen time" (most older adults are parked in front of the TV during primetime and typically don't consume as much radio).

I worked at KOTN in the late '80s, its top-40 days clear behind them, and remember seeing all the 45s in the on-air library still with their '70s-era file folder labels affixed: the really uptempo records had "AFTER 3 PM ONLY" typed on 'em. And the uber-hard stuff, i.e. Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog", were appropriately marked "AFTER 6 PM ONLY."

We soon made a Spring Break trip over to Alabama, with a stopover in Tupelo, Miss. And in March 1983, Tupelo had a little top-40 war of their own going. Obviously, they didn't get the memo about rock being unsaleable. WTUP - my favorite retarded top-40 (it made KGMO on its worst day sound like WLS and WABC combined!) - was still playing the hits against 100,000 watt giant WZLQ ("Z-99: Your Kind of Music"). And less than a year later, another full-power FM ("KZ-103") would fire up to take on both. Tupelo. Yeah, Tupelo. THAT Tupelo.

Over the last 48 hours I've thought more about Q-99 than I ever thought possible. It was an amazing station with the most dedicated of staff. As it says on their Facebook page, "Whatever it required was the requirement."

It agonizes me even to this day for another reason. I left Cape days after I turned 17. I would go on to land an evening job just months later at KBHS/KSPA, a station which redefined dysfunctional. I learned much, but mostly on my own. While I was taught the basic mechanics of it all (what I didn't already know from pestering the jocks at KGIR and KZYM back in Cape), I had no development or real mentoring when it came to my on-air sound. I was thrown to the lions and had to learn a lot of stuff the hard way.

I still wonder "what if." In 1980-81, I was in the Central High School "Radio Club" (yes, they had one). And our big activity was writing and editing a five-minute newscast on Saturday mornings called, strangely enough, The Central High News. This aired on all the area stations, and we were 'farmed out', so to speak, to each station. I was assigned KZYM-AM 1220, and one October Saturday in 1980, I made my on-air debut.

Your Blog Host, early in 1981, striking a disturbing limpwristed pose. Is that hair I once had?

Eventually they allowed me to sit at the board as I delivered the newscast, then upon finishing up I punched the cart with the station jingle and started the jock's first record. Talk about a near-orgasmic rush!

I was beginning to talk with Mr. Zimmer (KZYM's manager and owner) as 1981 came to an end, and things were pointing toward him taking me on as a green weekender at KZYM.

What if. What if I instead cut my teeth once a week on a 250-watt daytimer instead of 6 PM to sign-off weeknights on a 5,000-watt daytimer at 590 on the dial, with a coverage area stretching from Memphis to Oklahoma City (no joke). KZYM, and its (barely) single lung, was a class act. To have been able to be part of it. To have been properly and fully trained and guided by great radio people like Mr. Zimmer.

And from there, what if I could've snagged evenings on KGIR? Or -- maybe -- taken under the wing of the professionals at KJAS/Q-99? Or, yes, even .... *gulp* ... KGMO??

I love reminiscing about Q-99, although it comes with a dark side: being reminded of the road I wasn't allowed to take, all because Hot Springs was Mom & Dad's Promised Land.

Q-99 didn't rock me when their bumper sticker did. My loss.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "Radiohead" Gleck

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