Party Favors

KPTY finds room for novelty in the Top 40 format

Big Mama was fuming.
The notorious nighttime DJ for KPTY-Party 103.9 FM had come into the station's office on September 8 to find that Valley parents were calling in to voice concerns about his station's risque content.

So Big Mama responded the only way he knows how. That night on his show, this self-appointed First Amendment warrior played a revolving handful of songs over and over, going from King Missile's "Detachable Penis" into Adam Sandler's profanity-laced "Ode to My Car" (basically a parade of car honks in place of obvious four-letter words) and including bong fests from Cypress Hill and some X-rated raunch from Insane Clown Posse. Just to goose up the surrealism of the proceedings, he found it necessary to periodically toss in snippets from the Barney Miller theme.

That night wasn't exactly typical of KPTY, but it did give some sense of what makes listening to this station such a strange experience. Since changing formats three months ago, away from a Power 92-styled urban-hits niche, this station seems to have adhered chiefly to a format of provocation. At its best (and its worst), KPTY can sound like a pirate station taken over by a horny 14-year-old wanker who only has six discs in his CD collection, but thinks they're all really bitchin'.

You pick up on the new Party Radio sensibility as soon as you arrive at the station. Scattered around its offices are South Park dolls, a tie-in to the station's new TV ads that feature the rotund Cartman in the shape of a boom box, accompanied by a laughably inaccurate voice-over and a script that can manage nothing more witty than Cartman (wrong character, by the way) saying, "I think someone just killed Kenny."

As I walk upstairs, I meet the daytime jock known as the Beefcake. When he realizes I'm with New Times, he offers to put clamps on his nipples and pose for a photo. That's Party Radio.

Even in its most tranquil daytime state, KPTY is a programming oddball because it throws together genres that most narrow-casting consultants would keep apart. You'll hear Aerosmith, Will Smith, Lauryn Hill, Mase, Goo Goo Dolls, Beastie Boys, and Harvey Danger back to back, as though they all fit together, which in a way they do. Granted, the approach is no more radical than the old Top 40 strategy of mixing commercially successful musical styles on one station, but it still seems kinda daring when you're used to stations that insist on force-feeding you the same flavor ad nauseam.

"What inspired the change was the fact that we were not growing to the pace that we wanted to grow," says Mark Waters, station general manager. "We were living in the shadows of KKFR. We were never going to be number one in that category. So if you want to be number one in a category, create a new category."

This "new" category was launched by KPTY co-owner Jerry Clifton at the Honolulu station KXTM last November, and has exploded on that market. Waters cites that station as a "prototype" for KPTY. He notes that the station's approach is much like a radio version of MTV, where musical styles get jumbled in an eclectic video-jukebox format, and the only common denominator is extreme commercial appeal.

But neither the Honolulu nor the MTV model fully explains the wacked-out digressions that have become a staple of this station. KPTY plays "Detachable Penis" the way most Top 40 stations played Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" over the past few months. Actually, you'd be hard-pressed to listen to the station for an hour without hearing this juvenile lament. If King Missile weren't long defunct, you'd swear that some payola was being exchanged. And what does one make of an obscure tune like Homegrown's cutesy ska-pop "Surfer Girl," which gets enough airplay on KPTY to convince you that this group is booked at America West Arena, not The Heat?

The more you listen to Party 103.9, the more you get the feeling that the station appeases its casual listeners with the hits, but it's really the rude novelty stuff that the hard-core audience lives for.

"We're very research-oriented, all of Clifton's stations are like that, but there's also some gut as well," says Dead Air Dave, who came to KPTY this summer after being fired by KEDJ, and has assumed the roles of afternoon DJ, assistant program director and music director. "The spice, the attitude part comes from the gut. When you look at how many of those songs there are among all the ones we play, it's a small number. But they're high-profile songs, and that's what makes us different."

Unlike many radio jocks, Dave (he prefers to keep his last name a professional secret) doesn't transform his personality or alter his voice when he gets in front of a microphone. On or off the air, this tall, skinny dude with long blond hair and a goatee is basically the same candid, likable smart-ass. But, in his own casual way, he does play up the "party in my pants" ethos that's taken over the station.

I watch him take the mike and navigate the potentially torturous segue from Cypress Hill to Savage Garden: "I'm Dead Air Dave, your cordial master of ceremonies, and action figure. But, keep in mind, some moving parts might be a choking hazard. So, play it safe on Party Radio 103.9."

Obviously, KPTY is not the savior for a terribly malnourished Valley radio scene, where we have 53 stations but so little that's worth hearing. But the station is valuable because at least it doesn't segregate along the usual racial/genre lines and because it's willing to take obnoxiousness to the next level. The latter factor might be what ultimately lifts the station out of its Arbitron gutter.

"I've worked for so many radio stations where they say, 'We're not personality driven,' but the sad truth is that if you strip that imaging away from the radio station, what you've got left is a pissing match," says Dead Air Dave.

"People think we're doing things as publicity stunts, causing problems and rabble-rousing. Well, we are. We're three months old. We're still pooping in our drawers. We're babies. If we're not the center of attention, we're going to kick and scream and fuss."

Money for Nothing: In an interesting footnote to the Beastie Boys' wild September 7 show at America West Arena, the band's keyboardist Money Mark found time for a post-gig recording session in Tempe. Money Mark showed up at 1 a.m. at Mind's Eye studio with local hero DJ Radar to work up a special remix for Matador Records band Cornelius. Mind's Eye honcho Larry Elyea says Money Mark was laid-back and affable, and when asked about the band's sold-out arena show earlier that night, he said he enjoyed club gigs more.

Who's in town: This week offers the Edge's annual mammoth throwdown, That Damn Show. Any 10-band alt-rock festival is going to be a long, sometimes tedious event, but good moments would seem guaranteed from locals the Phunk Junkeez as well as Seattle popsters Harvey Danger, whose hit "Flagpole Sitta" neatly pegs alt-rock's current malaise: "The agony and the irony/They're killing me." That Damn Show is set for Saturday, September 19, at Peoria Sports Complex.

The Rhythm Room celebrates its seventh anniversary on Thursday, September 17, with another in its series of special live recording sessions, in this case by blues harmonica master Mojo Buford. Special guests include Bob Margolin, Chico Chism, Johnny Rapp, and Paul Thomas.

--Gilbert Garcia

Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: ggarcia@newtimes.com

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