In an age when program directors are less inclined to stick their necks out than a turtle, the creators of Radio Free Phoenix--Dwight Tindle and Danny Zelisko--have launched a radical Sunday-evening show (7 p.m. to midnight) that they hope will shake up mainstream radio or, at the very least, air songs you haven't heard in a while.
Tindle, wearing a cherry Hawaiian shirt over dark blue Levi's, is nestled in a chair in the bright, cozy studio at the Eagle 96.9-FM in midtown Phoenix. It's been 20 years since the founder and former owner of KDKB has gazed down the black barrel of a microphone, and he couldn't be happier. Swilling economy-size cups of coffee, he talks about the show's meandering format with the same zeal that a missionary might address a tribe of pagans.
"Freeform radio is like weaving a tapestry," says Tindle, his velvety baritone smooth as a single-malt Scotch. "You start with a song, it transitions into another song, and then another until ultimately you look back and you've woven a beautiful tapestry. The key is to let the music drive the format and make the decisions."
A native of Philadelphia, Tindle knew he wanted to be in radio before he was old enough to vote. His biggest inspiration was an underground show called "The Marconi Experiment," named after the famous radio inventor. Tindle remembers a deejay by the name of Dave Herman spinning the music of then-unknown artists Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. In 1969, Herman told his listeners to go to a concert in Saugherteys, New York, for a concert featuring Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Richie Havens. The concert, of course, was Woodstock.
"That's when I discovered there were hundreds of thousands of us out there listening to this radio show," says Tindle. "Danny and I are trying to recapture the spirit of underground radio with Radio Free Phoenix. Right now there are other publicly supported stations doing this around the country, but we're the only ones doing it commercially."
Tindle's musings are interrupted by his partner, who's arrived with his 10-year-old daughter Daniele on one arm and a stash of obtuse CDs cradled in the other. Next to the soft-spoken, silver-haired Tindle, Danny Zelisko is a small tornado--like the weather condition, you can hear him coming from a mile away.
The duo first met back in 1974 when Zelisko, a recent Chicago transplant, approached Tindle for a job as a program director. To his chagrin, the station owner turned him down. "I came here idolizing what Dwight was doing with KDKB," says Zelisko. "But he wouldn't hire me. Instead I've had to buy my way on the air by doing concerts."
That year, Zelisko began promoting shows, but he never lost his appetite for radio. In 1975, he did an import hour while filling in for one of the deejays on KDKB. He would also, on occasion, spin metal albums for The Edge before it adopted a modern-rock format. No matter what station he was at, he always shied away from play lists, which were as predictable as murders in a Stephen King novel.
After nearly two decades of hearing the same watered-down dreck being played over and over on the airwaves, Zelisko knew it was time to turn schlock-radio into rock-radio. When he approached Shaun Holly, program director for the Eagle, and told him he thought it would be fun to have a radio show in which he could play whatever he wanted, Holly was all for it.
Zelisko says other program directors balked at the idea. "They'd look at me like they were thinking, 'There he is, blowing off smoke again. He'll get over it. He'll go back to doing his day job.'"
They were wrong. On May 10, Tindle and Zelisko did their first show at the Eagle with live appearances by Alice Cooper and drummer Doug Clifford from Creedence Clearwater Revival. Operating without a specified format, or a play list, for that matter, the pair snubbed Top 40 tradition with a kaleidoscopic approach that would probably give Casey Kasem a case of diarrhea.
In one set, they teed off with Alan Parsons' "Blue Blue Sky," segued into Hanson's "Weird," detoured through Alison Moyet's "Love Resurrection," then jumped merrily into King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man."
"This is no-hit radio," says Zelisko, pulling himself out of a screaming air-guitar solo. "You may hear the same artists from week to week, but you'll never hear the same song. You know, I have this recurring nightmare that's finally coming true. We can once again play the music the way it was meant to be played for the people who were meant to hear it."
The first listener to call in was comedian Steven Wright.
Wright: "Is Eddie there?"
Zelisko: "I'm afraid you've reached the wrong number. This is the Eagle."
Wright: "What are you doing in Eddie's house?"
Cooper: "That sounds like Steven Wright."
Wright: "Alice Cooper, how are you?"
Cooper: "I'm playing great [golf]. Do you play?"
Wright: "No, I don't. I listen to tapes of people playing. I can't play. I think it's too violent to the ball."
If you're Danny Zelisko, owner of Evening Star Productions, then you produce more than 300 concerts a year and you know everybody who's anybody in the music biz in Arizona. Of course, being the biggest promoter in the state can present a conflict of interests the day you decide to become a program director. This is not a consideration that worries Zelisko.
"This isn't about me getting on the radio and talking about Evening Star shows for five hours," Zelisko says. "It's gonna come up, but you know what? My daughter wants me to play Jonny Lang. Another promoter's gonna do Jonny Lang 'cause he's stupid enough to pay him what he wants. I'll play Jonny Lang. I'll try to get Jonny Lang on this show. I'll give away his tickets. It doesn't matter that it's another promoter. Evening Star is buying time on this radio station to promote its concerts, so Evening Star will get airtime. But it's just one of the advertisers and it happens to be me. Who cares?"
Certainly not Tindle, who tonight is clearly in another world. It's the one-week anniversary of Radio Free Phoenix' debut, and things are running like clockwork. Tindle's voice rises and swirls like steam floating from a coffee mug as he reads a live spot for Tarbell's restaurant: "From morel mushrooms and fava beans, puff pastry and goat cheese as an appetizer to baby spinach with stilton, orange segments and roasted walnuts . . . it's the kind of place where you want to throw your head back and say, 'Yes!'"
A commercial comes on, and Zelisko shakes his head in bemusement. "What's the thing with fava beans? What's a fava bean, anyway?" Tindle opens his mouth to explain, but Zelisko is already rifling through his inventory for some vintage Iggy Pop and some Gentle Giant and Captain Beefheart and MC5 discs. He looks up and notices Tindle gearing up to speak.
"Dwight, what are you going to do?"
Tindle looks offended. "An I.D. You know, 'This is Radio Free Phoenix Eagle 96.9.'"
"He's gone I.D. mad," says Zelisko to anybody who's listening.
"We'll do some naked segueways," offers Tindle, playing Quivers to Zelisko's Stern.
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"A lot of naked segueways," corrects Zelisko. "Radio-free means Eagle-free. Or it at least means minus a few feathers."
The two friends laugh, and Zelisko takes to the phones. It's Roger Glover, the bassist from Deep Purple, calling in from Connecticut.
"Hey, Rog," Zelisko yells into the phone. "Wanna do an I.D.?"
"Yeah," says the voice on the other end of the line. There's a brief pause, then the voice says, "Hi, this is Roger Glover from Deep Purple, and I guess you're listening to Radio Free Phoenix Eagle 96.9."
"That's it!" screams Zelisko. "That's vintage stuff!