Straight Outta (Bill) Compton
For Cheryl Olson, a registered nurse who also chairs meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, the only thing worse than having her chatterbox, musical know-it-all husband hanging around the house all day, running his quirky little Internet radio station from the den, is having to listen to all the trippy music he plays without succumbing to the urge to, shall we say, fly Mexicana Airlines.
"Sometimes it's hard, because the music's on all the time, and it's like a constant contact high just listening to it," she says, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the home radio station her husband, Phoenix radio veteran Andy Olson, has built just off what used to be the laundry room (until Andy covered its every wall, top to bottom, with classic rock and pop CDs).
"I have to be careful about listening to 'Dear Mr. Fantasy' too much, you know?" she says, laughing.
Andy Olson's five-month-old, commercial-free Internet radio station, Radio Free Phoenix (radiofreephoenix.com), is actually one of the few places today where someone could hear a little too much Traffic -- not to mention Captain Beefheart, the Bonzo Dog Band, King Crimson, the Firesign Theatre, and any number of other resin-stained relics from FM radio's early progressive rock era that most commercial broadcast stations today consciously avoid playing.
"The last program director we had at KSLX was having a dilemma over playing any songs by Traffic," says Olson, who still pulls Saturday and Sunday night shifts on KSLX, and previously worked at the now-defunct KSTM ("The Storm") and KZON. "Because he felt that songs like that, people listened to when they got high. And he didn't want to bring that element in. 'Cause it can really take you back."
No doubt, Radio Free Phoenix takes listeners back -- not only to FM radio's hippy-dippy era, but also to the boss-jock days of AM Top 40, the acoustic-rock period of the mid-'70s, the early days of alternative rock, and pretty much every brief, accidental moment in radio history when the DJ had a chance to experiment a bit and play what he wanted.
There's a definite Phoenix stamp on the playlist. On his computer, Olson splits up the thousands of songs in his personal archive into sub-playlists like "Storm songs," "The Zone [KZON] songs," as well as a pack of '60s garage-pop classics he calls "KRUX/KRIZ" stuff. Acts who were big only in Phoenix, like Jerry Riopelle and John Stewart, are represented, as are the songs of legendary local bands like the Jetzons, Billy Clone and the Same, Blue Shoes, Bob Meighan, and even Commodore Condello, from The Wallace & Ladmo Show.
"It's so cool to play a song by Mike Condello and know this is streaming out to the whole world," says Olson, whose ISP-unscrambling software tells him when a Web surfer from Germany, Japan or England is tuned in.
It's not all nostalgia, though. The station also plays a healthy dose of new music that Olson feels fits the mix, from Wilco to My Morning Jacket to Guster.
"People will call up KSLX and say, 'There's been no good music since the Allman Brothers,'" Olson says, laughing, while Wilco's nearly 11-minute Crazy Horse-style jam "Spiders" streams out from one of the two PCs competing for desk space with old reel-to-reel decks, turntables and CD players in Olson's home studio. "I go, 'Yes, there has. There's somebody making music that you would like right now. You just haven't been hearing it.'"
In conceiving an electronic-age update to the freeform radio style that ruled the early days of FM, Olson, a native Phoenician, was most clearly influenced by legendary Phoenix program director William Edward Compton.
"When they mention all these great underground radio innovators, like [KSAN's] Tom Donahue and others, at large, no one's really aware of Bill Compton -- and what he stood for, and what he did. He was who he sounded like. He was real."
Olson never personally got to work with Compton, who started Phoenix's first underground station, KCAC-AM, in the late '60s, and who took the format to the FM band with the creation of KDKB (Compton died in a car accident in Phoenix in June of 1977). But Olson later came to know and work beside other jocks from KDKB's early days, like Toad Hall and Hank Cookenboo, who are now also deceased.
"The music those guys played was a portal into who they were," he says. "So the music was mixed with the social consciousness, what the station stood for, and also who these guys were. They were credible people."
Bringing those kinds of people back to radio is Olson's other mission with Radio Free Phoenix. Using his radio biz connections, Olson has brought in a slew of familiar on-air voices, like KOOL's Liz Boyle, KDKB/KSTM vet Lee Powell, KZON's Dave Cooper and, recently, Jeanne Sedello, another KSLX alum.
"In a lot of ways, we're so simpatico with KCDX," says Liz Boyle, referring to the mysterious commercial-free -- and DJ-free -- automated radio station broadcast out of Florence on 103.1 FM. "The big difference is, we're real people. And we're familiar voices to a lot of listeners of this kind of music. We're old friends."
"We're real people who stand for something and mean something to listeners -- as opposed to just a box of songs," Olson adds.
Olson, who's been funding the operation with the help of listener donations and a click-through partnership with the Barnes & Noble online music store (Radio Free Phoenix earns 3 percent of revenue from CDs purchased online through its links), admits his hardest job so far has been getting the older listeners who love the music he plays the most to make the switch from "terrestrial" radio to the new online frontier.
"It's the people from our generation [Olson and Boyle are 47 and 45, respectively] who still have the dial-up connections and are the most computer-illiterate," he laments. "But they were also the same people who didn't want to switch from vinyl to CDs, and now you have no choice."
"Sooner or later, everyone will come around," adds Boyle. "This is the rebirth of freeform radio. It's just not on the radio anymore."
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