A Band of Screw-Ups at KWSS-FM Work at Waging a 100-Watt Revolution
Brad Pfirrman slaps the snooze button for the third and final time. It's just after 5:30 a.m., which means he needs to drag his ass down to the gas station around the corner from his Glendale home. On arrival, he buys a shot of Redline — an energy drink so potent most reputable stores card kids trying to buy it — and a Rockstar tallboy as a chaser. Sure, he could have bought the caffeine late last night when he made his way home from a long night working at his family's party-planning business, but the trip is another way to shake off the sleepiness before people start showing up at his house.
After Brad gets back home, he slides behind a laptop in a makeshift studio occupying the space where his living room should be. The sky still is pitch black when the scruffy 31-year-old in an old, black T-shirt and backward ball-cap morphs into Beef Vegan, a DJ broadcasting a show called The Morning Infidelity.
Beef's officially in control when Broken Bells' "The High Road" hits the airwaves of low-power station KWSS 106.7 FM. The song starts playing on a computer at Beef's house before traveling through a central brain at the station's office a few miles away and over to a radio tower on a North Phoenix mountain. He won't actually turn on his microphone until about 6:30, when his show's sassy, pretty news girl, Lisa Short, nicknamed "Shorty," and his sunglasses-wearing sidekick "Big Buddha," (even Shorty doesn't know his real name) arrive.
The show's opening dialogue isn't quite Cronkite.
"Hey, we're on — are we on?" Beef asks.
"Yeah, we're on," says Buddha.
The Morning Infidelity is classic morning radio. If you've heard Howard Stern or one of the ubiquitous "morning zoo" shows, you get the idea. There's a light mix of music, skits, contests, and news — the stuff commuters want to zone out to while fighting traffic.
Beef sounds like a young Wolfman Jack and has an undeniable knack for delivering crude one-liners and currying favor with minor celebrities who stop by the studio, including former MTV personality Tom Green, by setting them up to show off. He starts this morning with a little good-natured flirting with Shorty and promising a great show before riffing on the sorry state of a Burger King where he ate with his 4-year-old daughter. There's more music: "He's What I Want" by local favorites and former New Times cover kids The Love Me Nots ("Garage A Go-Go," August 24, 2006) and a funny plug from a John McCain impersonator.
Next, it's time for the news — more riffing on current events. On this morning, the world is captivated by the story of Ted Williams, a homeless man in Ohio who became a YouTube sensation because of his "golden voice" then eventually scored a job as an announcer for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Like I said before, the good news for him is that [he got] a job," Beef quips on air. "The bad news is, if he [had gotten] a job in radio, he'd probably make less money than he made panhandling on the side of the road."
It's all standard radio fare — pretty professional, considering the resources involved and that it's broadcast out of some dude's house in Glendale. It's also the sort of thing you used to hear every morning on a dozen local radio stations. Not anymore.
There are still a few of these kind of shows around — Holmberg's Morning Sickness on KUPD, Johnjay and Rich on KISS, Tim and Willie on KMLE — but morning radio in Phoenix is nothing like it was a decade ago.
Drive-time shows used to be flagship programming for mainstream stations. The stakes were high in this time slot, since ratings hit their daily peak during the 7 a.m. hour on weekdays as commuters tuned in on their way to work. But shows like this — at least when they were done at a professional level — also had high overhead, given the manpower involved and the expenses of promoting personalities in hyper-competitive marketplaces.
So most of the big boys have bowed out of the game, including KEXX 103.9, the closest thing KWSS has to a competitor. These days, there's a low-rent reproduction of the classic morning show from the unpaid crew of Beef, Shorty, Buddha, and a fresh-faced kid they call "Emo Tom," who looks up questions Beef yells out and does minor production work. Today, Emo (real name: Tom Bogardus) is tasked with converting old songs from the MySpace page of Beef's old band, Gravy Blue, into something that can be played on the air so everyone can have a good laugh. Tomorrow, he might be settling a bet between Beef and Shorty over what some big word means or finding an unflattering photo of Miley Cyrus.
Beef's shabby home studio has four microphones, three computers, two threadbare armchairs, and a beat-up coffee table topped with a fresh copy of High Times. The show's crew interviews whatever guests they can wrangle up, including a few show-biz B-listers, like comedian Adam Carolla (who later went on a five-minute rant on his podcast about what a douchebag Beef was) and Tom Wilson, best known as "Biff" from Back to the Future. They awkwardly put seemingly every caller on the air and play five local bands every morning as part of a listener-picked countdown, even when the bands are rap-metal acts that don't fit their otherwise indie format.
It's all a lot of fun, which is good, because no one here is getting paid by this nonprofit station. While the music's blaring from the studio, the crew smokes on the front patio — sometimes cigarettes, sometimes joints, even though the sun is barely up. On one such occasion, the door hangs open and a stray dog wanders out; no one had even noticed that he'd wandered in.
At KWSS, Beef Vegan is one of the more ambitious hosts, making no secret of his desire to "make it" to a larger station or to help KWSS become a bigger operation.
Right now, KWSS is more like college radio than a commercial station.
Much of it has to do with its operating under a low-power FM license. It broadcasts on an otherwise-unused frequency using the strongest signal the Federal Communications Commission allows for low-power FM — 100 watts. Some commercial stations can pump out 50,000 watts.
Still, you can pick up KWSS in much of the Valley. The signal is clearest on the west side but can be heard pretty much anywhere inside Loop 101. The transmission dissolves into fuzz south or east of Tempe and approaching the White Tank Mountains west of Glendale.
The Phoenix metro area's geography — a flat valley with a few low mountain ranges scattered around — actually helps; radio signals travel best over flat terrain so long as they start a few hundred feet above ground. Like any LPFM station, the FCC will make KWSS change frequencies if a commercial station wants to take over its slice of bandwidth. KWSS probably will switch to 95.9 FM sometime in April, ceding its space to a new Spanish-language station.
Although KWSS, which has been on the air since 2005, does have an official studio at Shea and Frank Lloyd Wright boulevards in North Scottsdale, most shows are produced remotely from the unpaid hosts' homes and patched through to the station via the Internet. Tune in and you'll also hear guys like Kevin Gassman, a burnout who, as Beef tells it, moved from mornings to afternoons after sleeping through a show or two; local hipster DJ William "Fucking" Reed; and straight-laced former Edge DJ Shon White.
Appreciation for offbeat rock music and current indie trends is the closest thing KWSS has to a golden thread. Its only programming directive from station owner Frank Magarelli is to spin one '80s song, one '90s song, one '00s song, and one track from an independent artist each hour. The mandated '80s track is easily likely to be Madonna, k.d. lang, or the Dead Milkmen, however, which is why KWSS has to be one of the few stations on Earth where you can hear Canadian indie-pop sister duo Tegan and Sara's "Walking with a Ghost" back-to-back with country singer Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About."
All that freedom breeds enthusiastic DJs, but it also makes for maddening inconsistency. It's hard to keep a loyal audience when the format fluctuates so wildly.
Transitions between different shows are even rougher: An outgoing DJ will play whatever he or she wants until the computer at the station's office automatically flips to the feed for the next show, often in the middle of a song.
It's nearly impossible for KWSS to tell what listeners love and hate since it doesn't pay for Arbitron ratings. The station's only "ratings" are based on how many people listen via its website at particular times, along with anecdotal evidence from any calls and e-mails hosts receive.
Not that the station is held accountable by "advertisers."
Like public radio's NPR and other nonprofits, KWSS gets sponsors to underwrite the costs of producing shows and paying three managers. Donors lean heavily toward nightclubs and head shops (rather than the well-heeled, aging liberals who support NPR and its affiliates), and most listeners probably can't tell the difference between one of KWSS' sponsorship announcements and what would be a regular ad on a commercial station.
Hosts also can line up their own sponsors to offset the costs of producing their shows, but most spend their own time and money with only a prayer of making their hobby a career in some far-away future. Yet station owner Magarelli, a 40-year-old radio veteran compared to Disco Stu of Simpsons fame by his underlings, doesn't have trouble finding people to fill airtime.
"There's something about having that access to the masses and that creative outlet that just breeds passion," Magarelli says. "They volunteer their time, and in exchange, they get their fix."
The future of low-power FM stations such as KWSS seems bright. There are 835 LPFMs in the country, most in small communities and rural areas. President Barack Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 this January, freeing up more bandwidth by allowing low-power FM stations to creep within two clicks of existing commercial stations.
Indie music types are excited by the medium. Pitchfork.com, a website that wields as much influence with contemporary hipsters as Rolling Stone did with hippies in 1969, published a 6,000-word piece on the legislation that touched on every aspect of the LPFM phenomenon but kept coming back to the music. Many acts interviewed could hardly contain their giddiness at LPFM's potential as a backdoor to getting their music on local radio.
"We're talking about bands that are on Top 10 charts that are critically beloved that can't get on commercial radio. For the Spoons and the Arcade Fires of the world, LPFM is going to serve as a bridge that gets them on local radio," Michael Brac, founder of indie label Misra Records, was quoted as saying.
What sort of music KWSS should play is a thorny issue at the station. Since they're not paid, it's hard to tell the DJs what to play. On the other hand, whenever a DJ spins something that alienates the station's intended audience, tension can result between hosts.
As the morning guy, Beef Vegan is one of the station's "stars," and his opinion carries weight, which is why it was a big deal when things boiled over for him in January. Beef went on an on-air rant about how much some of the station's music sucked, his tantrum worded as an ironic statement about why things couldn't be changed at KWSS.
"It's not like I can tell you to set up a Facebook page to take the suck out of KWSS," he said at one point.
No one set up a Facebook page bashing the station, but the mutinous remarks didn't go unnoticed, or unpunished. The Morning Infidelity was taken off the air for a day. Beef and his crew did the show via his website for an online audience of dozens while the station aired what he describes as "the shittiest fucking music you can imagine" in his slot.
It wasn't the first time Frank Magarelli benched Beef for his antics, but the wayward host isn't not apologetic about the incident: "It was a prank directed at [Magarelli]. I just get a kick out of bustin' his balls from time to time. "
It's the exact sort of stunt you'd expect from Beef, a doughy, frat-boy type in the mold of John Belushi's character in Animal House who missed his calling by never formally attending college.
He did attend classes at Northern Arizona University, though. After doing time in Tent City at age 18 (he was busted with enough pot to be charged with "intent to distribute"), he moved to Flagstaff to "stay out of trouble." Rather than enroll at NAU, he filled a backpack with notebooks and sneaked into lectures. During that time, Beef made a living delivering food; when he got old enough to enlist in the bar scene full-time, he got a job emceeing wet T-shirt contests.
Along the way, he formed a band called Gravy Blue, doing drowsy, sing-talk verses over blues riffs. The group recoded an album, but Beef says he abandoned the project when former House of Pain rapper Everlast had a string of minor hits doing something similar. Beef didn't want to be called a knock-off.
He drifted back to the Valley and worked at bars here. He was having fun until he knocked up a woman, then he reluctantly gave up the life of a "professional alcoholic" to work in his family's party-planning business. (Beef never married, but he has joint custody of his little daughter, who sometimes wanders around the studio eating Cheerios.) When a friend scored the early-morning radio gig at KWSS, he christened himself "Beef Vegan" and got the sidekick role. His buddy lost interest after a few months, but rather than give up, Beef built the studio in his house and talked the station owner into giving him twice the airtime he and his pal had enjoyed.
Beef isn't the only KWSS host who fell into his gig at the station. Take Westley Allen, who hosts KWSS' two-hour weekly punk show, Erratic Radio, starting at 8 on Tuesday nights. Like Beef, Allen works from his home studio. A 33-year-old with pork-chop sideburns, Allen also mans the tap handles at Tempe dive bar Time Out Lounge and plays in punk band The Plainfield Butchers. His two-hour show started after he took a community college class with one of the station's engineers and mostly is dedicated to obscure '80s punk acts and likeminded new bands such as Black Lips.
"I never really wanted to host a show, I just wanted to play the music I like," he says. "[The radio gig] opens the doors for me a little more with everything else I do."
Allen's show also features local bands playing live. One recent Tuesday, he hosted local folk-punk duo Andrew Jackson Jihad and a dozen other random people in the living room of his Tempe flophouse, which makes Beef Vegan's decrepit home studio look like a suite at The Phoenician.
Despite the surroundings, Allen proved a pro with interviews he slipped between Black Flag and Hüsker Dü cuts. However, his sidekick, Tyronn Walker, a middle-aged Flava Flav-wanna-be with a 40-ouncer in his hand and no apparent interest in punk music, added the signature touch of KWSS amateurism by loudly and drunkenly interrupting the AJJ interview repeatedly.
Here's something telling: Even an easy-going, free-spirited punk rocker like Allen — who keeps an obnoxious clown of a co-host around, though the guy clearly irritates him — agrees with Beef's contention that the station's play list is too broad for its own good.
"I don't want to paint a bad picture of KWSS, but I think the lack of format is a weakness," he says. "I think, during the day, we need to get a little more modern with what we play, and at night, you can have your specialty shows . . . But I think we kind of play trash during the day."
If the KWSS format lacks focus, it's not because the station's management lacks experience. Station owner Frank Magarelli has been in radio since he was 16, having worked for Clear Channel, CBS, and NBC. He moved to Phoenix from San Jose in 2000 to go to Arizona State University and applied for a low-power license during the FCC's brief filing window in 2000, waiting four years for the license to come through.
During his time in traditional radio, Magarelli saw things grow more corporate, less local, and less profitable. Now, he's torn about the future.
While he wonders whether terrestrial radio is doomed — the only segment currently
doing well being Spanish-language fare — he also sees low-power stations like his finding a niche with local content. If LPFM has a future, he thinks, it's because big-time corporate radio has fucked up by airing so much syndicated, national programming.
"Localism is making a comeback," he says. "And LPFM is the perfect vehicle for bringing localism back to radio."
Corporate radio's shift from local personalities to syndicated or music-only shows has been felt most acutely in morning programming. In better times, morning shows brought in the most listeners, but they also cost the most to produce and promote. When the economy soured and ratings technology changed, morning shows were the first to get slashed.
For a nutshell version of how things have played out, look at alt-rock station KEXX 103.9 (known as The Edge until last year), the closest thing KWSS has to direct competition.
The station jettisoned its live local program, The Morning Ritual, in 2008. The local guys were replaced by a string of syndicated shows out of Los Angeles.
Now, KEXX has a dude named Gadger starting the day, mostly spinning Gen X-appropriate grunge records with as little commentary as possible.
Marc Young, KEXX's program director, says his station's situation is part of a national trend that started when Arbitron switched its ratings system. It used to be that selected audience members simply reported to Arbitron what they listened to, and for how long. Now, they are issued pager-size electronic monitors that pick up the radio signals of whatever they are listening to.
"The thinking was that more music in the mornings was key, which is why you saw a lot of big morning shows dissolved across the country," he says. "Stations tried to cut back on costs. Payroll is the biggest expense, and the research guys sitting in a dark room were saying, 'Here's the best way to maximize: Get rid of your heavy morning shows and go all music.'"
Now that the national economy appears to be improving and the nuances of the new ratings system are better understood, ASU communications professor Craig Allen says, morning radio should see better times ahead.
"Once the economy comes back, there will be more money available to bring in new morning stars or for some of the stations to start hiring away other stations' stars," Allen believes. "Then, the trading around, the moving around, the debuting of new morning shows — I think that's going to pick up."
Others aren't as optimistic. Take the man Allen describes as the Valley's all-time king of the drive-time show, Dave Pratt. "The Morning Mayor," as he was billed, is a guy who originally made his bones with hard-rock station KUPD, then skipped around the dial for 30 years before he was let go by country titan KMLE in December 2008.
Though Pratt recently announced the hiring of 22-year-old blond model Kassi Jayde as his co-host for new show that's not yet on the air, he sees a bleak future for music-formatted radio. Listeners are moving to other mediums, and program directors are too dumb to know that hiring top-notch talent pays off, he suggests.
"Most radio management today pretends that simply allowing a lower-paid, average disc-jockey to wear headphones and say 'good morning' will magically make them a 'personality.' This is like putting a Yankees jersey on a Little League kid and calling him a major-league player," he says.
"Who needs to listen through long commercial breaks just to hear music that can be downloaded to personal choice? In 2011, personalities on music radio are about as relevant as a turd in a urinal. "
Though Pratt is now a Paradise Valley resident who received a windfall buyout from KMLE that probably dwarfs what everyone at KWSS was paid over the past decade, KUPD wasn't all that different from KWSS when Pratt started there as a 19-year-old kid in 1981.
"The station was in a beat-up double-wide trailer in the middle of a Guadalupe dirt lot," Pratt says. "Only a few years later, I took over the morning show, and KUPD became the top-rated station in the market. It was a special time."
A story like Pratt's inspires hope in the hard-working screw-ups helming KWSS' microphones.
Beef has a theory: KUPD's rise coincided with a sea change in public taste as hard rock became a dominant form of popular music in the early '80s. Then, The Edge started as a small independent station and rode to prominence on grunge and alt-rock in the '90s. Now that indie rockers Arcade Fire have won a Grammy and topped the Billboard charts, perhaps another opening is at hand.
Beef wants to follow the same path that Pratt followed 30 years ago: Use hot new music and irreverent banter to entertain cubicle-monkeys commuting to work.
"So the timing's right to build another station," Beef proffers, hopeful that KWSS will be that station. "But can it ever be as big as stations were 10 or 15 years ago [when] the commercial FM side [was thriving]? I don't know."
Many people have just started their workday at 10 a.m., but a bleary-eyed Beef looks tuckered out as he starts to come down from his caffeine high at the Cheba Hut near his house.
Talking between big bites of his sub, mayonnaise dripping from the corners of his mouth, he brings up "the competition," KEXX.
In casual conversation, KWSS DJs, particularly Westley Allen and Beef, often come back to "X," and with good reason. It's KWSS' natural economic adversary, in that it has a similar shtick. KEXX, however, is a huge business owned by an out-of-state corporation not hampered by a license that allows a mere 100 watts.
Though its indie offerings are much slimmer than what Beef plays, when KEXX does something like a ticket giveaway for Arcade Fire's upcoming show at Comerica Theatre, it gets a lot more attention than KWSS does for putting the band in heavy rotation for months.
Beef hopes that mass listeners will soon develop loyalty to KWSS because it spins records they want to hear earlier and much more often even if it doesn't sling schwag.
"People want the new music — that hasn't changed. If you create the station that plays new music and stays ahead of the times, then you create your own niche," he says. "I think the timing's right. I think it will happen. Whether it will happen with this station, I don't know."
For his part, Marc Young, KEXX's program director, welcomes the "competition" from Beef & Company.
"Having KWSS in play, I think, only helps radio in the market," he says. "If people are tuning into that station, whether it's rated or not, it proves that people still do listen. Cars still are made with radios."
As things stand, X's cautious format fits pretty well with Phoenix's radio market, as assessed by Craig Allen, the ASU communications professor. If Phoenix ever develops an indie rock station, it'll probably be after most other large cities already have one. That, of course, doesn't bode well for KWSS.
"Over time, Phoenix has had the reputation for not being the most progressive, path-breaking radio market," Allen says. "Phoenix doesn't push the envelope."
That aside, the radio people are a particular breed — they're in it because they love it and because they don't know what else to do.
"Most people in radio are happy just to be behind microphones every day," Allen says. "Even if they have a small audience."
Beef's dream of getting heard by a larger audience give him grudging respect for KEXX. He's on friendly terms with a lot of people there, now that one of his buddies got a gig at the station after doing some time at KWSS.
Still, Beef won't engage in friendly communication with Gadger, the guy manning the KEXX booth, spinning Sublime and Creed opposite The Morning Infidelity.
"I have no hard feelings toward those guys, toward Gadger. I believe that I have a more entertaining show, but what he's doing is exactly what he's told to do, and he's doing a good job of it," he says. "But I won't friend him on Facebook."
In Beef's mind, even a trivial digital friendship could make him a backstabber down the line. During the few short hours between finishing up a night's work at the family business and waking up to start The Morning Infidelity, Beef dreams of doing his show in Gadger's slot at X.
"I know what I want," Beef says with a smirk, "and [if things don't take off for him financially, and otherwise, at KWSS] I want his job."
Editor's note: Martin Cizmar regularly appears on The Morning Infidelity in his capacity as New Times music editor.
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