KDKB AT 20IN THE HANDS OF BILL COMPTON, THE STATION SHAPED A GENERATION--THEN FELL VICTIM TO ITS OWN SUCCESS
IT STARTED in San Francisco in the Sixties, at KSAN. As the 1970s began, a few more stations across the country were picking up on the FM "underground" vibe. The owners of KDKB climbed aboard the hippie bandwagon here and began making revolutionary radio.
The station's approach to music then is remembered as "freeform." The air staff, who talked like human beings instead of motormouth Top 40 disc jockeys (called "pukers" in the trade), built suites of tunes culled from the station's 15,000-record library. A typical KDKB "collage" or "set" would start with a Beatles tune, then fade into blues, into a folk tune, into an early record by then-obscure musicians like Bruce Springsteen or Jerry Riopelle. Bob Dylan would follow the Beach Boys following the Rolling Stones following Gato Barbieri following Jimi Hendrix following Stevie Wonder following Jeff Beck following the Band following the Tubes. Most of the bands now considered "classic" rockers got started in the business on stations like KDKB.
But there was more, stuff like weekly time slots reserved for classical music, black music, locally produced comedy. Every weeknight at 6, the music stopped for a solid hour of issues-driven, noncommercial news. When they were comprehensible, KDKB's commercials spoke directly to the burgeoning counterculture. The record stores, hip haberdasheries and head shops that composed Phoenix's "cool" commercial outlets all advertised there.
"KDKB was the media extension of a specific culture," says Scott Niccolson, one of the original KDKB staffers who now does freelance voice work in Las Vegas. "The culture, at the time, was a subculture. It had different ideals and goals and directions than the norm."
The primary direction was a good time. Says one survivor of the era: "I didn't know anybody who didn't smoke dope."
The station's original audience was incredibly loyal. A huge segment of the station's listeners never tuned its radio away from KDKB's frequency. Says one former KDKB staffer, "There was this magical thing that could reach out and connect them, wherever they were, in their homes." The station did fairly well in the ratings during the freeform days, which lasted from 1971 through about 1977. The station was a success, but not in terms of the entrepreneurial bonanza that radio stations would become in the 1980s.
KDKB shot to the top of the ratings heap--and became a prize cash cow--only after it dumped the eclectic mixture of music, comedy, news and fun in the late 1970s. It may seem quaint, at this late date, to pine for a radio format that stunted a station's commercial growth, but when was the last time anybody used the description "magical" in reference to Phoenix radio?
Today, in a town in which so many of the radio stations sound alike, 93.3 is just another number on the dial. Anybody who remembers the early years of KDKB, on the occasion of the FM rocker's 20th anniversary, has to ask: What happened? IT HAS LONG BEEN part of the mythology that Dwight Tindle and Eric Hauenstein met at Woodstock, dug the groovy scene, and decided then and there to move to Phoenix and start the hippest radio station in the world. It is true that both men attended the rock festival, considered a defining moment for an entire generation, but not together. "I remember it was wet and we were muddy," says Hauenstein. "It rained the whole first night and clear into the next day," says Tindle, who attended the fest with a friend who had just had four wisdom teeth removed and was miserable. "It was really awful."
Tindle and Hauenstein actually met in Philadelphia on the night after the rock festival, introduced by a mutual friend--the guy with the hurting teeth. Tindle, still a college student, was a rich kid. Hauenstein was a super salesman, then working for a radio station in Philly. It was there that they decided to start the hippest radio station in the world.
Tindle left college in early 1971, and the pair began casting around for a frequency. They wanted a decent-size market without progressive radio, and they wanted something on the underused FM side, where they could play records in stereo and where competition was minimal. In those days, rock 'n' roll was still an AM exclusive. FM was the land of classical and easy listening--background music. The station they settled on was KMND, a failing easy-listening station in Mesa, Arizona. Hauenstein remembers paying about $200,000 for it. The studios were housed in an old Safeway store. EVERYBODY WHO DOESN'T take credit himself for KDKB's considerable aesthetic success assigns it to William Edward Compton. A lifelong radio man, Compton was a quietly charismatic figure, gifted with exquisite musical taste. And, ultimately, he was one of the tragic figures in Phoenix's recent past.
Back when Tindle and Hauenstein showed up in town, Compton was in his mid-20s and had been running a progressive station in Phoenix for more than a year, the low-power KCAC, which was in the process of going broke. At Compton's urging, the new boys hired the KCAC staff as a unit. Compton, who had started in Texas radio as a teenager, first tested his progressive chops at KRUX, then a dominant Top 40 screamer in Phoenix. An afternoon-drive jock for the station during the week--on the air, he called himself Little Willie Sunshine--Compton somehow cajoled station management into letting him play album cuts on Sunday nights. The freeform approach, with Compton straying from the hits of the day, then melding the tunes into a thematic whole, created an immediate buzz. "It was one of those deals where you discover the radio one night and you can't get out of your car," says Marty Manning, who now works on the morning team at KEZ radio in Phoenix. KCAC was next for Compton, and it became a freak ratings hit in more ways than one. Broadcasting a weak signal only during daylight hours, KCAC immediately drew listenership from the teen and young-adult demographic, which had not yet been identified as the baby boom generation. It may be apocrypha, but at one point KCAC was said to be the second-rated Phoenix station between 7 p.m. and midnight--incredible, considering the station signed off at 7:45 p.m. and earned its rating in less than an hour.
But financially, the station did poorly, and was bankrupt when Tindle and Hauenstein hired away the staff. From the beginning, Compton had a vision for KDKB's approach to music--a vision similar to the successful approach he had developed as KRUX's underground man and at KCAC. Disc jockeys were expected to listen to new records on their off-hours, then make recommendations of the best tunes. Once inside the control room, the jocks had total freedom to map their playlists, sometimes basing their picks on the recommendations of other deejays written on album jackets. Compton, the leader, handled the high-profile afternoon-drive shift. "Compton could go from classical to blues to heavy-metal to mariachi music and it all made sense," says John Dixon, a record-company salesman when Compton hired him to produce a weekly rhythm and blues show ("R&B With Johnny D."). Until a recent move to Hawaii, Dixon was a longtime fixture on the local music scene. "And you had an audience who would stay there with you." Some listeners claim they could tell by the song selection that it was Compton at the turntables. "You knew it was Bill," says one. "God had arrived and he was playing records."
THE OTHER HANDS at the controls of early KDKB were utterly free spirits. Toad Hall, the morning man, is best remembered as having a classic, first-cup-of-coffee voice; he was a mellow, natural man who frequently dedicated music to his wife. Middays were handled by Hank Cookenboo, a childhood pal of Compton's from Texas, who also had a big hand in creating the formats at KCAC and KDKB. Compton himself worked afternoon drive. Tindle, station owner, played records until late. The overnight shift was handled by Nina Joy, whose pet, Albie the Wonder Dog, would sit beside her in the studio.
Says one KDKB regular: "There was a unity among the staff, among the listenership. Hell, we were all felons, for Christ's sake."
Music choices were a personal statement for each deejay, and each was expected to incorporate his or her eclectic tastes and moods into the mix each day. "What we both wanted to do was to present segments of music that would contain underlying threads of continuity, something that held all the music together in some continuous meaning," says Tindle. "Bill called them collages. I called them sets. Sometimes it was a political thread, sometimes it was about girls with blond hair. "When you turn on the radio today, you're hearing radio as business. When you turned on the radio to KDKB in those days, you were hearing an art form, you were hearing artists create in an improvisational way."
Compton was "a master diplomat," according to an old friend, who fine-tuned the playlist by measuring, and sometimes regulating, the emotions of his air staff. If Nina Joy was feeling not so cool on a particular shift--and playing too many blues songs because of it--Compton became camp counselor. When Nina felt better, the music brightened. "People wanted to do a good job, because his respect of their abilities meant a lot," says Niccolson.
In Compton's view, doing the job well also meant playing unproven music. KDKB made stars in Phoenix of performers who were little-knowns elsewhere. Years before the rest of the country caught on, both Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen sold lots of albums and concert tickets in Phoenix. Though the rest of the country never quite appreciated the likes of John Stewart and Jerry Jeff Walker, both were headliners here because of exposure on KDKB. Local artists, such as Jack Alves and Hans Olson, were often invited into the studios to play live on the air.
The best example of the station's peculiar commercial effect was the local success of Jerry Riopelle, a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter. Riopelle, who had brushes with commercial acceptance in a few American towns and parts of Europe, became a genuine star in Phoenix due wholly to exposure on KDKB. Riopelle first came to town during a tour of Western radio stations to promote his Saving Grace album. When he arrived at the KDKB studios on Country Club Drive in Mesa, Bill Compton had already marked up the record to denote the best cuts. "Eight ways to improve your life," it said. Not long after, Riopelle was the opening act for a concert at Celebrity Theatre. Not long after that, Riopelle was headlining shows there. His records sold so well in Phoenix in the 1970s they often charted better than releases by superstar acts like Fleetwood Mac.
In the years since his breakout on KDKB, Riopelle has played more than 40 concerts around the Valley and continues to play an annual New Year's Eve show here. But when KDKB stopped playing Jerry Riopelle, his dominance in the market faded. If you've moved to Phoenix in the last ten years, it's likely you've never heard of him.
THE EXPANSIVE musical landscape was only a part of KDKB's sonic picture. The station also broke ground with the spoken word, particularly news and comedy. KDKB had a news staff, odd for FM then and now, but totally understandable considering the station's social conscience. (It was Compton's social conscience, according to original staffers, that drove the station to promote a variety of causes, ranging from a save-the-mountain-preserves campaign to steady on-air support of the Terros drug-crisis center, which at the time was offering guidance and emergency help for dopers.) Led by Bob Dunn (who Compton hired straight out of college), the news staff went after the lifestyle stories that had been going unreported by the mainstream media. And every weeknight at 6, typically one of the high times for listenership each day, KDKB's trippy music collages would stop for Forum, an hourlong radio magazine. Marty Manning remembers questioning Compton when the Forum idea first surfaced. "I said, `Gee, Bill, a lot of people really don't like that show there. They really would rather hear music.' I was kind of asking him, `How do you get away with this?'"
"We're going to do it whether they want it or not," Compton said. "They will want it." KDKB's news side went on to win prestigious Peabody and Headliner awards, and several of the staffers went on to national prominence. Mark Nykanen and Mike Leonard, KDKB news people in the late 1970s, soon moved on to network jobs with NBC News. Leonard, a washed-up minor league hockey player when offered a sports-reporting job by Eric Hauenstein, has been a feature reporter for NBC's Today show since 1980.
Locally produced comedy was also a regular weekly feature on KDKB. Barry Friedman, Tod Carroll and Russ Shaw collaborated, in various combinations, on the shows Love Workshop and Buck and Barry Bunkhouse Capers. Friedman went on to a long stretch as a columnist at New Times, then steady work as a humor writer in Hollywood for Richard Lewis, Arsenio Hall and others. Carroll left Phoenix to work for National Lampoon, then found success as a screenwriter. His credits, among others, include the movie Clean and Sober.
Shaw, who eventually did thousands of memorable commercials for KDKB as "Wonderful Russ," was a straight-looking insurance salesman when he first introduced himself to Compton. "There must have been 15 hippies sitting around stoned, peacefully loving God," remembers Shaw, now a real estate salesman and infrequent freelance contributor to the morning show at KSLX. "I'm standing there and Compton walks in. I say, `William Edward Compton? Bill Flanagan, FBI. I want to see you in your office right now.'
"Without batting an eyelash he said, `Well, it'll have to be quick, because I go on the air in ten minutes.'"
Once inside an inner office, Shaw/Flanagan told Compton they couldn't begin their discussion until Compton straightened up his desk. "I want all this crap cleaned up before we talk, Compton," Shaw said.
Compton wasn't merely tolerant of odd characters (there were many, in those days, who walked in off the street just wanting to help out); he had a genuine eye and ear for spotting untapped creative potential. Shaw is only one example. Lee Powell is another. Hired by Compton right out of Phoenix College, he still works air shifts at the station. A satirical tape about the overcommercialization of Christmas (made for a broadcasting class at PC) got Doug Smith a job in the KDKB news department. Scott Niccolson was into the technical end of radio operations when Compton encouraged him to move to the other side of the microphone. This is only a partial list. "KDKB was professionally run," says Marty Manning, "but not necessarily by people who were professional before they started doing it."
AND, SOMEHOW, it worked. The staff created musical magic. The small-but-growing counterculture fed its head. Even the Valley's straights somehow noticed. Eric Hauenstein says he realized his ragged partnership was onto something when KDKB was invited to attend the regular lunch meeting of Valley broadcasters at Phoenix Country Club. "It was Homer Lane and those guys," says Hauenstein of the former boss at Channel 10. "And they all gave us the time of day. It was remarkable."
Scott Niccolson saw the light when KDKB began to get bomb threats, presumably from the more conservative elements of East Valley society. "I realized very seriously that the radio station was a lot more than a very hip psychedelic music machine," he says. "It was starting to affect some traditional ideals and norms that maybe people didn't want to be affected."
Dwight Tindle's eyes were opened when KDKB issued its first bumper stickers. When the station's call letters (wrought in brown and yellow in a Peter Max-inspired appropriation of the typeface used on Sugar Daddy candy bars) began appearing all over the city, Tindle began to believe his investment was going to be a pretty good bet.
For sure, KDKB's future as a commercial entity was assured almost from the very beginning. Predictably, however, not everybody in the "movement" cheered the station's fiscal prospects.
Before even a year had passed from start-up, a local underground newspaper ripped the station for running a national Certs ad. KDKB staff members attuned to issues raised by the new feminist movement objected to the station's running ads for wet-tee-shirt night promotions at local bars. Though an internal debate over the commercialization of KDKB would rage for years, to station management the point was moot. "There was a whole lot of passion associated with every single issue," says Hauenstein, who ran KDKB's business side. "Everybody had a view, and at that time everybody felt that every situation was virtually life or death. The future of the planet was on the line with every decision we made."
To some of the staff, Hauenstein says, "the very commercial viability of the radio station was somehow, in their minds, offensive."
But Hauenstein, one of the few members of the local counterculture who wore three-piece suits in 1973 ("I had hair down to my shoulders," he says in self-defense. "I also rode a motorcycle to work."), was determined to have KDKB succeed as a business. "I didn't want to see the station become financially insecure," he says. "We had payrolls to meet. I saw my role as somehow keeping this thing from self-destructing. Inevitably that meant taking on the curmudgeon role."
Bill Compton was seen by the staff as the only layer of insulation between the creative side of the business and the suits housed on the second floor of the old Safeway. Most of the old-timers say Compton had almost absolute veto power over the executive branch. When the occasional "upstairs decision" floated down to the control room and jock lounge, staffers often waited to check with Compton before acting on it. TENSIONS APPARENTLY had been mounting for years before Eric Hauenstein asked Bill Compton to resign in November 1976. Staffers at the time believe that management (which was primarily Hauenstein by this time; Tindle left KDKB in 1974 to tinker with freeform radio in Lake Tahoe) perceived the prime-time news block, the wide-open musical outlook and the ultraloyal air staff as negatives. Hauenstein denies that. "The fact that the programs that were on the air remained on the air as long as they did ultimately was a reflection of my opinion of them," he says. Others who were close to Compton at the time claim he confronted Hauenstein over a promised ownership share of station stock (a third original owner, Daniel Muth, had already been bought out by Hauenstein and Tindle). Hauenstein denies that, too. There was already a generous bonus plan in place, he says. "Bill participated in the profits of the station," Hauenstein says. "There wasn't any showdown over equity."
Whatever the motivation for the move, taking away Compton's creative platform crushed him. "He lost his `voice,'" says one of Compton's jocks. "It was the most exquisitely designed pain you could possibly think of."
In the hours after Compton's firing, a staff mutiny was a real possibility. But Kathy Radina, Compton's girlfriend at the time, remembers him quelling discontent. He had, in the words of several of his close friends, "a Texan's sense of honor," and knew that no point would be made if his people abandoned their careers. Compton spent hours on the telephone trying to talk the staff out of quitting. "What it came down to was, Bill had too much influence," says Scott Niccolson. "If Bill Compton had said, `We're gonna walk,' they would've fuckin' walked right out of that place. Management wasn't really partial to having a department head have control of the radio station. Which he did."
Says one old staffer, by now an old hand in the business: "Management does what management does. They knew they were going to have to eliminate the plutonium from the reactor. Bill was fucked, which is what happens in a lot of instances. "Radio stations eat people and shit money."
COMPTON ALMOST immediately began looking for ways to build a new station. According to Radina, he got close a couple of times, but Bill Compton's radio days were over. Compton and Radina were driving on 48th Street near Osborn in June 1977 when the car swerved to pass a bicyclist. Compton died in the wreck at age 31. Now you know who Compton Terrace is named for.
KDKB did not exactly fade away with Bill Compton. In fact, the opposite is true. The station's greatest ratings successes and financial growth occurred in the years directly following Compton's departure, during a period in which the station employed a canned "superstars" rock-music format very similar to the programming heard on the station today. The station gained ratings by gaining listenership outside the small culture it originally served. "The audience that KDKB was built on was not really aware of issues like families, mortgages, life insurance and car payments," says Niccolson. "It was a party generation, very much drug infested. Drugs were one of the predominant influences. That culture started to change. People said, `Sure I like to do drugs, but man, they're expensive! I better get a job.'"
A few of the old listeners weren't happy with the changes--one actually drove up to the station's entrance in the middle of the night and heaved his car radio through the glass door--but many more new listeners evidently were. Tindle and Hauenstein sold KDKB in 1978, when it was the No. 1 station in town, to a Midwestern communications company. The original owners, who paid each other $867 a month in the early days, pocketed millions on the deal. The partners say today that they didn't get involved in KDKB as an entrepreneurial venture, that it just turned out that way. "We bought the station with the idea that we were gonna get to do the most fun thing in the world," he says. "We didn't have a clue."
Hauenstein stayed on to manage the station for a while, before moving on to many more radio jobs. He now runs a country station in Richmond, Virginia. Tindle still lives in the same house high on Camelback Mountain he bought when he first moved to town in 1971, and dabbles in entertainment career management. "I'm not here to change anybody's image of Bill Compton," says Dwight Tindle. "He was an incredible guy, really good on the air. He did a really great show, but beyond that he really didn't have a whole lot to do with the station."
THE FIRST HALF-DECADE of KDKB's life was the best radio Phoenix might ever hear. The local stations are mostly one-dimensional now, separating the music into one category, separating out the diversity. Boomers, scared of hip-hop and desperate for melody, are heading for country music. Kids have their droning alternative at KUKQ. All the other radio programmers have bought research data that tell them to play more Phil Collins. Radio stations are so costly, and debt services are so high, owners have to think big. Some cities have college stations to carry on the eclectic-radio tradition. Arizona State University's little student-run station sounds something like such an outlet, but it can only be heard in a few of the school's public buildings. In times like these, a KDKB song log from the months before Bill Compton's departure reads like the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the space of 24 hours in September 1976, KDKB's deejays, Compton included, played music by Pink Floyd, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Boston, the Beatles, the Moody Blues, the Who and Bruce Springsteen--all of which sounds a lot like the music that KDKB's computer has been picking for the deejays to play ever since. But they also played the Band, Judy Collins, Flying Burrito Brothers, Arlo Guthrie, the Supremes, Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, Randy Newman, Van Morrison, David Sanborn, Jeff Beck, Firesign Theatre, the Temptations, Freddie Hubbard, Burning Spear, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Captain Beefheart, Joan Armatrading and Jesse Winchester. John Giese came aboard KDKB not too long after Compton's departure, to work the top-rated morning shift with Bill Andres. He and Andres would get occasional calls from old-time listeners, complaints about format changes.
"KDKB formed everybody's perception of what rock 'n' roll was in this town," says Giese, now one of the morning people at KSLX. "You always had people on the phones conjuring up the ghost of Bill Compton, guessing what he would've done with the station. You know: `Bill Compton wouldn't have done that.'"
"KDKB was the media extension of a specific culture."
Everybody who doesn't take credit himself for KDKB's considerable aesthetic success assigns it to William Edward Compton. "It was one of those deals where you discover the radio one night and you can't get out of your car."
"God had arrived and he was playing records."
Compton was a quietlycharismatic figure, gifted with exquisite musical taste. He was one of the tragic figures in Phoenix's recent past.
KDKB made stars in Phoenix of performers who were little-knowns elsewhere.
KDKB got bomb threats, presumably from the more conservative elements of East Valley society.
Old listeners weren't happy with the changes--one drove up to the station's entrance and heaved his car radio through the glass door.
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