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Simply put, KWSS is the last man standing. When X103.9 (formerly and still colloquially referred to as "The Edge") evacuated the FM dial, it left many listeners wondering where to turn for alternative rock programming. More than a few found their way over to KWSS, a low-power free-for-all station. You can hear the station pretty much anywhere within Loop 101 (the station broadcasts at 100 watts, the max allowed by a low-power station, as mandated by the FCC). While the station shines most during its specialty shows — The Morning Infidelity, Erratic Radio!, Mostly Vinyl, Driving with Gass — the station's wildly random rotation will veer from Phoenix darlings like Mergence and Snake! Snake! Snakes! to national acts like Cage the Elephant or vintage college radio fare like The Church. You might not always like what you get, but you're frequently surprised, something Valley listeners long had given up on.
The Valley's radio dial is cluttered with a glut of megawatt stations broadcasting timeless rock 'n' roll hits and AOR chart-toppers from yesteryear. Here's the rub: None of these stations can hold a candle to KCDX. Despite boasting million-dollar promotion budgets, superstar jocks like Alice Cooper, and bumper stickers on half the cars in the Valley, classic-rock powerhouses like KDKB or KSLX pale in comparison to this automated radio station run out of Florence that covers only 60 percent of the Valley. Why? Per the wishes of enigmatic station owner Ted Tucker, KCDX offers neither DJs nor commercials to annoy listeners. Rather, the station airs a near-continuous stream of tracks unheard elsewhere in local terrestrial radio. Tucker programmed his station with a format similar to the free-form radio stations popular in the 1960s, when the song selection was not beholden to singles or the whims of advertisers. Instead, huge amounts of deep album cuts and rarities from some of the most influential artists in rock 'n' roll history — including the likes of Nick Lowe, Lee Michaels, and Gary U.S. Bonds — are hewn from Tucker's vast music collection and mixed in with chart-toppers from such hitmakers as Average White Band and Elton John. Keep on rocking, Ted. We'll be listening.
Make all the jokes you want about old folks going to bed early, but Arizona Gold KAZG 1440 AM does stop transmitting at sundown, handing over the reins to Korean gospel radio. But the daytimer station comes back with the morning sun, cranking out doo-wop, soul, pop, surf, and rock hits from the '50s and '60s. There's just something about hearing Jan and Dean with a touch of amplitude modulation hiss that feels great, and the 14-in-a-row playlist doesn't hurt, either. You might hear a couple of repeats, but it still beats the commercials and ever-encroaching "new music" that dominates the other side of the dial. The classics have a place on the radio, you know, as does, um, Korean gospel.
Let's make it official: There's a high-water mark for good radio in Phoenix, and that's when a song is so good you turn the key in the car and sit there waiting for it to finish. It's rare — it's hot here, after all — but that's the kind of music KJZZ plays at night in between the NPR market reports and BBC news updates, the kind of music that makes you stop for a second, that forces your attention. It can be catchy, like the Indian blues of Donald Harrison, or it could be something still and moving, like Oscar Peterson's take on Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." It's this kind of programming we love KJZZ for — not to mention the solid five hours of killer blues on Sunday night — and it's this kind of programming we wish they gave us more of, the kind of sounds worth sitting in the sweat box for.
Longtime Phoenicians may raise an eyebrow when you tell them you're jamming the new Black Keys single on KUKQ, but forgive them their suspicion. The old KUKQ — which spent time on the AM and FM dial — went off the air in 1996, but this year former and current staffers of the dearly departed X103.9 and Sandusky Radio banded together to launch an online homage to the original, flying the rebel flag of freedom from FCC and Clear Channel mandates high. The programming, which ranges from pop-punk to underground rap to EDM and local specialty shows, doesn't stick to the kind of playlists and rules that bind the FM dial. It takes a little smartphone savvy to bring the station with you in the car, but if the doomsayers proclaiming the end of terrestrial radio are right, a familiar name in the vast world of Internet radio can't hurt.
When X103.9 morphed into the adult contemporary My Phoenix Music, the question on everyone's mind was what would happen to Craven Moorehead — the longtime punk jock who made The SkaPunk Show (in all its time slots and incarnations) a standard on the station since taking over the show's reins from Larry Mac in 1997. Moorehead took to the Net, first hosting SkaPunk Radio on his own site before teaming with KUKQ's Internet stream. Moorehead's familiar voice — friendly but not afraid to take potshots at disposable pop — and punk taste may be missed on the FM dial, but he's brought a sense of professionalism and levity to the world of Internet radio. Plus, he can swear whenever he feels like it.
The name Jonathan L is a familiar one to anyone who's paid attention to the history of the Arizona FM dial. A longtime radio presenter, writer, and promoter of all things cool, L. is most famous for his stints at KUPD, KUKQ, and KMFA. L. broadcasts from Berlin these days, but it was a high priority for him to get his latest show, The Lopsided World of L, on the FM band in Phoenix. The show airs at 10 p.m. every weeknight on KWSS, and you're as likely to hear some strange German industrial grind as you are classic tracks by L's pal Frank Black of The Pixies (L. provides some DJ narration on Black's latest disc, as Grand Duchy). It's not a Phoenix-centered show, but hearing that voice on the dial is certainly a nostalgic treat (that comes bearing brand new musical gifts).
With morning radio shows dropping like flies, it's nice to know that we still have the antics of 98 KUPD's Holmberg's Morning Sickness to get us through our weekday mornings. The Morning Sickness crew has been going strong and keeping Valley folks tuned in for more than a decade by bashing everyone from politicians, local mattress spokeswomen, Olympic athletes, and every race, gender, and sexual orientation on the planet. Absolutely no one is safe from the never tactful host John Holmberg and his sidekick Brady Bogan. Even the show's producer, Dick Toledo, takes a verbal beating from these guys! This radio show isn't for the easily offended or for those of you lacking a slightly twisted sense of humor, but if you can handle a good laugh at the expense of other people's feelings, then by all means, tune in from 5:30 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday.
We love John "Johnny D." Dixon's other program, the Sunday night free-form excursion Mostly Vinyl, but his Monday night show, Totally Jazzed, takes the cake, as Dixon digs deep into his trove of Blue Note, Impulse, and rarities from Arizona's own jazzy past. Dixon's not afraid to get far out, balancing the smooth sounds with some of the farthest-out stuff you're likely to hear on a station other than New Jersey's WFMU. It recalls the kind of stories we've heard about Dixon on long-gone alternative station The Zone, when he'd play freaky jams in the midnight hour. The only difference (beyond the time slot)? He doesn't have to pray the station owners aren't listening.