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KDKB AT 20IN THE HANDS OF BILL COMPTON, THE STATION SHAPED A GENERATION--THEN FELL VICTIM TO ITS OWN SUCCESS

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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.

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Dave Walker