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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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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."

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Dave Walker