"I usually don't listen to the radio because it seems like it's always the same old crap, no matter what city you're in," says the 30-ish guitarist from L.A., currently on tour with John Mayer and the Counting Crows. "But one day I was flipping around the dial, and I heard a song that I never heard before that was kind of odd. Then I heard another song I didn't know, then another one, then a song I kinda knew, then a couple of songs by some bands I recognized, but they weren't the songs you usually heard by those artists. And it was really weird. I was calling up my friends in L.A., saying, Who does that song called "Creature From the Black Lagoon"? Was that Dave Edmunds? Well, they're playing that on the radio here!' And they're like, No way!'"
Weirdest of all, Marsland heard absolutely no commercials on the station, all the way from Globe until nearly New Mexico, where the signal finally faded out. "It was like Internet radio, but on the airwaves," he says. Marsland figured the station was a bizarre fluke, sure to be gone by the time his tour circled back to California.
But sure enough, when Marsland passed through Arizona again weeks later, there it was, "still commercial-free and still playing one classic rock obscurity after another," he recalls. The only interruption Marsland heard was a recorded station ID that flew by once on the hour, announcing "103.1, KCDX, Florence." Finally, the rocker was so intrigued he decided to make a long detour to Florence to find the secret control booth where all the magic was purportedly coming from. It was a pilgrimage that echoed the young Richard Dreyfuss' search for the Wolfman in American Graffiti.
"I just got as far as the guy at the Chamber of Commerce, who photocopied an article from the local newspaper that only deepened the mystery," Marsland says. "It said the station owner was a pharmacist who had the opportunity to acquire a radio license in Florence. And I'm thinking, How does a pharmacist get into buying radio stations?' Was he dealing drugs out of Osco?"
Marsland laments he never actually got to meet the wizard. "I had to get back on the road to go do another show, so I never got to pursue it any further," he says. "But I don't think anybody really knows where this guy's operating from. It truly is a mystery."
Some of KCDX's biggest listeners are hesitant to tell anybody about the amazing little commercial-free radio station they've discovered. The signal, which blankets the entire East Valley and has been heard as far as 93 miles west of Phoenix, broadcasts a continuous stream of forgotten underground FM wowzers that replicates someone's quirky personal record collection more than anything on the commercial airwaves (see accompanying story).
"Sometimes I think I'm getting the station illegally," laughs Gerald Thurman, a bearded, bespectacled 46-year-old Jerry Garcia ringer who discovered the station after his car stereo was ripped off during a Tom Petty concert and a curious-looking fellow from the insurance company showed up at his home to install a new unit.
"The guy who installed the stereo left it on 103.1," Thurman says. "And I listened to the first few songs, and they were all these rare album tracks that I hadn't heard in years that I really loved. So I just left it on. Now it's almost like I'm afraid to change it!"
Thurman, a computer sciences teacher at Scottsdale Community College, is half convinced he's erroneously receiving someone else's Sirius satellite radio subscription on his regular car stereo. The music, a wildly eclectic mix of deep album tracks from mostly '70s and '80s rock and pop greats, is like the B-side of conventional classic rock radio.
"Why am I getting this very customized stream of music on my radio?" Thurman wonders. "Don't I need, like, a special radio and a monthly subscription to be receiving this kind of thing?"
Other baffled KCDX listeners figure the signal is a glitch in the airwaves, some kind of station-sitting maneuver by Clear Channel while the broadcasting behemoth readies another frequency for its chain of focus-group-formatted superstations.
"If you have a radio license, you have to keep the station operating a certain minimum amount of days a year or else you lose it," says Gary Pfeifer, an auditor in Phoenix who collects tapes of classic radio "air checks" as a hobby. "So some of these guys who own a frequency but don't have a station operating yet will put it on for, say, a few weeks a year, just playing some CDs, and then shut it back down."