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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.