The heady days of free-form radio in the late 1960s and early 1970s will return — at least for 48 hours — as veteran announcers who were associated with the now-legendary FM radio station KZAP take to the air once again on KDVS in Davis.
Starting at 6 a.m. Thursday and continuing through 6 a.m. Saturday, one-time KZAP announcers like Jeff Hughson, Dennis Newhall, Edd Fong, Charlie Weiss, Pearline (aka Noreen), Hele Meline, Bruce “Jet” Riordan, Tom Cale and others will pick the music — and you can bet that it will be an unusual and eclectic mix. The show can be heard on 90.3 FM or www.kdvs.org.
At the time KZAP went on the air in 1968, FM radio was something of a new frontier. Most cars came equipped only with an AM radio, and the top 40 format — tightly programmed to feature the most popular songs of the day — was the industry standard. Free-form stations like KZAP (as well as KSAN and KMPX in San Francisco, and KMET in Los Angeles) played a broader and much more spontaneous mix of album cuts, not just hit singles, and exotica, presented in a way that allowed musical ideas to flow.
At KZAP, “a disc jockey could do anything he wanted to do — musically exploring the divergent rivers of American music, not just rock, but folk and blues and country and bluegrass,” said Hughson, a KZAP DJ in the early years. “Those of us at KZAP were selected because of our knowledge of music and our passion for the further discovery of music.”
Several of KZAP’s DJs came over from college stations. Weiss, who started at Sacramento State’s KERS and participated in KZAP’s launch, explained that “you could play anything you wanted, and you tried to make seamless transitions. And it could be any genre — I played classical, jazz, multi-ethnic stuff, rock and roll, and soul. You could do it by theme — going from ‘Big River’ by Johnny Cash (a country/rockabilly tune) into ‘Watching the River Flow’ by Bob Dylan (a bluesy/folky electric standard). Or it could be an instrument — a classical guitar standard by Andres Segovia into ‘Spanish Caravan’ by The Doors.”
Fong had been a KDVS DJ in the early 1970s, and got hired at KZAP after he graduated in 1973.
“During that period, a lot of people had an open mind about different kinds of music, and people were interested in hearing bands that you didn’t normally hear on AM radio,” Fong said. “Most of us at KZAP got into it because of the music — we saw it as an opportunity to share music with an audience on this cool thing called radio.”
Newhall joined “the KZAP family” in 1972 as one of the youngest announcers — he was not yet 21.
“I came in knowing more about the British Invasion bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s than anything else,” Newhall recalled. “But I started to delve into jazz”; he periodically hosts a jazz show at Capital Public Radio these days. “And I learned a little about the blues. And we all knew something about folk.”
From time to time, musicians would visit the studios to talk and/or perform.
“Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, the Sons of Champlin, Country Joe and the Fish …” Hughson recalled. He added that he will continue that practice when he hosts his portion of the KZAP special on KDVS (Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon) by interviewing musician Gary Lee Yoder, who was a member of several bands that formed in Davis during the 1960s (Oxford Circle, Kak) and later the San Francisco-based group Blue Cheer.
Like other free-form stations born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, KZAP went through several changes in ownership and management, and gradually transitioned to a more conventionally structured format, as music-listening audiences migrated from AM to FM frequencies, and FM stations became much more profitable. KZAP ultimately left the air in 1992, and its frequency (98.5 FM) became a country station (as did KSAN in San Francisco).
Many radio stations nowadays are owned by large corporations and are automated to a greater or lesser degree. The free-form style of radio with a DJ spontaneously picking and broadcasting an eclectic mix of music in real time exists today primarily on noncommercial stations like KDVS and KVMR (89.5 FM in Nevada City).
Newhall said he’s looking forward to KZAP returning to the airwaves, like a ghost ship from a now-bygone era.
“At the time, I had no idea that (free-form radio) was going to go away and turn into the scripted stuff you hear on so many stations now,” he said. “In retrospect, I wish I fully realized what we had, when we had it.”
— Reach Jeff Hudson at email@example.com or 530-747-8055.