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COLUMN ONE

Words of Wisdom: Let It Be

A commercial-free FM station has an eclectic playlist and avid fans whose curiosity is spooking the reclusive man behind the music.

May 01, 2006|Charles Duhigg | Times Staff Writer

TUCSON — The cult of the mysterious KCDX-FM started innocently enough.

Bill Keeling, a 51-year-old respiratory therapist, found the Arizona radio station when his daughter fiddled with his car stereo. Lynn Richeson, a graphic designer, fell in love with it when she heard a song for the first time in 30 years. One man became an acolyte after he rented a car in Phoenix and all the radio buttons were set to 103.1.

The signal, which started broadcasting throughout central Arizona and much of Phoenix in 2002, played an eclectic mix that included hits by Huey Lewis and the News and an obscure 1971 tune about cannibalism by the Buoys. There were no commercials, no DJs, no way the station made money.

Hundreds of e-mails filled KCDX's inbox each week. Who was choosing the playlists? How did the station survive without advertising?

"IF YOU NEED DONATIONS, CONTACT ME, PLEASE," one listener wrote. "A day without KCDX is like a day without sunshine," another said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
KCDX-FM: Monday's Column One about eclectic Arizona radio station KCDX-FM referred to its playing a 1960s Fabulous Poodles song. The group, however, did not record during the '60s.

The fans found one another online, sharing their frustrations about other stations that played the same songs over and over, and recalling the first time they heard "Pinball Wizard" or a forgotten song by Duran Duran.

They spent hours speculating about who owned KCDX. Richeson, Keeling and others scoured the Internet to identify the person who referred to himself on the station's website only as "The Guru."

But the harder they pressed for answers, the more frightened the Guru became, until he began questioning the wisdom of what he had done.

*

Fifty years ago, thousands of independently programmed stations similar to KCDX filled America's FM dial. Their disappearance, and the passion of KCDX's fans, demonstrate how greatly radio has changed and how much listeners may be missing.

Until the midcentury, commercial radio was focused almost solely on the AM band. FM signals, which don't travel as far as AM, were in such little demand that they could be snapped up by almost anyone with a little technical know-how and business savvy.

When rock 'n' roll emerged in the mid-1950s, it was ignored by most AM stations. Soon, disc jockeys named Wolfman Jack and Murray "the K" began filling FM airwaves with electric guitar solos and B-side tracks. Then the nation's youth discovered rock, and FM radio's audiences and advertising exploded.

By 1979, when FM finally surpassed AM in audience size, it had become not only a big business, but a competitive one. Stations turned to market researchers to find out which songs record buyers liked and what concerts they attended. DJs discovered that if they chose playlists based on such data instead of instinct, fewer listeners changed the dial.

Soon, the same popular tunes began dominating playlists everywhere. Whereas rock stations in the late 1960s played up to 2,000 different songs a month, some pop stations today play as few as 350 and the most popular tunes can be heard as frequently as four times an hour.

"Before the 1970s, everything was driven by a DJ's emotions," said Lee Abrams, an early researcher and now chief programmer at XM Satellite Radio. "If it was raining, you heard two hours of rain songs. If the night guy didn't like Jethro Tull, you never heard it after 6 p.m. We brought some discipline to choosing playlists."

*

Free-as-a-Bird Format

There is no discipline at KCDX, where the song choices are as chaotic as a schoolyard at recess.

And that made the station's fans curious. They marveled at the musical juxtapositions. Where else could one find Foreigner's "Dirty White Boy" after Elastica's "Connection"? Could it get crazier than a string of songs by Diesel, the Moody Blues, Chilliwack, "Space Oddity" by David Bowie and then "Finish What Ya Started" by Van Halen? Big Head Todd and the Monsters following the Beatles and Deep Purple?

"I remember listening to those songs when I was a teenager," said Maureen Kane, 52, a lawyer who became a devoted KCDX listener after she heard a 1960s Fabulous Poodles song. "It makes me feel so happy when I can remember that time when I'm driving to work."

In chat rooms and whispered conversations, some fans speculated that the playlists contained hidden messages. Was the Guru trying to say something when he played 12 Rolling Stones songs in a row? Was it Republican or Democrat sensibilities that put the 1970s pro-drug anthem "Little Green Bag" alongside Fleetwood Mac's "I'm So Afraid"?

As those debates raged, listeners began noticing that between B-side tracks by Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Pablo Cruz, a Federal Communications Commission-mandated identifier occasionally intoned: "KCDX, 103.1 FM, Florence, Ariz."

Based on that scrap of information, a Los Angeles musician named Adam Marsland drove to Florence, population 5,800, to find KCDX's owner.

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