Sunday, November 07, 2004

Radio oasis in the desert

It's wall-to-wall music on radio KCDX, which broadcasts without commercials
By Thomas Stauffer
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
From Phoenix, California and New Mexico, they come to Florence, an unlikely destination for a pilgrimage.
"They get off I-10 and truck 30 miles out of their way and say 'Hey, where can we find the station? We just want to tell the guy it's the best format we've heard on any radio station,' " said Gary Faulkner, president of the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce.
"We've had at least four or five bands touring the United States drop in and say, 'We just want to tell the guy, great job.' "
They don't find "the guy"- Tucson-raised Ted Tucker- or any sign of KCDX 103.1 FM in Florence.
Though licensed to Florence, the station's radio tower is outside of Globe, its studio is nearby, and the reclusive Tucker could be just about anywhere.
A rancher of the airwaves, Tucker owns several Arizona radio stations and has sold several others, but he's never had one quite like KCDX. Described by a fan as "Tucker's personal jukebox," the station has broadcast for more than two years with nary a commercial nor a bantering deejay. It's wall-to-wall music, featuring a heavy dose of obscure cuts from the '60s, '70s and '80s, with no interruptions other than hourly station identifications.
"No commercials, and the choice of music is just incredible. The guy must be reading my mind," said Don Trible, a 51-year-old Phoenix resident who works for the U.S. Postal Service. "I can't get it in my house, but I don't turn on anything else in my car. That's it."
Disdain for corporate radio
Tucker makes no promises about the station's future, but his love for the golden era of FM radio and disdain for what megacorporations and deregulation have done to the medium are obvious.
"The big stations just try to squeeze in all the commercials they can. They would get rid of the content altogether if they could sell the commercials without it," he said. "Between all the unfunny talk and the commercials, there is really very little music, and the music that is there has all been tested and deemed safe, the safe cuts to play."
In e-mail chat rooms, fans ponder the station's fate, wondering just how long Tucker will run the operation with no revenue coming in before finally selling it, as he has done with other stations.
For Jim Brady, who got Tucker his start in the radio business at the legendary KWFM Tucson in the 1970s, Tucker deserves praise regardless of whether he eventually sells KCDX, he said.
"The fact that he's already run it for this long with no commercials and without asking for anything from anyone is just incredible," said Brady, owner of Jim Brady Recording Studios and a longtime Tucson disc jockey. "Even if he sells it tomorrow, count your blessings that you got to listen to it at all, because this ain't happening anywhere else. I can tell you that."
Signal comes and goes
For listeners in Tucson, which is nearly surrounded by mountains and thus not conducive to out-of-town transmitters, the station comes and goes on car radios. But it's available worldwide via live streaming audio at kcdxfm.com on the Internet.
"I get it on Orange Grove (Road) all the way to the freeway just fine, and in other places, well, it's worth a little static to have that kind of music," Brady said.
"That kind of music" is best described as "Desert-Rat Rock," said Dave LaRussa, a longtime Tucson disc jockey known by KUAZ jazz listeners for the last 15 years as David Close.
And Tucker is indeed a desert rat, having spent more than 30 years in Arizona. A graduate of Canyon del Oro High School and the University of Arizona, he's a shadowy figure whose Desert West Air Ranchers Corp. shows up in scores of FCC documents.
Tucker staunchly protects his privacy, refusing to be photographed or fill in many of the specifics of his business and personal life. As to how many radio stations he has sold, his only answer is "several."
Tucker has at least some financial interest in two other Arizona stations: KZNO 98.3, a station licensed to Nogales that plays Mexican music, and KKYZ 101.7, an oldies station in Sierra Vista.
A former hospital pharmacist, Tucker has spent about the last 15 years acquiring or creating radio stations in smallish markets such as Winslow, San Carlos, Oracle and Douglas, upgrading their equipment and towers and sometimes moving them to different markets. He's made a pretty decent living in the process, selling some of his stations; hanging onto and operating others.
"He plays fair. Everything he does is completely legal," said Dana Puopolo, a California radio engineer and entrepreneur. "He gets these stations in the middle of nowhere, fixes them up and before you know it, the station is up at 100,000 watts and worth a fortune."
What Tucker does is not unlike someone with a good eye for a fixer-upper house, Puopolo said.
Though successful radio stations in small markets across the United States can be sold for millions of dollars, sale figures can be very misleading, Puopolo said.
"It can run you anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 a year to operate a station, and that's without making any improvements," Puopolo said. "A lot of times, you're sinking that kind of money into a station for years and years before you ever get anything back."
Recreates successful station
A former chief engineer at Tucson's KWFM, a progressive rock station hailed as one of the best in the country in the 1970s, Tucker has essentially recreated KWFM, Brady said.
"We had a wall of 5,000 albums, and up until they started doing formatting in the late '70s, you could literally play whatever you wanted whenever you wanted, and that's what Ted's doing."
It's a format similar to Tucker's first station - KTTZ, an Oracle station that LaRussa and fellow KWFM colleagues Bob Bish and Charlie Morriss worked at in the late '80s.
As with KCDX in Florence, KTTZ's music largely consisted of Tucker's own collection, LaRussa said. He remembers working for the Federated music store chain when he first met Tucker, he said.
"I was at one of our stores setting up their compact disc department and here was this guy with a basket full of CDs and I said something like, 'Must be nice,' and he said, 'Well, it's not for me. It's for my radio station,'" LaRussa said.
Tucker and LaRussa had been at KWFM at different times, but Tucker recognized LaRussa's work as a deejay and ended up offering him a job at KTTZ, LaRussa said.
Tucker employed an anything-goes music format that drew the ire of classic deejays like LaRussa, who "shaped their hours," he said.
"Your hour made sense. It meant something. You tried to put together an hour that flowed a certain way," LaRussa said. "Obviously, KCDX and for that matter, KTTZ early on, they just don't do that at all. There is just no thought from one song to the next."
It's that form of free-wheeling discontinuity that makes many fans appreciate KCDX even more, as it distinguishes the station from the kind of hermetically sealed, controlled music formats of corporate radio, said Faulkner of the Greater Florence Chamber of Commerce.
"It might not appeal to everybody, but I haven't found anybody that doesn't like it," Faulkner said. "A lot of people around here, even high school and college kids, they say they don't listen to any other station, and a lot of them don't even play their own CDs anymore. They just listen to 103.1."
Not normally interested
Large media corporations such as Clear Channel Communications Inc. aren't normally interested in acquiring stations in the smaller markets that Tucker and his peers deal in, though Tucker did sell KTTZ to giant Journal Broadcast Group Inc., probably because the Oracle station could easily reach the larger Tucson market, Puopolo said.
Tucker, who is in his 50s and still has a home in Arizona despite residing elsewhere, doesn't deny his lack of artistic continuity as a music programmer. When told that LaRussa finds Tucker's playlist "truly exasperating," a modest but deep laugh creeps through the telephone's speaker.
"I don't profess to be a master programmer or anything like that. I'm just a guy who likes music," Tucker said.
On Internet forum boards, people have posted their own versions of how Tucker runs his radio station. Some believe he has the equivalent of a giant iPod or "500-disc" CD player constantly shuffling through songs, but listeners paying deeper attention note that certain artists seem to creep into the playlist at a rate that rules out random computer shuffling.
Tucker backs away from the subject, though admitting that the music, like at most stations, is programmed onto a computer hard drive.
"Leave me with some mystery. There is a bit of programmed themes and there is also some randomness to it, and I guess that's about all I want to say about it," he said.
What Tucker is comfortable talking about is the contribution of his son, Ted, who is in his 20s.
"He likes radio for radio, basically for the same reasons I like it, and he's really helped me a lot," Tucker said. "He does all the computers, the on-air computer, the Web site, the streaming."
The two do pretty much all that needs to be done at the station as far as maintenance and programming go, Tucker said.
"I have somebody that answers the phone and takes care of things, but since it's not a commercial station I don't have to have a lot of the people associated with that part of it," he said.
While the streaming broadcast at the station's Web site has listeners worldwide tuning in, the Web version lacks the magic of real radio, Tucker said.
"Just the whole idea that it's coming from real people in a real location, even the fact that there is static and it's hard to get in some places and it takes some work, that's part of what I really like about it, instead of just clicking your mouse," he said. "What I like about radio is that signals propagate through the air. I just like the physics of it, just the mystery of signal propagation."
Disturbed over sale
LaRussa makes no bones about the disappointment he had with Tucker over selling KTTZ in 1988, just when the station was starting to garner local ratings.
"We had assurances that he was going to stick with it and see this thing through, amidst these phone calls we'd get from people saying, 'You know he's trying to sell the damn thing,' and we'd say 'No, he's not, he told us he's not,' and he sure enough did," LaRussa said.
"That's not to say he didn't put a lot of his own hard work and blood, sweat and tears into it, but he got a pretty good return on his investment."
Tucker had owned the station and had pumped money into it for about eight years before he ever got it on the air, he said. Rather than trying to sell it, the rumors and calls that were circulating were from people who were courting him to buy the station. Eventually he simply got an offer he couldn't refuse, Tucker said.
"Quite frankly, at the time of KTTZ, Ted was not exactly financially super well off," Brady said. "I understand where LaRussa is coming from. Those guys were my friends and I sympathize with them, but I think Ted just had to make a financial decision at the time."
Tucker applied for the frequency for KTTZ in 1976, at a time when there were enough open frequencies around for little guys to get in on the action, and it took him 10 years to get the station on the air, he said.
It costs about $200,000 a year to keep a station like KCDX going, and eventually, something about the station will have to change, Tucker said.
"However, there is nothing on the horizon for changing the station other than to improve its signal and its content," he said. "Eventually, I might seek some commercial matter, but it would be in a very low-key way, nothing like people are used to hearing.
"If I'm able to to do it for a long period of time, I will, but if someone wanted to trade me an island in the Pacific or something like it, I'd probably make the trade."
Even with commercials, the rich diversity of music found on the station would still make it better than any other, Brady said. "I'll put up with commercials any time of the day or night if the format is interesting, and he's got at least 5,000 songs and counting, while most station don't have 200," he said.
"He's going to make something of the station eventually, so people should just enjoy it for as long as it lasts, and God bless him for doing what he's already done."

sample of one day's "Non-Stop Rock" on Ted Tucker's KCDX 103.1 FM
● The station also features a streaming broadcast online at kcdxfm.com
● Savoy Brown's "Street Corner Talking"
l Steely Dan's "Rikki Don't Lose That Number"
● The Guess Who's "Star Baby"
● George Harrison's "What Is Life"
● The Band's "Life is a Carnival"
● The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun"
● Looking Glass' "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)"
● Rainbow's "Street of Dreams"
● Steve Miller Band's "My Dark Hour"
● Andrew Gold's "Lonely Boy"
● Led Zeppelin's "Over the Hills and Far Away"
● The Beatles' "Blue Jay Way"
● Cream's "Badge"
● Carole King's "Smackwater Jack"
● Cat Stevens' "On the Road to Find Out"
● Aerosmith's "Lick and a Promise"
● Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz"
● Howard Jones' "Life in One Day"
l Pete Townsend's "Let My Love Open the Door"
● Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb"
Source: KCDX Web site

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