Who's behind Arizona's nonstop oddball rock time capsule?
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published: Phoenix New Times, Thursday, September 18, 2003
Adam Marsland, an indie rock singer-songwriter who, by his own accounts, spends most of his life on the road, discovered KCDX purely by accident one day while riding in his tour bus across the Arizona desert.
"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."
Dwight Tindle, the local radio legend who in 1971 co-founded KDKB -- at the time, one of the most adventurous freeform FM rock stations in the country -- is at first unimpressed when told about all the interest the mysterious commercial-free broadcast is generating.
"A lot of new stations do that kind of thing when they're changing formats and want to get some media attention," he sniffs. "In fact, before we went on the air with KDKB, we broadcast a tape loop of all the weirdest stuff we could find: Zappa, Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Captain Beefheart. It was mostly a tactic to tune out the old listeners from the bad beautiful music' station that used to occupy the frequency and draw in the curious new audience, who knew something different was coming."
But the curious thing is, KCDX hasn't changed formats, nor has it shut down. Even more amazingly, this baby-boomer album fest has yet to be interrupted by a single commercial for -- how's this for a nonstop music block? -- more than 18 months.
"You're kidding." Tindle snaps to attention when told that little kicker. "Well, then, something really is going on here. Because if someone's operating even a bare-bones automated station, that's got to be costing a minimum of a couple hundred thousand dollars a year."
Tindle shifts in his office chair and immediately tries to tune in the frequency on his desktop boom box. "He's got to be paying an engineer to maintain the equipment," Tindle says, running down the basic operating costs in his head. "He has to be paying the licensing fees on all the music that he plays. Then, of course, you've got to pay the electric bill, you gotta pay the rent. And if you've got no revenue coming in from advertising, that can all add up to some pretty significant out-of-pocket costs."
Failing to tune in the station on his office radio, Tindle pledges to try it on another receiver and call back later with his critique. "Whoever's doing this has got to be either the most magnanimous music fan in Arizona," he says, laughing, "or totally insane!"
They've had occasional down days," reports Pfeifer. "Sometimes you punch up the station and there's just static, and you think, Uh-oh, that's the end of it,'" he says. "But then you try it again in an hour and, like magic, it's back. And they've been broadcasting that way since at least March of 2002, still without ever playing one commercial."
Like many listeners, Pfeifer has scoured the Web searching for a phone number or location of the station's offices. "Almost nothing is known about KCDX," he marvels. "I've found out they're owned by a company called Desert West Air Ranchers, but good luck trying to find out anything about them. I've also heard that they are operating with an automated CD player out of a trailer near Globe. But that's all I've ever been able to discover about them."
Gary Faulkner, the friendly, suntanned Vietnam vet with a classic rock addiction who runs the Florence Chamber of Commerce, claims he gets calls from people all the time wondering if the mystery station is being broadcast covertly by a couple of incarcerated Blues Brothers out of the nearby penitentiary.
"A lot of people think it's being secretly run by some of the prisoners," chuckles Faulkner. "But I know for a fact that's not true. The station has a license here in Florence, but there's no building. The most I've been able to find out is it's run by a guy up on a mountaintop in Globe."
In fact, some listeners believe there's nothing but a gigantic iPod at the top of that mountain.
"The selection is so random, and some of the segues are so nonsensical, that it sounds like you're plugged into somebody's MP3 player and it's just playing all these thousands of songs at random," says Thurman.
Certainly KCDX's playlist is eclectic enough to suggest it's all streaming from the personal iTunes library of some benevolent hilltop hippie who raided Napster good a couple of years ago and found the perfect old-school way to file-share: over the FM airwaves. At times, the only thing a pair of songs have in common is era. Gilbert O'Sullivan's sunny 1973 confection "Get Down" will inexplicably segue into the ominous opening strains of "In the Light" from Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti. Other times the connection is even odder: On KCDX, the Beatles' perennial "Something" can follow Men at Work's 1983 non-hit "Dr. Heckle & Mr. Jive."
Not that that's a bad thing. On the contrary, KCDX's apparent lack of a human program director reshuffles every record lodged in the baby-boomer memory banks and plays them all back without judgment: Hendrix is cool, but so is early-period Chicago. And younger listeners get treated to some of the strangest music they've never heard, without some media conglomerate market-researching each track for hipness and relevance.
Musical snobbery and DJ attitude are not programmed into KCDX. Graham Nash's sublime, topical-again "Military Madness" can immediately be followed by the early-'80s pop kitsch of Olivia Newton-John's "Magic." The KCDX A.I. is esoteric enough to select the kick-in-the-lobes delight of "Kuiama" when it scans for ELO, but it can just as easily pick "Living Thing." Which it will probably do in five minutes.
KCDX, you see, also has a peculiar habit of heavily showcasing a particular artist every few hours. On the classic rock outlets, such artist showcases are usually smartly assembled Sunday night affairs, distilling the greatness of such Rock and Roll Hall of Famers as Eric Clapton or Led Zeppelin and reexperiencing landmark LPs like The Dark Side of the Moon and Tapestry.
On KCDX, you're more likely to hear a reexamining of Billy Joel's An Innocent Man, sprinkling the Piano Man's long-forgotten odes to Christie Brinkley between totally unrelated rarities by the Buffalo Springfield and Foghat. Inevitably, at some point in a particular broadcast day you will find yourself wondering why you're suddenly listening to more early Blood, Sweat & Tears than anyone has in the past 30 years.
Because of this illogical pattern, a lot of KCDX listeners believe the man behind the curtain is actually nothing more than a very large compact disc multi-player.
"At first, I thought it was coming off a big computer server," says Pfeifer. "But the same artists wouldn't be coming up that repeatedly if you were randomly playing from an MP3 library. That's why I think it's one of those large, 500-disc CD players. Because even when you set those things on random shuffle, sometimes they'll hit the same CDs for a while."
Sure enough, while Pfeifer is talking, the third Rolling Stones song in 30 minutes, "Sympathy for the Devil," comes on his living room stereo. Even if KCDX is just a big CD carousel, there's still the matter of who's loading those CDs, and the lyrics of this particular classic fairly taunt Pfeifer to guess what kind of person would dedicate the time and money to create such a public archive.
Obviously, whoever's providing the Valley with this nonstop classic rock time capsule is, as Mick Jagger sneers, "a man of wealth and taste." But what's puzzling everybody who's discovered this station is the nature of his game.
"I could see if some station owner was just doing this to get a buzz going and get advertisers interested," Pfeifer says.
"But then," he says, smiling, "wouldn't you think there'd be some way to get in contact with him?"
About four hours after successfully tuning in the elusive 103.1 on "the good radio" upstairs in his central Phoenix home, Dwight Tindle is on the phone again, raving all about his brand-new favorite station.
"This is amazing stuff!" says the 52-year-old veteran Valley radio man, who now makes his living in the global telecommunications industry. "I can tell you right now, there isn't another station like this in the country. What this guy is doing is very special. Because this kind of thing never happens in radio. This is one of those great rarities."
A former "rich hippie," according to pal Russell "Wonderful Russ" Shaw, Tindle was instrumental in creating Phoenix's other great radio rarity, the original KDKB. Funded by Tindle and Eric Hauenstein, a radio sales guy Tindle met after the two attended Woodstock in 1969, the first KDKB crew, led by the late, now-legendary program director William Edward Compton, served up a unique hippie diet of folk, rock, jazz, comedy and whatever else fit the mood of the moment. It was an exhilarating, weird mix of music that, save for Tindle's short-lived Sunday night program with promoter Danny Zelisko on KMXP in 1998, hasn't been heard on Valley airwaves since.
Until now, that is. While Tindle isn't sure how much of KCDX's programming is automated, he is certain whoever's selecting the music for the station listened to a whole lot of early-'70s KDKB.
"I'm hearing a lot of songs with a definite Phoenix signature," he says. "Artists that we developed on KDKB who really didn't get played anywhere else. Jerry Riopelle, early Linda Ronstadt. Whiskey Train' by Procol Harum, Dolly Dagger' by Hendrix, Dixie Chicken' by Little Feat. Records that we played to death on KDKB but didn't get much airplay anywhere else in the country. I'm waiting to hear [Little Feat's] Spanish Moon' on KCDX -- it would fit right in."
For Tindle, listening to KCDX is clearly like being visited by a friendly ghost. "The songs aren't being put together the way a 21st-century program director would put them together," he says. "They're being put together the way we used to put them together. Where the music had a certain flow to it."
A onetime master of the musical segue as KDKB's late-night jock ("Dwight could literally match notes," attests Shaw), Tindle has trouble believing the song sequences he's hearing on KCDX are purely random picks of the computer. "Usually when you talk about automation, there's a mindless randomness to it," he says. "But I'm not hearing that here. I'm hearing something a little bit more purposeful in the selection of the songs. I'm hearing a mind behind the music. Somebody is deciding which song goes where."
A few days later, Tindle calls back following a road trip to Nogales, slightly revising his critique.
"We listened to KCDX all the way down and back -- the signal only fades out when you get a little north of Tucson," he reports. "And sometimes it sounded like it was on some form of automation, but other times there was clearly someone behind the controls. Maybe that's how it's done: generally automated with occasional stints by a human mind in the more listened-to day parts."
Plainly, Tindle does not want to believe all the legendary radio magic he created with his whacked-out crew could simply be duplicated today by a well-stocked computer picking out songs willy-nilly. Better to imagine the ghost of Bill Compton is somehow tweaking with the radio waves bouncing around the heavens.
"The curious thing about FM radio waves is that they penetrate the ionosphere," says Tindle. "Sometimes I regret that we never taped anything at KDKB. We looked at what we were doing as a work of art that we were constantly creating every moment we were on the air, and we just let it go out over the airwaves and disappear. But somewhere out in space, all of those radio shows are still out there."
Could some genius have found a way to retrieve those lost KDKB signals and rebroadcast them, creating a kind of permanent museum exhibition in the air?
"Maybe," he says, laughing. "That would sure be a great thing, wouldn't it? It's a remarkable resource for a lot of wonderful music, though -- wherever it's coming from!"
After a few more days of researching the mysterious station on his own, Gary Faulkner at the Florence Chamber of Commerce finally manages to produce a name of the owner. "His name is Ted Tucker," Faulkner says, "and he apparently owns a few radio stations in southern Arizona." In fact, according to FCC documents, Tucker's Desert West Air Ranchers owns at least four other, more conventional, commercial stations in Winslow, Kachina Village, Sierra Vista and Nogales.
But calls to each of those facilities dead-end at the front desk, where the receptionists have apparently been trained not to give out Tucker's number under any amount of duress. Some of the staffers at Tucker's other stations admit they seldom see the man themselves. "He doesn't come in here every day like all the worker bees," says a cordial but cautious Eileen Kuns, operations manager at KKYZ, an oldies station Tucker owns in Sierra Vista. "I really don't know what I can tell you about him."
At last, after a full eight days of fruitless attempts to locate the mysterious radio man at every other station tied to his name, the call comes in.
"Hi, this is Ted Tucker," says a relaxed, mature-sounding voice. "What do you want to know?"
While declining to meet in person and laughing off a request for a photo session ("Hmmm . . . that would mean being recognized when I walk down the street, wouldn't it?" he says), Tucker nonetheless apologizes for being so evasive.
"I'm just a very private person," he says. "Actually, I tend to hide from the spotlight. But then," he says, laughing, "you've probably already gathered that."
Revealing only that he's calling from "somewhere in southern Arizona" (the call comes in from a cell phone with a Wyoming area code -- Desert West Air Ranchers is incorporated in Jackson as well as Sierra Vista), Tucker admits that he is, indeed, the man behind the music.
"I'm paying for it, and I'm the guy picking the music," he says. "It's pretty much my own collection. A lot of people have forgotten this music. Plenty of stations play classic rock, but not this stuff."
Tucker seems genuinely surprised to hear that people are buzzing about KCDX, and that the station actually made a bump in the last Arbitron ratings, according to current KDKB program director Joe Bonadonna. "What's the scoop out there on the station?" Tucker asks eagerly. "I really don't talk to anybody."
He's amused to learn that baffled listeners have become curious enough about his little experiment to actually go looking for the mystery station.
"There's really nothing to see," he says, chuckling. "There's a transmitter up in the Pinal mountains, but that's all anyone will find. There's no studio with posters on the wall and some guy sitting back in a chair with a ponytail going, Wow, man, did you like that one?' Nothing like that. I wouldn't call it a one-man show. There are people who contribute. But it isn't an operation like you would see at a typical radio station, with an office swarming with people. It's mainly me."
Tucker does go so far as to reveal the mystery behind the machinery. "It's regular radio station automation equipment, and all digitized," he says. "Almost everything you hear on any radio station today is on computers, and that goes for this station, too."
Nevertheless, he remains mysterious about why he's treating a good 70 percent of the Phoenix metro area, and apparently most of southern Arizona, to all his favorite old songs commercial-free.
"I have my reasons for doing this," he says, suddenly shortening his responses. "And they're not all about money."
Tucker won't go into it more than that, only to add, "I'm doing what I want to do. I don't have anybody yelling in my ear, telling me what to play, or what not to play. People are free to listen to it if they want to, but I'm not concerned if they don't. I want the station on the air because I love all this music and nobody's playing it on the radio. It's really that simple."
Tucker doesn't reveal much more to Tindle, either, who calls the same number later to see if the shy radio man will talk shop, in a little more detail, with a comrade. "He was really flattering -- called me a legend,'" reports Tindle. "But he still wouldn't tell me specifically why he's doing this. He said, I'd love to sit down with you someday over coffee and tell you the whole story. It's a very funny story.' But he didn't want to say anything else."
Tindle does discover that Tucker did in fact live in Phoenix during the early days of KDKB and later worked in Tucson as an engineer at KWFM, "which was sort of the KDKB of Tucson," Tindle says. "The fact that he was an engineer would make it possible for him to operate that station pretty much by himself."
Tucker's engineering background -- and the geekiness that comes with that territory -- also hints at what may be Tucker's real reason for creating KCDX.
"There are engineers who work on equipment and do that exclusively," says Tindle. "And then there are engineers who get up in the morning, make a cup of coffee and sit down with plat maps, figuring out what they can do. Now, from what I saw on the FCC documents, he originally had two stations. And I don't know if he took the other station dark or moved the frequency of the other channel to boost the power on the KCDX channel. But something was done to boost the signal on KCDX. There's some reason he wants that station to reach all the way south from Phoenix."
In the end, Tucker may well have created KCDX just to give himself something to listen to on his frequent trips to his other stations around southern Arizona. It's the one theory he comes closest to confirming on the phone.
"It always fascinated me, the thought of being able to put music on the air and drive around and hear it," he says at one point. "The whole physics of radio and how it works. How it bounces off mountains and spreads across the landscape. So that's one of my loves. Music is the other. You marry the two, and this is what you get."
Certainly, what Tucker is doing is what every radio-alienated baby boomer busily burning CDs and loading up iPods to take in the car would do if he had the skills -- and the funds. "There are costs involved," he says. "But right now, I'm not too concerned about that."
It also explains why he hasn't glopped up his own portable CD collection with commercials. "I have some improvements in mind," he says. "But when I say improvements,' it's not in the classic radio sense of hiring a funny morning team and loading the day with commercials. I don't consider commercials an improvement."
Rather, Tucker says, his only plan -- for the moment, at least -- is to add a few more CDs to his on-air music collection. "There's more coming," he promises. "I'm trying to add more songs to it. I just haven't gotten around to it yet."
Inarguably, KCDX has the potential to become a serious commercial venture. "Take a look at the coverage he has," notes Tindle. "Ten years ago, Chandler, Gilbert, Ahwatukee -- that stuff wasn't even there. Today, that's a pretty hefty market. Especially as growth from the Valley continues south. So when you think of what the potential for this station is, it's really quite tremendous."
From the sounds of it, however, KCDX is really Ted Tucker's personal station. We're all just listening in.
"I hope everybody enjoys it," he says. "But really, I'm just doing what I want to do. There's so much great music that's been swept away, that no radio station cares about playing anymore. I don't know; maybe they're right.
"But it all depends on whether you're just in it for the money, or if you're in it for the love of music. Where I'm coming from and where most radio people are coming from is pretty different."
And with that, Tucker excuses himself to get back to his many projects, promising to be more accessible in the future. Two days later, the cell phone number that previously reached him directly has been rerouted to one of his other stations, where the receptionist promises to give him the message to call.
Tucker never surfaces again. But KCDX, loaded with even more selections, as promised, continues to play on. Still commercial-free. And still deliciously mysterious.