Birth Pangs by C. Dwight Tindle

BIRTH PANGS

Although I did not know it at the time, back in 1971 I was the luckiest person on the face of the Earth. In 1971, I moved to Phoenix from “Back East,” and started what would become the most popular Valley radio station for years to come, and a legend and an icon in American broadcasting.

To arrive at the source of KDKB, you must travel back to Philadelphia circa 1967. I was a teenager in high school at the time with a very popular band that played at most of the fraternity parties, high school dances and debutante parties in the Philadelphia area. I played rhythm guitar. My car at the time was a used MGB roadster that is significant to this story in that it had a Blaupunkt AM-FM radio. Any FM radio was a great rarity in those days, and to have one in your car was almost unheard of. Our band was what today you would call a “cover” band and we played a broad selection of the Top 40 hits of the time. This was an amazing time for popular music. A new kind of rock-and-roll was beginning to surface. Songs like “Let’s Spend The Night Together” by the Rolling Stones and “Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock made their way onto the Top 40 stations. But “Light My Fire” by the Doors was too long to be accommodated by their formats. The Buffalo Springfield sang “For What It’s Worth” but Top 40 wouldn’t play it. Jimi Hendrix played “Purple Haze” but the AM stations would have none of it. We performed these songs in my band and it was clear that this was the music people wanted to hear.

There was a new radio show in Philadelphia back then on WMMR, an FM station, called “The Marconi Experiment.” Hosted by Dave Herman, it came on from 7-midnight right after the Frank Sinatra Hour. The Marconi Experiment featured bands like Cream, Traffic, the Steve Miller Band and the Grateful Dead. These were groups that you heard only on The Marconi Experiment. Top 40 radio would not touch this stuff. The presentation of the music was different as well. No screaming jocks, but rather a sincere sense of brotherhood was conveyed from the station to the audience. We were all in on something new and exciting, maybe even illegal. It was underground radio and I was hooked. I had an FM radio in my car! I think I must have spent the entire summer of 1967 driving around at night, listening to the radio.

In 1969 I was away at college in Ohio and returned home to Philadelphia for the summer vacation. My absolute best friend from kindergarten through high school was a guy named David Fenimore, who was attending the University of Pennsylvania and was a nighttime jock on WXPN, the non-commercial U of P underground station that broadcast to the entire city of Philadelphia and its environs (Fenimore was to become the original overnight jock on KDKB as “The Amoeba.”) By this time, WMMR was a full-time underground station (no more Sinatra Hour!) and Dave Herman was still sailing along with the Marconi Experiment. Sometime during that summer he began to advertise a concert, really a 3-day happening, to take place August 15th, 16th and 17th in upstate New York. The concert was the Woodstock Music and Art Fair and all of the bands would be there: The Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Grateful Dead, and a new band that we really liked called Crosby, Stills and Nash. It was even rumored that Neil Young might join the other three on stage, thus reuniting the nucleus of the Buffalo Springfield. We couldn’t miss this, even though the tickets were priced at an outrageous $6.00 a day or $18.00 for the three day affair. But Dave Herman assured us that we could camp out, saving the cost of a room, and there would be food aplenty. So we packed up the MGB and off we went, me and Fenimore, for an astounding appointment with our destinies.

Fenimore was having his wisdom teeth extracted on August 14, a Thursday, and there was some doubt as to whether or not he could go along. But, trooper that he is, he had me pick him up at his dentist’s office that afternoon and off we went to Bethel, New York and Yasgur’s Farm. We had to park miles from the stage area even though we arrived a day early, so we hiked the rest of the way in. When we got there, it was like nothing we had ever imagined: this incredible stage and a sound system like none we had ever heard before (they were running intermittent sound checks throughout the afternoon and the night.) And to top it all off, the entire crew was just a bunch of freaks like us!

I won’t go any deeper into the story of Woodstock as it is so familiar, but I do want to call attention to the collective vision that it produced. Nobody at this time had yet identified the bubble on the population that later became known as the “Baby-Boomer Generation.” At Woodstock, we realized that we were not just a counter-culture anymore. We were a self-sufficient core population that could thrive without dependence on the mainstream culture. There were those of us who could build immense structures like the stage area. There were sound technicians who could operate sophisticated equipment. There were food vendors and on and on. We were real and we had come of age. We were anti-establishment, and we didn’t need the establishment for anything anymore. This was the revelation to all who attended. The crowd was later estimated at 500,000 but if you were there, it seemed like millions.

Fenimore got sick. It’s not surprising that after two nights in the wild, eating only watermelon and bathing with the rind (there wasn’t food aplenty like Dave Herman said,) minus four wisdom teeth, soaked with rain and caked with mud, he just wanted to take a shower and sleep in a bed. So I acquiesced to his pleas and we set out for home. We missed Crosby, Stills and Nash, the Grateful Dead and a lot of other fantastic music but we left the mudhole that once was Yasgur’s Farm and returned to Philadelphia via back roads (the freeways were jammed shut in all directions.) We arrived back home on Saturday evening, August 16. Woodstock had made the front page of the Sunday newspapers by this time and it was all the talk on the television newscasts. We were real all right, so real that the establishment could do nothing but sit up and take notice.

Also attending Woodstock and bailing early was a friend of mine from college and someone he had brought along with him for the festivities: Eric Hauenstein. They traveled all the way from Cincinnati for three days of peace, love and music, but when it started raining, they put in a call to my mother and asked if they could stop off for a few days to recuperate in Philadelphia before the long trek back to Ohio. She told them that I had been at Woodstock as well, but called to say I was coming home too and of course they were welcome. So the great legend of Eric Hauenstein and I meeting at Woodstock was a bit of a stretch. I met Eric Hauenstein at my house. We were both refugees from Woodstock.

Eric was working part-time in sales at WEBN, Cincinnati’s underground FM station, while attending the University of Cincinnati. My experience of radio in Philadelphia and his experience of radio in Cincinnati were quite different. In Philadelphia, radio was a corporate affair. WMMR was owned and operated by Metromedia Broadcasting, a huge conglomerate that owned stations all over, including KMET in Los Angeles, by this time LA’s underground connection. My father was the wake-up man at WPEN in Philadelphia, owned by the Sun Ray Drug Store chain.

On the other hand, WEBN was a “mom and pop” station, started by a lawyer named Frank Wood who loved jazz music so much that he started a station of his own to bring jazz to the city of Cincinnati. His son, Frank Jr., after graduating from law school, had turned the station to the underground as “Jelly Pudding” and was broadcasting nights under the air name of Michael Xanadu. Frank Sr. continued to do a jazz show on the station every Sunday night until he passed away. WEBN was one of the premiere underground stations in the US.

So Eric planted this seed of an idea that we could have our own radio station. We didn’t have to convince corporate broadcasters that we could successfully find an audience. We could look for an attractive market somewhere and pursue this underground dream and own the station ourselves: a totally new idea for me. I had good connections with the First Pennsylvania Bank in Philadelphia and, buoyed by the Woodstock experience, we both thought that nothing was impossible.

Fast-forward to 1971 when we actually got it together to approach the bank and arrange financing for our dream of a station. I can still remember tucking our pony tails under our collars and making our nervous presentation in a top story conference room at the main office of the First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust Company on 15th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia: this imposing, intimidating, marble columned building that looked like a Hellenistic temple. It is interesting to note that, when I visited Philadelphia in the Spring of 1998 and toured the downtown area after great absence, the First Pennsylvania Banking and Trust building at 15th and Chestnut was boarded up, vacant, not occupied by any bank or anyone else for that matter. I was shocked. There were no branch offices of that venerable old institution to be found anywhere in the Philadelphia area. KDKB rocks on at 30. The institution that provided the seed money is long gone and, for the most part, forgotten.

Anyway, we secured the line of credit and set out to find an appropriate market for our radio station. This was February of 1971 and we visited Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Dallas to assess what was going on with underground radio in the Great American West. I had never been west of Cincinnati in my life and Eric had made, I think, one prior trip to the coast. We visited KSAN and KMPX in San Francisco. KSAN was a thriving business. KMPX was an opium den. We made air checks of stations in all of the markets we visited and ended up placing a bid on an FM facility in Denver. Denver itself had no FM underground station at that time, but underground radio could be heard on KRNW from Boulder, a station that dropped a signal down the mountain into the Queen of the Rockies. We had visited KRNW on our odyssey and found that their approach was to pretty much let anyone with a decent record collection come in and do a show. Nonetheless, they had a loyal audience.

Our bid for the Denver FM was denied, so we regrouped and set our sights on Phoenix. There was an AM-FM combination in Mesa that was in real trouble financially and it looked like we could afford to buy it. KMND (Command Radio) broadcast bad beautiful music on its 100,000 watt dual polarized FM facility and KALF was a 10,000 watt daytime country AM station. It seemed written in the stars to me. KMND’s frequency was 93.3. WMMR’s frequency, the station that initially turned me on, was also 93.3. We could simulcast our stereo FM signal on the AM daytimer. Another big plus was that since the stations were in financial trouble, it was likely that the FCC would act expediently on our application. We cut the deal and set out to apply to the FCC for the transfer of license.

There has been a lot of confusion over the years about our call letters, KDKB, and their possible connection to KDKA in Pittsburgh. When we formed our company we had to name it something. We wanted to be the Karma Broadcasting Company but there already was a Karma Broadcasting in Seattle. Eric suggested Dwight’s Karma Broadcasting, but I did not want to take all of the blame myself. I had an appointment with our lawyer to finalize the documentation for our incorporation, and that is when I entered the name Dwight Karma. It was completely a last minute decision but I thought it sounded a little more formal that way. There never was a person named Dwight Karma and I never used it as an air name. KDKB is a derivative of Dwight Karma Broadcasting. Of course we were aware of the great history of KDKA and the similarity to our call letters. If people wanted to associate our station with the first radio station in the country, then that was just fine with us. If our wishes had been granted, however, we might have been KKBC, or KRMA or something like that and history would have been forever changed.

I made two more trips to Phoenix before moving out west. One was to conduct the ascertainment of community needs required for the FCC application and the other was to find a house to live in. The community needs survey entailed interviewing local community leaders to determine specific community needs and how we could address those needs with the programming of our proposed station. Forum, KDKB’s nightly public affairs show, was designed to serve those needs. In 1971, Mesa, Arizona, was a pretty conservative town, and you can imagine the reaction of the community leaders to this 21-year-old freak asking them about the needs of their community. To their credit, I was warmly received everywhere I went and we never had a problem with those folks. In fact, back in 1976, KDKB was awarded a Peabody Award for outstanding public service programming, Forum being one of the mainstays of our community service.

By the summer of 1971, it looked as though the FCC was about to act on our license application, so I packed up my stuff and moved out to Phoenix. My primary means of transportation at the time was my motorcycle, a Triumph Bonneville 650, but I loaded it onto the moving van. I had just restored a 1955 Mercedes Benz Sedan and four of us jumped inside and traded shifts driving non-stop from Cincinnati to Phoenix. I loved that car. It looked like something out of a Zap Comic. We arrived at my new house on the south side of Camelback Mountain on the afternoon of the 4th of July. There was to be a Taj Mahal concert that night at the Travelodge Theatre (now the Celebrity Theatre) and we debated whether or not we should go, but the four of us decided to spend the night out by the pool, enjoying the fireworks from all over the Valley. It was quite a warm reception. I drove that old Mercedes from the house down to the radio station one day where it died in the parking lot and sat for about two years before we got it running again.

Eric and I set up offices in the old Buckaroo Motor Lodge on south Country Club Drive in Mesa, a few blocks from KMND/KALF, soon to be KDKB AM&FM. The station was located in an old Safeway building just south of Main Street on Country Club. We decided that we should talk with the staff of KCAC, a 500 watt daytime AM station that was, at the time, Phoenix’s only link to the underground. It was not a great departure from our plans to hire the bulk of the staff. They were great people and, while they had not attended Woodstock, they shared the vision that we had for the radio station.

We were all intent on pursuing what had by this time become known as free-form radio. I know it sounds loose and unstructured and that’s exactly what it was, but when performed with artistry and professionalism, new heights of communication could be attained. We all believed strongly in the strength of spontaneity and in the power of improvisation. The Grateful Dead subscribed to this same philosophy. Jazz music was founded on these principles. Tom Donahue of KSAN in San Francisco put it beautifully: “Radio is the perfect modern art form in that the instant that it’s created, it ceases to exist.”

Our sign-on date was rapidly approaching and it was important that we have a real meeting of the minds between the KCAC staff and the “Folks from Dwight Karma” as we were affectionately (or not-so-affectionately) known. Bill Compton was pulling an afternoon shift on KCAC at the time and then running over to KUPD to do a show from 7-midnight. To his great credit, we met every night, Bill and myself, from midnight until dawn through July and early August in the living room of my house on Camelback. In those sessions we invented KDKB. We both wanted freedom to be the hallmark of the station. There would be no format. The great Marty Manning would produce all commercials in-house in a vignette style. We would key the music to what was happening in people’s lives. If it rained, KDKB would pull out all the rain songs. The radio station would speak with a voice of its own. The station and the audience would be one. All music was fair game: Jazz, Rock, Folk and even a little Classical. We used to say that it doesn’t really matter what you play, what matters is what you play right before it and right after it. The segue was king and the audience never knew what was going to happen next. Coming from the East, I loved to throw in the Holy Modal Rounders or The Band. Bill, coming from Texas, leaned more toward Leon Russell or Doug Sahm. Toad Hall, Hank Cookenboo and my friend from Woodstock the inimitable Amoeba rounded out the original full-time air staff. If I may say so, the blend was absolute perfection.

In those days before August 23, 1971, when we first signed on as KDKB, the Amoeba and I spent our days preparing the most eclectic, bizarre and confounding series of 15-inch reels of tape that anyone has ever heard. Timothy Leary, John Cage, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Baba Ram Das, Dark Star by the Grateful Dead and Suzy Creamcheese characterized the presentation. I think we assembled about a dozen or so reels and when the FCC approved the license transfer, we loaded those reels onto the automation equipment at KMND, and gave whatever audience they may have had at the time the ride of their lives. No more Mantovani or Ferrante and Teicher. We were heading in a totally new direction.

Two weeks before signing on as KDKB, we prepared a tape loop recording that featured the sound of waves breaking on the shore, with seagulls and the whole nine yards. By this time we had changed the call letters to KDKB and every seven minutes or so a voice would remind the listener that they were enjoying the “soothing sounds of KDKB.” We got a lot of mileage out of this from the local media, explaining to them that we only wanted to bring the sounds of the seashore to the desert. This was our new format. All the rumors of going underground were false. Phoenix is land-locked and the people are starved for the soothing sounds of the ocean. In reality, we were tuning out the old audience and tuning in the new. The audience knew what was going on. The media would fall for anything in those days.

At noon on Monday, August 23, 1971, I went into what would become the main production studio of KDKB in the old Safeway building (Jim, the engineer, had not yet completed work on our master control room, the “engine room” as we called it.) This was the day appointed for us to unveil the new station in all of its glory. I shut the door to the studio and placed “On The Way Home” on the turntable. I said a little prayer and turned off the ocean sounds. The Buffalo Springfield sang, “When the dream came, I held my breath with my eyes closed. I went insane like a smoke ring day when the wind blows.” KDKB was born. And I was the luckiest person on the face of the Earth.

C. Dwight Tindle

KDKB Staff Photos #1 & #2
KDKB 30th Year Concert Award


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