Echoes and Reverberations: Our Radio Heads Are Waxing Nostalgic
The staff of the Zoo, as seen on Liles' bedroom wall poster.
I was twelve years old and up way past my bedtime.
The headphones were on and I was hiding underneath the blankets. The stereo was tuned to a Dallas radio station called "The Zoo". A DJ named JD was playing a track from The Beatles' White Album called "Revolution #9", which had no guitars, drums, verses or choruses--just ten minutes of psychedelic backwards tape loops and abstract sound collage.
In 1974, Dallas rock radio was a truly subversive phenomenon. Program directors and DJs had the guts to try some new shit. It wasn't uncommon to hear songs that you were long enough to lose your virginity to: "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin, "Stranglehold" by Ted Nugent, and Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do?" were all like sex on the radio. Fringe artists like Funkadelic, Frank Zappa and Little Feat were getting regular spins at night. An experimental instrumental record like the Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein" even registered as a hit single. Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon was on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart for over five years straight.
For a twerp kid in Richardson, The Zoo was the analog portal into a bizarre subversive counterculture. A mysterious black vacuum where men wore earrings, women smoked pot and all of the lyrics were profoundly poetic. (What was a stairway to heaven, anyway? And just how much did it cost? Have you seen the wheel in the sky? I hear it keeps on turnin'.)
The first Zoo Freak sticker.
Bands like Yes and Iron Butterfly sang half-hour-long songs about nothing in particular. Nature or the Bible, I think. Humanity. Something kooky like that.
When you're young, everything is way more important than it should be. I actually made my Dad go see the Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains the Same. His response: "People your age don't need to be thinking about stuff like this. Just go out and have some fun. Be a kid while you still can."
But it was back to the world in my headphones: David Bowie's "Golden Years" and Roxy Music's "Love is the Drug" sounded sophisticated and European; while Lou Reed's "Take A Walk On The Wild Side", David Essex's "Rock On" and 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" were narcotic and minimalist.
The second model of the Zoo Freak sticker.
All of it was the essence of cool. The Apple 7" single of John Lennon's "Instant Karma" brought tears to my eyes, even if I was ignorantly oblivious to the subject matter. It just sounded urgent and important. "And we all shine on... like the moon and the stars and the sun..." Again with the Humanity; the ever-expanding universe. You never knew what you were gonna hear next on The Zoo.
Even the commercials were pretty weird. It was perfect if you were a teenager getting baked in the basement. The sound of Doc Morgan announcing the KZEW-FM call letters was like a message from God, or the Freak voice of authority. FM radio was like outer space, an almost empty frequency with a handful of stations operating under the radar.
It wasn't easy to sell advertising in this unproven format. The DJs played records--real records, not CDs or carts. If you listened to the station daily, you became familiar with the individual pops and scratches on your favorite songs. I can still hear the needle noise during the intro to The Who's "Baba O'Reilly" coming out of my car stereo speakers. It's etched in my mind forever.
Mike Rhyner (The Ticket/KZEW): "Bizarre but true: There was a time when there wasn't much of anything on the FM radio band. That seems beyond belief today. Several of the bigger AM stations in the early '60's owned FM frequencies; if they did anything at all with them, they ran what was known as 'soft music'. Think slightly more ambitious Muzak. KRLD-FM had an overnight show called 'Music 'til Dawn'. How that differed from what they did during the daylight hours is anybody's guess."
George Geurin (producer/recording engineer): "I was able to witness the birth of Dallas FM rock radio--KFAD-FM 94.9 and KNUS-FM 98.7. I'm pretty sure KFAD was the first progressive FM station in Texas. When it first fired up, it was only on for about half a day and Jon Dillon was the DJ. They would broadcast from Arlington part of the day and Cleburne the other. It was obvious when Dillon was on the air; he played a lot of blues and progressive rock. They were the definition of underground radio: KFAD was a little more structured, while KNUS was a totally open format, non-commercial station. I don't remember if KFAD had commercials, but KNUS definitely didn't. When the music ended it might be 15 seconds before the DJ said anything. The news segments featured music stuff, youth counterculture updates on peace marches and rallies, and unfair arrests by 'the Pigs'."
Mike Rhyner: "It took the greatness of KNUS to shock the FM band to life; I don't mean the Top 40 KNUS, which we know today as KLUV; I mean the underground KNUS. Same frequency, 98.7, but the similarities come to a rather abrupt end at that point. KNUS was the FM sister of the all-powerful KLIF, the Mighty 1190 AM, totally dominant in this market and one of the most groundbreaking, imitated radio stations you would find anywhere. But look at the landscape of the day--things were blowing up everywhere, including here in ultra-conservative Big D-Little A-Double L-A-S. Everything was changing, and what we now know today as 'demographics' were splintering faster than anybody could keep up with."
Bucks Burnett (record collector): "I loved KLIF 1190 AM because it was a happy, zany Top 40 station broadcasting in that cool corner building on Commerce Street downtown (where the Observer was later located.) They had great, colorful DJs--Cousin Lenny was their number one dude--and they put out vinyl LPs of various artists in the '60s. I think WBAP was all news; not sure. And there was KBOX for a while, in early/mid '60s. They played rock music."
Mike Rhyner: "I suspect--and somebody out there can confirm or refute this--the real change came from inside KLIF/ KNUS. They got the signal thing figured out and discovered they were sitting on an FM blowtorch. That golden light bulb went off and they got to thinking they might be able to make a buck off this FM thing, if they just took what they were doing on KLIF over to the other frequency. So they did it. And that was the end of real, raw, underground, 'hey-man-play-whatever-record-you-feel-like' rock radio in our fair burg."
George Geurin: "KNUS changed to its progressive format around 1967. I was aware of its pending birth because teens in Nocona listened to KLIF-AM, also owned by Gordon McLendon. The station aggressively promoted the start of KNUS for a couple of weeks before it went on the air. (I was a KNUS P1, for you Ticketheads.) The station was actually an experiment by McLendon; word was that he was actually just stalling until he would eventually change it to an all-news station, hence the DJs pronouncing it 'K-News'."
Mike Rhyner: "Some thought there was a sizable market for the more radical music of the time, and KLIF had little to lose by giving it a shot on their FM. They tried to push the envelope at night on the AM side but that wasn't what they were about. You could barely hear it anyway. For technical reasons beyond my comprehension, the FM signal sounded like it was powered by a disposable lighter. Out in southwest Oak Cliff, you had to position the tuner just right on the best radio in the house, and still had to fight through static and fading. You actually had to sit still because if you wandered six feet away from the radio, you couldn't hear it at all. I was willing to do that to get to hear records like Ultimate Spinach's 'Your Head Is Reeling', Spirit's 'Mechanical World', Clear Light's 'Mr. Blue', Country Joe and the Fish's 'Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine'."
George Geurin: "The music was unbelievable. It was totally up to the DJ, and these guys had excellent taste. On KNUS, you might hear a Jimi Hendrix record, some old Muddy Waters, then maybe a whole side of a Mothers of Invention album. It would be no shock to hear Mozart after that. It was so exciting and influential; the DJ's would often play music for 30 minutes without talking; if you were lucky, they told you what you had just heard. The DJs were so good at blending records that even the hip-hop guys would've been impressed."
Mike Rhyner: "No matter what anyone says, nothing that came after it was really close to what KNUS was. The cliche holds that if you can remember it, you weren't there. Well, I was there. I remember it. It was greatness. And the times were good."
It was 1973 when a program director named Ira Lipson and a handful of transplants from Detroit rolled out KZEW-FM 97.9--aka "The Zoo". If you were a ninth-grader who snuck out of the house to make the scene on Monday night at the Gemini Drive-In "Dollar Night", then you were a faithful listener of the Zoo. It was far more influential than anything I ever learned at home or in school; these people were shaping our perspective, and the DJs became like local rock stars. Every kid in my neighborhood had a poster featuring all of the on-air personalities hanging on their wall. The back of my bedroom door was literally covered from top to bottom with "Zoo Freak" bumper stickers.
People from all over the South were well aware of what was happening at this rebel radio station in Dallas.
Randee Smith Prez (former buyer for Hastings Music): "Growing up in Amarillo during the '70s, the only decent radio we could get was via cable. KZEW was the one station that we all listened to. Everyone I knew up there had a ZooLoo sticker on the car. Bobby Harper, who managed the Cooper and Mellin record store there, introduced me to The Zoo. We both went on to work for Hastings and it was our exposure to that diversity from cable radio that eventually helped us as music buyers. And I've actually worked with Jon Dillon on a number of charity events over the years; the man has always been there for the community. Good people, good times!"
Paul Quigg (Decadent Dub Team/Vibrolux): "During the early '70s, FM radio here was mostly classical music and highbrow jazz. And these two radio stations, KNUS and The Zoo, kind of came out of nowhere and were doing something that was really diverse. The Zoo freaks could hear King Crimson's '21st century Schizoid Man'--or Peter Frampton and his talking guitar--but the straight kids were all still listening to KBOX, KLIF and KVIL. Those stations were playing 45 rpm singles by The Beatles and The Carpenters. KNUS was different because it just sounded intelligent; I mean the announcers sounded like they were on drugs, but the subject matter seemed important and otherworldly. The DJs on KNUS would play records by Otis Redding and Muddy Waters. The black stations on AM wouldn't play Sly and the Family Stone, but they got played on KNUS all the time."
A Zooberry Jam compilation album of Dallas artists
Having a KZEW sticker on your car was a statement of lifestyle. It meant that you smoked pot, had long hair and skipped school. The Zoo was like The Matrix for the Zig-Zag crew; lots of late night commercials for head shops and massage parlors. Back when people still camped out to buy concert tickets, there was the Texxas Jam: 80,000 sun-burned freaks listening to Aerosmith in the Cotton Bowl. We knew what time it was.
Need a visual? Revisit the movie Dazed and Confused. That's what Dallas, Texas, looked like from my POV. The Zoo was the soundtrack to our lives. Shit was happening in real time. A DJ would make an announcement about a peace rally at Lee Park, then play Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" or the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For the Devil".
Lynyrd Skynyrd released a record with a cover that shows the band members standing in a fire, and a week later their plane crashes and singer Ronnie Van Zant dies. You noticed stuff like that... finding profound revelation in matters of coincidence.
Seems like there were a lot of bands named after fake people back then, too: Captain Beefheart, Molly Hatchet, Uriah Heep, Max Webster, Steely Dan, etc. It was hard enough just to sort out the solo artists and their real names. Brutal.
Frank Campagna (Studio D/Kettle Gallery): "KZEW used to have 'Zoo Free Sundays' at the Texas Electric Ballroom. Every weekend, acts like AC/DC, The Ramones, or jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty would play for free. They also held a yearly 'lifestyle' event called Zoo World at the Dallas Convention Center. This was a huge trade show with cars, guitars, live music and all of the KZEW DJs. I recall shouting over towards the DJ booth, 'Hey, Beverly Beasley! Play some Ramones!' because they never got airplay. She politely responded, 'I can't, they won't let me'. But they did love Ted Nugent. He played the event several times, but that night the Motor City Madman got snowed in and couldn't make it. Due to some local critical acclaim, somebody asked Dallas punk pioneers the Nervebreakers to play instead. Two songs into their set, they pulled the plug on them (supposedly) because they were out of time. There were 20 or so 'punks' there, and we threw folding chairs around, shouted 'No Fun, No Fun, No Fun' and got chased out by the police as we laughed our asses off.
Katie Barber (KZEW volunteer): "We loved all things KZEW and had ZooLoo stickers plastered all over everything we owned. The first concert I ever went to was Texxas Jam, which was sponsored by KZEW; I was 13 years old at the time. The station held a big annual event called Zoo World. I jumped at the chance to work for a vendor there in '81. My employer that day was Evelyn Wood Speed Reading, probably the only vendor there that wasn't music-related. I walked around with a clipboard, signing people up for a drawing at the end of the day. We were giving away T-shirts, Frisbees and speed-reading courses. My clipboard was crammed with names of rock enthusiasts--all men--trying to win the free lessons. I was wearing a T-shirt that day read, 'I Can DO IT Three Times Faster.'"
George Gimarc (The Rock and Roll Alternative): "I did the Rock & Roll Alternative on KZEW from May of 1980, up through the big layoffs at Christmas of 1986. I came to the station straight out of college; I was about 10 years younger than most of the staff--and, boy, did they treat me like the kid for the first several years. At the time, there was no outlet for fringe music on the airwaves in DFW. Even records by safe artists like Elvis Costello, Blondie, and Devo were considered pretty doggone weird. So that's where the comfort level was when the show first launched."
Jeff K (The Edge/Dallas Stars): "I moved to Dallas in 1982 to attend UTA, and quickly realized my quest for alternative or even decent college radio would indeed be challenging. My like-minded friends from the area quickly pointed me in the direction of 98 KZEW; on Sunday nights a virtually unknown (but extremely eloquent) DJ named George Gimarc delivered the goods! Many years before any format would ever be labeled 'Alternative', George had already branded his show The Rock And Roll Alternative. It was an amazing: Sundays were devoted to gathering round the radio to hear him preach the gospel of XTC, Cocteau Twins, Smiths, The Cure. We looked forward to entire album previews, Christmas specials, and the rare occasion we might meet him at the Hot Klub or Bronco Bowl."
George Gimarc: "The audience was always the best--and I would go to any lengths to try to meet requests, answer the phones, and sneak people backstage. Ultimately, when the show was pulled from the air for a little while, it was the audience that got it put back on through their phone calls and letters. It was astounding. That sort of thing just didn't happen. After a few years, I became quite close to many in the Zoo family--yeah, it really was like a family around there. Some 20-plus years later, there's still about a half-dozen of them that I regularly stay in contact with. The only other station staff like that was the group that Wendy and I assembled for the Edge 1.0."
Hal Samples (photographer): "Growing up out in Mesquite, I used to love Sunday nights on the Zoo. Rock and Roll Alternative was great, and I totally loved the Dr. Demento Show, which came on right after it. That whole night was always weird. I was into all kinds of crazy shit back then; Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Benny Hill Show... Sunday night was always great because you could hear punk rock freaks on the radio and see real tits on TV on Channel 13."
In 1978, Q102 emerged and the Dallas rock audience had a new Album Oriented Rock station on the menu. The two were almost too close for comfort; The Zoo had established a template, and the guys at Q102 kinda "borrowed" the proven formula. Most listeners split time between stations. Within three months of taking them head on, Q102 was pulling higher ratings numbers than The Zoo. There was division in the ranks, and our loyalty as listeners was now up for grabs.
Mike Rhyner: "The Zoo, Q102--what was the difference? As I saw it back then, very little. As I see it now, it's the reason why neither exists today. Each had its own quirks that made it slightly different, but neither dared venture so far off the path that it would make a diversion as, say, George Gimarc's show, as part of its everyday fabric. Each tried to convince itself that its DJs were better than the others; in fact, both were good, and neither allowed their talent to develop much in the way of a real definable personality. Had they done so, the real tipping point might have lurked therein. By then, this business of radio had long since driven past that exit. It was, 'Play what you're told, read the liners, tell 'em what 's coming up, and make sure you don't say anything to piss anyone off'. And for God's sake, never, ever lose sight of the fact that no one cares what you think about anything."
Gary Shaw (DJ): "Having been on the original Zoo Crew, and then later at Q102, the first thing I would mention is that, as competitive as the two stations were, I believe they really needed each other. It was good to have two very good 'Album Rock' stations in Dallas because it made each station work harder at being the best they could be. It also gave me an opportunity to work with some of the best radio people in the country. People like Ira Lipson, Ken Rundel, Mark Addy, Mark Christopher, Mike Taylor, and Jon Dillon at the Zoo; and Tim Spencer, Tempie Lindsay, Randy Davis, John Michaels, and Bud Stiker at Q-102."
Mike Rhyner: "The DJs of this time period were the pioneers of radio. They were cool, smart, they loved the music, they would play whatever records they wanted, say whatever they wanted. If they felt like going off on a ten-minute-long rap about something, they did it. It was their show and they could and did do whatever they wanted. So what happened? Over time, they inspired competitors and the market fragmented. 92.5 jumped into the fray; then KAMC; neither of which was quite as radical as KNUS. Today, that happens all the time in the business--just look at the Ticket. You just roll with it."
George Gimarc: "There was a time when the program director restricted my guest bands in the station to a very narrow area. They didn't look 'right' to him. I think the one that caused the policy to start was The Damned. They showed up for their interview in complete stage makeup. A few years later, that same PD wanted me to get him backstage to meet U2--one of those bands that he had restricted."
Gary Shaw: "I really enjoyed those years at both stations, and in particular, producing The Texas Music Hour at Q-102. I had a chance to record over 50 of Texas' best bands for the show. I still have the master tape of the first public performance by Pantera, back when 'Dimebag' Darrell Abbott was only 16 years old."
K.O. Saltsman (KZEW volunteer): "It was odd that The Zoo was owned and operated by ultra-conservative Belo Broadcasting when their target audience was anything but. I loved working with George Gimarc on the Rock and Roll Alternative. I was almost fired from the show one night while doing it solo (George was in England buying records) for playing 'Mutiny in Heaven' by The Birthday Party, in which Nick Cave screams the word 'fuck' a dozen times. The phones lit up with callers telling me that was the coolest song they'd ever heard on the radio. Well, management got lit up too... but I played it again the next time George went out of town."
The Zoo Can Jam benefit concert
Bucks Burnett: "My favorite radio moment ever in Dallas was hearing 'And Your Bird Can Sing' on the Zoo one night at 3 a.m. and freaking out--a great Beatles song I had never heard! Ran out and bought the record the next day; and, to this day, still a top favorite. That's the true value of radio right there--turning people onto something they didn't have heard before."
By the time both stations were done jamming Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine", AOR radio had become a demo-specific goldmine. Analysts from KZEW's parent company started dissecting the template and tweaking the presentation. Meanwhile, Q102 had successfully hijacked The Zoo's core audience. The freaks had jumped ship and embraced "Texas' Best Rock".
Now there were lots of bands named after places: Chicago, Boston, Alabama, Kansas, Asia and Europe... it was like you needed an atlas just to walk through a record store. But I had always loved the politics of the Zoo: One minute, they would play Neil Young's "Southern Man", then the next song up would be Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama", which had lyrics that called Young out by name. It was hard not to dig it, no matter which side you were on; down deep we were all just freaks with long hair and jean jackets.
Gary Shaw: "I think that Q102 outlasted the Zoo mostly because they managed to keep the corporate suits out of programming. Once the Zoo became a Monster station, the Board of Directors at Belo got dollar signs in their eyes, and, over time, really screwed up the station. Dallas radio was great in those days. It's a shame that it sucks so bad today."
Mike Rhyner: "Don't misunderstand--I value my time at the Zoo greatly. Though, I was a low-level operative, I watched and listened, made mental notes on what worked and what didn't. Mainly, I was grateful beyond belief that I was somehow allowed to slip in and see the thing at very close range. I made many friends with all who passed through there during my seven years, and I still consider those people friends today. And talent--man, at the Zoo, we had it! I equate that bunch to the crew at The Ticket. It would have really been neat to see what it might have turned into had they been allowed to apply their creativity and personality in a larger sense. Just wasn't the right time, or the right place. And that's too bad."
The closest thing we've got to free-form radio now is KNON 89.3: The Voice of the People. I did a two-year bid right around the time The Zoo went dark; the show was called Life Is Hard. I cringe when listening to old air check tapes; Man, that guy sounded like a little kid! Rap music was starting filter in from each coast, and no commercial soul stations were ready to put it on the airwaves. It was the middle of the night, so I played stuff like Beastie Boys, Slayer, Motorhead and NWA. In the summer of '86, I was terminated for playing an unedited pre-release cassette tape of "Boyz N Tha Hood".
In retrospect, losing my gig was really a small price to pay for us to be able to say that a tiny station broadcasting out of a house in East Dallas played Eazy E on the radio before anyone in his hometown of Los Angeles ever did. And though my time spent on the air was short, I'm still part of a tiny fraternal brotherhood: strictly improvisational DJs who played real vinyl records on the radio.
Trust me when I say there is no feeling like it in the world. Alone in a room with two turntables, a microphone, a wall full of records and an invisible audience... nobody telling you what to play or sell. For a hardcore underground music head, it just doesn't get any heavier than that.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.