When Chancellor Media Corporation abruptly and without warning yanked Q102 off the air in the late summer of 1998, there was a rumor floating about that Redbeard -- the longtime voice and, well, beard of Texas' Best Rock -- would be moving over to KZPS-FM (92.5), Chancellor's classic-rock outlet. Redbeard said, in short: Hell, no. Never. "I have a contract with KTXQ for two years," he told me then. "They can't just send me to ZPS." And they didn't. And Redbeard was off the air, save for his syndicated In the Studio radio rockumentary show that's now closing in its 20th anniversary.
He and the missus had gone out to the country -- to Beard's 150-acre spread just outside of town populated by "stray cats, dogs and a dozen horses. Early XM Satellite Radio subscribers got to hear Redbeard, way back in 2001: He was among the so-called Dirty Dozen -- the jocks who pioneered the network. He was the voice behind the “Deep Tracks” channel, and he programmed it as well -- the closest thing a deejay got to pretending he was still on free-form FM radio, circa 1973.
But this week, Redbeard did unthinkable: He made his return to local radio, as the music director and afternoon disc jockey for the station formerly known as KZPS.
Perhaps you know by now that KZPS yesterday switched its format and its name, going from a classic-rock station to Lone Star 92.5 -- what it calls on its Web site a "one of a kind amalgamation of Outlaw Country, Classic Rock and Alternative Country," which means plenty of Allman Brothers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Earle mixed in with some Drive-By Truckers, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Old 97's.
KZPS is also as close to satellite radio as terrestrial radio's ever gotten: There are no pauses for the causes now, as single sponsors pay for an hour's worth of broadcasting. The jocks will work in the sponsors' names during their twixt-song raps, which will not last for very long. The point, says station program director Duane Doherty, who's been working on the format for the last year on KZPS' high-def broadcast signal, is to keep audiences listening all the time, the way they would to their iPods.
And that's what got Redbeard back on board, after years of declining offers to jump back on the FM signal.
"I received calls basically just about every year, and I was flattered, but I always said, 'Thank you and no thank you' just about every year. But this was an offer I could not refuse."
"Everything before this was the same ol’ radio. Nothing about it was significant. The last thing that was bold and revolutionary was when we started XM. That was bold. But when Duane and J.D. Freeman [Dallas market manager for Clear Channel] contacted me, they wanted to do a unique Texas format that’s never been done before anywhere in the country. And not only was the musical format unique, but so was the presentation and the way that this commercial radio station wanted to monetize itself. It had never, ever been done by a commercial station in history, and when they laid that out, I said, ‘Guys, this is not only unique to terrestrial broadcasting, you’re not only gonna make news in the world of broadcasting, you’ll make news in The Wall Street Journal. This is bold and innovative. Where do I sign?'"
Doherty says the station's still a "work in progress," and Redbeard's quick to point out he's only been on the job for two days. But Doherty also insists his bosses at Clear Channel Radio, especially CEO John Hogan, have given them no deadline by which they need to prove the station can be profitable.
"John Hagan loves the music and the sponsorship model, and he’s given us a hall pass," Doherty says. "He realizes it will take time, as far as ratings and revenue, and he’s so committed he has not given us a deadline." If nothing else, the ad-free format will save the station some money: Doherty says KZPS is down to three advertising reps, because there's no need for 15 when you're not selling spots.
As for the music itself, well, In short, KZPS has gone from a dope-smoker's one-hitter to a beer-drinker's soundtrack. And it's a relief; God knows there's only so much Boston and Thin Lizzy you can take, and Lone Star 92.5's format makes the station seems suddenly more homegrown and less corporate. It feels old-fashioned, radio the way it was when Redbeard got into the biz in the early 1970s. And both he and Doherty insist the playlist will only get "deeper and wider" in coming days and weeks, especially when the permanent Web site goes live April 30, when listeners can actually suggest artists and titles for the playlist over which Redbeard and Doherty say they will have complete control.
"I am not researching anything," Doherty says. "If it sounds good, we’ll play it. There are no preconceived notions about anything here."
"I’ve been on the record for years and years and years saying this, and many of my fellow programmers who read this will shoot darts at me for this, but I don’t care," Redbeard says, getting wound up. "But it’s a fact that about 10 years ago, I noticed that the average person on the street was getting a lot more hip and eclectic than most of the gatekeepers at terrestrial radio stations, but still they were wondering why they were losing audience.
"Back in the mid-'80s, I would go to people’s house parties on the weekends and stand around with radio station sales guys and their wives, and somebody would have their five-CD changer going, and somebody from the radio station would say, 'Why doesn't our station play songs like this?' And nobody would have an answer or the cojones to do it, either... But I was there in 1971. I helped form that format, and it was great and it can be great again. Just remember what Kinky Friedman once said about this music: 'I’d rather be a dead Gram Parsons than a live Garth Brooks.'"
So, Redbeard, does that mean you'll be playing Gram Parsons?
"Tune in Monday at 2 p.m. to find out." --Robert WilonskyR