The Legend of KZAP
by Alex Cosper

The history of freeform radio (before 1968)
Early KZAP History (late sixties/early seventies)
The Peak of Radio Anarchy (early seventies)
Transition from Freeform to Album Rock (early to mid-seventies)
The Emerging FM Audience (late seventies)
KZAP Rules the Market (early eighties)
The Greatest Rock Battle ...(mid-eighties to early nineties)
Reflecting on the Legend


1. Jeff Hughson Interview #1: The Dawn of Freeform Radio
2. Jeff Hughson Interview #2: The Birth of KZAP
3. Dennis Newhall Interview: 70s Freeform Radio
4. Robert Williams Interview #1: KZAP Programming
5. Robert Williams Interview #2: 70s Rock Scene


Toward the late seventies the technology of FM transmission had remarkably improved, so that the signal could clearly cover an entire market, even in cars. This revolutionary development marked the turning point in which listeners began to shift from AM to FM in droves for music stations. Disco had also taken over AM top 40 radio to the point where overkill forced the masses to search for alternatives. Although KZAP spiked in the Bee Gees and early disco, it was still mostly a rock station.

KZAP also hung on to a political edge through the seventies with news and Sunday talk shows. Viola Weinberg did a controversial talk show called "Woman Waves" while Travus T. Hipp voiced radical views on his show. Travus hung out with beat generation figure Neal Cassady (who inspired Jack Kerouac's spontaneous writing style) several times in the sixties and even sold him his '47 pickup truck. "He documents that truck in the last published letters about his '65 trip to New York City," says Travus.
Viola's interviews were heard often on KZAP and featured several prominent people including Dolly Parton in 1978, President Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (when he was governor) and many others. News Director Jok Church, who hired the news staff, also interviewed artists and politicians and reported on anti-war activities during the Vietnam War. He went on to create a national comic strip called Beakman, published in 300 newspapers while Viola became an accomplished writer/poet. Another news team who worked under Jok was Richard Beban and Judith Nielsen, who went on to write the script for the television series Barney Miller.

Although there was a lot of turnover throughout the seventies, one of the jocks who hung with the station through most of the decade was Sunday morning host William Fuller. He recalls, "KZAP in the seventies, despite having a weekday 'pie format' towards the end of the decade, still allowed djs a great amount of musical freedom and that's what made it so exciting, adventurous and vital! You knew you were going to get a certain kind of show and music from different jocks, but you could never be quite sure exactly what you'd hear. It seemed at the time in Sacramento there was a real community of djs, listeners, musicians, artists and a lot of artistic 'cross-pollination' so to speak."

But the idea that rock radio was an eclectic experimental playground completely swirled into the past in 1978 when KZAP was sold to a bigger corporation and for the first time fell under the direction of a national consultant. Following the death of Gordy's father, who was the main investor, the station was put up for sale. The new company was Western Cities, based in Las Vegas. "I was never in contention for the job," says Robert Williams, who had still given jocks creative leeway on how to program their own shows, within a structured commercial sense. Robert was fired the first business day of 1979 but a few months later he resurfaced on the air at his dream station, KSAN in San Francisco. KSAN was owned by the same company that owned KMET in Los Angeles, MetroMedia, who would drop the progressive format at both stations within four years.

With the new ownership jocks lost their power to control their own shows at KZAP. In January 1979 Western Cities brought in a new Program Director named Chris Miller, who was consulted by Kent Burkhart and Lee Abrams - a firm that was changing the face of rock radio across the country. They called their programming the "superstars format." It was Abrams who coined the term "album-oriented rock" which is what many freeform stations evolved into throughout the seventies. Even KMET had transformed from freeform to AOR under the consultancy of Burkhart-Abrams and hit number one in Los Angeles in 1976.

Basically they weeded out a lot of obscure rock and compressed the best-selling rock artists into a merry-go-round of accelerated hit rotations, but not quite as repetitious as top 40. The consultants also demanded less jock talk, because their research revealed that the majority of the audience didn't really care for lots of chatter between their favorite songs. So one by one they began replacing personalities, including Cary Nosler, who had returned to the station to do an organic food talk show, but went on to host a national television show called PM Magazine. He also went on to become an author of health food books.

With the new formatting, the KZAP library shrank from thousands of songs to about 400. Charlie remembers, "It was a very tight format. People were fired or quit over the format and by the time the bloodletting was over, I was the only staff member pre-Western Cities remaining. By then, I had experienced all the changes and to me, this was a job and had nothing to do with idealism." Charlie was briefly News Director after the format change. He then headed to Houston to be News Director at KLOL, but would inevitably return to KZAP in the eighties.

Bryan Davis was one of the first new hires at KZAP under the new owners, arriving in January 1979 before leaving in February 1980 to work at crosstown KXOA. "I did middays and was the production director," says Bryan, who eventually moved on to Los Angeles radio at KOST. "I left for more cash and the midday/image director slot at KXOA AM. My time at KZAP, while brief, afforded me the opportunity to be more of an adult on the air. I turned 21 that year and had a blast. I hosted and produced the 1st KZAP Rock Awards and almost every Concert Express to the Bay Area. KZAP literally exploded that year. Our original line-up for the BA Superstars format was Andy Rush in morning drive, me in midday and Bruce Meier in afternoon drive. We went through quite a few 7 to midnight guys and gals that year."

Davis recalls that the phone response early on was mixed. "We still had the very vocal minority that was pissed at the ownership change and programming shift. Chris Miller put out a memo that I can't recall word for word, but the gist of it was that the old audience was small and we couldn't worry about them. The other segment of callers was made up of people who discovered and loved our new sound. We didn't actually implement the real format for a few months. At first, while we played Led Zeppelin and most of the rock you'd expect alongside songs from Carly Simon, James Taylor and even Hot Chocolate ... It was a total music format shift when the new ownership came in."

A few months later KZAP changed over to the AOR format crafted by Lee Abrams. "The only control we had as jocks was the usual digging around in the card files as we filled out the music flow sheets," remembers Davis in our 2012 discussion. "We did, however, continue to get individual music service from the record companies as our freeform predecessors had. There was some freedom on the air, not in picking music but in what we could say. There were formatics that gave us a somewhat uniform sound, but we were light on structure when compared to a Top 40 station. No sweepers save for a few special occasions, just music and jocks, a very clean sound."

KZAP personnel found out first hand how much listeners knew about the new format by the reaction they got at one of KSFM's last concert presents with Bill Graham. It was at Cal Expo starring Blue Oyster Cult. "We asked people to bring KZAP banners, signs, whatever," says Davis. "We said we'd be there awarding concert tickets to people we found with the banners and signs. I know first hand that it pissed off the KSFM people, but what could they or Bill Graham do? Each jock was armed with hundreds of tickets to see Peter Frampton in Oakland to give away to the banner holders. End result, it sure looked like a KZAP concert presents with the call letters everywhere. That, was when I knew we'd arrived as a force in Sacramento radio."

In the Fall of 1979, Earth Radio (KSFM) dropped its progressive rock format even though they had beaten KZAP in its target demographics and did well in advertising. Apparently KSFM's national sales rep did not believe that the station's adult male rock audience was as valuable as the top 40 audience, which they thought would attract bigger sponsors. KSFM then shifted gears and became a dance-leaning top 40 station, calling themselves FM 102, under the direction of consultant Jerry Clifton.

"It was the last place I worked that radio was any sort of artform," said Tom Cale at the 2000 Earth Radio reunion, It had probably also been one of the last stations to use three turntables in the control room, in case jocks wanted to add phase shifting to their creative segues. The era of the segue as a vehicle for theater of the mind was now officially over on commerical radio in Sacramento.

Chris Miller then brought Tom Cale over to KZAP as Music Director and did the morning show. Cale described KZAP during this period as a "very mainstream, broad spectrum, broad appeal radio station." Comparing the two stations, Cale said "one was McDonald's (KZAP) and the other (Earth Radio) wasn't," meaning that Earth Radio was much more diverse and unpredictably compelling. Cale had been very familiar with consultant-driven radio, as he had worked at AM top 40 stations over the years, including Sacramento stations KROY and KXOA as well as KFRC in San Francisco.

To the surprise of disgruntled purist rock fans who had grown up with KZAP, the result of the newly more structured format was incredible ratings success. Not only did the disappearance of Earth Radio help KZAP's cause, but K-108's mellow rock format began to trail KZAP. Dennis Newhall wound up as Program Director of KROY-FM (aka Y-97) and mounted a formidable challenge. But because of the owner's limited promotional budget and fickle programming preferences, KROY struggled with identity (was it pop, rock or adult contemporary?) and was unable to dismantle the steamrolling commercial rock machine that KZAP was becoming. The orange Cheshire Cat was turning into a monster, especially with teens.

The history of freeform radio (before 1968)
Early KZAP History (late sixties/early seventies)
The Peak of Radio Anarchy (early seventies)
Transition from Freeform to Album Rock (early to mid-seventies)
The Emerging FM Audience (late seventies)
KZAP Rules the Market (early eighties)
The Greatest Rock Battle...(mid-eighties to early nineties)
Reflecting on the Legend


KZAP Returns on KDVS Part 1: Michael Taber
KZAP Returns on KDVS Part 2: Freeform Era
KZAP Returns on KDVS Part 3: College Freeform
KZAP Returns on KDVS Part 4: The 60s
Freeform Radio Survives

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