Friday, July 23, 2010

Ballinger's Way


NOTE: Stew Ballinger recently left us at the age of 95. He was as unlikely a pioneer in progressive FM radio as you could imagine. Yet, in 1975, he gave a wandering band of broadcast gypsies the creative chance of a lifetime and KZAM was born. In honor of Stew, I am reprinting here an article I wrote in 2005 for the Seattle Times on the occasion of KZAM's 30th anniversary reunion. Thanks Stew and may you forever enjoy your role in that Great Musical in the Sky. 
Alexander Stewart Ballinger Obituary: View Alexander Ballinger's Obituary by The Seattle Times
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Friday, April 1, 2005 
Radio
Recalling the heady days of progressive station KZAM

By LeeZard Special to The Seattle Times
With apologies to the Beatles, it was 30 years ago today Sgt. Pepper taught this particular band to play.
On April Fools' Day 1975, a new radio station hit the airwaves with a wildly eclectic combination of music and news, turning Seattle on its ear. The call letters were KZAM (92.5 FM). Kuh-ZAM!
LeeZard 1975 - Your Hippy Dippy Newsman
In April 1975, Seattle's lights were still flickering from the Boeing Bust. The Pike Place Market Starbucks was the only one on the planet. It was post Richard Nixon, but pre-grunge; Bellevue Square was an outdoor shopping center in a sleepy bedroom community. The only Seattle mariners were at Fishermen's Terminal, and there was no such bird as a Seattle Seahawk. Our music was on vinyl, and CD meant "Civil Defense." When we referred to anything digital, we were talking about our fingers and toes. We used typewriters — if we were lucky, electric ones.
At KZAM, a bold and lucky group of us were doing "progressive radio," featuring long sets of songs, often thematically or musically related and unbridled by the three-minute-per-song limit of Top 40 AM stations. The music ranged from a smattering of Bach to a taste of Gershwin, a dose of pure jazz and a full helping of rock. The news was Hunter S. Thompson meets Edward R. Murrow. Occasionally, we threw in a bit of the Marx Brothers.
"KZAM filled a big hole on the FM dial," recalls Ann Wilson of Heart, then a young aspiring musician in Bellevue. Wilson and her sister Nancy "always listened to them; they played entire album sides, and we recorded them on our reel-to-reel tape machines."
DJ Shelley Morrison gets some love from
jazz pianist/singer Les McCann in 1976.
Says Seattle Times rock critic Patrick MacDonald, "The timing was perfect for KZAM — the station appeared at the height of a huge cultural shift, and they were right on top of it."
In those days, women on the radio were a rarity, but KZAM featured three talented female DJs in its initial lineup: Hawaiian Leilani McCoy; the cultured Mercer Islander Shelley Morrison; and the hilarious Jersey Girl Marion Seymour.
The DJ staff also included the droll Tom Corddry; the musically worldly Jon Kertzer; the offbeat Davidson Corry; and, on weekends, Vashon Island's gentle giant, Bruce Winston Buls.
At the same time, the Wilson sisters were trying to find an audience for their band, Heart, and working on their first record, called "Dreamboat Annie." Kertzer, who was KZAM's first music director, proudly says, "we were the first station in the country to play the album."
Ann Wilson says, "The station made a huge contribution to Heart's success. Our mom actually called the station and asked them to play 'Dreamboat Annie.' That they took Mom's call was amazing!"
Heart was just part of the vibrant music scene KZAM featured. The station was among the early sponsors of street fairs, Bumbershoot and, later on, the Seattle Film Festival.
"Sense of community"
As children of the '60s, we on the staff reflected the consciousness of that era, and in the news department we used music, humor and irreverence to engage our audience.
From left, Paul Schell, LeeZard and Charley Royer,
two days before Royer won the 1977 mayoral race.
 This was my bailiwick, along with news director Denny Fleenor, veteran New York broadcaster Jim Stutzman, hard-charging Jude Noland and a University of Washington intern, Joni Balter (now an editorial writer at The Seattle Times). In honor of the feminist perspective of the era, we tucked our tongues in our cheeks and called County Executive John Spellman and Mayor Wes Uhlman "Spell-person" and "Uhl-person."

But KZAM's reporters were serious journalists. We went in-depth, spurning the usual radio "rip-and-read" headline style for longer reports on issues like energy and the environment, post-Watergate government and politics. Traffic was not a factor, except at the Evergreen Point bridge tollbooths and the bulge on the old Mercer Island Bridge.

"It's a shame people aren't going after it [the news] like that anymore," says former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer. "I remember the people and many of them went on to help make this city what it is today." Royer appeared live on the two-hour "Sunday Mag" show, taking phone calls with opponent Paul Schell two days before he defeated Schell in 1977.

When the Seattle School Board struggled with the issue of forced busing to achieve integration, for example, KZAM organized a two-hour call-in show with key decision-makers. To make sure as many people as possible heard the program, we created an unprecedented ad hoc network to broadcast simultaneously on three other Seattle radio stations.

"KZAM still means something in my life," says Tom Corddry, the program director who guided us — and later helped create Microsoft's Encarta program. "It gave me a much greater sense of community. When I left KZAM, I knew I'd never leave Seattle."

 "The music we loved"
Musically, there was never a set play-list. A set of music could start with the Stones, segue to the Amazing Rhythm Aces or the Marshall Tucker Band and end up with an acoustic Eric Clapton or a brief taste of Andres Segovia.

"We played the music we loved," recalls Kertzer. "We didn't pay attention to the charts; we wanted to play great music, whether it was folk, blues or jazz." Other "off-the-top-40-chart" artists KZAM played included Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Warren Zevon, Steely Dan, Leo Kottke, Emmylou Harris, Pat Metheny, Oscar Peterson and Chick Corea.

Thirty years later, my memories are still crisp: standing in the wings at the old Paramount Theatre, with its threadbare carpet and squeaky seats, talking to a new artist waiting to begin his concert. It was Billy Joel, who was nervously whistling the tune of his hit single, "Piano Man," while awaiting his introduction. Then there was the first Seattle concert by the man who appeared simultaneously that same week on the covers of Time and Newsweek, Bruce Springsteen.

We also got to see our heroes' warts. After I worked for weeks with Ella Fitzgerald's agent to schedule an interview before her concert at the old Seattle Center Arena, a very grouchy Fitzgerald slammed the dressing room door in my face, sputtering, "I don't give a flying [bleep] what my agent said."

KZAM in its purest form was on the air until 1979. The local owners, led by Stew Ballinger and Howard Leendertsen, wallowed in monthly five-figure deficits when we first arrived, but they took a huge leap of faith with this group of radio vagabonds. Our success finally pulled the station out of the red, but never enough to recoup its cumulative losses. In late 1978, the owners sold KZAM to Sandusky Newspapers and, one by one, the original crew drifted away. Consultants were hired, the format eventually changed and what was once KZAM, today is KLSY.

But to those of you who were there in 1975 — and can still remember it through the Purple Haze — I say cherish those memories of KZAM. We will never hear the likes of it again.

LeeZard worked at KZAM from its inception in 1975 through March 1979.