Thirty years after Bruce Van Dyke and the crew of the pirate ship known as KTHX FM began their voyage across the Northern Nevada airwaves, nearly everything about the radio industry has changed radically.
Yet, in the midst of an explosion of Web-based radio stations, satellite receivers, ubiquitous podcasts and cell-phone Bluetooth connections, music still pulses from towers on hilltops in every U.S. city and town. And Van Dyke’s voice still punctuates songs on the eclectic playlists of Jive Radio, an internet station based in Surprise Valley, Calif.
“When KTHX went on the air, there were Tower Records, Soundwave CDs, and a lot of other music-related things that are long gone now,” Van Dyke said. “In 30 years there have been radical changes from top to bottom. Even so, terrestrial radio is never going to go away. It’s a perfect thing, a perfect entity. You get in the car, turn on the radio, and get your favorite station as you drive around town. It’s a wonderful thing.”
A denizen of radio land
On Oct. 1, KTHX 100.1 FM changed its name and its format, ending an era of adult album alternative rock music. The station is now WeFM and describes its format as “a mix of genres from pop and rock to country and hip-hop.”
Van Dyke, now retired, has been teaching classes about rock ‘n’ roll history at Truckee Meadows Community College and otherwise taking it easy. But he also keeps his hand in the medium he came to love as a boy in Central California. There, DJs like Wolfman Jack sent rock ‘n’ roll music and pithy comments into the summer air – and curved the trajectory of Van Dyke’s life. The programs he and others host on Jive Radio, he said, harken back to the old freeform days in the streets and alleys of Reno’s Xville.
“So here we are, 50 years later, carrying on with Jive Radio, playing our tunes into the night…..or morning…..or mid-afternoon. And not just in Central California, but also in the Great Desert West, and heck, all over the world, thanks to technology that’s a lot more powerful than XERB, the Wolfman’s mighty Mexican transmitter. We’re playing our tunes in hopes that some 17-year-old boy in Bend or some 17-year-old girl in Dusseldorf hears something on Jive one day that makes him/her say to him/herself ‘whoa! what the heck was THAT?’ And in some essential, mysterious way, in that very instant, his/her life is changed forever.”– Bruce Van Dyke, Jive Radio.
Jive Radio on the net
Jive Radio is the programming arm of Open Sky Radio, a non-profit entity formed in 2007, that holds the broadcast licenses for five terrestrial stations, and operates Jive’s streaming internet radio station. Open Sky built three, low-power community radio stations, including KWNK FM in Reno and KNVC 95.1 FM in Carson City, which are profiled in a sidebar to this story.
The operation is the brainchild of Jeff Cotton, who began his career as a touring audio engineer for Bill Graham in San Francisco in the 1970s. He moved to Reno in 1976 and first promoted regular live shows at the Ice House. Cotton also booked shows at Hacienda, Rancho Nevada and Big Ed’s. For seven years he booked acts for Washoe County’s Hawkins Amphitheater. The connected Reno to top talent, including David Byrne, Joan Baez and Randy Newman.
Big shows in little venues
In Reno, Cotton said, the hardest thing about getting the word out about the acts was the blasé attitude of the commercial radio stations.
“David Bromberg, Jesse Colin Young and other acts that would sell out big theaters in the Bay Area, but in Reno, no one at (commercial radio stations) seemed to care,” he said. “Even Randy Newman wouldn’t get a mention. Somebody like John Prine would fill up the Pioneer Center, sell out a thousand- seater, but be absent from radio land. Radio just could not be bothered that Bonnie Raitt was playing at the Pioneer unless you bought a lot of advertising. As a programming matter, they just aren’t playing that stuff.”
Back in the day, he said, KTHX did care about those classic acts. Cotton said he tuned in to the station’s new format (now We-FM 100.1) on Oct.1 and heard a mix of hip-hop and 90s’ rock. The new format, the station calls “variety hits,” he said, seems like it will be a “sort of a petri dish” for Lotus (the station’s parent company) to feel their way to something that sells.
“That’s not what we do at Jive Radio,” Cotton said. “We don’t have to sell ads to keep our lights lit.”
Reno DJs still spinning
In addition to Van Dyke, Jive Radio also is home to other Reno DJ legends, including Don Darue, aka Dondo, the conductor of the “Hayseed Hoot” and Diane Michaels, who produces “Di’s Jive Café.” Other regulars include veteran DJs Sister Tiny, “Sully Roddy,” and “DJ Jim” Goodwin.
Cotton has helped small-power community stations get on the air in Nevada and elsewhere. “They are really vibrant community stations,” he said. “They become a hub for those communities, for small cities and for neighborhoods.” Those stations have an effect at the grassroots level, he said.
His non-profit also holds the licenses for five terrestrial radio stations which have lost underwriters during the pandemic. “Listener support is covering overhead,” he said. “The one (person on the) payroll is me. I haven’t seen a check in a long time, but that’s not going to stop us.”
“Video killed the radio star. Video killed the radio star. In my mind and in my car. We can’t rewind. We’ve gone too far.” – The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
Old technology still delivers
On a recent visit to Santa Rosa, Calif., Cotton toured a building that housed five radio studios. He saw lots of automation and few humans. Still, even with all the changes in the broadcast industry, Cotton said terrestrial radio is here to stay.
“It’s an old technology,” he said. “But it’s effective. Like I tell people all the time, toasters are old technology, but they still do a good job making toast.
The big gorillas in radio have their problems, but they aren’t doing what we’re doing. We’re going to be listening to radio for centuries to come. Just because the technology is old, doesn’t mean it’s not viable.” – Jeff Cotton, radio entrepreneur.
A battle for attention
Van Dyke noted that in the 21st century, the competition for peoples’ attention is overwhelming. “There are 875,000 radio stations on the internet, 775 TV stations on cable, and you have satellite TV, streaming video and now, podcasts. The competition for your attention is absolutely brutal and it’s had a great impact; it shrunk radio.”
Even so, he said, the medium isn’t on its deathbed. “It’s now having to cope with the reality of the modern digital world. It’s got to hang on to its niche, because there’s a real battle for that niche and all the niches you can think of. Need to figure out how much of a niche do we have left and how do we hang on to it?”
Van Dyke said internet radio allows for low-budget operations that deliver big sounds and great programs. Even small donations can keep those operations alive. “The fabulous little story that we brewed up in 1991 with the X is just a quaint story from the 20th century,” he said. … (At terrestrial stations) DJs are pretty passé. It used to be there were disc jockeys in every little town from Podunk, Iowa to New York City. Now what do you have? The way I got into radio just doesn’t apply anymore.”
With the internet, listeners don’t have to settle for the commercial fare that crowds the terrestrial airwaves. The trick, he said, is how well internet stations pull it off.
“When you can’t find a friend you’ve still got the radio. Radio, listen to the radio” — Nanci Griffith, “Listen to the Radio.”
“We need to get people comfortable with listening online,” Van Dyke said. “Decent speakers on desktop or laptop computers open up a whole world of new radio. There‘s a lot going on; an incredibly new digital world of devices and apps. You can even hook up Bluetooth on your phone and listen to Jive Radio in your car… It’s really simple.”
Yet, some former X listeners have told him they are wary of the technology. “They don’t want to jump in and make technical changes in their lives all the time. It’s a pain in the ass. But, sooner or later they will do it, especially if there’s nothing that interests them on their old car radio. They might give their phone Bluetooth or their laptop radios a try at home.”
The growth of internet radio has been slow, but steady, he noted.
“Fortunately we’re not dependent on ratings or ads, so we’re really kind of liberated to be a sort of a wide-open jukebox and see if what’s out there gravitates towards us,” Van Dyke said. “And our story is one that’s being repeated thousands of times over around the planet. We’re just trying to find our little foothold and have some fun doing it.
“The heat’s off and we’re not worried about how much we have to grow.”