Back in 1975, a group of men and women mustered their collective, creative energy to launch a ground-breaking radio station, KZAM 92.5 FM on April Fool's Day. The station featured a diverse, unique, and at times unexpected mix of music, news, and advertisements, and women DJ's shared equal time in the studio with men, a true rarity for the pre media-empire era airwaves of the 1970s.
In recognition of their accomplishments, over 200 people gathered on Saturday, April 2 at the newly refurbished Columbia City Theatre to kick out the jams, eat some gourmet pizza, and commemorate the birth, 30 years ago, of one of America's last truly independent commercial radio stations.
"What was interesting is that it was not just the music that we had conversations about how to do things," remembered Leilani McCoy, one of KZAM's first women DJs. "It was also the advertising. There were no jingles. If the Bon Marche wanted to advertise we had to rewrite their commercials. They protested for such a long time, but they finally gave in because our ratings were so high."
This local vision of a progressive radio format that spurned corporate-dictated playlists, news, and advertising formats in favor of DJ and on-the-ground reporter-focused content was the brainchild of Tom Corddry. When he first approached local owners Stew Ballinger and Howard Leendersten, Corddry learned that their station was racking up five-figure deficits each month.
"Corddry decided he'd do a real free-form, creative station format," McCoy said, who added that both Ballinger and Leendersten liked Corddry's upstart spirit and gave him free reign.
For the next four years the station's prominence and power grew locally and across the nation. The DJs were driven to play the music they wanted, not the music their bosses told them to, which is the norm in today's radio market. In the area's live music scene, the station was one of the first sponsors of Seattle's beloved Bumbershoot arts festival and they promoted concerts by American music legends Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.
Aside from the music, KZAM programming featured a deep commitment to the political and social issues rippling through the Emerald City. In 1977 former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer faced off with his opponent Paul Schell during a live, two-hour debate, two days before voters hit the polls and elected Royer.
The format attracted a gender-diverse audience that quickly grabbed the attention of big name advertisers. This commercial success eventually lifted the station out of the red and into the black.
However, KZAM's independent flame began to flicker low in late 1978 when Ballinger and Leendersten sold the station to the Sandusky Newspaper group. In 1979 the playlists started to tighten under the new corporate owners and many of the station's original DJs and operators left. When 1981 rolled around Sandusky changed the call letters to what the station is known by today, KLSY FM.
The buyout proved to be part of a wave of media mergers that eventually saw the rise of non-locally generated music, news, and talk radio in Seattle. Today more than 80 percent of the radio stations operating signals in the Puget Sound area are owned by only four companies.
"It's a corporate world now," noted McCoy, who, after years of staying in touch with her fellow KZAMers decided to host formal, five-year reunion parties.
True to their independent, community-focused roots, McCoy and the party's other organizers made sure their celebration transcended nostalgia and looked toward the future. All proceeds from the April 2 event in downtown Columbia City went toward Seattle-based Reclaim the Media (reclaimthemedia.org).
The nonprofit organization advocates for a free and diverse press, community access to communications tools and technology, and media policy that aims to serve the public's interest. Supporting community-based media outlets, Reclaim the Media works toward changing local and federal policy so the media favors the public over the few, giant media companies such as Clearchannel.
While the flame of independent commercial radio is dead in Seattle, independent radio is not. The spirit of KZAM is thriving in the listener-powered, commercial free radio stations KEXP 90.3 FM and KBCS 91.3 FM. Additionally, the rise of internet radio is carrying on the creative KZAM drive. In addition to both KEXP and KBCS streaming their signals worldwide across the web, a vestige of KZAM's former glory is gaining a new foothold at KZAM.net.
"Wherever I went [in the United State] people knew of KZAM because we were just breaking all the rules with our advertising, with our news, and with our music programming," McCoy asserted.