Once radio listeners consumed music through cigarette pack sized devices called transistor radios. Delivered in bite-sized morsels on platters of 45 rpm records by screaming, bell- ringing, whistle-blasting disc jockeys. And then it all changed. Suddenly master dream weavers transported listeners on musical journeys personalized just for you. Driving these changes was Sacramento’s KZAP radio led by mavericks that included Robert Williams one of many staff returning to continue the voyage as the station prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
In September 1968 Robert was attending Sac State and working at campus radio station KERS when he heard talk of a “real” radio station coming to Sacramento. New vibes had begun wafting along the west coast thanks to legendary programmer Tom Donahue’s efforts at San Francisco’s KMPX. Out were interruptions by Top 40 jocks intoning the time and temperature above trite jingles. In were steady streams of album tracks mixed by jocks with a love for music providing insightful relevant commentary.
Prior to KZAP’s November 8, 1968 debut Robert and buddies had been hanging around the station as volunteers. This led to Robert eventually becoming Public Service Director typing copy about non-commercial events and community oriented agencies.
“We knew our goal was to emulate KMPX for Sacramento anyway we could without really knowing what we were doing, “said Robert.
And KZAP was an actual freeform radio station in those days. Creating a station more through osmosis than template the mission was to turn people on beyond the hits while letting them experience great albums. A wide variety of music genres filled the airwaves from rock, soul, R&B, country, progressive and classical. Played by jocks who were music aficionados with a love for all kinds of music that the freeform format encouraged.
“The positive was that we played a wide range of music genres, the negative was that we played a wide range of music genres,” said Robert. “Those with varied musical interests loved us, but if you weren’t open to all kinds of music you’d tune out if the music veered off in strange directions,” he said.
The myriad of issues in the late 60’s early 70’s ranging from Vietnam, women’s and gay liberation, civil rights and much more became fertile ground for the music KZAP played. Artists such as the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane and others spoke to issues that reflected the thoughts and opinions of staff. These artists inspired segues and message sets allowing jocks to pass on their musical knowledge to eager audiences hungering for new sounds.
“We were people who knew music and how to weave it together in segues to give listeners a new experience or journey,” said Robert. “Each show could be a work of art in how you put it together and people appreciated that,” he said.
Sacramento’s proximity to two institutions; the Grateful Dead and Russ Solomon’s Tower Records proved fortuitous in elevating KZAP’s and Robert’s status in particular. The station’s first anniversary in 1969 featured a Dead concert that most air staff were eager to attend. Asked to fill on air shifts Robert jumped at the chance and by 22 years old he was a fulltime disc jockey at one of the nation’s first freeform radio stations.
The Dead went on to become concert regulars in the area and were played early and often by KZAP. At times high quality tapes of their live shows mysteriously found their way to the station for airplay. Robert even interviewed early Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten.
As for Russ Solomon’s Tower Records their presence was vital to the station’s existence. Year one saw the station’s jocks bringing their own records from home to play. By year two Solomon had given the station free reign to his record store. Solomon’s pull within the music industry was influential in getting KZAP concert co-sponsorships as record label promoters soon recognized the station’s value and began supplying them with records.
“Without Tower and Russ Solomon KZAP would have been dead in the water from the start,” said Robert.
As with many radio stations but perhaps more so with KZAP it was the jocks who drove its spirit and built its cohesiveness. While each jock may have had a favorite band or music they played everything. This unity was credited to a staff that bought in to the goals they hoped to accomplish.
“Nobody was there for the fame or glory or the notoriety (or the money!!). We all were in it for the music,” said Robert.
This togetherness spilled outside the station with many staff taking up residence in the big Victorians in downtown Sacramento. Robert himself was part of a group living for a time at an N street house with more than a dozen other station staff. Meetings were conducted in living rooms and might center on how to morally handle sponsors that supported issues that they disagreed with. One particular discussion involved Bank of America (B of A) and their support for the war. A spirited discussion found compromise to take the bank’s money but with a vow not to impact station’s news coverage of the institution. Negative B of A stories would appear without consequence with the guess that their executives rarely listened to the station.
Soon signs of KZAP’s growing popularity were becoming evident. While growing Arbitron ratings were standard measurements community impact told a bigger story. Positive responses were coming from sponsors. Station-promoted concerts and club events began to sell out. Perhaps best of all money began rolling into the station that could go for technical maintenance or improvements. The days of staff racing each other to the bank to cash paychecks before funds were depleted receded as KZAP established itself with its audience.
For Robert the elements that contributed to KZAP’s eventual massive popularity could be summed up in six words. Sincerity, Quality, Community, Dedication, Endurance, and Creativity.
“Looking back, it’s quite an honor to have been a part of something so meaningful to so many,” said Robert. “I can say with certainty that none of us took any of it for granted and I have run into people worldwide who fondly remember the cat logo.”
But KZAP’s legacy didn’t end in 1992 for Robert or the station when it flipped to a county music format. It merely took a 20 plus year hiatus as its legend grew.
In 2015 the station now going by call letters K-ZAP 93.3 was reborn as a low-powered listener supported non-profit commercial free radio station. Like its predecessor this incarnation is not a classic rock station. With its missions of “50 years of rock, blues, and more,” K-ZAP plays songs that people like to hear while challenging listeners to expand their awareness through the new music it plays.
And many of the jocks from the station’s heyday including Robert Williams have returned. Many are quite creative with both the music and their presentation (check out the Scott Forrington Experience). No loud, produced commercials. Instead announcers remind listeners that they are non-profit relying on donations and community business sponsors.
“Today’s jocks are as dedicated and as good or better than those from the early years,” said Robert. “We here doing it for the love of music,” he said.
K-ZAP’s rebirth continues to build momentum through its embrace by new and old listeners. Sponsorships are growing with business mentioning that the station is bringing people into their business. Listener donations are increasing. Thanks to 21st century technology K-ZAP can be experienced in a variety of ways. Perhaps the best way is downloading the app from K-ZAP’s website or in the Google or Apple stores for a crystal clear sound stream in cars, stereos, and mobile devices. Thanks to the internet K-ZAP can be streamed worldwide.
K-ZAP also has a robust community of supporters on social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps most exciting K-ZAP was recently voted best FM radio station of 2018 in the City of Sacramento’s Annual Best of Vote.
“I am just damn proud to work here and am gratified to being able to play music again,” said Robert.