by Kevin Kittredge, 2/2/05
Used with permission of The Roanoke Times ©2005
Dec. 31, 1979, 6 p.m.
It was New Year's Eve. For Roanoke radio, it was also a new dawn. Twenty-five years ago, "beautiful music" abruptly gave way to rock 'n' roll at 92.3 FM - K92. To the Doobie Brothers, to be exact, soft-rocking their way through the '70s mega-hit "Listen to the Music." It wasn't exactly Twisted Sister. But it was also quite a ways from the Boston Pops. Not everyone was pleased. "Happy New Year," one listener wrote the station. "Thank you and goodbye."
Can it be? WXLK-FM, better known as K92, is 25 years old. The valley's first-ever top 40 FM station is now older than half its listeners. Many still remember its infancy - when the station remade rock radio in the valley with its combination of tight playlists, brash DJs and the superior broadcast quality of FM.
The time was more than ripe. "Roanoke was one of the lowest-penetrated FM markets in the country," recalled Russ Brown, K92's first program manager. The station had a 93,000-watt transmitter on 2,000-foot-high Poor Mountain - plenty of juice to fill the airwaves for many miles around - yet it was playing niche market easy listening music.
Owner Aylett Coleman (now deceased) thought the potential was there for something more. He hired Brown to make it happen. Everything clicked. "The format was right," said Brown. "The people were right. And the market was right. There was an obvious void." The music format switched to rock at 6 p.m. that New Year's Eve. Six hours later, at midnight, the call letters were officially changed from WLRG to WXLK.
David Lee Michaels, one of K92's first DJs, recalled that the station had tried to keep the changeover a secret, and its studio number, too. It didn't work. That first night they were flooded with calls. Radio is different now. Corporate giants own most stations, and the Internet and other entertainment options have cut into listeners' time. But in the 1980s, a single station could still stride large across the pop landscape. For a while, K92 was huge. "This radio station was No. 1 the minute it went on," said Michaels - a position it occupied for most of the next decade.
K92 was so successful it outperformed not just other radio stations in the valley, but also stations throughout the state. At one point, said Brown, K92 had more listeners than the top stations in Norfolk and Richmond - combined. "K92 was the most listened to station in the entire state of Virginia," affirmed Bart Prater, another early K92 DJ. "It was a behemoth." With its ratings came a certain swagger. "We were No. 1 and we acted like it," recalled Cat Thomas, now at WAPE in Jacksonville, Fla. In the early days, K92 DJs could stop anywhere between Charlottesville and West Virginia and be treated like stars, he said. "We would go into these towns and all of our events were just mobbed." As for the competition, "They hated us," said Thomas.
accused the powerhouse station of dirty tricks. One sore point: K92 announcers
often referred to competitor "Magic 99" (WSLQ-FM) as "Tragic
99." Letters to the editors occasionally complained of tasteless remarks.
"We might have stepped over the line," said Thomas. In a newspaper
story in 1984, Brown responded to the station's critics: "Nothing personal.
All's fair in love and war." Why did K92 succeed? Credit a talented staff,
an owner with deep pockets - and Brown. The hard-driving station manager, now
at WRIS (1410-AM) in Roanoke, once told a reporter he wanted all his employees
to have "a killer instinct."
In those days, "If we wanted to do something, we would figure out a way to do it," recalled Prater. Or fake it. Before remote broadcasts were commonplace, K92 DJs would sometimes show up at events and talk into a dead microphone, pretending they were broadcasting live. "That was the kind of guy Brown was. Always wanting to be larger than life," Prater said. "He loved playing mind games." In the early days, K92 played plenty. There was the Halloween they rebroadcast "War of the Worlds" - but this time set the imaginary alien invasion in Floyd. Phone calls from frightened listeners jammed the county's phone lines, Prater said. Then there was Channel 1 - K92's fictional TV channel. Never mind that TV sets of the day had no Channel 1. If you played with the dial a little, the K92 jocks told their listeners, you could jam it in the right place. Holdren's also had new sets with a Channel 1, they deadpanned. The since-closed appliance store soon was flooded with calls. Then there was the contest built around the Carl Carlton hit, "She's a Bad Mama Jama." Playing off the song's popularity, K92 held a "Baddest Mamas in Their 'Jamas" contest at a local night spot. "We figured there would be about 12 people," Michaels recalled. Instead, police had to come and direct traffic, he said. Some of the women went too far with their outfits and had to be covered up a little before they could go onstage. Even so, "I think for months we were fodder for the editorial page," said Michaels, who now has a photography business in Roanoke.
The list of personalities who have come and gone (and occasionally come back) is a long one: Michaels, Prater, Larry Dowdy, Mike Stevens, Slam Duncan, Bill Jordan, "Mofo and Sally" (Monty Foster and Sally Sevareid). Not everyone left happily. Duncan left in the the early '90s, claiming owner Coleman told him to "shut up" and play more music. Coleman disputed the account at the time. "It was just the age-old 'philosophical differences,'" recalled Duncan, now at WSIX in Nashville. Duncan, who still wears his "K92" T-shirt from time to time, also said "We had a lot of fun."
For Prater, the fun ended when a new manager arrived and handed all the DJs a list of slogans they were to read on air, word for word. "I handed them back and said, 'Buy yourself a parrot,' " recalled Prater, now operations coordinator for Virginia Tech's public radio stations. "I'm old. I came over here where I belong."
Michaels still goes on air at K92 from time to time. He was part of the station's 25th anniversary broadcast this New Year's Eve, when they served up old hits and interviews with former K92 stars.
Give K92 credit: It has endured. While no longer the colossus it once was, it still leads the young adult market and has hewed more or less to its original format of playing the top 40 hits. "We're No. 1 in our target demographic," said current program director Kevin Scott.Still, things have changed. By the time Sevareid came along, she said, around 1990, some of the more outrageous pranks were gone.
"It's easy to do those things when you're the only game in town," said Sevareid, who secretly got hitched to partner "Mofo" while working for K92 in the mid-1990s. The pair now work at Kool 105.5 FM, an adult contemporary station in West Palm Beach, Fla. Nowadays, "The competition is just so fierce," said Sevareid. "The nature of the business has just changed."
Leonard Wheeler, president of Mel Wheeler Inc., which bought the station in 1997, said K92 is still profitable and there are no plans to change its format. But it is no longer No. 1. Star Country (WSLC) came in first in the most recent ratings. The former "Magic 99," now Q99, also torched K92, coming in second. K92 came in fourth, one place ahead of public radio. Star Country, Q99 and K92 are all owned by Wheeler now, and all broadcast from the same building on Electric Road. Wheeler said K92 is still surprisingly well-known - "far more than you would expect for a radio station in this town. It really has this reputation in the industry."
Indeed, at a quarter century, the once wildly successful upstart is fast becoming an institution. "It's as much a part of Roanoke as the star," said Michaels.
K92 - Today's Hit Music
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