Rock on FM – KNUS

Spotify Link: KNUS 98.7 FM DALLAS

For a unique perspective on early classic rock, check out my KNUS 98.7 FM DALLAS playlist on Spotify.

It’s a recreation of the KNUS-FM playlist between 1968 and 1973. It includes a few song I discovered on KNUS airchecks, but the rest is based on my personal recollection. I absorbed hundreds of hours of music on KNUS during the five years that they were the premier FM rock station. This is what the early days of FM rock radio sounded like. This isn’t an exhaustive list of everything KNUS played. It’s the best of KNUS.

It has more than 600 songs, more than 46 hours of music. I have left out many hit songs which are still popular on classic rock stations today. This Spotify playlist concentrates on songs which got thousands of plays on-air, but many people have forgotten. This was the era of the super-groups, giants the likes of which the music business won’t see again.

The KNUS radio playlist was diverse, but it was dominated by only about forty big names. These included The Beatles, Free, Cream, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Jethro Tull, Rod Stewart, The Allman Bros, Wishbone Ash, Pink Floyd, War, The Who, Traffic, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, The James Gang, Santana, The Moody Blues, Cat Stevens, Brian Auger, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, CSNY’s solo projects, and the Beatles’ solo projects. The Beatles’ later albums were the backbone of most FM rock station playlists in the US during this time. 1968 saw the birth of hard rock with “Born To Be Wild.”

The Rest Is History

KNUS-FM was the “Heavy Sister” of KLIF-AM. In 1968, KNUS called itself a “non-format” radio station. It mixed rock with jazz, folk, and some top-40 during morning drive-time. Things got weirder in the evening and overnight hours. Sometimes it was free-form, breaking normal conventions. But most of the time, it was just a straightforward rock station at a time when the foundations of today’s rock were just forming.

Everyone remembers it as a hard rock station, before “heavy metal” even existed. People forget how jazzy it was. Next to Deep Purple was Blood Sweat & Tears. Next to the James Gang was Dave Brubeck. Next to Mountain was Chicago, Brian Auger, Miles, and Yusef Lateef. Other times, the mood was calm, etheral, contemplative. Like Don McLean’s “Vincent,” Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” or Alice Coltrane’s (John’s wife) manic harp strums on Huntington Ashram Monestary. KNUS playlists often included entire albums. There were a lot of great albums back then, before record companies started a ‘one-hit-per-album’ rule.

Because the technology hadn’t developed, some of this music was not very well recorded. It was really hard to find good bass strings back then. Some problems were from carelessness, like the dropout in the guitar track in the opening of “Smoke On The Water.” What about the crummy upright piano they used to record “Colour My World,” after the great engineering on Chicago Transit Authority? A lot of great music didn’t make the cut on today’s classic rock radio because of poor engineering. But many of those old records have been remastered in recent years, and they sound better as a result.

The “Heavy Sister” didn’t play many women artists, other than Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. Fleetwood Mac was still being fronted by Bob Welch. Linda Ronstadt was still learning the ropes as a solo artist, just out of the Stone Ponies. There was the single hit from Smith, “Baby It’s You.” Carole King and Carly Simon each had three of four hits. Judy Collins had her one big country crossover hit, “Someday Soon.” Dusty Springfield and Laura Nero never got a lot of airplay.

The “Heavy Sister” phase of KNUS was a four-year long cutting edge experiment in rock radio. News breaks were serious business. They were required by the FCC if you wanted to keep your broadcast license. Instead of the sound of teletypes, the low-key news readers played Indian sitar and tabla music in the background during news breaks. The on-air hosts included the Mighty Murphy, Ken Dowe, Jimmy Rabbit and Ken Weir.

The station’s owner, Gordon McLendon, chose the KNUS call letters because he had planned to eventually turn it into an all-news station on FM, which never happened. (KNUS later changed to KLUV.)  KLIF was rated the number one station in Dallas when McLendon sold it to Fairchild Industries. McLendon wanted to include KNUS in the sale of KLIF, but Fairchild didn’t want to buy KNUS.

McLendon had a non-compete agreement with the new owners of KLIF. McLendon wasn’t allowed to own another AM station in Dallas. But it didn’t say anything about FM. So McLendon handed the keys to a full powered, fully-licensed, middle-of-the-dial FM radio station over to his son Bart, and told him to do something with it. Before long KNUS was beating KLIF in the ratings. KLIF later regained the number 1 position, but it proves KNUS was commercially successful.

By late 1967, WOR-FM in New York City had been playing rock for more than a year. The top bands at the time were people like The Beatles, Cream, and Vanilla Fudge. In late 1967, William “Rosko” Mercer made headlines by leaving WOR-FM to join WNEW-FM.

WOR-FM had been doing well financially when its hired consultants tweaked the format to increase ad revenues. Rosko didn’t approve of the the changes, so one night he resigned on-air. (He didn’t just walk out on-air like Jack Paar did on  the Tonight Show back in 1960.) Later that week, in an interview on WFUV-FM, Rosko said that the argument with WOR’s consultants was over whether listeners should decide what music the station played, or whether programming decisions should be controlled by management. Rosko was in touch with his audience.

Rosko was quickly picked up by a rival station, WNEW-FM, and given more creative control over his show. He became more popular than ever. Programmers across the country were watching all of this. The smaller stations took their cues from the larger stations. New York was the center of the media universe. (Info at New York Radio Archive.)

Record company and radio station executives were confused by the whole 60s youth movement, and the popularity of far-out groups like Vanilla Fudge, Cream, and Jefferson Airplane. They knew it was a new phenomenon, but they had no idea what to make of it. Often times, they got out of the way and let it happen. Atlantic Records approved an expensive, imitation leather record cover for Crosby Stills Nash & Young’s Deja Vu album. Wikipedia says they got $2 million in preorders before it was released, and it went 7x Platinum (7 million copies sold). But it didn’t take long for the suits to take control again.

KNUS played itself up as “underground radio.” It was. But KNUS and WNEW were big draws for advertisers. They made money. KNUS’s unconventional format was commercially successful, even though it wasn’t considered a “commercial” format.

However, by 1973, Dallas’ black-lit, bead-curtained, crash-pad of the airwaves had commercialized its format. The music world had changed. The era of the supergroups was over. But it was more than that. In 1973 a new competitor appeared right next to KNUS on the FM dial to pick up where the old KNUS left off, and preserve some of the music that made KNUS great.

The KZEW playlist covers the years 1973 through 1978. I’ll talk about it in another post.