KHIP Radio


By John LaTorre

Twenty years ago, I was a struggling free-lance writer who wanted to write about a free-form radio station broadcasting out of Hollister, California. This station was carrying on the mission of a now-legendary station called KFAT, whose incandescent career is now enshrined in several tribute websites, a Wikipedia entry, and a soon-to-be-released book by Gilbert Klein, who was one of its personnel. After I wrote the article, I shopped it around some of the local print people but failed to find any takers, so it went into the filing cabinet.

Fast-forward two decades, and here I am ... still a struggling free-lance writer (albeit one with a self-published book doing reasonably well, thank you), and still a fan of that free-form format. A few months ago, two things happened that led to the webbing of this article:

  1. I found a bunch of casette tapes I'd made of KFAT and the "Fat Fries" concerts they broadcast in the eighties, along with some tapes of KUNM, back in the Asylum Radio days, which I'd made while living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I hadn't been playing these tapes for years upon years, fearing that I'd degrade them even more than they already had been. But now that I had the means of transcribing them into digital format, I brought them out, cleaned the heads of the tape machine, played them into my computer, and once again found myself back in one of radio's Golden Ages.
  2. I Googled "KFAT" and found that there were a host of tribute sites and other where the KFAT spirit was kept alive, including a radio station in Hollister, California that streamed its content over the Internet. Some of KFAT's guiding spirits had been involved in getting KPIG off the ground, and the concept, if not the content, was pretty much the same.

I remembered the article I'd written all those years ago, and found it buried in a folder in my filing cabinet. Since I already had a web site devoted to my tentmaking business, it was a fairly easy task to scan in the original article, convert it to HTML, and stick it where you've found it today.

So let's turn back the hands of time. It's 1986, and we're visiting a radio station where a bunch of music lovers are keeping a dream alive and kicking, against formidable odds. Here's how they're doing it...

Over the hill in Hollister, a 275 watt radio station is making waves. Broadcasting at 93.5 megahertz on the FM band, twenty-four hours a day, KHIP serves a feast of music that cuts across virtually every conceivable format of popular music, free-forming its own concept of radio as it should be done. In an industry where programming is increasingly being locked into place by playlists created days or weeks before, by programming experts who may never have even seen the stations they work for, KHIP does it the hard way -- a record at a time, in no particular order, to suit the flavor of the moment.

No playlist? No format? For a commercial radio station? Can these people be serious?

They're not only serious, but prospering. When I visited the station last winter and met the crew, I found out why. The people there are totally committed to the station and the music it plays. Each of them perceive the station as the last gasp of creativity in an industry that becomes more dominated by demographics and dollars every day. They are the holdouts, out to prove that their brand of radio will always have a respected place on the dial.

KHIP doesn't try to put any of the industry's standard labels on its format. "It's HIP music," says Amy Airheart, station manager and morning air personality, for whom the only useful categories are good music and bad music. The station specializes in spotlighting artists who, for various reasons, have never broken into the mass radio market -- the square pegs like John Prine, Sam Bush, Mary McCaslin, Tom Paxton, John Hartford, Kate Wolf, Levon Helm, Michael Murphy, and scores of others who don't fit into the round, machined holes of the broadcast world. At KHIP, you can listen to Asleep at the Wheel, the Dave Grisman Quartet, the Beat Farmers, and other bands that have found their own musical expression outside the stylistic confines of "country-western," "album oriented rock," or any of the other pigeonholes currently in favor anywhere else on the radio dial.

The first thing that strikes a visitor is the total professionalism of the people that announce and play the records. Their knowledge of popular music, particularly the more progressive forms of country-western music, is staggering. Any of them could be music directors, and in fact, they are, each for their own show. Name them a song, and they can tell you who wrote it, who sang it, on what label, at what time ... and then give you any number of other versions of the same song, on record labels you never knew existed. And then tell you which side of the record it's on, and which cut it is. Amazing.

Rob, the Sunday evening personality, drives down to Los Angeles to attend a concert of Danny and Dusty. Then he gets into his car and drives back ... fourteen hours on the road to hear two people that most of the music world hasn't even heard of. "They only perform together about twice a year," he explains. "It was worth the trip."

On another night, you can hear Sister Tiny composing a show practically out of thin air, weaving in requests to her own playlist, which is improvised. She goes to the record shelves, picks an album, plays a few bars of each song over the monitor to find the most appropriate song to follow the one she's got on the air, and cues the song. She'll fit each piece carefully into her sonic mosaic, fifteen times an hour, five hours a night. Not only will she not play a song twice during her show, she probably won't even play two songs from the same artist. And with hundreds of artists and thousands of records to choose from, why should she? She expects her listeners to be in for the long haul, just as she is, and she won't waste their time with a repetition. Keep moving, cover new ground. When the space shuttle Challenger blew up last January, she began her show that evening with a dazzling display of musical erudition, playing a handful of songs on air disasters that I'd never heard before (and I thought I'd heard a lot).

Sister Tiny's mastery of the media is matched by the other air personalities on KHIP. She's joined by Unkle Sherman, Amy Airheart, Felton Pruitt, and Cuzin Al, all from KFAT, a Gilroy station that managed in seven incandescent years to create a minor legend among performers and audiences in northern California before falling prey to the "contemporary mass appeal" of garden-variety rock and roll.

The FAT Years

The story of KHIP, in fact, began when a tiny Gilroy country-western station called KSND changed hands in 1975. The station was bought for $57,000 by Jeremy Lansman, who hired some programmers from Texas to program the station along the lines of KPFT in Houston or KOKE in Austin. The programmers hired Unkle Sherman, who came from what he calls a "one-lung radio station" in the Pacific Northwest (Sherman's free-wheeling music format would prompt KFAT to fire and rehire him more than once during his career with the station.) The station, now with the call letters of KFAT, began with Unkle Sherman, Buffalo Bob, and Terrell Lynn Thomas behind the mike, joined the following February by Cuzin Al and his Sunday evening bluegrass show. Lansman's wife Laura Ellen lent a hand in the programming, encouraging a trend to more "acoustic" music like bluegrass.

"The FAT radio equipment was at the bottom of the professional scale," Cuzin Al reminisced about the early years. Over the next few years, the station caught on with the listeners, carving out a small but devoted following. With upgraded studio equipment, a move to new quarters at the Old Gilroy Hotel, and a boost in broadcasting power that would enable it to be picked up from Monterey to Marin, KFAT moved into the big time.

People tuned in for the novelty and humor that they couldn't find anywhere else, only to hear music that transcended their notions of format. Sure, there was country and western, but not the Kenny Rogers and Charley Pride that the other C&W stations relied on. Here was old-time rock and roll, bluegrass, Tex-Mex, blues, rockabilly, Western swing, and even a little Hawaiian music. KFAT was "breaking" new artists like Willie Nelson, George Thoroughgood, Peter Rowan, Emmylou Harris, Lacy J. Dalton, and Weird Al Yankovich. "KFAT was a testing ground for a lot of companies," Sister Tiny told me. Unkle Sherman agreed, adding, "If we would play them, they would promote them." News was provided by the idiosyncratic Travus T. Hipp, a Bay area celebrity whose fame began as a bartender at the fabled Red Dog Saloon and continued with news and talk shows on KSAN and other local stations. With the addition of Amy Airheart to its lineup in January of 1980, KFAT was at its zenith. Despite its reputation among the more conventional broadcasters as a "cult station," an image it never cared to shed, it had become such big business that Lansman and co-owner Lorenzo Milam could sell the station in November for a half a million dollars.

When the new owner, a Chicagoan named Harvey Levin, arrived to take over the station, many of the staff felt the bubble was about to burst. One of Levin's first acts was to bring back the same programming staff that Lansman had used in 1975. The programmers fired Unkle Sherman (again); Airheart quit in February of 1981, fearing another format change. But she was rehired almost immediately, and even Sherman, who had worked for AM country stations in Marin and San Francisco in the meantime, eventually came back on board. The format would stay the same, Harvey assured them. With good ratings and a devoted following, it looked like KFAT was in the fat at last.

In two years, it would all be gone.

Harvey fell ill. He was found to have cancer and went into therapy in December, but stayed in constant contact with the station by telephone. By May he was dead, at the age of thirty-eight. KFAT observed twenty-four hours of commercial-free programming in his honor. In October, Levin's family sold the station to Western Cities Broadcasting for over three million dollars. "Radio was a hot property in 1982," Airheart told me, adding that when Western Cities sold the station recently as part of a package deal, the station's worth was estimated as $10 million.

When KFAT's employees were finally told of the sale, air personality Dale Evans, whose commercial parodies like the "DeLorean snowmobile" were some of the station's most popular items, was the first to quit. It was apparent that Western Cities had little faith in KFAT's format; it announced in November that the call letters would change to KWSS and that research would be undertaken to determine the format of their station. Although the staff had been given hints that their jobs would continue if they wanted them, they learned that Western Cities had secretly decided to fire them in January. At any rate, it was not hard to see the handwriting on the wall, and preparations were made for one final show of KFAT music before the change of format took place on January 3, 1983.

That show was KFAT at its finest. For over three hours, Amy Airheart and Dallas Dobro played their fans's favorite music, from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to Utah Phillips's "Moose Turd Pie," with mock commercials for Tree Frog Beer and the Idi Amin Hot Tub. Euphoria and desperation created a giddiness that could be felt by listeners all over the bay area and by the dozens of fans who crowded the studio to say goodbye. Lacy J. Dalton phoned to thank them for their support, and Chuck Wagon and the Wheels dropped in to perform an impromptu version of their song "Disco Sucks." Cy Coben recorded a special "Goodbye, KFAT" song. Turning serious toward the end, Amy and Dallas played the famous "I'm mad as hell" speech from the movie Network and John Hartford's somber "I Reckon" ("Had I not made this record, I still would have made these songs / And sung them to my family and my friends / and to myself ..."). After midnight, the new station staff still hadn't shown up, so the FAT crew ushered in the age of rock and roll on their station with Jerry Lee Lewis.

But it wasn't quite over after all. Although Dallas left the next day, and Amy quit the day after (she had used the air name "Nancy Drew" because her presence under the new rules "was a mystery to me"), Terrell Lynn Thomas and Sister Tiny continued for a while under Western Cities's new format rules, which called for tamer music and less personality. In two weeks, it really was all over. The station's call letters were now KWSS, the format changed to "album rock," plans had been made to donate the old KFAT record library to the Gilroy Public Library, and the old crew, excepting only afternoon man Steven Seaweed, was gone.

After the Fall

"It felt like a divorce," Cuzin Al told me. "When KFAT went off the air, it left a big hole." Al went back to public radio, working at KZSC, KKUP, KPFA, and KCSM (the latter still airs his bluegrass show on the last Sunday of every month). Dallas went to work for Goldsmith Seeds in Gilroy, eventually gravitating to Idaho to work in public television. Amy toured Europe for six weeks, returning to write commercials and do administrative tasks for classical station KBOQ in Marina. Unkle Sherman worked in non-commercial radio in various Bay area towns and learned to train draft horses, buying two.

But KFAT wouldn't die quietly. Not long after the changeover, former FAT personnel hosted a "Moose Turd Pie" party at the Old Gilroy Hotel. Conceived as a way for old fans to get together, it sparked the formation of FAT Records, which was to publish two catalogs and a cassette tape of FAT music before slipping into obscurity. Another organization to emerge from the wreckage was the Future Fat Format Farmers of America -- the FFFFA -- founded by Airheart to secure another radio outlet for their music. "If we don't know within six months, I don't see much chance of it happening," Airheart told the Gilroy Dispatch in March. "We know we have a big audience, because they're bugging us." The FFFFA tried to buy a radio station in Santa Cruz, but the owners refused to consider the sale.

The following February, Amy found another outlet in radio station KOCN in Pacific Grove, bringing in Laura Ellen, Sister Tiny and Unkle Sherman. The group worked there for half a year, but realized that the station's owner didn't share their passion for the format, and found it difficult to create their own style of music in the station's format of canned on-the-hour news and irregular sports programming. They discovered, though, that their "FAT format" was transportable from one station to the next, and that the market was there. During their tenure, KOCN went into the Arbitron ratings for the first time. But their search for a permanent home and a free hand continued. During the following winter, Unkle Sherman heard that a small station in Hollister was having trouble getting disk jockeys. In fact, KHIP owner Vernon Miller was getting ready to "pull the plug" if he couldn't find a way to turn the station's fortune around. At the time, KHIP was programming sixties and seventies rock, with a little new wave thrown in at night. Dave Powell, who was on his way out as station manager, talked with Sherman and asked him where a replacement might be found.

Sherman knew. Within days, he and Amy, along with Laura Ellen, presented Miller with a package that included the FAT format, Amy as station manager, and a host of KFAT graduates to comandeer the microphones and turntables. Miller agreed to try the package for a year, and the new KHIP was in business.

There was much to do. KHIP's facilities were, to put it kindly, primitive. Housed in a tiny two-story building on Washington Street in Hollister, it sported antiquated equipment. The transmitter, on Fremont Peak, was powered by batteries charged by a gasoline generator which had to be refueled two or three times a day. The station's power, authorized for 175 watts, actually varied between six to a hundred watts, depending on the condition of the batteries. On March 4, 1985, KHIP began its new lease on life. On the air that day were Unkle Sherman, Buffalo Bob, and Terrell Lynn Thomas, three of the people who helped launch KFAT in 1975. Former KFAT members Sister Tiny, Mark "Rocket Man" DeFranco, Felton Pruitt, and Cuzin Al were all on board within a week, and Travus T. Hipp's news and commentary (with what he calls "his particularly jaundiced eye") were piped in via telephone from Hipp's Cabale News Service in Silver City, Nevada.

Not six months later, disaster struck. The house next to the station burned to the ground, and the station itself was heavily damaged. Most of the equipment, including the station's relay link to its mountaintop transmitter, was destroyed. The record collection, mostly contributed from station employees, narrowly escaped the flames. Most of the KFAT memorabilia perished.

But in less than a week, the station was back on the air, operating out of a trailer between a tomato field and a truck stop near Gilroy. It was less than ideal for a radio station; the floor was so loosely sprung that a heavy foot fall would bounce the stylus right out of a record groove. But KHIP never lost its style. It instituted a Citizen's Band request line for truckers and possibly the world's first drive-up request window. The fire had another unexpected benefit, because the insurance settlement allowed the station to retool with more modern equipment when they found a new home two months later.

The station eventually found new quarters back in Hollister, only a block away from their old location. Housed in a suite of offices in the basement of 910 Monterey Street, it continues to play the music that nobody plays better. It's an informal atmosphere there, where members of the staff stay to socialize after their duties are over. The music they broadcast is the same music they listen to when they go home, the same music that a few of them play professionally in area nightspots.

It's no easier to hang a name on this format than it was in the days of KFAT. In fact, the format has changed somewhat from what it was then, perhaps reflecting the maturity of its originators and its audience. For one thing, KFAT's old taboo on playing blues in daytime hours is no longer observed. "Blues deserves to be played more," said Airheart. Another change, she added, is the de-emphasis of humor and novelty music, which KFAT used to program at the rate of one per hour. (A quick air check in February, however, turned up Steven Wright, Rich Little, and plenty of other gems.) Cuzin Al, who brings his Sunday evening bluegrass show to KHIP three times a month, calls KHIP "KFAT with a degree in music." He notes that KHIP plays a lot of music recorded in the last three years, a point also made by Unkle Sherman and Sister Tiny. The biggest change, though, is a new respect for the music they play and the importance of serving the audience that craves it. "It means more now," Airheart said, "because we know we can lose it."

What stands out most is the joy they share as the station becomes a success. "Once you've had good radio, it's hard to go back to bad radio," observed Travus T. Hipp during a recent visit to the station. "This is the last incarnation of air personality radio." He noted that the station's music requires some maturity to appreciate, a sentiment voiced by most of the other people I talked to. "It takes some thought to listen to KHIP," Laura Ellen told me during another interview. Reflecting on the uphill battle of KHIP in the past year, Cuzin Al could not conceal his optimism. "They said it couldn't be done," he beamed. "And here we are." And if the dissolution of a radio station, a fire, and a few earthquakes couldn't stop them, what can?

--- Written on February 19, 1986

Afterword (Updated May, 2012)

Well, those hopes turned out to be a little premature. KHIP was soon to go the way of its predecessors, victim to the changing economics of radio in the Reagan years. It took a little while longer, but Laura Ellen was given one more chance, and KPIG was born (or farrowed, I guess). Broadcasting from Freedom, California, it put the old FAT format back to work, with many of the same crew. It can be now heard not only in the Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz area but down the coast at San Luis Obispo. In 1995, it was the first station to put its signal over the Internet, so for about six bucks a month, KPIG can be found anywhere you can plug your 'puter into the World Wide Web. And I'm relieved to report that it shows no signs at present of riding into the sunset.

You can find the PIG at the kpig website, where you can find more links (the temptation to say "pork links" is mighty strong here, which is what happens when you listen to the PIG for a while). Other sites of interest are:

KFAT Online A tribute site founded by Laura Ellen before her untimely death in 2007, and not updated since, but with lots of good stuff.

gilbert klein's web site "fat chance." Gilbert's book about KFAT is expected to come out this year, so stay tuned.

"lard almighty," an article on KPIG by Kelly Luker that's almost as good as mine. Kelly fills in many of the holes in the history of the PIG and its personalities.

"unconventional, unrefined kpig squealing into town", another fine article on KPIG by Maria Alicia Gaura, Staff Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, on the occasion of the station's entry into the AM airwaves.