SOME HISTORY AND OTHER INFO ABOUT K-99
K-99 brought to Birmingham its first fulltime "album rock" format (or, as it's known in radio industry lingo, AOR - Album Oriented Rock) when it began broadcasting for the first time on December 6, 1976.
But the plans for this station commenced in the late 1960s. The seed was planted on August 8, 1968, when The Voice of Dixie, Inc., the company which owned WVOK-AM ("The Mighty 690"), applied to the FCC for an FM license to broadcast on 99.5 megahertz.
However, a number of other competing parties were also seeking the privilege of broadcasting on that frequency. This set the stage for years of hearings, where the FCC determined which party, in their view, was best-suited to be awarded the license for the new FM station.
The process took nearly eight years. And in July 1976, our 200th birth month, Voice of Dixie was granted a Construction Permit by the FCC to begin preparations and testing for WVOK-FM.
"CAMERA 3, TIGHT ZOOM ON SGT. JACK. READY CAMERA 1 ...... UM, WHY DO I HEAR K-99 IN MY HEADSET??!!"
Initially, the transmitting antenna for the new station was mounted atop the tower for WBMG-TV 42 on Red Mountain. And this created a problem for channel 42, as during test broadcasts it was discovered that interaction with another FM station with its antenna on the same tower caused interference in channel 42's video cameras! After lots of money spent trying to diagnose this problem, WVOK was advised to take their antenna elsewhere.
That "elsewhere" turned out to be the Jefferson County Board of Education's tower, also atop Red Mountain. This time it worked, so WVOK leased space atop this tower for its antenna.
Now that the technical logistics were mostly solved, it was time to build a staff. Phil Baker was brought to Birmingham from south Florida to help program the new station. His credentials were solid, having worked at WSHE in Fort Lauderdale, a longtime FM rock station in that region. Crossing the hall from WVOK-AM to join the K-99 announcing staff was Don Keith. Keith would also be charged with assisting Baker with programming the music for WVOK-FM.
BIRMINGHAM RADIO: 1976
During America's Bicentennial year, the Birmingham radio dial was full of diverse formats and offerings:
|610 - WSGN: Top-40||93.7 - WDJC: Religious|
|690 - WVOK: Top-40||94.5 - WAPI-FM: "Solid Gold" (adult rock)|
|850 - WYDE: Country||96.5 - WQEZ: Easy Listening|
|900 - WATV: Black / Soul||104.7 - WJLN: Black (day), AOR (night)|
|960 - WERC: Top-40||106.9 - WERC-FM: Top-40 (day), AOR (night)|
|1070 - WAPI: Adult Contemporary||107.7 - WENN-FM: Black / Soul|
|1220 - WBUL: Black / Soul|
|1260 - WCRT: Middle-of-the-Road|
|1320 - WENN: Black Gospel|
|1400 - WJLD: Black / Soul|
|1450 - WYAM: Country|
|1480 - WLPH: Religious|
|In the Magic City, AM was still king.
Top-40 was heard on three stations: WSGN, "96-ERC", and "The
Mighty 690", WVOK. The battle for Birmingham's ears was the stuff
of radio legend, as WERC and WSGN engaged in one of the most heated rivalries
in the history of top-40. WVOK played the hits alongside 'em, trumping
both with a 50,000-watt blowtorch signal, easily heard for a 150-mile radius,
and ending its broadcast day at sunset, always to the tune of "Dixie."
FM entered 1976 almost as an afterthought. Specialty stations like WDJC and WENN-FM aside, most of the FM stations either spent large blocks of time simulcasting their more successful AM sisters, or programming 'canned' formats. WAPI-FM ("Stereo 94") was entirely automated, running a syndicated tape format called "Solid Gold", an oldies-intensive "adult top-40" format.
The format known as "progressive rock" or "album rock" (or "that @#$% hippie music!") was available in Birmingham, but just on a parttime basis, and only at night. WJLN 104.7 was the first station in the city to have a progressive rock show, beginning some time in the late 1960s with a host who used the on-air name of "Father Tree." In 1973, WERC-FM came into being, and "Stereo Rock ERC-FM" began playing a progressive rock mix at night, although more formatted than the "freeform" style of ,JLN.
However, 1976 would mark the beginning
of FM's rise. It started with the launching of WBHM 90.3,
giving Birmingham a much-desired outlet for Public Radio. And toward
the end of the year, promos began airing on WVOK announcing the launch
of WVOK-FM, a 100,000-watt station to broadcast 24 hours a day.
To these 11-year-old ears, WSGN and WERC were the 'hip' rock stations in Birmingham. WVOK by then was playing what I perceived to be a lot of 'bubblegum.' And my musical tastes were leaning toward the harder end of pop music. Also, Joe Rumore - much as I solemnly revere him as a broadcast legend - was a very ill match for top-40 music. WVOK had sharp talent in the form of Don Keith, Johnny Davis and the great Dan Brennan (to this day the best voice I've ever heard do a rock concert commercial). It wasn't the personalities -- it was the music and ... the overall FEEL of the station.
At the time I lived in Tupelo, Miss., and while I freely admit going mostly between 610 and 960 while in the 'Ham on my regular visits, 690 was a beacon I turned to during those times I got 'homesick' while standing in the quagmire of Lee County, Mississippi. WVOK's signal reached Tupelo with ease; 'SGN and 'ERC didn't. Besides, the aforementioned "feel" of WVOK -- jocks, jingles, commercials and all -- was to me like Radio Free Europe to someone behind the Iron Curtain (I think you can gather by now that I was not overly enamored with life in Tupelo -- I missed Birmingham, badly, and wished I could live there).
I remember well the first time I heard the spot on WVOK announcing their FM's eventual debut. We were going through Jasper, on the way back from a weekend trip to Birmingham. I was excited -- Christmas vacation couldn't come soon enough! That meant one of my Birmingham sojourns, and I lived to hear the new WVOK-FM.
And what timing! Santa Claus that year left me a spiffy AM/FM 'Multiband' portable radio under the tree. From there it was aboard a Greyhound bus destined for Birmingham, just me, my new radio and earphones ... and soon I'd be hearing Mr. Brennan's new blowtorch. Somewhere around Carbon Hill, I began searching the FM dial, and just before that orange dial pointer got to "100", there it was. Eureka!
The music sounded different to this 6th grader, but he liked it. And his tastes in music would never be the same again.
Looking back from a comfortable 40-something perch, who'd have thought a station like K-99 could come from the ribs of a station whose star-in-the-crown was Joe Rumore??!!
A SPECIAL "K"
WVOK-FM was now on the air. According to a Birmingham News article about the debut, "K-99 is an album-oriented station whose target audience is the young adult. It features a unique combination of uninterrupted segments of music with a 'laid-back' announcing style."
Anyone who listened to FM rock in the '70s, knows that saying 'laid-back' was stating the obvious. Even so, K-99 was not content to be just another album rocker. It was a unique station, nothing like the so-called "Superstars" format created by FM rock pioneer Lee Abrams, who consulted upstart AOR stations in Atlanta ("96 Rock") and Memphis ("Rock 103"), among other cities. Nor was it like the stereotypical, excessively low-key 'hippie' presentation which defined a lot of progressive rock to date -- "Ummmm ... that was a full 76 minutes' worth of Ravi Shankar .... it's 10:15, and after this word from Rachel's Magic Mushroom Head Shop, the full version of 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida'...."
The music K-99 played wasn't dominated by the counterculture/protest music of the late '60s or early '70s, nor did it skew toward the heavy metal sounds that began to emerge in the 1970s, such as Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin. All of that did get airplay on K-99, but it was mixed with a great deal of Southern rock, in particular the Macon/Capricorn school which produced The Allman Brothers. Also, through K-99 'guitar heroes' like Robin Trower reached Birmingham ears. Add some jazz like Chuck Mangione and R&B-flavored progressive music such as Average White Band, and the end product was a fantastic musical smorgasbord for Birmingham FM radio!
I can offer no better example of K-99's format than to list some of the songs played on a few (much-valued) recordings I have of the station:
|30 minutes from
Lynyrd Skynyrd -- What's Your Name
Lynyrd Skykyrd -- I Never Dream
Paul McCartney & Wings -- Sally G
Loggins & Messina -- Changes
The Outlaws -- Green Grass and High Tides [live]
Elvis Costello -- (Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
Billy Joel -- Movin' Out (Anthony's Song)
Sea Level -- Storm Warning
Rick Derringer -- Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo
30 minutes from
|90 minutes from
September 4, 1980:
Boston -- More Than a Feeling
Dire Straits -- Water of Love
Atlanta Rhythm Section -- Doraville
The Allman Brothers -- Angeline
Huey Lewis & The News -- Some of My Lives are Coming Back
The Rolling Stones -- Under My Thumb
Steve Forbert -- Romeo's Tune
Eddie Money -- Running Back
Ram Jam -- Black Betty
Blue Oyster Cult -- Black Blade
Whitesnake -- Fool For Your Loving
Warren Zevon -- Poor, Poor Pitiful Me
Bruce Cockburn -- Creation Dream
Lynyrd Skynyrd -- Gimme Three Steps
Jefferson Starship -- Jane
The Rolling Stones -- Brown Sugar
The Kings -- This Beat Goes On
Pat Benatar -- You Better Run
The Beatles -- Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
Journey -- Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'
Kenny Loggins -- I'm Alright ("Caddyshack" Theme)
Blood, Sweat & Tears -- You've Made Me So Very Happy
ABOUT THE MUSIC
K-99's target audience was the serious music fan, the listener who considered his music as something more than just three-minute wallpaper. K-99 truly was "the hippest guy in the room", and was a trusted friend on the radio. "The new Kansas album? It just hit the stores, and you'll hear it tracked in its entirety tonight ... on Your Album Station, K-99."
Dan Brennan - K-99's Station Manager - was quoted in the December 1976 News article as saying, "Typically a listener who is 'into' music calls, tells how much he likes the large amount of music played and appreciates the elimination of 'cute' comments by the DJs."
As a matter of fact, K-99 was the first station in Birmingham to use a technology in widespread use (and misuse) today: voice-tracking! That's right, the announcers of K-99 prerecorded most of their breaks and programmed the music, which was all recorded to 10-inch reels of tape and sequenced with the commercials, which played from cartridges ("carts" as they were known in the radio biz) stored into slots which loaded into the automation system's player as needed.
So K-99 was canned. It was artificial. Everything we shake our fist at and curse about radio today. Then why do we all remember the station so fondly, and, nearly a quarter-century since its demise, miss it terribly?
Easy. Few at the time even knew K-99 was automated. And the way the format was set up (did you ever notice the jocks never talked over the intros or endings of songs? Yup, that was intentional!), being pre-recorded took nothing away from the presentation! You see, FM rock stations of the '70s didn't have a whole lot of personality. And that was the nature of the beast; the music took center stage. Besides, FM positioned itself as an alternative to the loud, in-your-face jocks and constant patter and chatter of AM top-40
There was a reason one of K-99's slogans was "The Alternative."
More importantly, K-99 was the spark which launched a tidal wave of change in Birmingham radio. Immediately, its two parttime competitors felt the heat. Birmingham's original progressive outlet, WJLN, soon changed its call letters to WZZK (curiously, just one letter removed from legendary Jackson, Miss. FM rock station WZZQ). Then, the rock 'n' roll ended at 104.7 on the dial, and WZZK became Birmingham's first FM country music station. The rest is history.
And "Stereo Rock 'ERC-FM"? Its AM station unable to completely dominate over WSGN, the boys on Second Avenue retooled the FM to have a go at it. WERC-FM had a new transmitter installed, power raised to match K-99's 100,000 watts, and in August 1977 changed its callsign to WKXX. The Magic City was introduced to a high energy top-40 station called KICKS 106.
"Birmingham's FM", as they called themselves, was 100% live, with strong personalities, all the hits and - at the beginning - some album cuts, too. The album cuts wouldn't last, and by 1978, KICKS not only would be an FM hit music giant ... it would go on to blow both AM rivals out of the water (yes, even their own sibling WERC-AM across the hall!).
And KICKS 106 would present a formidable opponent for K-99. While both stations had their own different styles, playlists and target audiences, they battled it out for dominance over Birmingham. That competition -- slightly reminiscent of the old 'SGN/'ERC wars -- made for two fantastic stations.
In the middle of all this renaissance, WAPI-FM made a change of its own. Unable to compete against two high-profile rock stations with its automated Bill Drake-consulted "light rock", 94.5 made a kneejerk change to 'beautiful music', giving Birmingham two stations to choose from when riding in elevators (WQEZ 96.5, FM sister to "good music" station WCRT-AM, was the city's 'heritage' easy listening outlet).
Oh, and what about "The Mighty 690"? The same day K-99 was launched, WVOK had played its last top-40 record. WVOK "went country." Birmingham would go from having one major country station to three: WYDE, WVOK and WZZK(FM). Joe Rumore, at last, was in his musical element. WVOK did very well over the next several years in the country column.
In less than two years, FM dethroned AM in Birmingham. And K-99 started it all.
NEW CALL LETTERS, NEW COMPETITION, NEW OWNERS, NEW ... FORMAT
In 1979, the Brennan family sold WVOK-AM 690 to Mack Sanders. The WVOK call letters remained with the AM (largely because of what we'd today call "brand familiarity"), but due to the now separate ownership, new call letters were required for K-99. WVOK-FM became WRKK. But nothing changed except for those letters heard at the top of every hour. K-99 continued to rock and roll, bringing us Jazz Night each week, the nightly Side Show - an album tracked in its entirety, the daily commercial-free music hour known as Avondale Park, the hip news segments called News Blimp, and recordings of rock's best concerts.
And Dan Brennan and company now had just one station on which to concentrate their energies. 1980 was a landmark year for K-99, as the station became nationally recognized because of the Rolling Stone magazine annual Readers' Poll. There's a category called "Best Radio Station", and that year, K-99 came into the top ten. And that was competing with all the great album rock stations around the country, such as KSHE/St. Louis, WNEW/New York, KMET/Los Angeles, and others. K-99 in Birmingham was now regarded as one of the nation's best rock stations.
But things weren't destined to last. Cashing in on K-99's incredible popularity and acclaim, sudden competition came from an unexpected corner: WAPI-FM! The station made yet another kneejerk change, and in 1981, 94.5 whiplashed itself from 'Muzak' to become Birmingham's second AOR station, calling itself 95-ROCK.
95-ROCK was more or less a clone of Atlanta station 96-ROCK. The new WAPI-FM had live personalities, a harder-edged playlist, and had the "rock attitude." It's hard to put ones' finger on what exactly that 'attitude' is, but you knew it when you heard it. K-99, meanwhile, was staying the course as a broad-based album rock station, with laid-back announcers and little in the way of personality. Sadly, to the average AOR listener in the 1980s, the sound of K-99 was no longer in vogue. Birmingham rock listeners appeared to be dazzled by the bling of 95-ROCK, forgetting that K-99's music mix was locally created ... as opposed to WAPI-FM's consultant-driven sound.
And it didn't take long for K-99 to blink, either. In 1982, the Brennan family sold K-99 to a company whose stations were all country. And on August 23, 1982, K-99 bowed out of the rock race to take on WZZK as Birmingham's second FM country station, soon changing its call letters to WQUS, and its nickname to "US-99."
Such a change was hardly unexpected, as a city the size of Birmingham could not support two album rock stations for a long period of time.
Today, many baby-boomers reminisce about K-99 with a wistful fondness. Sometimes this writer wonders what might've happened had K-99 changed its presentation to take on 95-ROCK and reasserted itself as Birmingham #1 rock station (although I imagine it might've been viewed by many as 'selling out'). K-99 let the music speak, while retaining enough personality to keep listeners attuned to what was going on. (After all, without the jocks and personality, all you have is an iPod with commercials!)
Maybe this was all for the better. We remember K-99 for what it was, and -- just as importantly -- what it wasn't.
But what did 95-ROCK do after unseating K-99? Less than 18 months later, 94.5 would begin edging out of AOR, going toward top-40 to compete with KICKS-106. Soon WAPI-FM would be calling itself I-95. And Birmingham would be without an album rock station for several years.
Today, what's left of album rock are stations playing "Free Bird" and "Stairway to Heaven" 39 times a day, and subjecting listeners to syndicated dreck like John Boy & Billy.
Listening to 99.5 today makes me long for what used to be there (kinda like punching up AM 610, but that's another feature!). To those reading this who are too young to remember, who post on radio-related message boards about how terrible Birmingham radio is (I've read many of these rants), I can't help but want to holler back at my monitor, "IT DIDN'T USE'TA BE THIS WAY!" 30 years ago, Birmingham had one of the hottest and most exciting radio landscapes in the country. And K-99 was right out front of it.
To my young whippersnappers, I say this: "K-99 was a cool station. You had to have been there."
Text by Russell Wells
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Page created 12/03/2006 -- 113 AM EST