The cat is back. And we’re not talking just any old feline, but one of Sacramento’s iconic logos.
K-ZAP, the legendary rock radio station, is returning to local airwaves Saturday after 23 years of silence. That includes a new life for its beloved cat logo, a fixture of stickers and T-shirts around Sacramento during the station’s original run from 1968 to 1992.
The orange tabby cat with a mischievous perma-grin is to local radio what Slamson the mascot is to the Sacramento Kings. Even during the years that K-ZAP went dark on the radio dial, its cat endured as a classic Sacramento image, harkening to a time when hair was often worn longer and radio formats were more free-form. Now used on a variety of newly created K-ZAP merchandise, the fat feline still screams: “So Sacramento!”
Bringing back the cat was a no-brainer for Dennis Newhall, a former K-ZAP DJ who’s helping revive the station.
“It’s edgy but innocent,” Newhall said. “People always liked the look of that thing. It’s just a cool-looking cat.”
The K-ZAP cat’s had two lives as an image.
Roger Shepherd, a concert poster artist and graphic designer who lived in Sacramento, created the character in 1973. Shepherd was commissioned to design a 16-page coupon book called “Common Cents” with discounts from the station’s advertisers. The lounging rascal of a cat made its debut alongside other coupon book images referencing “Alice in Wonderland,” which explains the unmistakable Cheshire Cat grin.
Shepherd, who now lives in Southern California, still has the original coupon book artwork. He said he’s proud of the hand-drawn lettering, and how a routine design job resulted in an image that’s now synonymous with Sacramento.
“The idea of ‘Common Cents’ reminded me of old England,” Shepherd said. “There were a lot of those kinds of images in that era, and I came up with the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ thing. The idea just kind of came to me. But it’s nice to see your work appreciated over the years, even though it was just a coupon book to start with.”
The colorful cat charmed the station’s brass, who thought it was distinctive enough as an image to work with K-ZAP’s future ad campaigns and branding. It quickly morphed into the official K-ZAP mascot, making its way around town as an ad on the side of Regional Transit buses. And the cat was about to become even more omnipresent in the River City.
In 1974, as the bands Lynyrd Skynyrd and Head East were rocking the airwaves, the K-ZAP cat was headed for a makeover. Shepherd, who was also renowned in Sacramento music and design circles for a 1970 Grateful Dead concert poster, had moved south. But the cat was to continue as the branding image for the station’s ad campaigns, which included stickers and other merchandise.
The redesign gig went to Bill Styler, a Sacramento graphic artist whose brother, Gordo Styler, was a DJ at the station.
The Styler brothers and others lived in what was dubbed The K-ZAP House near 20th and F streets in midtown. A tabby named Tubby was also a resident, a type-A feline infamous for using Gordo Styler’s shoes as a makeshift litter box.
Tubby ended up serving as inspiration for Styler, as did Fat Freddy’s Cat, a counterculture comic character drawn by Gilbert Shelton.
The 2.0 version of the cat was similar to Shepherd’s original design, but with its puckish expression amped up a few notches and propped against a background of red, white and blue. Styler’s cat also had a glazed, yet satisfied look in the eyes, making some locals wonder if he was dabbling in catnip or some other intoxicating herb.
“Everyone thought it was a stoned cat, but that had nothing to do with it,” said Styler, who now lives in Idaho. “The goal was to get (Tubby’s) irreverent personality into that cat. He was a (jerk) of the highest order: sweet but vindictive.”
Stickers of the cat were soon plastered on many a car, skateboard and bedroom wall in the 1970s and beyond across the region. As K-ZAP continued over the years, with its revolving cast of program directors and DJs, the grinning cat logo remained a constant with its ad campaigns and merchandise.
Ratings, however, started sinking for the station’s rock format, and K-ZAP switched to country music in 1992, taking with it the cat.
Now, after a two-decade nap, the cat and the old station have awakened.
The station’s comeback has been orchestrated by a crew of former K-ZAP DJs and other supporters who believed there was still an audience that craved the classic Sacramento rock station. K-ZAP will operate as a low-power community station that’s broadcast from a tower on Richards Boulevard and will also stream online.
News of K-ZAP’s comeback has rekindled memories of the cat, and its image has been shared across social media in anticipation of the station’s new home at 93.3 FM. A third version of the design, which shows a backside view of the cat, was designed by local artist Scott Howe to announce that K-ZAP and Tubby were back.
Because K-ZAP wouldn’t be quite the same without its cat, Newhall said.
“It still gives people the biggest smile.”