FM rock radio once spread messages to the nation’s youth with all the swiftness and intensity of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In those years, announcers Ace Young and Jeff “The Gonz” Gonzer attended the birth of Greenpeace, chronicled the siege of Wounded Knee and threw a particularly wild “Finally a Friday” fiesta that had Southern Californians taking over Ensenada, Mexico.
Decades later, Sacramento’s listener-supported K-ZAP is bringing these two broadcast-industry veterans – best known for their morning drive show on Los Angeles powerhouse KMET-FM – back to the airwaves starting Monday . That hyphen in K-ZAP distinguishes today’s low-power station at 93.3 on the FM dial from another station with the K-Z-A-P call letters and from its storied predecessor.
K-ZAP, of course, is the reincarnation of Sacramento’s legendary rock radio station. In the 1970s and 1980s, KZAP’s announcers not only introduced teens and young adults to extended-play album recordings they couldn’t get from AM Top 40 DJs, they also educated listeners on current events and helped to nurture social consciousness. At K-ZAP, co-founders Dennis Newhall and Tom Cale are out to bring that ethos back to radio.
“Ever since KZAP went away, rock radio in Sacramento has mostly been not the kind of rock radio we want,” Newhall said. “We want rock that’s right down the middle. It’s not heavy, screaming, loud metal rock, and it’s not all alternative or anything like that. We’re talking about the stuff that is based on the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, REM, U2, with a little bit of Joni Mitchell thrown in. And there are still plenty of acts out there making that kind of music.”
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Relaunching in 2015, K-ZAP was in its conception stage just as Grammy Awards were being handed out to acts such as The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, Alabama Shakes and Florence and the Machine, Newhall said, and all those acts produce rock ’n’ roll with a modern sound. “It’s not like they’re living in the past,” he said, “but it’s also not like they’re veering off into things that wouldn’t really fit the standard rock ’n’ roll audience’s comprehension of what rock should be.”
Gonzer, 68, is a La Jolla resident who retired from radio in 2012. He said he volunteered to do the morning show after getting excited about what he was hearing from the K-ZAP disc jockeys. He and Young won’t physically be in the same room or even necessarily in Sacramento to do the program. Rather, they will be united by the internet, using FaceTime to see each other’s expressions as they talk into microphones that will carry their voices not only to Sacramento-area audiences but also worldwide for those streaming the K-ZAP broadcast from the station’s app.
Gonzer started his career at KPPC-FM, the underground rock station founded by Rock Radio Hall of Famer Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue. That’s the same Tom Donahue who co-produced The Beatles’ last public appearance at Candlestick Park. He also built L.A.’s KMET and San Francisco’s KSAN into radio-industry powerhouses by giving disc jockeys such as Gonzer and news directors such as Young greater freedom over how they pursued stories and selected music.
Young, who is also 68, got his professional start at KZAP before moving to KMET. “We were neck-deep in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon was our president,” he said. “Our government was spraying marijuana plants in Mexico with an herbicide called paraquat that was being returned to the United States and poisoning our youth. Over the years, we also had Charles Manson and so many other things going, lifestyle stories, too. We were the first radio station to put a surf report on the air, so they were fun times to say the least.”
Gonzer added: “It was definitely a music-oriented radio station but also a socially conscious radio station. Back before social media, KMET and a lot of rock ’n’ roll stations, including KZAP, I would imagine, were the watering holes, the places where people exchanged ideas, got information, talked about events, expressed interest, were turned onto new music and also had audience participation.”
In the 1970s, KMET’s album-oriented music format blew the then-dominant AM Top 40 radio stations out of the water, but media always evolves, and eventually Young and Gonzer lost their jobs as program directors tried to synthesize what disc jockeys and news directors were doing into a replicable formula. The integrity and authenticity of the format evaporated, Young and Gonzer said, but at K-ZAP, they have a chance to restore that.