I recently wrote a piece on the stories people tell about their brushes with fame. Cities, too, have their stories, and they love to share them just as much. Phoenix Metro is very proud of its local celebrities, and rightly so. We’ve got some dandies: Stevie Nicks, Alice Cooper, Steven Spielberg, Pat Tillman, Emma Stone. My favorite local celebrity — a personal hero of mine, really — is Ted Tucker. I heard you, who?
Ted Tucker is probably glad you’re asking that question. He’s intensely media-shy, refusing to be photographed for the precious few interviews he’s given. Considering what he’s managed to accomplish, I suspect he could actually be Batman.
What Ted Tucker has done is revive something that died decades ago: independent freeform radio. I say died, it was actually brutally murdered. Mass media conglomerates, creeping silently through the night have taken the airwaves over, anaesthetizing them into a sad sterile, homogenous state of undeadness. The same twenty songs played on an endless loop. The same DJs on every station; only the names and call letters change. There’s none of the unpredictability, ingenuity, risk, or fierce independence that made 60s and 70s rock radio better than great. That is, until March 2002 when KCDX-FM crackled to life.
KCDX is a delicious rock n’ roll time machine. The playlist is classic rock from the 60s to the 80s, representing every imaginable rock format, from prog rock to rockabilly, psychedelic to synth, folk to funk. Hits, album cuts, bootlegs — they’re all here. Songs you haven’t heard in years get played regularly — “What?! They’re playing “Are ‘friends’ Electric”? Is that “Avenging Annie”? Oh my God, that’s “Teacher Teacher” by Rockpile. They’re playing freakin’ Rockpile! I don’t believe it!” You’ll constantly marvel at what you’re hearing. What you won’t hear is talk A thrice-hourly station ID is the only thing to pull you out of your rock n’ roll reverie. There are no DJs; the station is completely automated. It is also, unbelievable as it sounds, completely commercial free. My mind swims at the though of how much money Mr. Tucker is shelling out in licensing fees and maintenance costs, with no revenue whatsoever coming in. It’s truly astounding, and a blessing, that he’s kept this train rolling for over eleven years.
The station streams live on their website and lists the last six songs played in addition to what’s currently playing, a service for which I am constantly grateful. In the station’s early days, pre-smartphone, I was constantly scrounging for scraps of paper on which to write snatches of lyrics to look up later online, so I could identify the song and its artist. If you think you’re pretty well educated in rock music, this station will quickly put you in your place. You’ll hear your favorite artists performing songs you never knew; favorite songs by artists you never knew had recorded them; songs and artists you’d forgotten you knew; and best of all, you’ll hear great bands you’ve never heard of, and find yourself saying out loud to no one in particular “What is that? Why have I never heard that before?” I can’t tell you how many bands I’ve discovered on this station, but I can tell you they’ve all made a small fortune off me via iTunes — when I can find them.
Ted Tucker started the station as his own personal on-air iPod. He transferred his entire music collection (the thought of getting a glimpse of that collection sends chills up my spine!) to a digital server and broadcasts it all from a tiny 2700-watt station in the middle of the desert. He has a history of flipping stations, and when KCDX occasionally goes dead for a day or two, you hold your breath a bit, checking and rechecking the frequency, wondering if that magical musical TARDIS has disappeared back into the ether from whence it came. So far, it’s always reappeared; I hope it continues to do so.
I’m not going to gush any more over the man, since I know how uncomfortable it makes him. But I do hope Ted Tucker realizes the gift he’s given to so many people here in the valley and those who listen around the world: a little piece of our past, the musical equivalent of rummaging through the attic of your parents house, smiling wistfully over forgotten relics of childhood. A trip back in time to the AOR and pirate radio of our youth — a modern-day Radio Caroline in the Sonoran desert. I don’t find a lot of things in Arizona to be proud of anymore, but knowing that this gem is ours gives me something that, as an Arizonan, I can brag about. That alone is enough to make Ted Tucker a hero in my eyes. So thanks Ted . . . or should I say, thanks Batman.