During most of the 1980s there was only one radio station that really mattered in Fresno.
It was KKDJ.
The station, at 105.9 FM, was housed in a nondescript office complex on First Street and run by couple of 20-something Cal Poly graduates with little in the way of experience or resources. But within a few years, it became a ratings leader and an arbiter of rock music and culture.
“It was different than any other station at the time,” says Don Bean, who promoted rock concerts at the Star Palace and Warnors Theatre during KKDJ’s heyday. “Here was this station in Fresno that would play just about anything.”
That included the bands he was booking at the time. While the other stations in town were still in disco mode, KKDJ was playing the Go Gos and Roxy Music, The Romantics, The Knack, Oingo Boingo and Huey Lewis. So, the venue and the station existed on parallel paths, Bean says, explaining his role in the KKDJ and Warnors Star Palace Celebration happening 8 p.m. Saturday at Fulton 55.
“We couldn’t have done it without them. It never would have happened,” he says.
The celebration is a multimedia event with archival audio and video footage playing as background to recollections from Bean and members of KKDJ’s original on-air staff, including Dean Opperman, Jeff Riedel, Mark Davis and Peter Napoli. It’s the first time the majority of the station’s DJs have been together in the same room since the mid-’80s.
Because it’s also a tribute to the station, there will be an air-guitar competition – KKDJ was famous for hosting annual competitions during Fresno State’s Vintage Days – a name-that-riff trivia game that Bean says is almost impossible, and an ultra rare performance from the singer Bobby Volare, who was an on-air regular with his Fresno-themed parodies. His “hits” include “The Girl from Woodward Park,” sung to the tune of “Girl From Ipanema;” the Blue Oyster Cult parody “Chowchilla,” and a Fresno take on Frank Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl” called “Valley Guy.”
“It’s turned out to be a big deal,” says Opperman, who was the station’s program manager and first hire. He was also one-half of the popular morning show duo Dean and Don.
The story of KKDJ is mostly about being at the right place at the right time, Opperman says.
It’s full of coincidences and luck. Like how the station’s owner applied for the FCC license as part of his senior thesis for college and was awarded the license on a technicality. Or how Opperman, who just graduated college himself, was hired a just a few weeks before the claim on the license was set to expire.
“It was kind of like winning the lottery,” he says.
It helped that the first two years the station was on air were particularly good for rock music. Pink Floyd released “The Wall” in 1979 and Led Zeppelin released “In Through the Out Door.” The Pretenders released their debut in 1980. KKDJ played them all before anyone else in town.
Even the station’s first anniversary party proved to be an opportunity, if a sad one. It happened to be the same day John Lennon was shot and killed and the station broke the news – during the staff party and open house – and played Beatles tunes for the next four days.
It was the only station in town that had all of the Beatles records on hand. The other stations skittered around town trying to pick up copies from the local record stores, Opperman says. They were all sold out.
Suddenly, KKDJ was at the top of the ratings list.
“And we stayed there for the next dozen years,” he says.
The station did take some chances on things that were unheard of at the time. It put listeners on the air and created playlists that seemed utterly absurd – like famously transitioning the Johnny Mathis tune “Stairway to the Stars” into Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” A Joni Mitchell song would segue into AC/CD.
“The radio show was a journey,” says Riedel, who was the station’s music director at the time. People would get out of their cars, go inside and turn their radio back on. “Somehow we kept the audience.”
They also kept the station in the news with publicity stunts.
At the time, the other major stations in town were doing $10,000 giveaways. One station gave away a house. KKDJ had 1,000 T-shirts and some bumper stickers and space on nine billboards around town.
“We had nothing,” Opperman says.
So, they used the billboard space to hang the station’s logo, only they did it upside down and as if by accident. It became a thing, as fans started putting their bumper stickers on upside down.
The story made the news. As did the hot-air balloon the station hired to fly over Ratcliffe stadium during a rally that was being hosted by its competitor. The balloon floated down Blackstone Avenue blasting John Lennon’s anthem “Give Peace a Chance” and suddenly no one was talking about the rally.
“KKDJ was known for giving the audience way more than it expected,” Opperman says.
Saturday night’s tribute will continue that tradition, he says. It will allow the audience to reminisce some, but also, maybe get some closure. That’s something that is ultra-rare in the radio business.
“Radio stations go off the air and DJs get fired and they never get the chance to say goodbye to the audience,” he says.
KKDJ and Warnors Star Palace Celebration
- 7 p.m. Saturday
- Fulton 55, 875 Divisadero Ave.
- 559-412-7400, www.fulton55.com