It’s been nearly half a century since KTKT Color Radio, Channel 99 “owned” Tucson’s airways with the introduction of top 40 music.
Frank Kalil, one of the original Swinging Seven doo-woppin’ DJs, is credited with initiating the concept and he proudly admits: “At the time it was radical (and) we kind of blew the doors off the market.”
Did they? And how! Writing in the Tucson History section of The Broadcast Archive website, engineer and historian Barry Mishkind notes: “KTKT had stratospheric ratings. Their staff was the next best thing to local royalty.”
Attesting to that popularity during the decade of the 1960s, the station’s historical tribute page notes that KTKT, at many times, had more audience than the total listeners of all other radio stations combined — and by 1969, there were a dozen others, all on the AM dial.
A newspaper ad in the mid-60s showed a police line-up photo of DJ Kalil in prison stripes under the heading “Wanted for Stealing (68.2 percent of Tucson’s radio home listeners). Also suspected of Breaking and Entering Tucson’s vast automotive audience.” The ad, according to the AZsurvivors.com Web page, pronounced the Swinging Seven DJ’s “guilty of kidnapping an audience at times greater than all other Tucson stations combined.”
Time flies, station ownership and formats change, and personalities move on — until Sept. 1 when former on-air platter spinners and other former KTKT staffers gathered at the Maverick to recall the heyday of their station. The passage of time was evident as the long hair and tie dye of the 1960s were replaced by thinning and — or bald — pates and orthopedic shoes.
Probably the best known of the attendees was “the Man With the Plan,” now-76-year-old Kalil who told the other 40 or so, “Well, here we are, former rock and rollers gathered in a country and western bar to talk about what is now a Spanish language station.”
The KTKT homestead page labels him as the No. 1 Disc Jockey of All-Time — “The best DJ Tucson ever had. Competitors came and went. They couldn’t beat Frank.” Students flocked to their radios after the last school bell to catch Kalil’s program, cleverly placed in the 3-6 p.m. after-school timeslot.
“He was unofficially the program director without title, the one who ran the machine that made KTKT the most popular radio station among teens in the 1950s and ’60s,” according to the Tom Phillips’ Radio on the Border blog. “He demanded you act professional.”
“Frank was my boss, a tough task-master who insisted on perfection,” said former Swinging Seven DJ Ray Lindstrom. “He wanted the station to be fast-paced, tight, no dead air — fast, lively, and interesting. And we delivered. It was either that, or our jobs.”
Kalil is still acting professional as the owner of Tucson-based Kalil & Co. Inc, which he describes as “the biggest media brokerage firm in the U.S.” As of a couple of years ago, Kalil & Co. reportedly did more business than all of the other media brokerage firms combined.
“I can assure you there never was a plan for me to be a media broker. All I ever wanted to be was a deejay — I loved it,” he says. “All that talent in one spot. No wonder we were great!”
“Kalil made KTKT everything it was, long before I appeared without warning,” said Phil Richardson who spent a turbulent decade as station manager, “The apex of my long and checkered broadcasting career,” as he put it.
Abruptly yanked from a DJ-sales job at KRUX radio in Phoenix, Richardson was transferred to Tucson in a matter of hours. “How many people are offered the chance to run a radio station almost without any direction from owners?” he said.
Ah, the good ole days when former Federal Communications Chairman Newton Minnow described non-network station KTKT as “broadcasting phonograph recordings interspersed with numerous commercial messages.” Lots of ads.
“Minnows analysis of our programming was accurate,” says Richardson, “Up to seven commercials sandwiched between two 45 RPM Do-Wops.” But no one complained.
A number of former KTKTers didn’t make it to the reunion — some are now spinning discs for an audience of heavenly hosts, others are retired and have relocated. Those who did attend, made up a “blast from the past” playlist of professionals: Kalil; Lindstrom, Roger Collins, Ed Alexander, Jim Arnold, Tom Lang, Lou Waters, Bob Lee, Jim Gilley, Mike Letson, Jay Zucker, Jim Bednarek, Sharon Kha, John C. Scott and others.
Lee Allen, a regular contributor to Inside Tucson Business, is himself a former KTKTer as a news and public affairs director. He says he still remembers the closing line for newscasts: “If you don’t want it heard on KTKT news ... don’t let it happen.”