|KUZZ FROM THE BEGINNING
By Casey McBride
It would be difficult to separate Bakersfield from its strong historical ties to Country Music. Located in Kern County at the Southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, oil and agriculture have always been the area’s biggest industries. Much of the population is made up of the descendants of those American refugees from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and the dry plains of Texas who settled here during and after the Great Depression or who came to the area to work in the burgeoning oilfields.The cavernous dance hall, the Rainbow Gardens, was located just south of Bakersfield and was a regular stopping point for touring Country and Western groups like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. And it was in the small Bakersfield honky tonks scattered along Edison Highway, slicing east and west through the town, that homegrown future stars like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens honed their craft.
In 1958 radio station KIKK debuted in Bakersfield playing Country and Western music and, in 1960, the call letters were changed to KUZZ. Local Country and Western bandleader and local television personality Herb Henson was the station manager and he effected the call letter change to reflect his own stage moniker, “Cousin” Herb Henson. At that time KUZZ was at 800 on the AM dial as a ‘daytimer,’ a station prohibited by the FCC from broadcasting after sundown.
Buck Owens purchased KUZZ from its owners in 1966 at the 800 AM position and a year later purchased the 107.9 frequency, bringing it to Bakersfield from San Clemente. Owens immediately put the FM station on the air as alternative rock station KBBY-FM, programming mainly ‘underground’ rock and roll, while Owens continued to play Country and Western music on KUZZ. Station newsletters from the late 60s show that KUZZ broadcast regularly scheduled Farm Reports and an hourly Gospel Moment with everything closing down at sunset!
Following the 1969 demise of Owens’ KBBY-FM, Buck quickly switched the call letters to KZIN-FM, showing its ties to KUZZ-AM and changing the programming to Country. KZIN broadcast a 24-hour signal and differed from its sister station only slightly by playing more album product and often giving newer artists stronger airplay than KUZZ.
The idea of a 24-hour Country AM station was still uppermost in Owens’ mind and, in 1977, plans were finalized to purchase the 970 AM position then occupied by rival Country station KBIS. At the same time, KUZZ’s 800 AM daytime frequency was sold to the Four Square Gospel Church headquartered in Los Angeles. Their plans were to broadcast a Christian format out of Bakersfield.
In January 1977, KUZZ-AM and KZIN-FM officially split on-air at midnight with the song “New Kid In Town” by the Eagles, a ideal way of signaling that KZIN was now KKXX-FM, an album oriented Rock station. KUZZ was now broadcasting 24-hours playing full-time Country music, which was what company president Buck Owens had wanted all along…or was it?
By the early 1980s, technology had progressed to the point where AM stereo had become more a reality than a dream. Owens began to take a long, serious look at its possibilities in the Bakersfield market. By 1984 he had increased KUZZ’s transmitting power to 5,000 watts and purchased another station’s lower dial position from which to broadcast. That station was KAFY. Formerly the number one rock station during the 1960s, by the early 80’s, it was now a competing Country station with the very attractive dial position of 550 AM.
Simply stated, the two stations would merely exchange positions on the dial. Not so simply, it was an unprecedented move in broadcasting. The FCC could cite many cases whereby one station had purchased another’s dial position, but none that had ever exchanged frequencies.
KUZZ began a concerted promotional effort to ease the historic exchange, and, in response, the KUZZ listening audience moved down the dial to 550 AM along with the station. In the minds of station personnel, this was a vital transition because KUZZ had, since 1978, occupied the number one spot according to the Arbitron Survey ratings. Rarely out of the top three stations in the market, KUZZ usually alternated with sister station KKXX in the top position.
The Bakersfield radio market truly belonged to Buck: two top stations, two extremely popular and winning formats but another major change was on the horizon because, despite another intense promotional campaign, the concept of AM stereo wasn’t catching on.
Listeners weren’t purchasing AM stereo units and, with competitors poised to bring the Country format to the FM band, Owens answered the challenge in 1988 by replacing KKXX with KUZZ. By simulcasting, Owens got the clean FM sound the Country audience demanded and the enormous coverage afforded by the AM dial position. A bold and risky move, it was proven to be the right one over the next few years.
In its more than 50-year history KUZZ has been honored with numerous industry accolades: Gavin Station of the Year, Radio and Record Station of the Year, Billboard Station of the Year, Academy of Country Music Station of the Year, twice chosen as the Country Music Association Station of the Year, twice named the Associated Press Station of the Year and a five-time winner of the National Association of Broadcasters Crystal Radio Award for outstanding community service.
The recognition is gratifying and humbling, but even more so is this fact: KUZZ has broadcast for over 40 years, more than half of them as the number one station in the market. The rich tradition of Country music is alive and well in Bakersfield and doing quite nicely, thank you.