By Casey McBride
Bakersfield has strong historical ties to Country music. Located at the Southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, oil and agriculture is the city’s biggest industries. Much of the population is made up of American refugees from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and the dry plains of Texas who settled here during and after the Great Depression. 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. It was in small Bakersfield honky-tonks that homegrown future stars like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens honed their craft.
In 1958, radio station KIKK went on the air playing Country and Western music for Bakersfield. In 1960 the call letters were changed to KUZZ. Local Country and Western television star Herb Henson was the station manager. In fact, 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 ‘day-timer,’ a station which was 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 and Western. KZIN was a 24-hour signal, which 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 music format out of Bakersfield.
In January 1977, KUZZ and KZIN-FM officially split on-air at midnight with the song “New Kid In Town” by the Eagles (a rather neat way of signaling that KZIN was now KKXX-FM, an album oriented Rock station). KUZZ was now 24-hours, 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 was a reality rather 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. The station was KAFY (formerly the number one rock station during the 1960s) which, by the early 80’s, was now Country 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.
In Bakersfield a concerted promotional effort by KUZZ eased the historic exchange, and the KUZZ listening audience moved down the dial to 550 AM along with the station. In the minds of station personnel, this was an important transition because KUZZ had, since 1978, been occupying the number one spot according to the Arbitron Survey ratings. Rarely out of the top three stations in the market, KUZZ usually alternated at the top spot with sister station KKXX-FM.
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. AM stereo wasn’t working. The public wasn’t purchasing AM stereo units and, with competitors threatening 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.
In its 60+ year history KUZZ has been honored with numerous industry accolades including: a 5-time winner of the Academy of Country Music Station of the Year award; twice chosen as Country Music Association Station of the Year; twice named the Associated Press Station of the Year, and a 6-time recipient of the National Association of Broadcasters Crystal Radio Award for outstanding community service.
The recognition is humbling, but even more so is this fact: KUZZ has broadcast over 60 years and more than half of those as the number one station in the market. The rich tradition of Country music is alive and well in Bakersfield and KUZZ is proud to carry the banner.