Classic rock station KSLX in Phoenix drags out a turntable to play vinyl LPs, clicks, pops and all
Richard RuelasThe Republic | azcentral.com
Russ Egan, the nighttime host at Phoenix classic rock station KSLX wanted to start playing an actual vinyl record on a turntable each weeknight, the way disc jockeys did a generation ago.
His boss liked the idea. But there was a problem: The station had no albums.
Like most every other radio station in America, KSLX-FM, 100.7, had long ago ditched its record collection in favor of a digital system that cues up songs by keyboard. Egan would have to dig into his own stash of vinyl.
He wanted to bring back a singular aspect of classic rock albums that he grew up with: dropping a platter of music on a turntable and playing it straight through to the end.
He was hearkening back to an era when that was the way people listened to music. Artists knew it and were conscious of it, placing their songs in a deliberate sequence, making that part of their artistic statement.
It is why, for Egan, the endings of certain songs trigger the beginnings of the next one on the album in his mind. He knew he wasn’t alone.
“The first time you heard those songs in a sequence, they’re locked in,” he said during an interview at the second-floor studios of KSLX in east Phoenix on a recent evening. “That’s how you hear it.”
First a turntable, then the records
Egan got the go-ahead from the program director at the station on a Thursday, telling him he could start playing the album sides at 10 p.m. every weeknight beginning the next Monday.
Now all he needed was to do was install a turntable in the studio and find a collection of records.
At home, Egan tore open a box of vinyl, one that had been long packed away and never quite unpacked.
On his own time, Egan had moved onto playing music on the digital formats, eschewing the long-playing record.
Thankfully, the movers did not pack the albums alphabetically, meaning that his selections weren’t all relegated to one part of the alphabet: U2, Uriah Heap and Van Halen, or America, Allman Brothers and Aerosmith.
Egan found a turntable stored in a station closet and took it into the KSLX studio, finding a spot for it to the right of the large console and set of monitors that make up the heart of the station’s operation.
It is out of the way. Egan is the only jock who planned to use it.
He introduced the segment without much fanfare on a February evening. He doesn’t even recall the first album side he played.
‘He’s playing vinyl’
Listeners started noticing.
Steve Larson, a guitarist who has spent time in the Tempe bands Dead Hot Workshop and Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, was driving in his truck when he heard a Rush song.
When the song ended, he heard what he called “this white noise.”
“I thought something was wrong with my air conditioner,” he said.
He heard another Rush song start, the next one in sequence on the album, “Moving Pictures.” He thought, “He’s playing vinyl.”
Larson said he turned up the volume in his truck and the sound was full and rich.
“It was like listening to it for the first time,” he said. “It sounded so amazing and clear.”
He called up the station and spoke with Egan, confirming what he was hearing was a record and thanking the host for playing it.
“The warmth is coming through,” Larson said. “It’s not something you hear, it’s something you feel.”
Going against instincts
Egan said reaction to the segment since has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I have not gotten a bad phone call, or e-mail, or Tweet or Facebook comment yet,” he said. “Which also scares me. Is it because they went away, or because they truly enjoyed it?
“I’m kind of hoping it is because they appreciate it.”
Playing a full album side goes against much of the instinct that Egan has honed as a broadcaster for 40 years.
He has worked at radio stations in New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Ohio and Arizona, as a disc jockey and program director for classic rock, Top 40, adult contemporary, country, news/talk and smooth jazz formats.
At all those stations, he learned the broadcasters’ tricks of the trade to keep an audience.
None of those tricks involve playing 20 minutes of songs by a single artist, including some obscure tracks.
“I’m petrified when I play an album side,” Egan said. “I play two hits and then three songs people haven’t heard of.”
Playing an album also means he broadcasts a few seconds of radio’s sworn enemy: silence.
A blue light in the studio usually glows during the gap between songs. It is the warning light meant to alert the host they are sending no sound over the licensed airwaves.
Most times it is not true silence. There are the scattered clicks and pops that come with weathered albums.
Those also would have been verboten when radio stations typically played vinyl records. “Those snaps, crackles and pops you’re hearing, that album would go home with somebody, and we’d go get a brand new one,” he said.
Dropping the needle
The album he planned on playing that night must have been one of those, he figured.
It was Gerry Rafferty’s “City to City.” On the back cover was a sticker that proclaimed the album property of radio station WJRZ-FM in Tom’s River, New Jersey, the station where Egan got his start with a six-hour shift on Thanksgiving 1978.
Close to 10 p.m., Egan cued up the record, placing the needle before the first track on an idle turntable.
Egan doesn’t want to risk actually placing the needle on the record live on the air. He demonstrated why on the “City to City” album. He hit the “cue” button and the needle gently dropped down onto the record.
But even moving down that slowly, the needle skipped a few groves before settling in during the opening seconds of the first song. The initial notes on the album were missed.
That is why Egan recorded a track listed in the station computer as “Needle Drop.” It is 10 seconds of a needle hitting an actual record.
As it plays, Egan has enough time to roll over to the turntable, start it spinning and then bring the volume up on the board.
“That’s the motto of radio,” he joked. “Fake the realism.”
One month in, Egan began running out of records from his own collection. The sales department at the station found a sponsor for the segment: Zia Record Exchange.
Egan would provide a list to a store and they would let him borrow the vinyl.
Egan said he isn’t isn’t picky about whether the albums he gets will be new or used.
“I don’t really care,” he said. “If it has a bit of personality to it, I don’t mind.”
One month into the feature, Egan had yet to have a record skip on the air. But that streak was broken on Monday during the playing of Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung.”
Egan said he’d rather not have skips play over-the-air, particularly, as was the case here, in the title track and one of the best-known songs on the album. Still, he said, that adds a layer of authenticity that proves he’s actually playing a record.
“I hope that’s the way they’re thinking about it,” he said.