On Sept. 1, 1984 at 12:20 a.m., Catt Sirten spun Bruce Springsteen’s epic song “Jungleland” from his “Born to Run” album and 92 ZEW was on the air.
Mobile’s eclectic and deeply loved radio station is now celebrating 30 years on the air, thriving off a format that is often far more quirky and adventurous than most corporately owned stations would dare consider. As someone who first became acquainted with the ZEW a year after it was on the air, there are just some songs I consider “ZEW songs,” no matter where I hear them.
The guitar lead-in to John Hiatt’s “Little Head” always used to make my beloved rat terrier Dixie bark because it sounded like a cat mewing. Steve Earle’s “Telephone Road” is my ring tone. I’m sure many in the Mobile area have their own songs that relate closely with the station — songs nobody else ever plays.
Tim Camp, director of operations and programming, helped recount the station’s history recently, and perhaps the way the ZEW grew up has a lot to do with the way it acts.
Camp said the 92.1 FM frequency had been a number of things prior to 1984, including WGOK and WHSP — both gospel stations — and a station that called itself ZOO. He said the original owner of what became ZEW was a family out of Nashville.
“When it started it was in a house on Church Street in Fairhope. The tower was in a corn field between Daphne and Fairhope and the signal was 3,000 watts,” Camp recalled.
Not long after it started, the station was purchased by George O’Rear, who took the signal up to 6,000 watts and moved the tower to the top of a bank building in downtown Mobile, Camp said. Eventually O’Rear ratcheted up the signal to 13,500 watts.
Camp said O’Rear eventually ended up with the company in a lease management agreement with Capital Broadcasting — a company that once owned most of the stations in town now owned by Clear Channel Broadcasting. Capital pulled the plug on the ZEW in 1994-1995, Camp said, earning the anger of thousands of listeners.
“They took the ZEW format off the air and went with a classic rock format,” he said. “That’s when listeners had a funeral and wore black arm bands. It lasted for about a year.”
Eventually O’Rear sold the station to an attorney out of Washington, D.C. and he brought the old format back along with Sirten as the program director. However, there were financially tough times and the company was forced into bankruptcy. It owned WAVH and ZEW in this market and was forced to sell.
“We bought it in bankruptcy court,” Camp said. “It was more or less a bid for how much we were going to pay.”
Ken Johnson, who had previously owned country music giant WKSJ FM, made the move to buy ZEW roughly 11 years ago.
Today the station has a 25,000-watt signal and a new tower in Theodore and Camp says the ZEW is stronger than ever and continuing to try to push the musical envelope in the Mobile area.
“When we took over the station I saw ZEW as an opportunity to help rebuild the music scene in Mobile,” he said.
Camp was referring to Mobile essentially being blacklisted by promoters, booking agents and performers nationwide due to scandals surrounding the Civic Center in the ‘80s.
“I thought it would be great to bring music back and show them they can bring music to Mobile and have shows and not get robbed,” Camp said.
As Mobile’s musical fortunes have improved in recent years, Camp likes to think his station has been an integral part of helping it happen. He said they’ve brought in more than 75 free shows over the past decade, many times with acts that go on to become much bigger.
“We were able to bring in a lot of these when they were baby bands. When their careers take off they never forget Mobile,” he said.
Camp pointed out that ZEW is the only locally owned music station in town and that helps keep their focus local. He also noted that the local music scene has improved over the years, meaning there are more local acts producing better music that can land on the air.
The station has added “92 New” as a nightly showcase of up-and-coming talent, along with new releases from more established acts. They’ve also launched a number of on-line only stations, including a locals only channel that began just a few weeks ago.
Camp says the Internet stations are certainly something that will expand over time and pointed to “92 Blues” as an example of the type of listenership some web-based stations can get.
“There are sometimes as many people listening to it (92 Blues) as the actual station,” he said.
Camp said there are no plans for any format changes and that he’s comfortable with where the ZEW is these days.
“We’re just going to keep on doing what we do,” he said.
Jumper jumps back in
The Press-Register has recently brought back popular real estate columnist Kathy Jumper.
Jumper left the paper during downsizing over the past two years and has written some online or Mobile Bay Times. Her column will appear in Sunday’s real estate section.