National Radio Week: Mike Fuller & KJET

Interviews, National Radio Week, Shake The Shack
08/18/2017
KEXP
Mike Fuller, hosting the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition of his KJET show "Made In The States" (more on this below)

As part of KEXP's National Radio Week coverage, on the KEXP Blog we will be spotlighting some of the stories and personal testimonials given by a variety of radio luminaries in interviews done with KEXP DJs John Richards, Kevin Cole, and Morning Show producer Owen Murphy. These interviews articulately explain the enduring legacy of early independent radio stations, as well as the importance of radio to shape and create a community through shared love of music.  In the words of WFNX DJ Kurt St. Thomas, "if you pay enough attention, radio will probably change your life."

At Midnight, May 30th, 1982, a great moment in Seattle radio happened: KZOK-AM, a '70s pop station called "Solid Gold 16" became KJET 1600. They signed on with "I Love Rock N' Roll" Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. The upstart station at 1590 on the AM dial would soon become one of the world's only voices for alternative music and was one of the only stations that took the local music scene seriously. Listeners included members of Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Pearl Jam. Together with KCMU (KEXP), a local underground publication called The Rocket and the newly-founded Sub Pop Records, KJET played a pivotal role in creating a network of support for fledgling local music acts.

KEXP's own Cousin Mike was once KJET's own Mike Fuller, as he joined the station in 1984. Today at 8:00 AM on The Morning Show on KEXP, DJ John Richards welcomes Fuller and fellow former-KJET DJ Bill Reid (aka The Tallest Man in Radio) to the airwaves. We also got a chance to chat with Mike off the mic.

The very first KJET t-shirt
The very first KJET t-shirt
What made your station special?

A lot of alternative stations in those days were kind of novelty/new wave-y (think Josie Cotton's "Johnny Are You Queer?") but KJET was always about playing the best music. We did play some new wave-y stuff, of course, but we leaned much more heavily on guitars than synths.

What was the initial reaction to the station?

It was very positive -- helped, I'm sure, by the fact that people were still mourning the loss of KZAM. KCMU was around, but the signal still didn't reach much beyond the U-District and we were still finding an audience. A little-known fact is that KJET's owners tried a short-term experiment with a new wave/punk format before KJET, when it was still called KZOK-AM. I believe it only lasted a few months, but I loved that station and KZAM. While my friends were all listening to The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and the Steve Miller Band, I'd switched to the Ramones, U2, Sham 69, Split Enz, etc. They thought it all sucked and I was crazy.

Mike with the Pandoras
Mike with the Pandoras. As he tells it: "Kim Shattuck (later of The Muffs), had her hand up my shirt and was rubbing my waist, which is why I had the weird grin on my face. I don't know why she did it, but I wasn't complaining!"

What is your favorite moment with a listener or group of listeners?

We did concerts for years at the Mural Amphitheater and those were great, but no question it was KJET's fifth birthday party at Belle Lanes (now Barnes & Noble) in Bellevue. We had free bowling with the DJs, tons of giveaways and the Young Fresh Fellows and Green Pajamas playing in the lounge. The place was jammed and unfortunately, a huge crowd in the parking lot wasn't able to make it in.

Mike Fuller
Lee Abrams, Mike Fuller, and Liz Phillips

What's the story behind the Sports Illustrated moment?

I used to host an American indie show called "Made In The States" -- one night, I decided to cash in on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition by doing my own swimsuit edition. Even though it was radio and no one could see me, the ratings soared! That's my story anyway. Lee Abrams (the father of the Album-Oriented Rock format -- yes, blame him) was touring our sister station, KZOK, when Liz Phillips (also pictured) from our marketing team grabbed him for a photo op. He had no idea who I was or why I was wearing a swimsuit or why we wanted him to take a picture with us, but he smiled for the camera.
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What artist did you champion that was most meaningful to you?
Hoodoo Gurus. We loved those guys -- their music had a sense of humor but they could also really and could pull off a sensitive love song.

Tell us about the biggest rock show your station ever promoted.

It wasn't the biggest, but the most important to me personally was a show that UB40 played in the parking lot outside McMahon Hall on the UW campus (sometime in February of 1984). KCMU and KJET co-presented the show -- the first and only time that happened -- and as a result of my work with the crowd that night (and hearing my show on KCMU), KJET hired me and I started about two weeks later.

The Allies
The Allies at KJET's Concerts at the Mural series (KEXP didn't come up with the idea!)

John Kohl (longtime Seattle concert promoter and record rep), Mike Fuller wearing the KJET sweatshirt, and John's wife Mary Kohl (who worked for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam's management and later for ASCAP) at the 1986 Vancouver World's Fair.

We rarely got money to do any promotion or marketing but around 1985, they let us have styrofoam KJET antenna balls made up. I don't remember why we thought this was a good idea, but one day on a whim, Bill Reid and I grabbed a case of them and took the KJET van (it was the beat up old KZOK van with a new paint job) to the UW campus and spent about an hour throwing them to students. I like to think we got lots of new listeners, but most of them probably thought we were crazy. I still have one of the antenna balls but wish I had more because nearly 30 years later, people still ask if I have any.

KJET_ad_from_the_80s_fit_300x300

We also enjoyed poking fun at our sister-station, KZOK, because they got all the money, the new equipment, etc. I remember one time they spent a train car of money on a new TV commercial and I parodied it for KJET, imitating the synth with my voice because we didn't have a synth. Had anyone at KZOK ever listened to KJET and heard it, I'm sure I'd have been fired.

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We aired Dr. Demento and Dr. Ruth Westheimer because KZOK carried them, but then when a new program director came in, he decided they were inappropriate and KJET got stuck airing them because they couldn't break the contract. We recognized the ridiculousness of airing these shows back-to-back and declared Sunday night at "Medical Night on the Jet."

Jim Keller, Peter Case of The Plimsouls, Debbie Paine, and Mike in front of the KJET automation system

For most of KJET's existence, it was automated, so we had a playlist and would go into the studio and record the intros and outros. After hours, it was the KZOK DJs' job to make sure that everything was properly synced up but they resented having to do it and so rarely did. As a result, the KJET DJs became notorious for announcing the wrong songs. Also, the automation system was really old and sensitive, so if you touched it before discharging static electricity, it had a tendency to wipe the memory. Since there was no such thing as a back-up, we'd have to throw the live switch, announce a previously unplanned album feature and re-type the programming manually. We called the automation "Murphy" after "Murphy's Law" because it fit!

Why did the station ultimately not sustain?

The station was actually doing quite well, but the parent company sold off their whole chain of stations, including KJET (ask anyone -- "new owners" are the two scariest words in the radio business). They'd had great success with an oldies format in Phoenix and decided that it would kill in Seattle, too, so they decided to change the format, sight unseen (or sound unheard, as the case may be). Their prized format never showed up in the Seattle ratings. At least it led to Jeff Gilbert and the Z-Rock format for a couple years.

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Why does music matter?

It's part of the human soul. I'm very suspicious of people who say they don't like listening to music.

KEXP is celebrating National Radio Day all week long both online and on the air; click here to see all our coverage on the KEXP Blog.

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