The Return of the Last DJ

If you're a regular reader of this column, you know that this writer is of the (widely shared) opinion that Houston radio sucks. But, brothers and sisters, I'm here to tell you today that the commercial dial could soon get a little less sucky. David Sadof -- formerly the host of the Buzz's Lunar Rotation and, before that, KLOL's Exposure Sunday-night shows -- could be back on the air regularly very soon. Sadof's new show, High Fidelity, was given an on-air audition on June 5 on Houston's mostly news/talk station KFNC/97.5 FM, and probably will be airing at an as-yet-undetermined time every Sunday on that station from here on out.

"We're still formalizing that," says KFNC manager Pat Fant. "We're negotiating prices and terms; it's kind of like getting a star pitcher or quarterback."

Fant preceded Sadof's show with one of his own, and all told, the two spun eight hours -- from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. -- of music long gone from Houston's airwaves. With the help of his panel of experts -- his teenage daughters Casey and Mackenzie -- Fant spun selections from the Meat Puppets, Savoy Brown, Folk Implosion and others, before handing off to Sadof around 20 minutes past nine.

On Sadof's playlist was a ton of classic, left-of-the-dial music that was fondly loved in its day, that remains influential now and that you just can't hear anywhere else on Houston radio. (Unless, of course, you're willing to sit through the amateurish DJs and avant-garde pretensions of most of the KTRU jocks.)

Stuff like Television's "Marquee Moon," with which Sadof ended his seven-year vacation from Houston's airwaves. "That's a ten-minute song," Sadof says, adding that his return to radio was hastily arranged by Fant. "A lot of new technologies had come in while I was away. I had to play something long so I could learn how to run the stuff, and 'Marquee Moon' is my 'Freebird.' "

Stuff like the Replacements' "Left of the Dial" and songs by My Bloody Valentine, Spoon and Guadalcanal Diary; Pavement, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Jam. But he didn't just play yesterday's influential cult bands; he also dug deep into the catalogs of chart-toppers and came up with relative obscurities like album cut "The Wait" off the Pretenders' debut, Blondie's European hit/American bomb "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear," the Nirvana rarity (and Wipers cover) "D-7" and "Glass Onion" off the White Album.

"It's the same type of music I played before," Sadof says. "Back then I was kind of a station within a station. I had my own playlist, and sometimes I would create my own hits. In my little universe, 'I Wish' by King Missile" -- also on his relaunch playlist -- "was a huge hit."

He had plenty of fans. Looking back through Usenet's archive on Google Groups and elsewhere on the Web, you can still find people who posted things like "I've always wondered what the crap happened to Lunar Rotation... It rocked. Then when I went to California for school everything went to shit"; and "The best music show ever was David Sadof's Lunar Rotation, which used to run Sunday nights on KTBZ in Houston."

Well, according to Sadof, what happened was this: "After the station got sold for the sixth time, I was not hired back." To elaborate a little, he was a victim of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which allowed for greater-than-ever consolidation of radio station ownership. Media groups, of which there were then hundreds, went on a big-fish-eats-little-fish feeding frenzy until only a few fierce sharks remained, one of which was Jacor Communications, which bought the Buzz and handed Sadof his walking papers in 1998. (A few months later, Jacor was gobbled up by Clear Channel, the Jaws of this scenario.)

Jacor told Sadof that he didn't fit into their long-range plans, which apparently were to run modern rock radio into the ground, as the Buzz has been a heinous station ever since, an abominable wasteland of Korn, Creed and Hoobastank clones. And Sadof has been out of radio ever since. He worked as a buyer at Soundwaves until he was let go in their recent purge and now is a computer salesman. He could have found radio work in another city, but Houston is home, and until this month the right opportunity had never arisen. "I didn't want to be a Dr. Johnny Fever, up and down the dial, moving from town to town," he says, practically quoting the theme to WKRP in Cincinnati. "I also didn't want to have my playlists dictated to me. The only job I would be interested in would be one that was like early-'70s radio, where the DJ picked the music and the fans knew which DJ they liked best."

While Sadof did garner a lot of popularity for his shows at the Buzz and KLOL, he also got plenty of criticism in his roles as music director at both of the stations. He was often assailed for not decreeing that more of the Lunar Rotation-style music be played at other hours, and also for not playing enough local music, both on his show and at other times. Not that he ignored the homegrown stuff -- Sadof probably played more local rock than any jock on the commercial dial in the last ten years, but a little is not enough for many on Houston's exposure-starved scene.

"People don't get this," he says, "but -- and I'm aware this is a double negative -- I don't not do local bands. I'm never thinking about where the band lives. That should not even be part of the equation. Whatever you submit should sonically stand up to being played between the Afghan Whigs and Dinosaur Jr. And right now, the way this show is configured, I'm not sure if I'll be able to seek out much new music, local or otherwise."

As for the "Why can't your whole station sound like Lunar Rotation?" charge, Sadof is blunt. "It was the very fact that I programmed that other stuff the rest of the week that enabled me to do Lunar Rotation," he says.

Sadof was already a ten-plus-years commercial radio veteran when he started Lunar Rotation in 1995. He was given the music director's reins at KLOL at the tender age of 22 in the mid-'80s, and he recalls now that he learned some horrible lessons back then. "I remember we all used to go to big shows in other cities and I would meet music directors from other towns," he says. "I was shocked and disappointed to find out how little music meant to them. Most of them seemed to be in the business for the free dinners and flights. I guess you could say I was naive."

And since then it seems that commercial rock DJs have become even less music-oriented, if not practically nonexistent. Sadof, on the other hand, is of the really old school, the kind of guy who keeps a database of his records on note cards and plans out his playlist meticulously, sort of, if not quite exactly, like "The Last DJ" of the recent Tom Petty song ("...there goes the last DJ / Who plays what he wants to play / And says what he wants to say, hey hey hey"). "It takes a lot of work to sound random," he says. "My stuff can come across as off-the-wall, but I have a very methodical process."

He and Fant also bring their own records to the show instead of relying on the station library or some computerized playlist. "You're supposed to get fired for that," says Fant. "But this is what radio is supposed to be, and we didn't just talk about it, we did it. It was art and not science, and we believe we really gave the city a treat. And it was really fun for us."

Sadof has long studiously avoided any sort of genrefication for his shows, preferring instead to trust his gut. "I have never once said the words 'grunge' or 'alternative' on the air," he says. "I wanted to avoid the trappings of those labels, the baggage of a name. I want to stay free, and there's 40 years of rock history I can draw from if I choose correctly. As long as you maintain a base of bands like the Replacements and the Pixies that you can expect to hear every week, you can veer off from there a lot as long as you come back."

I'm betting that a lot of Replacements-hungry and Pixies-starved Houstonians will come back to this show. And speaking of coming back, Sadof is very happy to be on the dial again. "I'm a walking encyclopedia of music," he says. "I'm not bragging -- it's just that I am not of much use in any other field."

Here's hoping that Fant can keep that encyclopedia on the air for a long time. For now, though, the experiment will continue every Sunday night.

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