Memories in the Mix
Sitting down with three of the station’s current on-air talent (and two behind-the-scenes guys), you learn quickly that there are a lot of great stories and passionate commitments behind the call letters
Bishop is a true radio survivor, having been with MIXfm since the very first flip of the switch. He had landed in Tucson at the invitation of a friend to take a spot in KWFM’s line-up. Three years later, 94.9 was looking to change its name and format, and the general manager knew he wanted to hire the veteran DJ to do the morning drive show. There was just one problem — Marty could no longer be found.
He had left Tucson and was doing some contract work in England. MIXfm General Manager Dick Stein tracked him down there, and set up a time for a phone call.
“There were no calling cards back then, and long distance was expensive, especially transcontinental,” Bishop explains. “So I got a big stack of £1 coins — 30 of them, which was probably about $60 at the time. I went to one of those red English telephone booths, the kind you see on Dr. Who, plugged in some coins in and called him up.”
A few minutes later while casually chatting, Bishop realized just how pricey an international call was as he watched the time indicator ticking away on the phone. “I thought, ‘Holy cow … these coins are not going to last long!’ So we moved into negotiations. He wanted to hire me to do the morning show. He made an offer, and I countered. He came up higher, and I was running out of coins. I told him years later, ‘Dick, if I’d had just had another £5 of coins on me, I’ll bet I could have gotten another 10 grand out of you!’”
He began working at MIX on July 11, 1988, getting things ready for the format changeover. As a way of announcing to the station’s audience that something very new was coming, on Labor Day weekend, 94.9 stopped their old playlists and programmed 48 straight hours of nothing but The Beatles. “The audience, which was older, heard the Beatles’ music around the clock and they definitely did not like it,” he says with a chuckle. “We spent a couple of days taking some really nasty phone calls from Green Valley. But that got people talking.”
Talking is what got this Texas transplant into radio in the first place. He and some friends convinced the administration of their high school to let them do comedy bits on the PA system. That led to landing an hour on an actual radio station. “We were just three high school kids who were quoting their favorite comedy records,” he says. “We couldn’t think of a single original joke so we were doing Firesign Theatre routines we had memorized.”
While attending Baylor University, Bishop began doing a shift on the college radio station. It wasn’t long before he got a paying gig — a 12-hour shift at KRZI in Waco. Playing taped programs, announcing the news, and facilitating for a group of preachers who would do Sunday morning radio sermons, might seem like a grueling undertaking. Bishop however notes, “As a young guy without much experience, you could be delivering pizzas or patching roofs or something like that. This was a fantastic job. It was relatively easy. All you had to do was talk, and I knew how to do that.”
Other, better radio jobs followed in Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Oklahoma, facilitated by his old school buddy who eventually got him to Tucson for KWFM. “As I saw my first glimpse of Tucson coming from the airport I fell in love,” he reveals. “It hit me so hard. That view of the Catalinas, which at the time for me was so new, and I thought, ‘This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.’”
Over at MIX, Bishop was able to use his creative side in many ways. “We didn’t have much money for promotion at the time, and the general manager said, ‘Look, you have to think of some way to promote yourself.’ So I dreamed up this idea: doing the show live with an audience. I figured out that if I could throw a microphone cord out the window of the studio, I could drag the mike over to the patio area.”
At the time, MIX was based in a building on Country Club near Prince Road, and it sported a bricked-in patio with a nice shady tree. Bishop was hoping that he could get a handful of people to show up and hang out with him on Fridays while he did the show. “At first I just plugged in an extension cord for a Mr. Coffee machine. Very quickly, we realized that it wasn’t just five or ten people coming by — we were getting 100! We lined up a coffee shop to supply us, and then some restaurants wanted to bring breakfast, and it became a big gathering every Friday. People still talk about it.”
Bishop remembers many great moments from his three decades with MIX, including the time they did a Cher look-alike contest (during her “If I Could Turn Back Time” phase, so it got a little cheeky), or when one of the listeners let Marty take his fully customized Harley-Davidson for a spin. “I say I took it around the block, but what I really mean is I took it down Campbell up to Skyline and all the way around the Foothills and back. It was exhilarating. It was a beautiful machine. I was sitting on top of a $30,000 motorcycle and thinking, ‘I better not get a scratch on it!’”
“I grew up in a very musical household. My mom was a music teacher.
I played some instruments and was in the band all through school.”
— Marty Bishop
One of the most unusual opportunities to come his way as a result of MIX was becoming the ghostwriter for Laura Corn, bestselling author of a series of books with titles such as 101 Nights of Grrreat Sex, and 101 Nights of Grrreat Romance. Bishop interviewed Corn on the air, and the pair kept in touch. Years later, she asked him to read an early draft of the first of the 101 books. It had been ghosted by a Hollywood writer and was pretty dreadful. Bishop rewrote some pages on spec, Corn liked how it read, and their partnership was formed. “At one time, we had three books on the USA Today top 100 list in the same week. It was a very proud moment. I ended up writing nine books with her over the years, and lots of magazine articles, all using a woman’s voice. Laura is a marketing genius, and a charming and very funny woman. Each time we finished another book, she would get on TV and radio shows and promote it. She would talk about how to have a better relationship, how to have more intimacy in your life, topics like that.”
When he isn’t behind the mike, Bishop likes to read, often books explaining scientific concepts, and learn about new technology. Not surprisingly he reveals, “My latest hobby is drones. I am getting a big kick out of flying them.”
He also loves going to concerts, and just hanging out with his wife Marcy, and says that because of their sound-alike names, they’ve been on the receiving
end of some good-natured teasing. “When we got married people gave us an awful lot of M&Ms memorabilia. We
still have a lot of M&M vases and goblets and things around the house.”
The charming woman who is an integral part of 94.9’s morning show never intended to be on the air … even though she was, long before she got a job with MIX.
“In the early 1990s, when MIX was doing ‘The Phrase that Pays,’ Ed Alexander was on in the afternoon, and I had missed a call at about 2:30 p.m.,” Mrs. Grant elaborates. “I remember calling the radio station and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that I missed the call. Do you ever call back?’ She said, ‘We sometimes do, at a different time.’ This was back when I had a flip phone, and I called the phone company and paid the extra money to have call forwarding put on my home phone. I knew that we were driving up to Phoenix and I didn’t want to miss the call. So I was standing in my aunt’s kitchen in Phoenix and the phone rang. It was Ed Alexander … and the call dropped. I had bad reception. I went running out of the house to get out to where I could get a better signal, and he called back. I said, ‘Ask me the Phrase That Pays before the phone hangs up!’”
She laughs, recalling how she won $1,000, and then in station promos for the next month, “I heard myself on the radio losing my mind!”
She was just as dedicated when it came to getting a job with MIX. She actually applied for an administrative position three times. “I was looking for a part-time job because I had an 18-month-old daughter and I was working a fulltime schedule at a company and traveling to Phoenix twice a week. I thought if I could find a part-time job early in the morning my daughter Mackenzie would only have to be with a care provider for a couple of hours when my husband went off to work. I could be home with her in the afternoon.”
“When I was going to Sunnyside High School I listened to MIXfm. I remember Marty in the Morning.
And I won tickets to the Tucson premiere of The Bodyguard, which Marty hosted at the local movie theater.”
— Mrs. Grant
Three and a half years (which included the arrival of her son Jeremy) after she put in her first application, she was chosen to be the one. “I was going to be behind the scenes, keep the guys in line, make sure that all their commercials ran, and that I connect Brad Behan in Colorado to the radio station here in Tucson. I was never going to be on the air.
“But one day I was sitting in the back of the studio, holding back laughter, and one of them said to me, ‘It’s OK for you to laugh. It’s OK for them to know that you’re in the room.’ They began to ask me questions and say things to make me laugh, and I became a part of the show. It just evolved. It was something I never intended to do. Now here I am, 15 years later, co-hosting the morning show and loving every minute of it!”
A native of Tucson, born at TMC, she recalls listening to KTKT on the AM dial when she was a kid, and doing her homework to the tunes each night. “I’d go to sleep with the radio on, and I’d wake up with it. It’s always been that way for me.” That habit continues to this day. “When I’m in my car, I can’t have it be silent, unless I have a migraine. My husband Frank and I keep a little boombox in our kitchen that runs on D batteries, and it’s part of our Sunday morning routine. We like to read the paper, drink coffee, and listen to the radio with the sliding glass door open so we can hear the birds and everything. And now since we have a puppy, it’s on all the time.”
Asked why she thinks radio is still such a powerful force in our lives, she says, “It’s a companion. You can have it with you at all times and it’s not intrusive. It brings comfort. Listening to the radio can change your mood, take you back to a different place, bring you peace, lift you up, and even make you melancholy. Where else do you get that? Where you can sit down, be quiet, and just be taken on a ride?”
But even though she is helping to steer the ride, listeners still don’t always know when they meet her that she is the person they hear every weekday morning on the radio. “I was out somewhere with my name badge on and standing underneath the MIXfm tent and talking to someone. We had a great 10-15 minute conversation, he gets in his truck, takes off, and I’m in the middle of talking to someone else. He spins around in his truck, and pulls back in front of tent and says, ‘You’re Mrs. Grant?’ I said, ‘yes.’ He says, ‘Well how come you didn’t say that to me? I didn’t know it was you until I heard you on the radio just now.’”
Despite 15 years in the business, she says that the passion for the music and the artists is as strong for her as ever. “I’m still just a fan. I dropped $320 to buy two tickets to see PiNK in March and I’m excited about it. It doesn’t matter that you’re in the industry. You still just love it.”
If Tucson native Greg Curtis had wanted to play timpani for Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, he probably wouldn’t be on the radio today.
His dream job was to be a professional musician.
“When I was going to the University of Arizona. I was studying music and failing at some classes that were in an area of music I didn’t want to be in. And I happened to be in the pep band, and during one of the tournament trips, flying with the basketball team, I was talking to the guy who dressed up as Wilbur Wildcat. He was in the communication department. I was venting my frustration with music classes, and he said, ‘You should go into communication. You’ve got a great knack with words and the way you communicate.’ And I thought, ‘That’s it! I’m going to go work in the media. I’ll be on the radio! I’ll be around music. I’ll get to be a part of that without having to depend on my bad playing ability to pay my bills.”
What he didn’t realize was that the communication major consisted mainly of psychology and sociology courses, and he didn’t get a shot at doing anything in mass media. After graduation, he went to a local station to try to get an internship. “They said, ‘You’re too late kid. We can’t give you any school credit.’ As I was being escorted from the building,” he jokes, “I happened to hear a voice behind me and it was another musician I knew who was in radio. I explained my plight and he said, ‘Come in, we’ll work behind the scenes. There won’t be any pay, but I’ll help you put a tape together.’ He worked with me on several occasions, and then they hired a new program director for a station on the 104.1 frequency that had just flipped its format and needed a weekend person. I gave the program director my tape, and she said, ‘That’s not bad.’ She gave me a 6-10 a.m. slot on Saturdays, and it just sort of morphed from there.”
Curtis was on the air at another Journal station for about a year before coming over to MIX in 1999. Though radio hadn’t been his first choice, he had the perfect voice for it, and being witty and quick on his feet helped him to fit right in. Like many on staff at MIX, he grew up with the radio being a crucial part of his life. “My dad played the radio and preferred listening to it over albums, although he had a pretty good collection. When we were kids, nobody had speakers on the patio, but he had the stereo wired all over the place so that no matter where you were in the house you could hear it. I think I just grew up with it being around.”
Like many radio professionals, Curtis moved to another market to try his luck. Though it didn’t prove to be a good long-term fit, he did get some memorable stories out of his time back east, including a lesson in what can happen if a star’s manager lets him out of his sight for too long. “The station I was working at did a Beach Boys show and Brian Wilson was there. He came up to our night guy and asked him what he was drinking, and he said, ‘a beer,’ and Brian said, ‘Can I have some of that?’ And he said ‘Sure,’ not realizing Brian wasn’t supposed to be drinking at all. And Wilson’s managers came in, ‘No, no no!’”
Since coming back to MIX in 2007, he has not only kept in touch with what’s going on in the community, but all the technological changes that are swirling around communication these days. “I think staying relevant in radio means trying to be where the listeners are. Where people are congregating. Right now, the big place to congregate is online — social media. It’s interesting because technology has already changed several times in the last 10 years. One example I can think of is Periscope. That was going to be the hot new thing and it was, and then it was gone. It’s interesting that things are changing so fast that in some cases people aren’t even able to grab onto the new thing before the next thing supplants it. In that way, I think there’s some comfort in knowing, ‘Well, this is what the radio does.’ There’s no explanation needed, you don’t have to learn how it works, you don’t have to download a new app. But … MIXfm also is on that new app. So if your game is the latest and greatest thing, we want to be where that is. But for people who aren’t, we’re there, too.”
Speaking of technology, he smiles and admits, “I guess I have come full circle from what my dad started. Now I have Bluetooth speakers outside. I can’t drive around without music. And when I get home, the radio is always on. I will sometimes play it through Alexa. I guess I’m addicted.”
Away from the mike, Curtis likes to relax with his wife Kim and their daughter Maddie. “I really enjoy my time with my family. I don’t get to do that often enough. Playing music is good for me, too, and I’m finding that I’m getting to the point where I can enjoy it more than I used to. When I was in college, there was a time when I was playing so much that it was paying half of my bills. Two or three gigs a week. I was performing music I didn’t really want to, which actually was a great experience in a way. It helped me to become the percussionist and drummer that I am today. Now I’m playing with people who are really good musicians and we play really well together. It’s back to being fun again.”
“My wife Kim deserves a lot of credit for putting up with me, and my love for what I do, because I spend a lot of time doing it.
She’s becoming more comfortable with me sharing things on the radio that happen to her, or things that she said to me.
She wasn’t always like that, but she’s realized that there is relatability and real life in that.”
— Greg Curtis
“It began when my dad brought a radio into our home,” Rivers says about his passion for the airwaves. “I was a kid and we had a TV and no radio, which was really odd. We lived in Philadelphia and he bought a radio so we could listen to Phillies baseball. It was a table radio, and it had these two large bug-eye-style speakers and a tiny little nose of an off/on volume knob, and a larger tuning knob below it. When you looked at it, it looked like a bug. And it sang and talked to you, and I thought that was fascinating. You could tune around and find different people inside this little green box. One day I ripped that radio apart, and I paid the price dearly for that!”
But the punishment didn’t curb his enthusiasm at all, and having a music icon living right next to his elementary school provided additional incentive for a radio career. “I went to school next to Dick Clark’s house. He would drive out in this little Thunderbird convertible and wave to the kids who were climbing the fence to see him. He was a childhood hero for me at a very young age. He did American Bandstand as a Philadelphia-based show before it went national. I made my dad take me down to the studio. I couldn’t be on the show because I wasn’t old enough, but I could sit in the stands. It was pretty cool.”
Years later, attending Dickinson College, he went on the air as a DJ with the college radio station, and promptly got fired for playing The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.” The station had just switched to a rock format, and didn’t want any pop in its programming. “This was back in the day when rock radio was a cause, it wasn’t just a format. It was like, ‘We rock and nobody else does!’” Rivers says with a laugh.
But as fate would have it, the same guy who fired him told him about a weekend radio job at a station in Harrisburg. He was hired on a Friday, and showed up at 4:45 a.m. on Sunday morning to begin his shift. “I rang the bell and the guy who was on the air said, ‘Who’s there?’ I didn’t have a radio name at the time, so I gave him my real one. I said, ‘Hi, my name is Fred Flanzer and I’m here to run the Sunday morning programming.’ He said, ‘I don’t know any Fred Flanzer.’ I said, ‘I was hired by Andy on Friday to run the Sunday programs.’ He said, ‘Andy doesn’t work here anymore.’ The guy who hired me was fired the same day. And nobody had any record of me. They called the manager of the station, put me on the phone with him, and he asked, ‘Does it look as if there’s anyone else around there who is interested in doing this job?’ I said, ‘No sir.’ He said, ‘Welcome to radio.’”
“MIXfm is committed to Tucson. We wake up in the morning and start thinking about how we can have more impact right here.
Our license says that we’re here to serve the public interest and that language is very important to us. It really drives what we do.”
— Smokey Rivers
Over the years, Rivers, who has a voice that could rival James Earl Jones for bass-baritone intensity, moved around quite a bit and worked in a lot of markets, having adventures at every station. When he worked in Nashville back in the 1980s, there was a summer concert that his station sponsored. They would get together some of the Southern rock bands who were around town, as well as a national headliner or two, and make it a big spectacle.
“These guys from the 101st Airborne in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, would come and jump out of a plane carrying an American flag and land on this strip of ‘beach’ on a lakefront in suburban Nashville,” Rivers reflects. “That would signify the start of the concert. We had that area roped off, and we were all standing there and watching these guys float down with the flag. It was very beautiful. A little girl darted out from under the rope and I ran out to grab her and protect her, and in the process I got kicked in the head by one of the paratroopers who was landing. What did I learn? Skydiving boots are heavy!”
Although Rivers, who came to Tucson in 2015, doesn’t do a DJ shift at MIX, you hear his work in everything that goes out over the airwaves. “Every day, as a guy who is in charge of that part of it, I’m looking at so much online to find out what people are listening to, and then evaluating it, and saying ‘Do we play this, or do we not?’ I’m an avid consumer of radio. I use Alexa to listen to radio from everywhere, to see what people are doing, to hear things that might be tried in our market, or to hear how a certain region is leaning with their preferences.”
One way that MIX differs from many stations is they aren’t trying to predict the next trend or ensure that their playlists are made up of the newest songs of the moment. “We’re a radio station with a very wide library of songs,” Rivers says. “It runs from the ’70s to present. With new songs, we’re very selective. We feel that we know our audience.”
Part of knowing the audience is making sure that MIXfm is integrated into the community, publicizing and helping out with fundraisers such as Dine Out for Safety, The Event (for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson), Salvation Army’s Stuff the Bus, and TMC / Children’s Miracle Network Radio-a-thon, to name just a few.
All the behind-the-scenes researching, planning and arranging keep Rivers pretty busy, but when he is not involved in MIX activities, this radio aficionado (who admits that he owns “about 100 of them”, loves to cook. “I get a Bon Appetit email everyday around five o’clock, and it’s always got a couple of tasty things. I read it and think, ‘I can’t wait to go to the market! I gotta go to Sprouts and get some Brussels sprouts.”
But he will always find time to sing the praises of his new home. “MIXfm is a very special radio station. It glows from coast to coast. Everyone in the radio industry knows about MIXfm. It’s one of those model radio stations, and as a radio guy who has been in a lot of places, I am honored to be a part of an institution like this, in a town like this, where a radio station is valued and continues to measure the tastes and needs of the community and give back.”
The clarion call of the radio lured Steve Wexler into his future career back when he might have had to sit on a couple of phone books to reach the microphone. “I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, listening to WOKY, WTMJ and WRIT,” he reflects. “I was so enthused about radio that I set up a ‘fake radio station’ in my room and called the station WEXL because my last name looked like call letters.”
But while some kids just dream about the job they want someday, Wexler had the moxie to put his plan into action. “I rode my bike to the WTMJ studios — six blocks from my home — when I was 16 years old to see if I could be on the radio. Of course they said ‘no,’ but they let me hang around and help the DJs.”
Like most radio pros, Wexler experienced a few continental shuffles, and one of them occurred in 1997 when Journal Communications moved him to the Old Pueblo to become the vice president and general manager of MIXfm. “It was an exciting time for me, as this was my first GM job after serving as program director for Journal,” he says. “My family immediately fell in love with the Tucson area, even though my kids believed we were moving to a desert full of sand dunes!”
Two years later, Wexler and MIX had a few anxious moments — as did much of America — wondering what would happen as the ’90s rolled over into 2000. “I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 at the station because we were all afraid every system was going to stop when it became 2000,” he recalls. “My wife packed snacks and we brought my kids and our dog. Fortunately, midnight came and went without incident!”
Wexler’s headquarters these days is back in Wisconsin, where he oversees 34 radio stations for Scripps, the company that bought out Journal. Things have definitely come full circle for him. “My office in Milwaukee overlooks the entrance where I put my bike many years ago. It’s a great reminder of my early interest in the broadcast business.” tl