“We came by because this radio station is playing music the way a radio station should. There are very few stations in the country that are doing this and you are real fortunate to have this station here. Maybe listeners don’t know it because they have it here. Radio is bad in America. There are only a few good stations and you guys should be proud to have it.” BoDeans lead singer Kurt Neumann during a live performance at 92 Zew on September 12, 1991
92ZEW has been the curator of Mobile music for as long as I can remember. As a musician it gives me hope and purpose when I hear my songs on 92ZEW. I know that these songs, these pieces of my life, that I sweat and bleed over, don’t die. The 92ZEW audience will hear them and know them. 92ZEW weaves our creations into the fabric of this city I love so much. It’s indelible. Eric Erdman, Mobile singer/songwriter
92ZEW has been the sound of Mobile for 30 years. On-air personalities, owners, bands, and music venues have come and gone, but the station has remained Mobile’s source for alternative and local music for most of three decades for its loyal listeners. The only locally owned FM station in Mobile still has the freedom to play a song just because it belongs here or take a risk to play an unknown artist. Despite periods of neglect, bad decisions, and bankruptcy, the ZEW has helped resurrect Mobile’s live music scene and build Mobile’s reputation as a music city.
Today’s version of 92ZEW began at 12:20AM on September 1, 1984 when the format switched from hard rock to album-oriented rock (AOR). Catt Sirten was the program director for the new station and the first song he played was “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen.The Rangers had a homecoming /In Harlem late last night And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine /Over the Jersey state line /Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge /Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain The Rat pulls into town rolls up his pants /together they take a stab at romance And disappear down Flamingo Lane “It was a long song and it gave us a little time to get set up when the station switched over,” says Catt Sirten, who now hosts Radio Avalon and Catt’s Sunday Jazz Brunch. “After that we introduced the new format with Rock & Roll from A to Z. For R we played Roxy and for S we played Steely Dan, but we did not play Ozzy Osborne for O.”
This is the 30th anniversary of the ZEW, but the history of the 92.1 frequency reaches farther back with a range of call letters and formats that included WABF FM in the 60’s, WHSP (With Holy Spirit Power) and WGOK FM(urban dance) in the 70’s, and several attempts at rock formats in the 90’s. The station was purchased in 1981 and renamed 92ZEW. It was sold a year later to Sherri Brice and Don Keith who moved the antenna from a pecan grove in Fairhope (where the station was originally licensed) to the top of a bank building in downtown Mobile.
“The key was finding the right person to program the station and we found it in Catt Sirten,” says Keith. “Catt was a music curator and he had an innate ability to slect songs that would become hits and play groups before anyone else did. Local radio stations like the ZEW become a tribe with a sense of community that brings together people of like interests and gives them experiences to share together.”
In the right hands, radio is still the medium where a creative person in tune with music and the community can put together the right songs and stir emotion. From the beginning, the staff at the ZEW had the freedom to play an undiscovered song or the music that fit the moment.
“We played music no one else would,” says Sirten. “We were the first to play Melissa Etheridge and developed a relationship with her. After we played Tracy Chapman, her label called and asked what we were doing because we were the only station playing the record. Industry people asked if we were changing to a country format when we were the first to play Bruce Hornsby. The ZEW became known for being a little different and for adding different songs. We are proud to this day that there are songs in this market that everyone knows but they may not be known anywhere else like ‘Somewhere Down the Crazy River’ by Robbie Robertson, ‘I Love You Goodbye’ by Thomas Dolby, and ‘88 Lies About 44 Women’ by The Nails.”
The sound of Mobile is funkier than Birmingham, Montgomery or Huntsville. It is shaped by geography, water, New Orleans, French roots, and the blues. “Mobile has always been under the influence of New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta and the blues and soul music transcends cultural backgrounds,” says Tim Camp, current chief operator and a co-owner of the ZEW. “What may work in Birmingham may not work in Mobile and vice versa. The ZEW’s playlist mixes in Dr. John, Trombone Shorty, and Galactic. We say we are the sound of Mobile because this is who we are. We play music that people on the coast turn us on to and music that was written here by local artists.”
The personality of the ZEW began with the original staff including Phil Coulloudon, John Guidry, Wendy, Uncle Tim, Terry James, and Sirten. There was no marketing budget so promotions included mind games such as Gone to the Beach Weekend where the staff pretended to leave the station unattended and go to the beach for the weekend because everyone else was there. There were double and triple play weekends during baseball season and the Ultimate Countdown from noon on Christmas Day to midnight on New Year’s Eve. The still popular Brown Bag Lunch started in 1985 in Bienville Square.
“We were also the first to have a Locals Only Weekend,” says Sirten. “Packaging and themes made the difference. One of my favorites was a remote from ZEWland—a festival on an island off the coast with Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bruce Springsteen and everyone else we were playing. We had weather reports from the festival and traffic reports from a helicopter. It was theater of the mind, and some people believed it and wanted to know how to get to ZEWland. The promotions were art and all of us at the station that made it work. Those guys spoiled me for life.”
“The station is what it is today because of what they did from the beginning with the programming,” says ZEW music director Lee Ann Watters. ”They mixed in the funky with the Smiths.”
Ten years after it began, the ZEW was a casualty of new FCC regulations that raised limits on ownership of FM and AM stations. Format changes and station swaps left the ZEW playing hard rock again and the John Boy and Billy syndicated radio show. “The ZEW went off the air on Sept. 14, 1994, and 5,000 people attended the wake,” says Sirten. “When the ZEW went off the air, Mobile lost its communication center.”
The ZEW eventually went silent until Barry Woods purchased the station and revived the alternative rock format. Woods filed for bankruptcy and the station was purchased eleven years ago by Camp and his partner Ken Johnson.
“I started working in radio at age 17 and worked for rock station WABB in Mobile for 16 years,” says Camp. “I went on the road to play music and when I came back to Mobile I wanted to own a radio station. I started with the WNSP sports station in 1992 and a few years later we had the opportunity to buy the ZEW. I didn’t want the station to fall into the hands of someone who would screw it up.”
92ZEW started out of a passion for music and it is still a labor of love. “The Zew is not a mainstream format,” says Camp. “It is eclectic and it won’t ever have the big ratings that will get the big money from national advertisers,” says Camp. “We have to work hard every day to keep it going and doing everything we need with a small staff. It costs $4,500 per month just to pay the power bill to keep the transmitter on.”
Today the station is classified as Adult Album Alternative (AAA) the format that now gives many rock artists their start. 92ZEW is one of thirty-one AAA reporting stations in the country so new music picked in weekly music meetings and played on the ZEW affects more than listeners in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Appreciation of airplay on 92Zew brings many new artists to Mobile. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Need to Breathe, Colbie Caillat, Brandi Carlile, Mat Kearney, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Amos Lee, Imagine Dragons and many others played 92ZEW free concerts before they became widely known.
92ZEW concerts helped transform a music scene that was once blackballed from major promoters after bands where cheated out of money at the civic center in the 70’s. “Concerts quit coming here and to see something you had to go Pensacola or New Orleans,” says Camp. “I saw 92ZEW as an opportunity to reset and start over again. We had to prove to labels, agents, and promoters that they could do business in Mobile and make money. We also had to get the people coming to shows again. Music returned to the Saenger Theatre when John Thompson, David Rasp, and other downtown merchants joined the board and Chris Penton was hired to manage the theater.”
Camp gives credit for the survival of 92ZEW and the variety of music coming to Mobile to the listeners. “We bring the bands in, but people come to the shows, like the music, and buy the CDs,” says Camp. “That translates back up the ladder and record labels say every time they send a band to Mobile for the ZEW, they sell records. They want to send more artists to us.”
Musicians also remember the stations that help them on the way up. “At Bonnaroo, John Butler walked into the radio tent past the stations in New York and Chicago and came straight to us,” laughs Camp. “We were one of the first stations to play Grace Potter we wanted to interview her at Bonnaroo, but her tour manager said she didn’t have time. We ran into her later and she told the tour manager that ‘this is the first station to play my music. They get whatever they want, whenever they want.’ We did the interview right there. Appreciation like that for 92Zew is something you never forget.”
The ZEW also helps bring musicians to the coast through its partnership with The Hangout Music Festival. “There is not another music festival in the country that has the relationship with a radio station like the Hangout has with 92ZEW,” says Camp. “I don’t know what to say about the festival founder Shaul Zeslin and his trust, support and faith in what we do. It is about people being one-on-one and looking each other in the eye and shaking hands. We help them identify the new artist who may not be big right now, but will be blowing it up by the festival in May. We are working right now to find next year’s Bastille, the 1975, or Alabama Shakes. Imagine Dragons once opened for Kristy Lee at the Shed, a few years later they had a huge crowd at The Hangout Festival.”
Local music is the heart of the soul of Mobile and the ZEW plays local musicians (introduced as “one of our own”) throughout the day. Thursday nights are “Locals Only” on Catt’s Radio Avalon and the ZEW has just added an online radio station streaming local music.
“I have played everywhere in the country from Key West to Minneapolis and Seattle to Portland, Maine, and 92ZEW is one of the most supportive stations of local artists,” says Will Kimbrough. The ZEW first played Kimbrough 30 years ago with Will and the Bushmen and now plays his solo music and his band Willie Sugarcapps. “The ZEW gives local musicians a chance to build an audience and be heard alongside Sting or Sheryl Crow. The station helped build my career and it keeps me alive as an artist.”
“The man on the street is more likely to know Imagine Dragons, but say the name Will Kimbrough in the music industry and they know who you are talking about,“ says Camp. “Mobile has always been blessed with good music, and if record contracts were based simply on talent and musicianship, half of the musicians in Mobile would have a recording contract on a national scale. “
Camp doesn’t spend much time in the ZEW’s past because he is always thinking about the station’s future. “I spend most of my time trying to expand what it is that we do,” says Camp. “We are doing new things such as streaming an online blues channel and the locals only channel. I am now thinking about what if I had another ZEW, what would I do with it? We are working on some things for the future.”
“30 years and 92ZEW is bigger then any of us who have worked at the station now or in the past,” says Camp. “It has always been about the listeners, the musicians, and the music. We are just the people who get to hold it and take care of it right now.” The Zew is celebrating its 30th anniversary all fall with concerts by The Head and the Heart, Jamestown Revival, The John Butler Trio, Ray LaMogntagne, Benjamin Booker, Nikki Lane, and more.
Photos by Michelle Stancil, Stephanie Drake, Kim Pearson, and Lynn Oldshue