By ALAN SCHERSTUHL
The last time the hippo left the city, the city begged him back.
In 1997, outraged that then-23-year-old rock station KY102 had, under new owners American Radio Systems, dumped Styx and the Nuge for an all-Alanis, all-the-time format, Max Floyd's Rock 'n Roll Army fought its last great battle. They protested, rival stations hosted eulogies, and Kansas City suffered its greatest radio-retirement controversy since KCUR had shitcanned Walt Bodine a year before.
As with Walt, the complaining worked. The hippo returned, shades and all, at his new address: 99.7 KYYS, somehow less badass than 102.1, where throughout the '70s and '80s the KY signal commanded a fat quarter inch of most receiver dials.
The hippo kept on keeping on. But he was old, now. He fretted at this angst-music the kids liked, played a lot of Joe Walsh, hosted an Elvis parade once in a while, and passed many hours reminiscing. ...
Used to be, back before the money boys took over, he'd take requests, or spin Pieces of Eight straight through some nights, or say “Hey, I got a visitor, so here's a side of Dark Side of the Moon.”
He'd let listeners program five songs together into a “Perfect Album Side” and then actually play it, uninterrupted. He held a poll to decide once and for all whether or not Aerosmith sucks. Biggest of all, from '74 until sometime in the eighties, he cobbled together an AOR canon of Zeppelin, Journey, Kiss and Foreigner and then, as the world changed, he hardly ever deviated from it, hewing to the same playlist with such dedication that you wondered why the hippo needed on-air personalities – it's not like anyone needed to be told what song had just been played or what was coming up.
Soon, the 18-to-30s who made him number one in '79 became 30-to-40s and 40-to-50s, regular folks who bought minivans, found sports talk, and stopped building up enough Led to need help letting it out on any regular basis.
This January, the hippo left again. There's no outrage, this time. The city knows the past is the past, and dwelling on it is like looking back at a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac. We can speculate about how the hippo finally knew knew the party was over: Was it more than a decade of being bested in the Arbitron ratings by upstart sunglassed-animal-rival the Fox? Could it be he, too, finally got sick of “Dust in the Wind?” Maybe it was that afternoon last year when the cast of Wild Hogs clowned around on Oprah, snuffing at last whatever life still flickered in the canon of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll?
Tune to 99.7 FM today, and you'll hear something called “Quality Rock.”
Listening to Quality Rock on The Boulevard is like plugging in to the hippo's sister's iPod. There's some KY in it, still: Creedence, a lot of Petty and Mellencamp, too damn much Genesis, some early Springsteen, lots of Alan Parsons, and “Rambling Man” and “Listen to the Music” at least once a day. But there's also Tracy Chapman, Edie Brickell, Barenaked Ladies, Dave Matthews – all stuff that makes that long-gone hippo happy he's still wearing shades, because he'd hate anyone to see him cry.
There's some pleasant surprises: “1985” by Wings, Elvis Costello's “Alison,” the fact that some of the Alan Parsons holds up really well, especially the synthy freakouts at the end. But then, at noon on January 31st, The Boulevard potholed-out with a back-to-back double dose of suck: Billy Joel's “Big Shot” leading into “Stand” by R.E.M.
Somewhere, Walt Bodine smiles. He outlasted rock. Next on his list: sky, water, and fire.