There was a time when top-40 radio provided steady streams of surprises.
That was before the internet helped project signals, music and instant information into the stratosphere. Music’s just a nanosecond away.
Pop-rock music was quasi-quantifiable — even if it often was a play-for-pay(ola) deal — and so-called “top-40” radio reflected a wide variety of styles (rock, pop, soul, R&B, blues, folk, surf country, British wave) designed for maximum demographic appeal.
In the 1960s, that meant Motown, the Beatles, Beach Boys, Four Seasons, Stax-Volt and the Rolling Stones contending weekly for the next No. 1 sound.
Now, music mostly is narrow-cast, app-ed and “streamed” to specific genres and tastes.
In an ongoing flash to the past, though, the owners of KRVR — an FM radio station licensed to Copperopolis, Modesto and Stockton — continue defying such splintering with a format encompassing “classic hits of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”
“Songs you grew up with that make you feel good,” Jim Bryan said of the vast three-decade KRVR musical menu. “They had to be big on the charts.”
Bryan, 63, and Doug Wulff, 62, have owned KRVR since 1995 and now team up to echo their teenage years, when they met as home-radio operators while attending high school in the Bay Area. Bryan is KRVR’s general manager and program director. Wulff picks the music, with computerized assistance.
“We always wanted to do this,” Bryan said. “This is it. We’ve had an offer a month (to buy KRVR’s license) sometimes. But we’re very happy.”
So, apparently, are listeners. Though Bryan and KRVR don’t subscribe to ratings services such as the Nielsen Company, “they tell us we’re doing really well,” he said.
Listening to KRVR does rekindle unexpected musical memories. “When the music was good” is one of the on-air slogans.
Recently, even “Wicked Game,” Stockton-born Chris Isaak’s only top-10 single (No. 6 in 1991), was heard — a real rarity — on KRVR, bracketed by Styx’s “Come Sail Away” (1977) and Electric Light Orchestra’s “Strange Magic” (1976).
Among many other untypical selections: Gordon Lightfoot’s “Carefree Highway” (1974); Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel” (1978); Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise” (1987); and J.D. Souther’s “You’re Only Lonely” (1979).
An arbitrary two-hour sample can include Wings, the Babys, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Rare Earth, Crosby Stills and Nash, Foreigner, Carly Simon, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Hot Chocolate, Bananarama, Bon Jovi, Prince, Squeeze, Al Green, Aerosmith and the Bangles.
The playlist is algorithmically arranged on “Studio Pro,” a computer program of 2,000 titles. It prevents songs from being played too often or repeated. So, if the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (1980) is heard on a Monday, it’s not “played again for a week,” Bryan said.
That’s unlike pre-internet top-40. Then, hit songs were played repeatedly.
“We try to keep a real variety,” Bryan said. “Some bouncing stuff and lots of pop-rock. We’ll play James Taylor and then Led Zeppelin.”
Bryan and Wulff have owned the 6,000-watt KRVR (“The River”) since 2009. The emphasis is on being “local” and “independent” of corporate constraints. Naturally, it’s also “streaming worldwide.” Its broadcast tower is located in Copperopolis. The studios are in Modesto.
Once a well-regarded “smooth jazz” station — the country’s “best” in 2006, according to “Radio & Records,” an industry publication — KRVR’s companion F.M. station (92.3) still broadcasts that format while LVIN-A.M. (“The Vine,” 920) plays standard oldies. KRVR, the only “classic-hits” option in the Central Valley, is tuned for a 35-to-64-year-old audience.
Bryan (Sunday mornings) and Wulff (Saturday mornings) still work as deejays with Roman Guzman, PJ Rose and Ron Noble (weekdays) and Cheryl Miller (weekends)
Bryan has programmed commercial-free segments (9 a.m. and noon weekdays) and four hours of “chill” (Yanni, Enya, Kitaro) starting at 6 a.m. Sundays.
“The positive feedback’s been pretty enormous on that,” he said.
Bob Malik, a Modesto native now based in Los Angeles, hosts the one-hour “Beatle Years” at 4 p.m. Sundays.
Bryan and Wulff’s radio relationship bagan when Bryan, originally from Vallejo, was 13. He and Wulff, born in Sacramento, met at a high school radio seminar in Concord. Before connecting, they’d each improvised “radio stations” in their bedrooms — Bryan in Vallejo, Wulff in Walnut Creek — employing turntables, records, reel-to-reel tape machines, a do-it-yourself mixing board, microphones and transmitters with radiuses of only two blocks.
“It was, ‘you show me yours (studio) and I’ll show you mine,’ ” Bryan said with a laugh. “We didn’t have many listeners. We only broadcast when we wanted to. So it was tough to get any real audience.
“When I broadcast, I’d find my mom or sister, and tune their radio to my frequency. So I knew someone was listening.”
That led to KVHS, a radio station at Concord’s Clayton Valley High School. While Wulff attended San Francisco State University, Bryan started his radio journey right after high school, working at stations in Vallejo, Pittsburg, San Francisco, Vacaville and Walnut Creek.
Unable to afford a Bay Area radio station, they moved to the Central Valley and purchased KRVR on Jan. 1, 1995. Back then, the Federal Communications Commission awarded licenses based more on community involvement.
“Now, it’s all about money,” Bryan said.
Despite KRVR’s smooth-jazz success, “we just thought the Valley needed a ‘classic-hits’ ” format, said Bryan, who lists Elton John, the Beatles and Eagles among his favorites. Wulff likes country music.
“There’s nothing heartfelt,” Bryan said, comparing contemporary pop music to “classic hits of the ’60, ’70s and ’80.” “It isn’t good. It’s just not the same. I love music. We’ve done very well. The station’s very successful.”
Contact music and entertainment writer Tony Sauro at email@example.com.