My Years on KEXL Radio

Barbara Marullo
Barbara Marullo
Barbara Marullo
Barbara Marullo
Barbara Marullo

Immediately after my firing at the Express and News I was in shock. I knew I couldn’t feed myself if I continued the drinking, but what the hell was I to do?

Willie Nelson offered to take me in. He said he would find something for me to do on the road, maybe with publicity or something of that nature.

Nelson is like that, generous and kind and well known for taking in strays. But this was not the time. While I would eventually tour for a short time with Willie and help emcee some of his earlier Fourth of July Picnics, I couldn’t make myself jump on a Nelson tour bus immediately after my firing from the newspaper.

Maybe it was pride, ignorance, or innate stupidity, but I needed to figure some things out on my own.

A couple of years before the newspaper firing I had been offered a job with the Houston Post. This opportunity might still have been available, but I didn’t want to live in Houston. I accepted a special features job with the onetime rival San Antonio Light, but quit this short-lived experiment when I was ordered to write color for a Houston Astros playoff game. I still didn’t like Houston, and I have never cared for baseball.

Marie Hicks hired me to write a weekly front-page column for the North Side Recorder, a San Antonio shopper that was delivered free over most of north San Antonio. The shopper pay was hardly enough to feed my family, but it was helping when my herky-jerky career was to take another hairpin turn.

It was mid-afternoon and I was shooting 9-ball pool in a beer joint on Oblate at San Pedro when the big voice of Hal Davis interrupted my mindless reverie.

“How does it feel to be broke and on your ass?” Davis taunted. He was almost as big as his voice.

I recognized him immediately. He was the radio hotshot I had thrown out of the menudo cookoff. I wasn’t immediately sure that Davis wouldn’t take a swing at me as he walked up to the pool table. “You don’t have to like me, Mister ex-newspaper columnist, but I’m here to offer you a news announcer job on a rock-and-roll hippie radio station if you could lower yourself to such a level.”

“I don’t believe you,” I told Davis. “I have never worked on a radio station.”

“Show up at our studios on Data Point Drive at 4 o’clock in the morning and find out,” Davis said. “The starting pay won’t be over the rafters, but it will beat hell out of what you are making now.”

This couldn’t be. It would be impossible. I had never even heard my recorded voice. I was convinced that Hal Davis, general manager of Doubleday Broadcasting’s KITE AM and KEXL FM radio stations, would inflict some form of debilitating revenge on me for throwing him and his wife out of the menudo cookoff.

Davis might have me arrested for trespassing if I showed up at that radio station at 4 o’clock in the morning. I told myself this. Or he might have security bulls unceremoniously drag me off the property by the scruff of my neck.

It would serve me right. Especially since I had been as drunk or drunker than Davis at the cookoff and concert.

I told my wife Vicky that afternoon. She urged me to try it. Why not? We had no money. Nothing to lose but more face. If there was any face left.

It was pitch dark when I arrived at the building on Data Point. I took the elevator to the second floor. KITE-AM and KEXL-FM studios were separate, each with control rooms and studio space. Shit, I thought, this can’t be happening.

Davis had told me to “ask for Ron.”

When I entered the KEXL waiting room I was met by Ron Houston, a controversial disc jockey who possessed the greatest voice San Antonio radio has ever known. Freddy Lee Jones (aka Ron Houston when he worked in his hometown of Karnes City) had been a top jock on AM stations KMAC, KTSA, KFAN, KNUZ in Houston, KMAL in Karnes County, and country FM KBUC. He was now the morning drive voice on an outlaw free-form rocker the likes of which Texas radio fans had never heard before. It was KEXL FM (104.5). the collective voice of a radio rock music culture that I was soon to become enmeshed in.

Houston and I knew each other from the drinking joints. He was the unrepentant friend of shotgun-packing pimp and 3-card monte dealer Bunny Eckert, a fact that didn’t exactly endear Houston to polite society and the San Antonio Country Club set, although Houston would later be posthumously named to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame.

He called me “Soul” on that first radio station meeting, and he was still calling me “Soul” years later when a massive heart attack took his life.

“What the hell am I supposed to do?” I asked Houston on that first KEXL morning as we sat behind twin microphones looking at each other.

I will never forget his answer.

“Just start talking, Soul.”

That was the improbable beginning.

I knew that traditional news was not expected of me. To satisfy federal broadcast requirements I picked up a few lines from a syndicated service called “News of the Weird,” but my main job was to jawbone with Ron Houston about most anything that crossed my mind.

“I always wished I had taped our first show together,” Houston said many times.

I had a strong voice with an unmistakable Junction, Texas drawl. Ron and I were to develop a morning drive show that many believed had no equal.

I was the “champion of men and the working girl’s friend,” and on other mornings, it was simply “the long-haired redneck,” an ID I snatched from David Alan Coe.

I delighted in sniping on the air at Charlie Kilpatrick, executive editor of the Express and News who had fired me, and a San Antonio social climber whose greatest accomplishment in life had been realized when he was officially made a member of the Texas Cavaliers.

Hal Davis had been brought in by Doubleday Broadcasting to oversee both KITE AM and KEXL FM stations, and I soon realized that Davis was unimpressed with the aristocracy of San Antonio.

While I japed on the air at Charlie Kilpatrick and his little tin soldier Texas Cavaliers suit, Davis remained conspicuously silent.

To denigrate any fat cat Cavalier of San Antonio Country Club status would put most any San Antonio media upstart on the chopping block.

Yet I was allowed to say stuff on the air like:

“I wonder how Charlie Kilpatrick can manage to put on his socks without help from wife Margie this morning. I heard that Margie went out of town for the weekend. Charlie has a lot of trouble with colored socks. And he may not know how to properly use colored toilet paper, either.”

Hal Davis allowed me to run wild with caustic drivel such as this. And it didn’t take me long to figure out why Davis put me on the air. He had as much push-back renegade in him as I had in me, and I will always believe that Hal Davis pocketed his pride and hired me partly because he believed I was dealt with unjustly, and partly because he sensed I might attract listeners.

My growing legions of young listeners were not lost on most of the local radio score keepers.

Hal Davis and I became friends.

“I just had a hunch,” Davis later told me. “I thought those hippie kids would like you and I was right.”

I guess Ron Houston knew something too. I just wish he could have been present years later when I was inducted into the San Antonio Radio Hall of Fame. I will always remember those first words out of his mouth.

“Start talking, Soul.”

Talking I did, quickly bonding and blending with the young air staff at KEXL. While Houston was only a few years younger than me, I had a couple of decades on the others. And at this time I was making the big transition from alcohol to the world of the young dopers I found myself surrounded by at KEXL.

I fit right in. I had found my next home. I loved Ron Houston in life and death, and I learned to love the KEXL wild-assed kids who made up the air staff. These young rock music marvels were in a world and time of their own. They included such talents as Barbara (Legs) Marullo, Martha Martinez, Allen (Bubba) Grimm, Sweet Michael Boykin, Nick St. John, Bobby Reyes, Debbie Jecker, Tom Devine, and others. They were light years ahead of the bellowing blowhards who characterized most AM radio and a lot of new FM stations of that era. I made the most noise of any of them, yakking with Ron Houston on the morning drive, and shattering the peace and quiet with the commercials I had started to write and record.

KEXL jocks were dramatically quiet. Some of them would enunciate the call letters softly. At other moments, after a segue of tasteful rock album cuts, the jock might reverently whisper them all together into the mike: Kex-sul, album radio.

Although KEXL FM was outlaw rock in its purest form, there was some method behind the madness. KEXL was officially an AOR station…Album Oriented Rock.

Most amazing about KEXL was the formatting. None of it came directly from the front office. Most of it was through staff members like Allen Grimm, who was the longest tenured KEXL program director, and Martha Martinez. Grimm actually started it all when KEXL was in its infancy at HemisFair Plaza.

Grimm had been dead for a number of years when I prepared this manuscript; Martinez was an alive and lively cancer survivor who helped me fill in some blanks. And Barbara (Legs) Marullo was the one KEXL sweetheart who could recall most of the music played in those legendary years. Marullo and Martinez were the two foxes I knew and depended upon while breaking in at KEXL.

Martha said “We had a loose format, with certain cuts designated for different day parts; the hardest rocking cuts were saved for late afternoon through about midnight. There were rules about how often cuts were played to keep them from being played too often; we taped paper logs on the albums, where we noted which cut we played at what time.”

I recall Bubba Grimm shouting at some errant new jock: “I never want to hear the same album cut more than once over a three-day period!” That might have been a slight exaggeration, but it was close.

The program director, or music director, Martha continued, “would listen to each album and note which were the best songs to play for each day part, or, in some cases, which cuts NEVER to play. So, while we all had different tastes, the music was really decided by the time you were on.”

The KEXL jocks were more than amazing in their uncanny ability to pick hit songs before they became hit songs. Alan Grimm broke Aerosmith before anyone else in Texas had recognized this rock music hit machine, and KEXL’s Sweet Michael Boykin broke Jackson Browne in San Antonio.

“I recall Bubba breaking Aerosmith in Texas,” Barbara Marullo recalled. “We were playing groups like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Rush, Yes, Styx, Montrosee, Peter Frampton, The Band and Byrds … See what you have started. And I can recall Martha introducing Bonnie Raitt to South Texas radio listeners for sure. And the Pointer Sisters. Willie had them on his picnic show at Liberty Hill.”

Barbara recalled benefits for KEXL which were held at Olmos Park and at Sayers. Despite the huge cult following, and more listeners from the general population than most of the experts could imagine, KEXL was always digging for survival money. These concerts included Shawn Phillips, The Grateful Dead, Augie Meyers, and New Riders of the Purple Sage.

“We played hell out of Bruce Springsteen, starting with his first LP,” Marullo said. “That was Bubba and Martha’s doing. I recall first seeing him at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin.”

I will never forget my first meeting with new KEXL general manager Rex Tackett, a career radio management type and good guy who was obviously in uncharted waters with management of KEXL FM.

Shortly after my air shift with Ron Houston was up and running, Tackett pulled me into his office where he had two record album jackets stting on his desk. These big jackets were almost exactly twelve and a half inches square, and the record covers on Tackett’s desk looked like they had been run through a shredding machine.

“You are the oldest employee I have on this radio station staff,” Tackett said. “I was hoping you could tell me what has been happening to these album jackets. They are torn all to pieces. The lettering is so ripped up I can’t even read the names of some songs. It would appear that someone may have cut them with a knife or other sharp instrument.”

I lied to Rex Tackett with the straight face of a 60-year-old San Quentin convict.

“I haven’t got any idea,” I said, hoping Tackett wasn’t watching my lying eyes.

I knew what had happened to those album covers. Some of the DJs had been using the jackets to chop up and line up cocaine and crystal meth. I was relatively new to the drug culture, but I had been around long enough to recognize razor blade slashes on a cardboard album jacket.

I knew the girls had not been laying out lines of coke and meth. I had no problem figuring out who was doing it. And without a single qualm, I would lie to the boss and protect those young KEXL jocks who were snorting lines of coke and crank off the album jackets. I could not snitch on my fellow radio offenders, and without even realizing it, I had chosen the treacherous path of the owlhoot. I was one of them. I couldn’t bring myself to snitch then, as I could not bring myself to snitch years later when I was facing 20 years in the state penitentiary.

Bookmaker Jack Hanratty had called it.

I was well on my way to becoming the Outlaw Journalist.

My intention was never to be a radio personality. I always knew that I would finish my life as a writer. Those two-plus years at KEXL were crazy. It was like something out of a psilocybin mushroom dream. Ron was recording land commercials for G.G. Gale of Timberwood Park fame, while I was writing copy and cutting trailer park spots for S.A. Sam Greene. I recall some of the lines: “Oaks North Mobile Home Estates, folks, out where the Texas Hills kiss the sky. Big acreage-sized lots and privacy to boot. You don’t have to watch your neighbor’s old lady hanging out her panty hose at Oaks North. Got room for a hat-stomping and an armadillo race on the same property…”

Parts of Oaks North can still be seen in the Bulverde area.

Sam Greene was the super San Antonio land huckster who much later established a monastery near Blanco, proclaimed himself to be a monk named Father Benedict, and proceeded to molest every young boy he could get his hands on.

Greene’s natural flair for the dramatic helped hasten his Waterloo. His monastery’s biggest draw was a painting of the Virgin Mary that reportedly wept tears of myrrh. Convicted of sexually molesting novice monks at the monastery, Father Benedict admitted that the weeping icon was bogus and eventually killed himself with a massive overdose of pain meds.

While I had suspected that Greene might have been a bit light in his loafers, I was as surprised as most when salesman Sam was to re-invent himself as Father Benedict with Jesus-style monk sandals and long flowing gray beard.

I know that I had my part in Greene’s land scam. I wrote most of the radio copy with little more than a perfunctory description of the property from Greene. One was for Twin Lakes Estates near Lytle. My on-air description of lunker bass thrashing the two lake tops, plus a majestic wild turkey hen soaring over the sparkling water at sunrise, was close to being at least some type of misdemeanor. When I had occasion to view the actual property we had been promoting, I felt like giving someone their money back. The “twin lakes” were greasy little stock tanks with green algae scum on the top and a couple of used Kotex pads laying in plain view.

I carried a picture in my head of this sordid scene until Benedict got busted for sodomizing apprentice monks. After that, contrived bass and non-existent turkeys didn’t seem all that bad.

Soon after my arrival at KEXL I learned that all language on the air is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Violators may be fined or jailed or both, and gross offenders may be removed from an air job. I acquired an FCC manual and studied the language requirements. I learned the words that were taboo for radio announcers, but I took it a notch further. To my surprise, I found other words without federal restriction, many of them words that most people would assume to be on the banned list.

When I used the word “horny” in a newscast, my radio associates were shocked to learn that this is not a federal no-no word. Or it wasn’t at the time. Neither is the word “wired,” no matter in what context it may be used. Or such was the case in the 1970s.

To the young drug users of the 1970s, the slang term “wired” meant that one was jacked up, sky-high and buzzing on some form of speed, blood pressure elevated and heart thumping like a Harley motor.

When I came on the air at 5 o’clock in the morning and said I was “wired and inspired,” vast numbers of young speed freaks connected.

A non-doper friend said he almost wrecked his car the first time he heard me make the comment.

When I was on KEXL the stations were rated by a service called Arbitron. We never hit the top of the rating chart, but we always believed we had as many or more listeners than any other FM station in the area.

Most of the ratings were done by telephone, someone from the rating service calling residents and asking what radio station they were listening to. The most obvious flaw here was the assumption that all radio listeners had traditional dwellings with telephones.

Many members of the hippie subculture which comprised our listener base did not live in traditional houses with traditional telephones. They lived in trailers, Volkswagen buses, apartment pads that belonged to God-only-knows-who, and what traditional society refers to as communes.

But they had access to radios, and their collective listener muscle would be on display when a hot live rock act was advertised on KEXL.

KEXL was fun for me, a diversion before my inevitable re-entry into the writing game. The station promoted a renaissance fair, and we drew big crowds with the KEXL armadillo races at HemisFair Plaza.

Samuelito, my world-champion racing armadillo, successfully defended his crown at the KEXL races, and some of the giddy radio station fans may have actually believed the Samuelito bullshit.

When ZZ Top was breaking into the market, a dozen 30-second radio ads on KEXL would pack any club in San Antonio. The listeners were always out there and we always knew it. KEXL jocks enjoyed a special rapport with many of the leading rock musicians of that era. There was always a name act ready to help with a benefit during KEXL’s last days. The sad ending in 1977 was inevitable. Doubleday, the giant book publisher, was closing out its broadcasting arm, and KEXL’s last night on the air was noted by our party at Johnny Goode’s Village Inn.

The T-shirts I had printed were apropos. They featured a tombstone with the epitaph:

KEXL is Dead

Here Lies the Last Free Radio Station

One armadillo standing by the grave held a Bible. A second armadillo was prone and weeping over the grave.

I think I shed a tear myself that night. I didn’t know the how nor the why of it all, but I knew I would be going back to the writing business. There was no other place for me in San Antonio radio. I didn’t even consider contacting another station.