Dennis Newhall, rock jock

Newhall, who began his career at Sac State 50 years ago, is back at the legendary K-ZAP, where he DJed from 1968-92.


Dennis Newhall can be heard on the low-powered station K-ZAP, 93.3 FM, in and around the city of Sacramento, and beyond those borders on Capital Public Radio, KHJZ, 89.3, Saturdays at 7 p.m.

In the not-too-distant future, Dennis Newhall will reach a 50-year career milestone. It began at KERS, the campus radio station at Sacramento State University. And it has endured through the tribulations of the radio, an industry in which change sometimes occurs faster than the duration of a top-40 single. Newhall, 66, has worked for several radio stations in Sacramento and San Jose, most notably his current long tenure at Capital Public Radio. He worked at K-ZAP, 98.5 FM, Sacramento’s iconic rock station from 1968 to 1992. He’s also DJed at KROY and KSFM in Sacramento and KSJO in San Jose.

He’s been back at the relaunched K-ZAP, FM 93.3 for three years. The low-powered station received a substantial boost on January 20 when its programming began a weekly one-hour slot beginning at 7 p.m. on Saturday on CapRadio, the Sacramento NPR affiliate. Newhall is the host.

When and how did the idea for the K-ZAP relaunch happen?

About five years ago, word got around about K-ZAP on KDVS. They turned over 48 hours of programming for any ex K-ZAP jocks who wanted to do a shift. It turned into all kinds of things. A bunch of us said, “That will be fun.” So we all did it. We got a lot of comments. Two weeks later, I got word the [Federal Communications Commission] was going to open up a window for low-powered FM stations. So, I called up [former K-ZAP DJ] Tom Cale and asked what it would be like. We applied and eventually got the license.

So why did you bring it back?

One of the main reasons we wanted to bring K-ZAP back is that we felt after the corporatization of radio, especially in the ’80 and ’90s, it was no wonder Spotify was doing well—because radio sucked. It had long, long spot breaks. What’s being broadcast on the radio is not very interesting.

You’ve also been working at Capital Public Radio for a long time. It’s good radio, right?

I admire everything we are doing at CapRadio, because they’re putting energy and resources into making programming better instead of figuring out ways to save money and cut it down to where it’s just good enough to keep people listening. And it’s paid off.

Is radio today unlike radio from 40 years ago?

Completely. AM radio was its own thing. FM radio came along as a throwaway, an afterthought, a toy for the kids. K-ZAP was one of the early second-tier cities that had an underground freeform station. When it started, it was play-what-you-want, and the less familiar the better. Then it became a little more formatted. Freeform is really for college stations because no one really has to make money or have ratings. The reason we could have K-ZAP is that the owner was a millionaire.

How do you decide what you are going to play, and can you still find something different?

Not everything we play is different. A lot of it is from very well-known artists. There are artists we avoid who you can hear all day long on classic rock stations. But there are classic rock songs we do play, and it’s all based on “gut.” We don’t have focus groups. It’s just a matter of taste and knowledge by a bunch of folks who think we know what we are doing. I always say the best model for the sound we are looking for is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It’s not loud, heavy rock or metal. It’s just American rock ’n’ roll.

That’s an interesting choice. Can you elaborate?

I would defend that in history, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is the best rock ’n’ roll band. I say that above the Rolling Stones. Their records have been more consistent. I say it because, although the Beatles made great records, they never got to tour like a modern tour.

You’ve been in business a long time. Are there people you admire in the industry?

When I have time, I’m either in silence or listening to my own CDs. I’ve always had this hunger for what’s next. I was never one of those people who would take a record and play it over and over. I hate that. One of the people I admired was Johnny Hyde. He died last year. He got stuff sent in from England nobody else had. He inspired me because as a kid, I’d listen every night and ask myself, “What is he going to play next?”