The Wild Wild West of Radio


Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear: pre-iPod, pre-internet, pre-cellphone. Halcyon days of big hair, big voices, big ideas. In other words, FM Radio in Texas in the 1970s.

"Texas is a controlled chaos area. We exist that way," says Dusty Hill of ZZ Top, one of the many talking heads who supply testimony. And KLOL Rock 101 is a prime example of that controlled chaos.

The new film Runaway Radio is an affectionate and exuberant look at the heyday of "underground radio," as portrayed by the trajectory of KLOL. It was a time when every city had a signature FM station, disc jockeys chose what to play from a plethora of music, and a thriving counterculture emerged. FM Radio reflected the eclecticism and rowdiness of the times.

Writer/Director Mike McGuff has made a tight, painstaking document of the era. Runaway Radio is joyous, fast-paced, and packed with nostalgia, enlisting as talking heads the likes of Dusty Hill as well as Lyle Lovett, Melissa Etheridge, and Sammy Hagar. Besides the interviews done for the film, Mr. McGuff draws upon lots of audio material and some worthy VHS images.

The station began as KTRH in Houston, broadcasting from The Rice Hotel, which had the dubious distinction of being JFK’s last stop on his way to Dallas. Then it transitioned to KLOL Rock 101. The film's title comes from their original logo designed by artist Bill Narum, a Zap Comics-y image of a radio extolling "free at last!" and running with an iron ball chained to its ankle. Back then, KLOL called itself "Mother Family." This soon gave way to images of the Silver Surfer and the Rock and Roll Army.

Deejays were folk heroes, on-air personalities like Pat Fant, Keith “The Nightwatchman” Myles, Lenny Griffith—who dressed in bondage gear and was known as the Black Whip Traffic Master—and Dennis "Crash" Collins, all of whom had rabid followings. The drive-time duo of Stevens and Pruett were considered prototypes for Howard Stern's trashy style (speaking of trashy, in Runaway Radio we even get a glimpse of Morton Downey Jr.).

Runaway Radio brings back memories of a formative time, and Mike McGuff makes the most of his resources and the reminiscences of many who lived it and are still alive. We see garish promotions and collusion with name rock bands. Dayna Steele, the station's first woman jockey, remembers throwing a party attended by luminaries like Joan Jett ("Where can I take a piss?" "Not the plant."), taking the members of Cheap Trick back to her apartment for sandwiches after a show, and the time she loaned her car to Carmine Appice, drummer for Vanilla Fudge and Ozzy Osborne, and ended up storing his massive drum kit in her living room.

KLOL pulled off celebrity coups as well. In a promotion, they offered to buy The Who outright for a million dollars they'd raised. They hosted a seemingly shy Bruce Springsteen, the brash comic Sam Kinison, and even had an extended chat with George Harrison, live on the air, which is comprehensive enough to have been archived in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

"KLOL was my education," says Lyle Lovett. "It's a wonderful benefit [now] to have everything at your fingertips, to be able to listen to anything you can think of, on demand. But you're limited by what you can think of. And I think what we've given up […] is the wisdom of people like Crash and Dayna Steele."

In the world of FM radio, all this commotion was intended to best the competition and create a cultlike following, for as long as it would last.

They all bemoan the exact minute the call letters of KLOL were unceremoniously converted, on-air and without advance warning, to those of a Latin Dance station, effectively ending an era.

Mike McGuff's documentary Runaway Radio is focused and fun and a welcome return to a time that was simultaneously more innocent and out of control, when a listener could turn to a local radio station for "community, attitude, and a lifestyle."


Runaway Radio. Directed by Mike McGuff. 2024. Distributed by Dark Star Pictures. Available on VOD. 83 minutes.

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