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Frank Gray

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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
TODAY: Doc West has been a constant at WXKE radio, now 96.3 FM, for 37 years.

WXKE stalwart likes change

File
1999: Doc West works the phone bank at Rock 104, WXKE Radio.
Courtesy
1981: Doc West, center, poses with members of the band 38 Special in the WXKE studio.

In a world where the only certainty seems to be that nothing will last, Rock 104 has been a sort of anchor for people longing for the good old days.

The radio station, whose call letters are WXKE, started playing classic rock back in 1977, the month Elvis died, as a matter of fact, and it hasn’t changed for 37 years.

It’s the only station in town where you have a hope of hearing “Sunshine of Your Love” or “Tommy” or any of a thousand other classic rock songs cut so long ago that their original fans are old enough to live in nursing homes now.

Other stations, in promoting themselves, have spoofed WXKE, one referring to a station that plays lost Jimi Hendrix solos, a not-to-thinly veiled reference to Rock 104.

It’s amazing to think that you could have picked up a bumper sticker for the station when Jimmy Carter was president, and it would still be accurate – same call letters, same programming.

But this month, that all changed.

The station changed hands on June 2, bought by Adams Radio Group, a Minnesota company, and a little more than a week ago, it changed its frequency from 103.9 to 96.3.

To ordinary folks, that might sound like inviting disaster, but the station spent several days announcing every five minutes or so that it would be changing its frequency.

Apparently it’s worked, and Doc West, who’s been the face of WXKE since he came here at 27, couldn’t be happier.

Sitting in a broadcast booth at what will become the station’s home on Lower Huntington Road, the walls covered with photographs and posters of the likes of Hendrix and Jim Morrison, West likes to think the last 37 years have paid off.

“This is my baby,” West said of the station. He has three children, he says, a daughter, a son and WXKE. “My blood children,” he says, “say that Rock 104 came first.”

Now, the station, with the same format but a different frequency, will get to grow up, so to speak.

For decades it broadcast with only 3,000 watts, a signal that made it hard – if not impossible – to pick up after you got outside the city limits, West said.

“We were always the underdog,” West said. “It made us work harder” to reach what he calls fellow music lovers. “I don’t like to call them listeners.”

With the move to 96.3, it will have a taller tower and more power, 25,000 effective radiated watts.

West had a bunch of messages from listeners on a computer.

He played some of them for me.

Someone from Nappanee was delighted to finally be able to pick up the station.

A woman from North Manchester said the same thing.

A man who said he had to travel all over northeast Indiana on his job was ecstatic he could finally pick up the station as he traveled.

So it’s all good news.

“I knew we were going to be sold,” West said. “I knew there would be personnel changes,” something that worried him.

“I become attached to people,” he said. “I don’t like the idea that we’re nomads,” wandering from station to station and town to town.

Apparently, besides the change in frequency, not much else is changing, which pleases West. Now, he says, those years of work he’s put in are paying off.

But there are two issues.

West pulled up his sleeve. He has a now-outdated Rock 104 tattoo on his shoulder.

And they’re going to redo the broadcast booths with state-of-the-art equipment, but they’re not supposed to put anything on the walls.

How can a classic rock station not have pictures of Hendrix and Morrison on the walls?

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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