It doesn’t make any sense on paper that KNON, Dallas’ forever eclectic and totally community-supported radio station, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
“There’s the board that survived the tornado,” says station manager Dave Chaos, pointing at the cream-colored sound board in the main studio, alluding to the 2019 twister that demolished one of its several previous homes.
“It’s survived more than that,” says Jesse Gonzalez, one of the station’s other three staffers. He’s setting up for his Friday afternoon slot as DJ Kane, where he spins the station’s trademark “Latin Energy” mix: a blend of Tejano, hip-hop, freestyle, cumbia, and more. He’s wearing a KNON baseball jersey that’s been stabbed with a little French flag pin as he sets up his controller. It’s Bastille Day, and producer Pierre Jacobson is a recent French expat. (I’m offered red, white, and blue cookies for the occasion.)
All around the studio are plaques commemorating people who have donated at least $1,000 to the station, including names familiar to long-time listeners as well as local companies like Jay Jones Realty and EZ Out Bail Bonds. These are the station’s most generous donors. In a radio world run by Audacy, Cumulus, and iHeartMedia (and to a far lesser extent, NPR), KNON gets no government or corporate support. Instead, it runs almost entirely on the enthusiasm of its volunteers who make up what has to be one of the most eclectic programming schedules in American radio.
“We’re real people who love music, who spend a lot of time looking for music and sharing it with others,” says Chaos. “You can’t Google ‘What’s my next favorite song?’ or ‘What’s the next genre of music that I had never realized that I’m going to love?’ But there’s that person on KNON, that volunteer DJ, who is gonna share it with you.”
Gonzalez’ slot, which seamlessly combines Spanish and English-language music (and banter), is preceded by three hours of soul and blues by veteran singer Gregg A. Smith. It’s followed by Texas Renegade Radio — two hours of country music — and that’s just the Friday schedule from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nearly every musical demographic in North Texas gets airtime, so long as their DJs can meet their fundraising goals during the station’s pledge drives.
Its motto, “The Voice Of The People,” is one adopted by many community stations. In KNON’s case, though, it feels uniquely accurate. “Nobody has the multi-format set up the way we have it,” says Gonzalez. “I think in some communities, it’s just not as welcome as it is in ours. We’re so diverse but we’re all the same out on the airwaves, just trying to take care of our people.”
A natural disaster and a pandemic are just the latest hurdles that the station has cleared in the four decades since it started in a ramshackle white house on San Jacinto in Old East Dallas in 1983. Just getting going was somewhat dramatic: The broadcast date was dictated by an FCC deadline that basically mandated the station get on the air by July 31 of that year or forfeit its license. (At the time, KNON was located on your dial at 90.9 FM.)
Volunteers frantically pooled money and fundraised door-to-door to buy ancient broadcasting equipment that required days of work to repair and install in the house’s upstairs closet. The downstairs was occupied by the Dallas chapter of ACORN, whose workers and funds were integral to the start of the station. Just under the wire, KNON started broadcasting at 3:15 a.m. on July 30 — then, it faced the challenge of what to put on the air. For most of that first month, its programming was mostly made up of gospel shows from South Dallas preachers. “That was the network that we had,” says Chaos.
But word spread, and by the end of 1983 the station’s schedule looked nearly as diverse as it does today. Plenty of shows are still on the air 40 years later: Beyond Bows and Arrows, the longest-running Native American radio program in Texas; Lambda Weekly, one of the country’s longest-running shows dedicated to LGBTQ issues; an ACORN/Labor Hour, an early iteration of what’s become the Worker’s Beat; and a Grateful Dead show, which started after Dave Moynihan stumbled on the earliest version of KNON while fiddling with his radio dial. (One of the nation’s longest-running hip-hop shows, Knowledge Dropped, Lessons Taught with EZ Eddie D, arrived not long after.)
“I looked around, and I said, ‘I’ve got a bigger record collection than you guys,'” says Moynihan of the first time he visited the station in that summer of 1983. They asked him to do a show, and the rest — one of the nation’s longest-running Grateful Dead radio shows, which Moynihan hosted for its first decade and airs today as Lone Star Dead every Friday night at 8 p.m. — is history. “It was like Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” Moynihan says of the station’s first studio. “When you opened that door, you would have no idea what you were going to encounter.”
KNON faced another enormous challenge almost immediately: Criswell College (then known as The Criswell Center for Biblical Studies) and its radio station KCBI (both led by the First Baptist Church of Dallas) had its eye on KNON’s 100,000 watt broadcast license. Criswell petitioned the FCC to take it over in 1986, a request that was initially granted. “There are nine religious stations in Dallas,” Jeff Murray, KNON’s station manager at the time, told the New York Times of their appeal. “We’re giving listeners something they don’t get anywhere else. The old Dallas image still hangs on, but Dallas is a very diverse community. The city council and corporate boards might not reflect it, but we do.”
After a protest that was, according to the Times, attended by “75 rap artists, a high school marching band, homosexual rights and Grey Panthers groups, motorists in low riders, country musicians [and] local politicians…in what was undoubtedly the most diverse parade in Dallas’ history,” KNON and KCBI came to an agreement to swap frequencies in 1988. Less serious complaints and issues have popped up over the station’s long history — “Can KNON stay solvent without selling out?” this magazine asked in a 1992 feature on the station, written just under a decade into its existence — but it’s been at 89.3 FM ever since. “I think we broke every rule that they had for radio,” says Moynihan. “But that was part of the beauty.”
Dave Chaos, KNON’s current manager, started out as a listener in the station’s early days. He remembers hearing “good Clash songs” on Pajama Party, a show famously hosted by a teenage DJ named Shaggy, and made a pledge. When he went down to the station to pay, he felt immediately at home. “I had thought, ‘You know, I don’t know how long I’ll make it here,'” says Chaos, who had just moved to Dallas-era Dallas from Madison, Wisconsin, a hippie-friendly college town. “But when I discovered KNON, it was really an introduction to what I feel, to this day, is the real Dallas.”
He became a DJ the way most KNON DJs do today: by starting out as a volunteer in 1987, answering the phones and doing various administrative tasks, waiting for a slot to open up. His first was Sundays from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. (today, he’s on the air Thursday mornings from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. in one of the station’s “Morning Blend” slots), where he played punk and reggae. It was a chaotic enough mix, as he puts it, to inspire the moniker that is now on his business card.
Initially Chaos and his fellow DJs got the word out by passing around flyers on street corners and canvassing every record shop “all the way out to Record Town in Fort Worth,” as Chaos recalls. The station quickly became an integral part of the Dallas music scene. Moynihan was the first DJ in the country to play Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians’ “What I Am” on the radio, and they were far from the only future stars who were fixtures of the old white house. “I remember being down there one day when Lyle Lovett walked in (wearing) a nice t-shirt and blue jeans, and he handed out copies of his first record,” he says. Moynihan got to hang out with the Dead at a 1988 Dallas show, and told Phil Lesh to listen to his show.
Gregg A. Smith‘s music was played on the station long before he became a DJ in 1992. “I figured I’d do it for about six months,” Smith says. Thirty-one years later, he’s still on air at KNON every week. In fact, he’s about to perform at the station’s 40th anniversary benefit on Sunday at the Granada Theater. “To share all this great music without having all the borders and limitations, to be a blessing to others without having your hands tied — that’s something you can’t put a price on,” he says. “Music is meant to be shared with everybody in the world, and this station is one of the stations that understands that.”
“I think we broke every rule that they had for radio. But that was part of the beauty.”DJ Dave Moynihan
There are people who have been listening to his shows for decades who he’s never met, but feel like family. He remembers one woman who listened to his show while incarcerated and came to the station as soon as she was released. She cried on his shoulder. Another time, he was able to help furnish a young blind man’s apartment through the generosity of his listeners. Smith started the station’s annual toy drive in 2002; now it serves 500 to 600 children a year. “A lot of stations have come and gone since KNON started, but we’re still here,” he says. “It’s a testament to what we bring to the community, because we’re kept here by the community.”
Much of the station’s vast lore — at least what could be salvaged after the 2019 tornado — is plastered all over its walls. Chaos’ office has a signed Willie Nelson poster (he’s sent plenty of drops — e.g. “Hello, this is Willie Nelson and you’re listening to KNON” — over the years) and hand-painted signs that hung on the station’s first home. There’s a David Bowie poster that Thin White Duke signed to Dave Chaos. (“Nice station,” he wrote.) Old benefit show posters extend across every available surface, featuring familiar names like Robert Earl Keen, Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, and Lyle Lovett. There is a break room with locked cabinets full of CDs — yes, plenty of the DJs still use them — and a closet full to the brim with KNON merch.
Today, KNON has “a couple hundred thousand” listeners a week, and it has conceded a little to the 21st century with its beautiful app, which only has a play button, and its streaming-only offshoot, KNON Now, launched in 2022. But terrestrial radio for and by the people is still at the core of KNON’s mission. “Radio is still very popular in many of the communities we serve,” says Chaos. “Not everybody has the newest digital device. They have a radio in the kitchen, and a radio in the workplace, and that workplace might be an auto shop or a restaurant kitchen. We’re very fortunate that a lot of those people have them on KNON.”
The station’s four-person staff is basically on-call 24/7 to keep things running. There’s Chaos, who has been the station manager since 2002; Gonzalez, an Oak Cliff native who does “everything” but specializes in events and underwriting; Christian Lee, the pledge drive coordinator; and Jacobson, who helps with production.
Gonzalez grew up listening to the station: “89.3 was one of the only stations playing freestyle,” he says. “Every Saturday from 7 to 12 p.m., my uncles would come over, crack some Bud Lights on the porch and turn on KNON.” He started DJing on the station as a guest nearly two decades ago, when he still had to haul records and turntables up to the elevator-less studio. He moved to corporate radio, working at KZZA (106.7) for a few years, but it didn’t stick.
“There was always somebody that was in charge of deciding what we were going to do; you never had any freedom,” he says. “On top of that, you don’t really connect with the audience the way you do at KNON. People will call and message, telling us what they want to hear, what they don’t want to hear, what they like, how it makes their day…you didn’t necessarily get that at the corporate stations.”
KNON’s focus on Spanish-language programming is one of the biggest things that sets the station apart from its community radio peers around the country. “Our biggest audience is our Latin audience,” says Chaos. Putting Tejano next to blues and country is as unconventional as it gets in the hidebound world of radio formats, but it’s always worked at KNON. “It’s a family,” says Gonzalez. “This place fuels different communities to be able to connect with each other.”
All the members of that family agree that the 2019 tornado that destroyed their Central Expressway studio just four years after they’d moved into it was the biggest test the station has faced. “I remember standing in the wreckage, and I was like, ‘Well, you’re gonna either feel sorry for yourself and just throw it in, or you’re gonna rally.'”
But the people — the people of “The Voice Of The People,” and the people of Dallas — kept the station going. “We made it through the tornado, but it wasn’t because of any big donors,” says Chaos. “Nobody from the [city of Dallas] came up and said, ‘You’re a valuable asset to Dallas. Here’s a big chunk of money to help you get through this.’ No Mark Cuban. No Ross Perot, Jr. Of our many billionaires and millionaires in this town, not one showed up. But that pledge drive we did right after that happened was the biggest pledge drive we’ve ever had. All done one $50 pledge at a time.”
That pledge drive was conducted from a makeshift studio in a shed near their radio tower in Cedar Hill, which they pulled together in time to get back on the air in less than two days.
“Because we had to, man,” says Chaos. “We were not stopping. No way.”
“A lot of stations have come and gone since KNON started, but we’re still here. It’s a testament to what we bring to the community, because we’re kept here by the community.”Gregg A. Smith, a DJ and musician
Almost immediately after they’d found their current location, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and introduced a new series of challenges to overcome. But the station never went off the air. DJs used socks as microphone covers because they could be washed easily. They created elaborate cleaning routines for the studio. “They’d put on a CD or a thumb drive with 10 minutes of content on it, wipe everything down, pull the sock off, put on their mask, walk out, and the next DJ would be six feet away,” says Chaos. Despite having dozens of people come through the studio each week — the 60 core DJs and their helpers — the station never had an outbreak.
After making it through catastrophe after catastrophe, the station is celebrating its anniversary in characteristic fashion. “Our first year, we had country, rock, blues and Tejano on,” Chaos says. “So I went back and found artists that are in those genres who have been doing benefits with us the longest, and I put them all together on one show.”
This benefit, on July 30 at the Granada Theater, will mark the first time that the station has had an explicitly cross-genre show: Veteran singer-songwriter Matt Hillyer of Eleven Hundred Springs, good-timing retro rockers Igor and the Red Elvises, R.L. Griffin (proprietor of R.L.’s Blues Palace in South Dallas) and the Blues Palace Show Band, as well as Gregg A. Smith and Fat Daddy, and Tejano artist Jay Perez will share the stage during the marathon concert, which will stretch across Sunday afternoon.
That improbable, unpretentious diversity is at the very core of what makes KNON unique.
“It’s not about a vainglorious DJ looking for the perfect segue between this song and that,” says Moynihan. “It’s more about what you believe in and what values you expose. That’s the real beauty of that station.”
That such a progressive-minded and radically inclusive enterprise exists deep in the heart of Texas is as surprising to people outside the city now as it was 40 years ago. “Some ragtag bunch of volunteers putting great music on the radio simply because they love great music, that’s not what people think when they think about Dallas,” says Chaos. “I go to community radio conferences, and when I say ‘I’m from Dallas, Texas,’ people go [gasps]. They’re in California or Colorado, where you can’t throw a stone without hitting a community station, and that’s great for their communities.”
He pulls out a picture from one of KNON’s twice-annual meetings at Sons of Hermann Hall, where all the station’s many DJs get together. They take a group photo that makes its diversity even more obvious. “The fact that this diverse group of people comes together to do what we do…that tells me that it’s really, really needed here, more than it probably is in a lot of places.”
“When the storm hit, the country guys, the blues guys, and the Latin energy guys were all there with gloves on asking, ‘How do we do this?'” Gonzalez says. “If you could have seen the different folks just working in unison — we got out of that place in 24 hours, and then we got back on the air in 36 hours or something like that. It’s just something different. It’s something special, and it’s something I believe in.”