Bucking Trends With KNIX, Jim West watched it make broadcast history

BY Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Jim West considers himself lucky — in the right place at the right time.

In the late 1970s, he worked for KNIX when country legend and “Hee Haw” star Buck Owens owned it. West had a front-row seat to ratings victories just after “Urban Cowboy” hit the silver screen.

A Gilbert resident, West recalls his time in country radio in the new book, “KNIX: The Buck Owens Years,” with a foreword by Owens’ son, Michael. Heavy on photographs, the paperback outlines the Owens years chronologically.

“The station is still active today, but there are many, many listeners who remember when this radio station was No. 1 in the ratings for nearly 20 years. It’s a unique story. My connection was as an on-air talent for eight years,” West says.

A Tucson native, West began his broadcasting career while serving in the Air Force, from which he was discharged in 1976. He worked in the Tucson market for a couple years, before receiving a call from the KNIX program director in 1977. He didn’t get a job, due to an unexpected hiring freeze. However, Larry Daniels, KNIX’s radio programming executive, phoned two years later, and West was hired.

The Owens family had the ratings juggernaut until 1999, when he sold it to the company that became Clear Channel and later I Heart Radio.

“The station is still popular,” West says. “I decided this book was going to be focused on the early years when it became successful. Early on, the station was a tax write-off because it wasn’t making money.”

Then things turned around right about the time John Travolta and Debra Winger’s “Urban Cowboy” was released.

“A lot of people bought cowboy hats and boots and dressed in Western gear after that,” West says. “That helped the station as well. In 1980, we hit No. 1 — and for the next 20 years. It was an incredible run.”

To maintain its No. 1 spot, the on-air personalities hit the nightclubs for meet and greets, getting the word out about the station.

“We were shaking hands and kissing babies,” he says. “We’d see bumper stickers everywhere. We gave cash to people. They thought that was the greatest thing.

“Country fans are the greatest in the world, as far as loyalty. They have their favorite radio stations. Nobody wanted to leave it. It was such a well-run radio station.”

The office had its own gymnasium, which was unheard of in the early 1980s. Management considered building a swimming pool, too.

“They took care of their employees,” he says. “The management, Michael Owens, Buck’s son, was the general manager. We went out on holidays, like Christmastime, and took us up to resort hotels for the weekend. The bottom line was we worked hard, and we played hard.”

Owens understood the business and how to treat his employees. That, West says, led to the radio station’s success.

“A lot of us would consider us being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “The radio station was so popular the folks in Nashville and the country music industry put us on a pedestal to show other radio stations around the country how to do it, how to become successful.”

West says he’s proud and glad to have been a part of broadcasting history. Many of his former co-workers feel the same way.

“We feel fortunate that we were in the right place at the right time,” he says. “KNIX always looked good on a resume. They did it right. They had the right tools, the right people, the right approach and the right strategies to gain listeners.

“I wrote this as a tribute to the radio station. I have great memories of it.”