The jokes start the minute guests enter KUPD’s studio, helmed by program director Larry McFeelie and morning show host John Holmberg.
“If you want to sell a magazine, you want to find a male model,” Holmberg says with his dry sense of humor.
“Not me.” McFeelie and marketing/promotions director Mark Randall, show pity.
But it’s that humor, along with KUPD’s knack for chasing trends, that has kept the “Big Red Radio” afloat for 40 years; since June 1, 1960. McFeelie and Holmberg are feeling it. McFeelie has been with the station since 1995, and Holmberg, since the early 2000s.
“We don’t have turnover here,” Holmberg says frankly. “We’ve been a family as long as the station has been around. The cool part of it is we’ve been here for a good majority of it together.”
KUPD is bringing the 40-year celebration to Mesa Riverview Park for U Fest with Limp Bizkit, Killswitch Engage, Parkway Drive, P.O.D., Fever 333 and Ded on Saturday, April 20.
“It’s been pretty cool that we all get to celebrate the 40th and really feel like we’ve put in our piece,” McFeelie says.“Like John had mentioned, it feels like we’ve grown up with the radio station.”
In some sense, that’s true. Listeners frequently tell the jocks they’ve been listening to them since they were kids.
“That just makes me say, ‘God, no. You did not just say that,’” McFeelie says.
“But it’s great,” he’s quick to add. “It’s really neat because you don’t get that in a lot of markets. Arizona loves KUPD. We have this great relationship with our listeners.”
Holmberg is a longtime Arizona resident, whose father brought the family to the Grand Canyon State while working as a stadium contractor when Phoenix was a “Podunk town.”
“When we were little, we moved a lot,” says the Dobson High School graduate.
“Larry was born here, but I grew up here, for the most part, since I was in the fifth grade. Up until then, I didn’t really have a home. Phoenix became our base. I watched it grow from 1983 to today. It’s a totally different place.”
Holmberg calls it “Podunk,” but it’s more of an affectionate term. He’s fallen
in love with the Valley, the same way its rockers have taken to him.
“It’s a big city and it plays like a big city now, which is kind of neat,” Holmberg explains.
McFeelie is a Valley institution, just like his family. KUPD has been the Brophy High School graduate’s only employer, working his way up from overnights to program director, a title bestowed upon him in 2005. His father, Arnold, owned Karsh’s Bakery in Central Phoenix for 45 years until the business closed in 2014.
“I can remember in grade school, flipping through yearbooks, and reading those lists of questions,” McFeelie says with a frequent smile. “My favorite radio station was KUPD. I had no idea, obviously, that I was going to be working here, which is kind of neat.”
Families and friendships
McFeelie and Holmberg toss around the term “family,” and that extends to their friends as well. Their tenures at KUPD have afforded them experiences their 13-year-old selves would be crying over.
“There’s a sports analogy,” Holmberg says. “It’s like getting drafted by your favorite team. That’s the cool part. I’m a Cubs fan. It would be great, if I ever got into baseball, to play for the Cubs. That would be a dream.”
Joining McFeelie’s “team” since he was hired is a myriad of musicians who, fans forget, are people just like them. Through interviews and radio visits, McFeelie and Holmberg have seen those imaginary walls come down slowly.
“The shine wears off, which I hate in a way,” Holmberg says “I feel like the comedians are my highlights, like the Norm MacDonalds, the Gilbert Gottfrieds.
“They come in here and they know our names or they remember us. Hanging out with Jon Lovitz was the strangest thing in the world because, as a little kid, I was such a Jon Lovitz fan. There is he, talking to me and we’re hanging out. It was just surreal.”
For McFeelie, on the music side, he calls Corey Taylor from Slipknot a friend.
“It’s cool seeing the real side of this guy who I idolized when I was driving around in a little Civic and blasting his music,” McFeelie says. “All of a sudden, he’s a real person.”
Like all radio stations, KUPD has seen technology change. What was solely terrestrial is now streaming as well. Playlists have changed, too. Radio stations aren’t hyper-focused on one particular genre.
“When we first started, I think referencing pop music was like, ‘Oh, don’t do it!’” Holmberg says with mock anger. “Now, everybody gets a taste of everything. You have your preference, but everybody bites off something.” As much as KUPD has grown, Phoenix has, too.
“There’s some really great stuff coming from Phoenix,” McFeelie says. “With all the rock Phoenix has going on, we should have our own sound. We’ve never really put our feet in cement on that as much as we probably should at this point.
“We have watched the birth and growth of the coolest stuff, as we do at
this radio station.”
That “stuff” includes bands who they were sure were going to make it big, like Stabbing Westward or Trapt.
“When I first heard Trapt’s ‘Headstrong,’ I wrote an email to the entire programmers’ panel in the country saying this band is incredible,” McFeelie says.
“Then it just kind of petered out. But these days, the Highly Suspect is seriously going to be the next big thing. It’s cool because we can all just sit around and talk about our love of music. It’s just neat.”
Throughout the 40 years, there’s been a key to KUPD’s success.
“Everybody is kind of fly by the seat of their pants,” Holmberg says with a laugh. “We’re all easy going. We really don’t have a someone who’s an ‘anchor,’ so to speak. The whole crew can play.”
UFest w/Limp Bizkit, Killswitch Engage, Parkway Drive, P.O.D., Fever 333 and Ded, Mesa Riverview, 2100 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Mesa, 98kupd.com, 3 p.m. Saturday, April 20, $39-$179.