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ALUMNI ROLL CALL: NICK DONOVAN CONTINUES TO LET THE GOOD TIMES, TUNES, ROLL

Nick Donovan - then and nowAs a young man attending South High School, Nick Knezevich had two passions: old classic cars and Top 40 and oldies tunes.

As Nick Donovan, he was able to turn both into a successful and rewarding career.

In Pueblo and Southern Colorado, few names, and voices, are as well known as those of Nick Donovan. For more than 30 years, Nick’s distinctive voice and personality have captured the fancy of thousands of listeners, first with the iconic KDZA and now with KPHT 95.5, where he serves as program director.

His talents, however, have taken him far beyond the broadcasting booth.

A partnership with the National Street Rod Association sees Nick travel the country to provide music and atmosphere – through the “Rockin’ Road Show” – for showcase events like the Street Rod Nationals, a fixture at the Colorado State Fairgrounds for decades.

Through the iHeartRadio network, Nick hosts a nationally syndicated show heard by listeners from coast to coast.

In the Pueblo community, his live remotes have added flavor and personality to a host of events, from charitable fundraisers to the breaking of the ground for the new Centennial High School.

Additionally, Nick’s Kool Kustom Kar Shows continue to attract lovers of sleek autos and good timin’ music.

And let’s not forget the Jingle Bell Rock, a 50-year holiday tradition that’s become synonymous with Nick, KPHT and those cryptic clues.

But before there was Nick Donovan, there was Nick Knezevich, a car-loving South Sider who began his Pueblo School District 60 journey at Highland Park Elementary.

An experience that still resonates with him.

“I enjoyed school the whole time I was there: until maybe the last part of my senior year, when I just wanted to get it over with and get on to doing something else,” Nick said.

Nick’s years at Highland Park were especially memorable, due in large part to the educators who impacted the future disc jockey’s life in an affirmative manner.

“I can still remember some of my teachers from Highland Park back in the ‘60s, like Mrs. Smith, Mr. Alt, Mrs. Muckel. That’s the kind of influence teachers had on you back then.”

With the District transitioning from the junior high to middle school format, Nick ended up attending both Pitts and Roncalli before becoming a South Colt.

“High school was a lot of fun,” Nick said. “Going to the games and different things was always a lot of fun. And we had huge classes back then. If I remember, our Class of 1976 had 497 students. We had rotating schedules, because we couldn’t all fit in the classroom. 

“And when you were switching classes, the halls were so packed, it was like a traffic jam, with kids trying to get to class.”

Although he didn’t yet have designs on a career in radio, Nick did take a Mass Communications class that provided a foreshadowing of the tools he would eventually employ to ply his trade.

Born into a family of car lovers, Nick quickly developed a taste for classic rides and hot rods that continues to this day. His first car, a 1958 Ford Ranchero, is still with him, although not currently running.

“My brother and I grew up around cars,” Nick said. “And to this day, we still mess with and goof with those old cars. I’d have a lot more money if I didn’t mess with those cars.”

Another fixture in Nick’s life was the music and commentary pouring out of KDZA. Whenever it was time to work on a hot rod, or take a cruise, the radio dial was permanently affixed to 1230 AM. Nick Donovan in the studio

“I loved KDZA back in the ’60s and ‘70s,” Nick said. “It was Top 40 back then, so in the early ‘70s, you’re talking Paul McCartney and Wings, the tail end of the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and what we now know as Classic Rock. 

“It was a lot of great music right before disco.”

Far from a casual listener, Nick took a shining to the KDZA jocks who spun the discs and became local celebrities in the process.

“I remember those disc jockeys vividly: Frank Provenza, J. Ralph Carter, Mike Salardino, Randy J and Lee Douglas, with whom I became good friends,” Nick said. “Those were the guys I grew up listening to while I thought to myself, ‘How much fun would it be to work in that environment?’

“But that was just a pipe dream, because I figured that once I graduated, I would become a mechanic or something like that. But I remained fascinated with the whole Wolfman Jack and ‘American Graffiti’ persona.”

For a decade, Nick worked as a heavy equipment mechanic and truck driver. But the thought of one day having his name associated with KDZA was ever-present in his mind.

At the age of 28, with his career path seemingly set in stone, Nick’s life took a turn: straight to 1230 on the radio dial.

“I had known Lee Douglas and went to school with Mike Daniels, who started his career in radio,” Nick said. “So I knew a little of what was going on at the station. So I met with the program director at that time, Rip Avina, and we got to be kind of friends.

“So when an opening came up, I conned him into hiring me.”

The weekend gig required Nick to ensure that “canned” programming, such as Dick Clark’s “Rock, Roll and Remember,” went off without a hitch. It was Nick’s job to intersperse the pre-recorded shows with snippets of Dick announcing, ‘You’re listening to Rock, Roll & Remember on KDZA’ so that listeners would feel like the “American Bandstand” host was broadcasting straight from the Pueblo studio.

It wasn’t much, but it was a start, and Nick relished the opportunity.

“And then one day I got the call from Rip: ‘You need to go on at midnight, because so-and-so is sick and can’t make it,’” Nick said. 

It was the big break Nick had been waiting for.

“But before I went on, Rip told me I would need a new last name, because ‘Knezevich is too hard,’” Nick recalled. “I could keep ‘Nick,’ but I needed something simpler for a last name.”

While visiting his Mother, Nick noticed that she was watching the John Wayne movie “Donovan’s Reef.” Then, while at a friend’s garage, a “Donovan Racing Engines” sticker caught his eye.

“And then Lee Douglas was playing ‘Mellow Yellow’ by Donovan,” Nick said. “And so with all of them together, I figured I would use ‘Nick Donovan’ for the midnight show until I came up with something better.

But once you use it, you’re stuck.”

John Elway shaking hands with Nick DonovanDespite a critical self-assessment of that first midnight gig, the legend of Nick Donovan was born.

“It was horrible,” Nick said of the session. “I remember telling my Mom, ‘That was the worst 6 hours of my life’ because of the nervousness and the stress. My voice was just shaky.”

Regardless, Nick’s inaugural show remains ingrained in local entertainment lore.

“To this day, I have people tell me, ‘I remember when you first went on,’” Nick explained. “And I still remember that one of the first records I ever played was ‘Whispering Bells’ by the Del-Vikings.  Why we were playing that I don’t know, but I played it.”

Gradually, Nick found his groove as his responsibilities at the station increased. 

“They were looking for someone that was reliable, and I was reliable,” he said. “And in this business, it means a lot that you get to work on time and are reliable.”

Overnight and weekend gigs soon began to fill Nick’s work calendar, with his “Nick at Night” shows proving to be especially popular.

“And the next thing you know, I was doing afternoons, 2 to 6,” he said. “By 1979 or ’80, it was becoming a full-time job.”

With a natural ability to connect to listeners, and his finger on the pulse of ever-changing musical and industry trends, Nick soon became KDZA’s program director. 

“And it’s kind of been that way, for the most part, ever since,” Nick said.

With decades in the business, Nick has witnessed, first-hand, the advancements in the way music and talk is presented to listeners.

The fully automated digital operation of today is a far cry from the days when DJs had to scour through racks of “45s” in preparation for a show, stack them up near the control desk, and then physically cue up each disc on the turntable before hitting “play.” 

“And if you didn’t have a song on a single, you would have to play it off the full album,” Nick explained. “Then we went to carts, which looked like 8-tracks, and there was only one song on each cart. And the commercials came on carts too, so we had thousands of carts on the wall of the station.”

The compact disc revolution was next to hit radio, with that short-lived trend followed by the digital automation that now defines the industry. 

What hasn’t changed, however, is the amiable connection between that familiar voice coming through the speakers or headphones and the listening public. Nick with Mike Love (left) and Bruce Johnston (right) of the Beach Boys

“Back in the day, we would take live requests, especially on the weekends,” Nick said. “And we had a lot of things to give away: the ‘8th caller’ or ‘answer this question’ kind of stuff. So there was a lot of participation. And a lot of people would just call the radio station to talk. 

“We were the social media of the day.”

Today on KPHT, Nick is live on the air from 6 to 10 a.m. daily. In the afternoon, he can be heard across the nation through the iHeartRadio “Real Oldies” show.

“As far as KHPT, it’s one of the few stations around that’s strictly Pueblo,’” he said. “I try to do news that’s only related to Pueblo and we always try to sponsor all the Pueblo events going on, such as at the Riverwalk and the Nature Center.

“I do a contest called ‘The Answer Man’ on the air and on Facebook, and tons of people still play those contests. In fact, just a few minutes ago, I had a listener come in and pick up the prize she won.” 

One of the most touching and poignant interactions with a listener dates back years.

“This guy had gotten out of the Army, and was coming back,” Nick said. “And he told me, ‘I knew I was getting close to home when I heard you and I heard KDZA. It was the best feeling.’ 

“So I thought that was pretty cool to have that much of a connection.”

At one time, as many as 35 employees could be found in the building that hosted KDZA and several other stations.

Today, it’s just Nick and an advertising salesperson.

“That’s what I miss most about the old days: the camaraderie,” Nick said. “There was a time when you could come into the radio station at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and there would be a whole crew of people working.

“And it was great to have so many creative people in the building at the same time. You’d bounce a lot of stuff off each other, and there were some very fun times back in the day.”

The changes in the industry were not relegated to music. 

KDZA went dark in the early 1990s before re-emerging as KKPC after it was sold to Pueblo Community College. 

“When KDZA went dark, a lot of us ended up at 107.9 FM. That was KRYT, that had all the pink Cadillacs and cars and all that,” Nick said. “Then, the company that owned KCCY, which was McCoy Broadcasting, bought us and moved us from Highway 50 back to 24th Street. 

“And since a whole bunch of us had worked at KDZA, including J. Ralph Carter, we changed the name back to KDZA and brought back a whole bunch of that flavor. And I had saved a whole bunch of the KDZA jingles and stuff that was going in the trash: it was a big enough package that it sounded just like the old KDZA, with all the old guys back.

“And we stayed one of the top stations the whole time it was on: playing 30- and 40-year-old music.”

Today, what was once KDZA 1230 is now Fox Sports 1350 AM, with KPHT launched around 2005 to replace the classic KDZA of old.

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top with Nick DonovanAs Pueblo’s reigning music ambassador – and with KDZA a longtime partner with the Colorado State Fair – Nick has had a presence at most of the big-name concerts that have rolled through Pueblo. 

Through the years, he has had the opportunity to brush paths with some of the legends of the industry, including ZZ Top, The Beach Boys, The Turtles, Huey Lewis and the News, Everly Brothers, Johnny Rivers and Herman’s Hermits.

“Lee Douglas and I went to Gus’ Tavern with Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and had a few drinks,” Nick said. “He’s a great guy.”

Nick’s office is likewise covered in industry mementos and keepsakes, including autographed photographs of Wolfman Jack, Dick Clark, Jay Leno and Garth Brooks, and a lyric sheet autographed by the iconic Brian Wilson and Al Jardine of The Beach Boys.

Even though his work day starts at 4 a.m., “The Voice of Pueblo” said he is still having fun on the job and in the field.

“That’s one of the things I really like about Street Rods and the remotes: I’m right there one-on-one with the people and they’ll come up and ask for songs, or just to talk to you, just like the old days,” he said. “I hope they keep me around and I hope the Street Rod thing keeps going. Because right now, I kinda got the best of both worlds. 

“I could have done a lot of other things and made a lot more money, if I would have been there for 30-some years. But I’ve got no complaints. I have a good time and continue to have a good time. 

“It’s what I do.”