Updated September 24, 2021 - 12:19 pm
In the nearly deserted studios of KUNV-FM, 91.5, on the UNLV campus, George Lyons attends to the tasks — connecting hard drives, reacquainting himself with the array of complicated-looking equipment that surrounds him, checking playlists, arranging notes for the smoothly flowing patter he’ll soon share — required to send his voice and the alternate musical reality he will create into the ether over the next four hours.
Lyons is host of “The Lyons Den Radio Show,” a staple of KUNV’s schedule since 1998. Airing Sundays from 8 p.m. to midnight, it’s a seamless meshing of rock, jazz, live sets from his own massive collection of concert tapes and anything else Lyons, a lifelong fan of music and radio who has an encyclopedic knowledge of both, feels is worth sharing with listeners, mixed up into a formatless format Lyons describes as “musical schizophrenia.”
For fans, Lyons’ show is appointment listening. For everyone else, it’s the most intriguing show you haven’t yet heard.
KUNV, the public radio channel operated by UNLV, is a jazz station. But on Sundays it offers an eclectic roster of programming that covers blues, Hawaiian music and reggae. “The Lyons Den” caps it off with a show that General Manager Ashton Ridley says has a particularly diverse audience.
KUNV’s general demographic consists of people around 50 years old, Ridley says, but “when you look at ratings, it goes across the board” for Lyons’ show, depending upon what particular bit of musical arcana he has scheduled. Lyons says his listenership ranges from “old hippies” to younger people only now discovering the older music. He recalls one UNLV student who thanked Lyons for turning him on to Yes and King Crimson, and another who “didn’t know Peter Gabriel was in Genesis” but learned on the show.
Lyons’ program also feels intimate in a way that bridges “somebody just being a disc jockey to an on-air person who’s someone you feel is in your living room,” Ridley says.
Lyons “is fantastic,” says Brian Spencer, host of “Nothin’ but the Blues,” which airs Sunday mornings on KUNV. “He has such eclectic tastes in music that a lot of people don’t have.” Unlike KUNV’s other Sunday shows, which play music from specific genres, “you never know what he’ll be doing week after week. Anything from Woody Guthrie to Black Sabbath,” Spencer says.
He laughs. “Some of it’s good; some of it’s not. It’s all a matter of taste.”
Raised on radio
It’s no accident that, to listeners of a certain age, “The Lyons Den” brings to mind the heyday of progressive FM radio. “I’ve said many times my show is a throwback to the original programming stuff I heard in the late ’60s to ’70s,” Lyons says.
He grew up in Los Angeles and got his first AM-FM radio around Christmas 1968, asking his mother what to do with it. “I said, ‘I already have a transistor radio.’ She said, ‘No, no, this one has two channels. This is FM and AM.’ I said, ‘What’s FM?’ My dad said, ‘Turn it on and see what you can find.’ ”
What Lyons found was stations playing entire album sides — “the first time I heard Yes’ ‘Fragile’ was on the radio” — and DJs who were molding disparate music genres into amazing new wholes.
“The first time I ever heard a rock ’n’ roll tune mixed was (Led Zeppelin’s) ‘Kashmir’ into (Pink Floyd’s) ‘Us and Them’ and back into ‘Kashmir,’ ” Lyons says. “It blew my mind.”
The music Lyons heard around his home was eclectic in its own way. “My dad was into country music in the car, my mom was listening to show tunes and Glen Campbell and Dinah Washington, my brother was listening to rock ’n’ roll, and my sister was listening to R&B. I just walked around my house and listened to everything.”
Meanwhile, his cousins were “hardcore bluegrass musicians,” and as an Armenian kid, he was familiar with Middle Eastern music and “watched them play all these weird instruments. So, like, the music was always there.”
Hitting the airwaves
Eventually, Lyons went into the music business, managing bands and performers and booking acts in Hollywood, and for five years was entertainment director at the original Roxbury nightclub. “So I’ve been in and around the industry for years,” he says. By the summer of ’96, when he moved to Las Vegas, “I essentially retired from the entertainment industry. But I listened to KUNV on a regular basis.”
Lyons knew Matthew Tuttle, aka DJ Shoe, who had a show on KUNV called “Dimensional Dance.” Tuttle introduced him to the station’s program director. “I just said, ‘I want to play a variety of music, no specific genre.’ Really, rock ’n’ roll, jazz, reggae, all sorts of genres I was into. I’d just like being able to plan a show and incorporate my live (concert) tapes in it.
“He couldn’t make hide nor hair of it,” Lyons says, smiling. “I bugged him for six months.” After Lyons offered to fill in whenever the station needed a sub, the program director asked him to cover a two-hour shift. Would he have to follow a playlist? “He said, ‘No, just pick some tunes.’ I went to the station and picked some tunes that I thought were cool tunes and started to play.”
It went well enough that the program director told Lyons, “I’ll give you a three-hour shift next week at this time and you can play all of your own music and bring in your own stuff.’ ”
About two hours in, Lyons says, the program director stopped by and said, “I don’t want your head to get too big, but you’re a hit. People are calling. They like your music.”
It marked the beginning of what would evolve into “The Lyons Den.” The usual format now sees the first half of the show devoted to a musical mix of whatever Lyons thinks worthy of sharing, followed by a concert set from his collection of tapes. (Smart money is on the Grateful Dead, because he’s a serious Deadhead who’s seen hundreds of shows.)
Initially, the show was called “Eclectic Excursions.” Lyons laughs. “Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?”
That lasted for three or four weeks. “Then, the guy who hired me said, ‘I don’t want to insult you. I think “Eclectic Excursions” is cool, but I think I’ve got a better name for your show. Let me hit you with it: “The Lyons Den.” ’
“I go, ‘Dude, are you kidding me? That’s perfect. You’re coming into my den and I’m playing you my music.’ ”
On this night, the entire show is a tribute to Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer who died a few days before. In his four-hour tribute, Lyons shares Stones cuts familiar and obscure, live performances and selections from Watts’ jazz albums. In between sets, his flowing, deep voice — you can hear the early FM DJ touches in his cadence and tone — conveys nuggets of information, biographical details, and even a story about the time Lyons met Watts. It’s a smooth performance worthy of those FM pioneers he listened to as a kid.
“My background is in music, but I’ve been such an incredible fan of radio through the years,” Lyons says. “I was really into listening to all of that stuff, and a lot of that stuff made its way into my show.
“There’s not a single thing rehearsed,” he adds. “For me, it’s all just stream of consciousness. I don’t know. My dad always used to tell me I’m full of useless information. So maybe that’s what it is.”
Lyons is proud of the show, and just as proud that it helps support KUNV-FM, a public radio station that relies on listeners for financial support. “I’ve never been paid a penny for this show. I’m a volunteer,” Lyons says. “The thing I’m most proud of for this show is, this show has raised over $300,000 for KUNV over 23 years.”
He’s also gratified — and he admits, “pleasantly surprised” — that he and the show have been recognized for the rare niche he has carved out of Southern Nevada’s radio landscape: induction into the Nevada Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2014 and a Best of Las Vegas nod that same year.
“I had never done this with any intention to be recognized,” he says. “I just had the intention of having a space on the radio to be able to play music because I thought it was cool.”