Volunteer Dj Stint Turns Into Second Career

Former Payson Town Manager Fred Carpenter now concentrates on music


Life's funny.

You never know when some dumb, little moment is a turning point in disguise.

Witness the life of Fred Carpenter, whose decades of public service led him to his five-year stint as Payson town manager -- which ended last year in an ice crystal flurry of controversy.

But the turning point that led to his latest incarnation as a DJ for weddings and special events and Saturday morning music host on KCMA (98.5 FM) came almost unnoticed nearly a decade ago. At the time, he was town manager of Buckeye, then a sleepy rural community on the outskirts of Phoenix. Someone suggested the town throw a dance for the kids in Buckeye. When Carpenter heard that the only thing standing between the desperately bored teenagers of Buckeye and a happy Friday night was a DJ, he volunteered.

"I kind of got roped into it," he says now.

So every week, he scoured the record stores and bought the current top-10 to gladden the hearts of the restless youth of Buckeye.

Turns out, the career bureaucrat had music in his soul -- and a knack for making people dance.

"So gradually, people started asking me to do other stuff," says Carpenter.

Fast forward through a career in public service and the itinerant life of a town manager. Most city and town managers keep a bag packed. They must carry out the policies of whoever has the votes on the town council. And small towns being what they are, today's 4-3 majority inevitably becomes tomorrow's 3-4 minority. And unless the town manager is exceptionally light on his feet, the incoming majority finds a way to blame him for the sins of the old majority. So town managers all have their firings and their contract buyouts and their interesting and speckled resumes.

After getting his master's in public administration from Arizona State University, the Army veteran did an internship in Guadalupe, served as the first town manager of Prescott Valley, spent 12 years running Buckeye, did a three-year stint in Heston, Kansas, ran Wickenburg for four years and then served as the Payson town manager for five years.

And during much of that time, he accumulated a massive collection of music so he could play the sound track to the great moments of people's lives -- especially weddings. He also took on a part-time job as a radio disc jockey first at a radio station in Wickenburg and now at KCMA (98.5 FM).

His local show airs for two hours on Saturday morning and is partially sponsored by the Payson Roundup. Listeners are treated to the eclectic wanderings of a lifelong music lover and would never suspect from his insightful comments on obscure music trivia and musician meltdown, that he spent most of his life dodging council crossfires and getting the roads paved, the parks planted and the budget balanced.

"This is totally different from local government," he says happily. "When you're playing music -- everybody's happy. In government you can never make everybody happy, no matter what you do."

When it comes to picking tunes for the radio show -- he's on a mission.

"My philosophy is that I want to come up with songs -- and artists -- people don't hear all the time. I won't be playing Suicidal Tendencies, but will find people like Leo Kottke, Lyle Lovett and John Pryne. Or when you do play someone people know, play the songs they don't hear.

"Everyone plays "Margaritaville," but when I play Jimmy Buffett, I can pull any one of 50 great singles that no one ever hears. Rolling Stones, REM, John Stewart -- they have a great body of work, most of which you never hear on the radio."

So he's collecting the last of his seven-months of severance pay from Payson, filing for his public employee pension, signing up for Social Security, making people dance at weddings, introducing people to songs they didn't know they'd love on the radio -- and making no plans to leave Payson.

After a long career as a public service vagabond, Payson is home.

"Payson is full of people who are just glad to be away from someplace else," he says.

He's made a vow to stay out of local politics, with its rumors, personal attacks and the certainty that everything you do will royally upset someone.

Still, he hopes the town officials will concentrate on the single greatest economic need in town -- providing a convention and activity center and event-oriented hotel into town to take advantage of the potential for tourism.

"The only thing keeping this community from reaching its full potential is the lack of a hotel and convention center. That's the key to the economic future here. Convention business is midweek and it will just change everything if you can get 300 or 400 people here in the middle of the week looking for something to do. We're easier to get to than Sedona or Flagstaff -- and there are 1.5 million people living just an hour away.

"Our problems are largely self-imposed -- our failure to take advantage of our long suite is our greatest shortcoming."

He pauses, grins and catches himself getting worked up about local politics -- and the effort to lay down the infrastructure that sustains any community that has been his passionate life's work.

"I'm not entering the current political fray, at all. I did that for 32 years -- I'm not going to get beat up anymore."

Besides, he's got to dig out those unplayed Jimmy Buffett gems -- and the buried treasures of the Rolling Stones. Somewhere, people have gathered in a group and they're yearning to break loose and dance -- although they may not know it yet. Somewhere tucked away in his playlist is the song that will linger in the mind of a young bride for the rest of her life.

But life is like that.

You never know when you're two-stepping through a turning point.

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