Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My first radio job

I’m starting a new on-going series – tales from my early radio days. Along with Netflix picks, travelogues, Friday questions, excerpts from my 60s book, award reviews, movie previews, early tales of my writing career, and eulogies I’ll be sprinkling these chestnuts in from time to time.

I always contend that the only way I got respect in radio was by getting out of it. There was no Billboard Disc Jockey of the Year award for me in the early 70s. Most of the time there were no jobs.

I can’t say my aspirations upon graduating from UCLA were all that high back then. I wanted to play the hits. My ultimate goal was to do nights in San Diego. Not even Los Angeles or San Francisco. I thought with my voice even San Diego was unrealistic.

And of course, when you just get out of college your career planning is not really long range. It never occurred to me that introducing Cher records four hours a night for fifty years might not be the best use of my time or talent. I just wanted to land at a station with a good jingle package. (Another job well done by a faculty career counselor.)

My first real on-air job came while I was still in college. A friend, John was a disc jockey/chief engineer at the number two rock station in Bakersfield. KERN 1410. (Note: Any AM station 1300 or higher on the dial has the signal range of your WIFI router.) He called to say they had an opening – Saturday nights from 6-midnight for $2.50 an hour!! I gasped at my good fortune. Quickly I called the program director (who was on the air at the time... playing "Gypsies Tramps and Thieves"). He said send a tape. I had one ready to go. It was a composite of shows I had done at the UCLA campus station.

I asked if I could drive up there and play it for him. With such a plum assignment as six hours a week on a station no one listened to in the middle of nowhere in sweltering summer heat for minimum wage I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

So on the 4th of July in Africa-hot heat I drove the 90 miles up to Bakersfield -- the Jewel of the Central Valley.

The station itself was a shack surrounded by three towers in a giant empty field. The previous tenant was probably the Unibomber. I met the program director, your standard long-haired hippy freak/radio executive who took me into the production studio, which was the size of the bathroom in a Greyhound bus. I was very proud of this tape. It must've taken me twenty hours to assemble. He wound it on the old machine, and hit play. “It’s 6:00 on…” He shut it off. “Yeah, you’re fine. You start Saturday”.

I was ecstatic.

He asked me what name I wanted to use. This threw me a little. Couldn’t I just use Ken Levine? “I dunno, “ he said, “That sounds almost Jewish.” (Almost Jewish???) He suggested instead “R.K. Olsen”. (RKO owned a lot of big stations back then like KHJ, KFRC, and WOR. It was an inside joke for six people on the planet). We settled on Ken Stevens. Who knew I’d be going through Ellis Island in Bakersfield?

Still, this was unbelievable. Our campus station only went to the dorms. This station I could hear in my car! At least for the first six minutes driving back home at midnight.

For three months I commuted every weekend to Bakersfield. My radiator blew twice, my car overheated numerous times, I got a flat tire, snapped three fan belts, and one weekend I received two speeding tickets from the same cop at the same spot coming and going.

But it was worth every dollar I had to borrow to keep this glorious job.

And then they gave me Sundays from noon to six to go along my Saturday night shift. I did that for about a year, sleeping every Saturday night on John's threadbare couch.

At first I was terrible on the air. No tapes exist. But eventually I got comfortable. In other words, I started doing more comedy (LOTS more comedy). The program director left, replaced ironically by my friend, John. He really whipped the station into shape. And the next summer when the ratings came out (they only came out once a year in Bakersfield) KERN amazingly beat the longtime powerhouse KAFY despite their massive signal and better jingles.

And my ratings on Sunday afternoons: a staggering 49 share. Believe me, I owe it all to the comedy. Otherwise I had no pipes and no real style. Still I wonder – if I had gone by the name Ken Levine, would my share have been slightly lower? Maybe 40? Or 8?

More radio tales in the weeks to come. Here’s a hint: “Just shut up and play the records. Stop trying to be funny. You’re not!”

34 comments:

Heidi Germanaus said...

Makes me think that if Buck Owens real name had been Buck Owenstein, he may have never had the chance to pioneer the Bakersfield sound. Great story Ken!

YEKIMI said...

Your story sounds a lot like mine only I never went to college to get my radio/tv communications degree [Yay, for broadcasting schools!....what a rip-off THAT was]. After working at some low rated stations that could only be picked up on dental fillings and by crazed people dx-ing at night [and an amazed caller saying it was the first time he had ever picked us up....and he only lived two blocks from the tower], I decided to get into a line of work that had more job security....swimming naked in a shark tank with bloody hams strapped to my body.

A. Buck Short said...

MY GOD! I thought you had changed your name TO Ken Levine. Ellis Island in Bakersfield is wonderful, and the difference between a writer and a describer.

Mike McCann said...

Ken,

Quick... can you remember the very first song you played on your first professional shift?

(Mine was "My Melody of Love" by Bobby Vinton, the #1 song on the WLNA playlist on November 8th, 1974.)

l.a.guy said...

Great story-- small typo-- "He _____ it on the old machine, and hit play.".

I was 10 years behind you and relegated to the Radio/TV department of a poorly equipped California State college. Fortunately I lacked your talent, connections and guidance counselor so I was never able to follow my dream spinning 45's on Sunday's at 2:00am. Thanks to your stories I can now relive the misery I never got a to experience for myself.

tb said...

Stevens! That was always "The Fugitive"'s alias

Mister Charlie said...

Excellent summation of the magic of radio (much of which disappears once one has actually WORKED in radio). It is the problem I have with the industry now...it is not about broadcasting and the love of broadcasting, it is all accountants, bean counters and just another commodity to sell. Seems back then people who were in it loved being in it and it made the low pay and long hours bearable. I miss it to this day.

Paul Duca said...

This is something I have been waiting for...Ken has only shared bits and pieces of his radio days here and at the Reel Top 40 Radio Repository.

WV: "dishe",,,as in dishe the dirte about your escapades on the airwaves

mike in seattle said...

As Don Imus used to say, "so high up on the dial that only dogs can hear it."

Richard Y said...

Ahhhhh....memories of KSDS-FM in San Diego, college radio station. Two years there and even got paid as well. Never could get the 'break' though w/o going to you guessed it, Bakersfield or similar. Worked AFRTS while in the Air Force for further experience but the need for money to survive precluded me to seek other employment. But it was fun while it lasted.

Michael Hagerty, Founder/Editor said...

When I started the same year at KIBS (1230 on the dial) in Bishop, California, KERN was the big time (I only got $1.65 an hour...$2.50 and I'd have been shopping for investment bankers).

In fact, when I went to KSLY (1400 AM) in San Luis Obispo in 1974, KERN was considered a step up.

And then there was KUKI, Ukiah (1400 on the dial again?!?).....

Come to think of it, it was six years before I got somewhere that KERN wouldn't have been a career move (Reno was marginally bigger than Bakersfield in 1977).

And like Ken, I had to quit to get anywhere....it wasn't until 16 years after I left radio for TV that I got a morning show in a Top 15 market with Charlie Van Dyke.

Until Jacor bought it and fired us......

Ray said...

My first radio job... I did overnights on KMEN 1290 am in San Bernardino. A 2 minute sports update at the top of the hour followed by 58 minutes of syndicated sports button pressing.... Thankfully 6 months in there was a format change and I kept my job spinning oldies....

K.M. Richards said...

WHAT??!!??

You didn't think to use Beaver Cleaver?

For shame.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

No apostrophe in "Sunday's," l.a. guy.

Ken Fisher said...

I was the 7-midnight Boss Jock @ #1 KAFY, the Big 55 while you were weekends @ #2 KERN. I sat in with you a couple of times and thought to myself, "that Ken Levine is a great guy, but he's only weekends @ the #2 station in Bakersfield and I'm full time @ the #1 station with the great Drake jings. If he were smart, he'd find another way to make a living". For me, I thought playing Cher once an hour for 50 years was pretty cool. Now, 38 years later, you have every boys dream job, have 3359 friends on FB and a successful blog. I have 50 FB friends and am retired from the State of California. I am relegated to sweating out Cal Pers solvency everyday. Oh, and when your name appears in the credits of one of the myriad of successful TV shows you've been associated with, I have the pleaseure of telling my friends that the guy whose name you see on the screen is my best friend from my days in Bakersfield and I'm sure he's grateful that I suggested he ditch that lousy weekend gig @ #2 KERN.

Joey H said...

Did you have a favorite jingle package?

KEN LEVINE said...

To answer some questions:

First record I ever played -- "Sweet City Woman" by the Stampeders.

Favorite jingle package: Johnny Mann Singers Drake acapellas.

Ken Fisher said...

There's only one-Johnny Mann Singers, Bill Drake Boss Radio.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Boy, was that funny!! You spent time spinning "1910 Fruitgum Company" tunes, while I srmed nuclear weapons aboard USS JFK.

I'd rather have done your job. Better looking groupies...

Ox

Pat Reeder said...

Very similar story to mine, although I beat you by about a hundred points: my first gig was at KHBR, Hillsboro, TX, at 1560 on the AM dial. The AM shut off at sundown, but we had an FM simulcast that went on until 10 p.m. I started doing Saturday and Sunday nights and eventually was on 7 days a week, working my way through junior college. That's when I discovered my love for doing comedy. My proudest moment was when our News Director came in, glowered at me, and told me that a line I'd tossed off had made him laugh so hard, he almost drove his truck off the road into a telephone pole. I could have honestly said, "My joke killed."

The job included country DJing back in the days when that actually involved turntables; calling the cops, fire dept and funeral home for news; writing it up while playing music; then delivering the newscast. Plus assorted coffee pot washing, teletype machine clearing, etc. It was near a Czech community, so I always braced myself for the angry calls whenever I read an obituary and mispronounced the name because it was 23 letters long and not a single one of them a vowel.

I was on the air up to six hours a day every day for nearly two years, sometimes breaking down in my old Ford or getting iced in and sleeping at the station. But by the time I transferred to a big college in a major city, I was able to breeze through most of my radio production classes. And when I went on the air on the student station, I got a call 30 minutes into my first shift from the PD of the local professional station, offering me the overnight shift. So no student loans for me!

I never had the pipes to become a boss jock (although many of them advised me that I could if I'd only take up smoking -- throat cancer is GREAT for a radio career, kids), but I worked at top stations in major markets, did tons of comedy commercial character voice work, and met my wife while working at TM (another great jingle house -- I also worked with Bill Meeks of PAMS and Toby Arnold, and my wife's dad was the arranger and vocal group leader on many of the famous PAMS and TM jingles).

Today, I write a syndicated morning show comedy service, and top jocks pay me to repeat my topical jokes and pretend they are theirs. It's like preparing a morning show every day without Clear Channel having the power to make me totally unemployed. And I owe it all to KHBR. And all the exercise my tongue got from trying to pronounce the names of all those dead Czech people.

Pat Reeder said...

Very similar story to mine, although I beat you by about a hundred points: my first gig was at KHBR, Hillsboro, TX, at 1560 on the AM dial. The AM shut off at sundown, but we had an FM simulcast that went on until 10 p.m. I started doing Saturday and Sunday nights and eventually was on 7 days a week, working my way through junior college. That's when I discovered my love for doing comedy. My proudest moment was when our News Director came in, glowered at me, and told me that a line I'd tossed off had made him laugh so hard, he almost drove his truck off the road into a telephone pole. I could have honestly said, "My joke killed."

The job included country DJing back in the days when that actually involved turntables; calling the cops, fire dept and funeral home for news; writing it up while playing music; then delivering the newscast. Plus assorted coffee pot washing, teletype machine clearing, etc. It was near a Czech community, so I always braced myself for the angry calls whenever I read an obituary and mispronounced the name because it was 23 letters long and not a single one of them a vowel.

I was on the air up to six hours a day every day for nearly two years, sometimes breaking down in my old Ford or getting iced in and sleeping at the station. But by the time I transferred to a big college in a major city, I was able to breeze through most of my radio production classes. And when I went on the air on the student station, I got a call 30 minutes into my first shift from the PD of the local professional station, offering me the overnight shift. So no student loans for me!

I never had the pipes to become a boss jock (although many of them advised me that I could if I'd only take up smoking -- throat cancer is GREAT for a radio career, kids), but I worked at top stations in major markets, did tons of comedy commercial character voice work, and met my wife while working at TM (another great jingle house -- I also worked with Bill Meeks of PAMS and Toby Arnold, and my wife's dad was the arranger and vocal group leader on many of the famous PAMS and TM jingles).

Today, I write a syndicated morning show comedy service, and top jocks pay me to repeat my topical jokes and pretend they are theirs. It's like preparing a morning show every day without Clear Channel having the power to make me totally unemployed. And I owe it all to KHBR. And all the exercise my tongue got from trying to pronounce the names of all those dead Czech people.

Pat Reeder said...

P.S. -- Sorry that posted twice. I swear, I only hit the button once.

Doug DeRoo said...

Leave it to Ken to let someone else do the fact checking (actually I think Ken did his KERN shifts from LA via voicetracking so he never even set foot in Bakersfield)...

KERN was non-directional, Ken. Thus had only 1 tower. Maybe you're thinking of KAFY..

Mary Stella said...

I never wanted to be on the air, except to do voice work on commercials.

I got a summer job at local Atlantic City radio stations when I was in college. (My father had treated the GM and his wife for cancer and the Traffic Director's husband was a non-blood cousin. I was connected!)

I started out as the all-purpose file clerk, supply closet organizer, back-up receptionist, and T-shirt folder. Then they taught me how to do traffic with scheduling commercials, and such.

The day that they let me take a crack at writing spots I was in Heaven. I can still remember the assignment -- 16 :10 ads for a chain of boardwalk candy stores.

That start served me well and I'm still writing for a living.

BTW, the radio stations were owned by Merv Griffin. His wife got them in the divorce settlement.

Ken Fisher said...

There is an upside to doing only weekends in Bakersfiled. You didn't have to live there!

Ken Fisher said...

When a funny man (comedian, radio host, blogger etc.) relates a story to his audience of a somewhat otherwise mundane occurrence in his life, it’s necessary to embellish a few facts (without outright telling a lie) to make the story funny. A story about an apple is not funny. A story about a macadamia nut is very funny. If Ken ( a very funny man) feels that KERN having 3 towers as opposed to one is better for the story, who are we to argue.

YEKIMI said...

KERN does have three towers:
http://radio-locator.com/cgi-bin/finder?call=kern&x=0&y=0&sr=Y&s=C

Apologize to Ken for calling him a liar!

Doug DeRoo said...

Yekimi, when Ken worked at KERN, it was KERN/1410 with one stick on Planz Road on the south end of Bakersfield.

The 1410 facility is now "KERI" and still has 1 kw non-directional with one tower (but from a different location; the old KERN location was bulldozed many years ago for cheap housing).

The "KERN" call-letters are currently parked at 1180 and yes, that is a directional facility and may have 3 towers, but that ISN'T the KERN that Ken worked for. Keep in mind that it was almost 40 years ago..

So sorry, the original description about having 3 towers is still incorrect.

Doug DeRoo said...

Should anyone want to see the actual single KERN tower, here's a link to a picture from 1979 http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_8cVugp1HE0k/SoFoM4rw9BI/AAAAAAAAABI/AgiVD1GMtfw/s1600-h/KERN+Tower+1979+1.jpg

Plus, here's a pic of the KERN control room from 1976: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_8cVugp1HE0k/SoFkXvQelhI/AAAAAAAAAA4/BQaQUZaphNQ/s1600-h/Kern+Control+Room+1979.jpg

And, a picture of Johnny Mitchell, KERN Program Director & Chief Engineer in the KERN control room with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts from 1976 http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_8cVugp1HE0k/SoFnAFLk50I/AAAAAAAAABA/HjhIUli4fz8/s1600-h/KERNJohnny+Mitchell1976.jpg

Ken, I'm sure that ClassicTop40Radio.blogspot.com wouldn't mind if you use those KERN pictures on your blog for this post, or a future one. You can ask Bob Oscar if you like.

YEKIMI said...

ok, I apologize! As much as I would like things to stay the same, they don't. Out of all the stations I worked for only two have kept the same call letters. But only ONE has kept the same call letters and they're still on their original frequency. It didn't dawn on me till I was driving down the road AFTER I had posted that the call letters could have gone elsewhere.

Michael Hagerty, Founder/Editor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Hagerty, Founder/Editor said...

Nothing stays the same...especially in radio. All my stations are something else now.

KIBS, Bishop is now KBOV...a satellite-delivered oldies station (it is still in the same building).

KSLY, San Luis Obispo is now KKJL...it's gone from Top 40 to satellite-delivered adult standards/nostalgia and is in a new building (the lovely old ranch former owner Homer Odom, a McLendon boy from way back, put it on in '72 is long gone...bulldozed for tract homes...BUT my 24 year old PD back in 1974, Guy Hackman, owns the station now.

KIOQ-FM, Bishop...which I helped build in the owner's garage, was bought out by KIBS, which moved the call letters over to the FM and the FM in with the AM at the south end of town.

KUKI, Ukiah is no longer Adult Contemporary...it's Spanish news/talk...but it is in the same building where I was the PD in 1976 and 1977...and still has the same call letters.

KOLO, Reno is now in a different building with the call letters KIHM and stopped being Adult Contemporayr 30 years ago. After flings with Country and Spanish, it now carries the Immaculate Heart Catholic satellite network.

KGLQ, Phoenix, where Van Dyke and I did mornings 13 years ago, is now KMXP (Mix 96.9), is a Hot AC (we were Classic Hits), and is in a different building. They're also the #1 station in the market, so they're doing okay...a lot of which probably has to do with keeping the same call letters and station name for 12 years...

And KTAR, Phoenix is still KTAR, except the Talk format I worked has moved to FM and the AM is now Sports. And they just moved to a new building, too. I've only been gone six years from there.

Tune in again in 39 years to hear everyone saying "what's RADIO?"

Bob Oscar Johnson said...

Here are some more pictures of KERN including the "shack"

http://classictop40radio.blogspot.com/2010/07/kern-bakersfield-portrait-of-1-station.html

Mike Bell said...

Ken, I just realized I used Stevens as my last name when I worked at KERN in the late 70s. I don't recall if I deliberately copied you or not.

At the time I was there, Russ Gerber was our PD. John had left for SD by then, although Mr. Barcroft DID give me my first gig at KERN in 75 delivering the music survey to all the local 7-11s for a whopping $0 per anything. But hey, I was in radio.

Also by the time I finally got on the air, KERN had one jingle. Probably the same one jingle that they used when you were there. From KERN's original MOR package and by 78 it had been purposely sped up to make it "higher energy."