Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The most fun I ever had in radio

Here’s another look back at my disc jockey career – when radio was great and I was passable. One thing that the industry was back then was FUN. Not so today certainly. And it’s a shame – both for the talent and the listeners.

Everything was live and local. You were encouraged to show some personality. Most radio markets had two competing stations playing the exact some music. So the only way to really distinguish yourself was in the presentation. Who had the crazier DJ’s? Who had the wildest contests? Who staged the best concerts? Who had the sluttiest girls call the request line? (Oh wait, that was just for the jocks, not the listeners)

You don’t have that competition today when the same company owns both competing stations (and seven others in the market) and to save money, one guy voice-tracks shows for all of them, they air some syndicated service out of Saugus, California, and the slutty girls are just emailing rock bands.

But the 70s were sweet. The pay was crap, there was zero job security, you had to play “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” six times a night, you usually needed a penicillin shot, and half your annual salary was lost to apartment security deposits because you skipped town so often – but we made up for it in fun.

And if I had to select the single MOST fun experience it would be the launch of KFMB-FM (B100) in March 1975.

Bobby Rich was hired to create an exciting FM Top 40 station for San Diego. SD was a tough market. There already was a juggernaut AM station – KCBQ, and FM rock had already failed once before with KSEA (a station I was on and helped kill).

But Bobby was a showman. He understood that you hire really talented people, give them all the support elements they need to succeed, and then just let them do their thing. The result was a cooking radio station that sounded like pure adrenaline mixed with laughing gas.

And to set the tone right off the bat, Bobby devised the B100 Hours to kick off the format. Here’s Bobby himself, explaining the concept:

Getting the station started I was looking for ways to promote the "100" with slogans, contests and other image branding. So having a 100 hour "Boogie-a-thon" with no commercials and giving away "B-100 Dollar Bills" every 100 minutes just worked.

The real magic came when we started bringing in guest dj's from all over the country for the party. It was a reunion of something that hadn't even happened yet. All of our talent was encouraged to invite jock buddies (like you did with Billy Pearl) who would want to "play radio" with our gang of wacko and wild Boogiemasters.

Oh, doing the math it turns out that is FOUR DAYS and FOUR HOURS. So that required much complicated back timing. To say nothing of the jocks being required to start each hour with the countup "and this is hour 78 of 100 hours of Better Boogie", etc.

Tapes of that insane weekend went viral in the radio industry. I still encounter people who say they have airchecks of me and Billy Pearl (at the time a jock for KHJ Los Angeles) on the air together, doing a limerick competition while we kept re-starting the record over and over.

You never knew who was going to be on the air at any hour, and often disc jockeys were paired off. I got to do an hour with the legendary Chuck Browning – maybe the most caustic human being that ever lived. Great jocks from all over the country would come in, sit down, and just blast. One or two were even sober.

The line-up was crazy. I was there all weekend. I’d work 8-9 PM, then come back and do 4-5 AM, 11-noon, 7-8 PM, etc. No one got any sleep.

I recall doing a morning show with Rich Brother Robbin, and at the time there was a syndicated program going around that basically was a fantasy Woodstock. All these live performances from various albums were woven together as if this amazing rock festival actually took place. We did a mock version. Doing my Ed Sullivan impression, we hosted the Concert for Rock n’ Roll Heaven and played all these dead artists. What we lacked in taste we made up for in audacity.

The launch was a huge success. The entire town was talking about it. And within months B100 dethroned longtime stalwart, KCBQ.

Would something like that work today? I bet it would. Just don’t ask me to work that 4-5 AM shift though, please.

Assuming this works, here's a sample of me on any typical day.


32 comments:

Mary Stella said...

Great sample, Ken!

In 1976, when I was home from college for the summer I worked for two radio stations in Atlantic City. (Then owned by Merv Griffin, they later went to his ex-wife in their divorce.) All of the D.J.'s had that same high energy, rapid jokes approach. Listeners loved it.

I cringe about it now, but at 18 I was still naive enough that I didn't get some of the innuendos. The General Manager was a patient of my father's so the jocks wouldn't explain those jokes to me even when I asked.

At the time, I would have assumed your air name only referred to the television show.

Matt said...

For some reason, hearing, "and a brand new one by Steve Miller, Take the Money and Run" made me feel a) old, and b) really weirded out.

Ostrich in heat? Did/do you think of these things at random times and write them down for use on the air, or do you just let your brain do free association?

On that note, do you think that you have a filter that you can turn on and off for profanity? Leaving my brain in free association state would cause me to drop a few non radio friendly words.

Neil said...

Radio was so much better then....

Jeff said...

I was a junior in high school in San Diego - we all listened to B-100. Then we found dope and switched to KGB or KPRI. Do you remember Jim McInnes? He is still on the air, doing jazz on a college station - but what an amazing music mind!

tales from the pole said...

"you usually needed a penicillin shot, and half your annual salary was lost to apartment security deposits because you skipped town so often – but we made up for it in fun." = ha ha ha ha ha!! i was just turning to my the boyfriend unit the other day and saying "can you believe we're going to have to tell our kids about the car radio and disc jockeys the way our parents & grandparents did about the table-top RCA's w/ dials and shows like "quiz show" and "the shadow?" and era has passed (or is rapidly passing). i fear that the only interesting, unconventional radio besides NPR is going to be pay subscription-only services like sirius that won't put anyone besides a howard-stern rip-pff or political rabble rouser on. so sad. (now i see why you hate opie and andy! you were in the bizz! and they are truly nauseous) and you are right to point out how single conglomerate ownership of communications industries is killing diversity and product quality--it's killing everything. the same can be said about music labels. in the seventies there were, like, over thirty-five different kinds of MAJOR record labels and now there are, like, five. it disgusts me. and i'm a musician so it disgusts me eben more than i am already disgusted with my every day life. it promotes sloth, laziness, bottom-line driven "creativity," homogenization, and fear. no one will take a chance on anything that isn't a rip-off of something else b/c they're too afraid to lose money. and there isn't any "artist development" like there used to be--now it's just artists manufacturing. they may as well be making frisbees. (that's what i want to do with most of the music i hear nowadays anyways--toss it far away from me, preferably into the dumpster, lake, or awaiting gutter. oh, for the days of the all-night DJ! oh, memories of sneaking phone calls to our local radio tower to request classics like "life in a northern town" and test out my nascent adolescent phone flirtation with whatever fellow lost soul was piloting the aiwaves that night. oh, for the rush of when "you're song" would come on mid-day out of nowhere, with a special dedication from the radio host letting you know that YES, this was for you and FOR SURE that mothertrucker just "keeps you hanging on...but hang in there, girl." we even had a "B-100 in my town! that's what it was called! they were so cool they allowed my then-older friends who were sound engineers/late night jockey's air their satire of "i want to be a cowboy" with " i want to be quaddafi (but you can call me "momar"--i mean, the best) --try doing THAT nowadays! what a fond remembrance! thank you so much for sharing with us!

Paul Duca said...

Ah, yes...."She was only the mortician's daughter, but everyone cadaver"

Jon J said...

I've always told people that working in radio and TV in the 60s and 70s was the most fun you could have with your clothes on.

Bob said...

The great Billy Pearl/Beaver Cleaver battle.

"She was only the cattleman's daughter, but all the horse manure."

Great Big Radio Guy said...

"She was only the telegrapher's daughter, but she diddit diddit diddit."

It wasn't just fun...it was an airstaff that genuinely liked each other. When you worked in that environment as we have at one time or another, it's magic. NO ONE can stop you - except from within and above.

ytube said...

Man, that's good. Suddenly, I get your passion for radio broadcasting. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Ken - Mr. Cleaver to us mere mortals!

LOVE this post - however, LOVED the Ten-Q blog as it fed my fragile EGO (hey - what's in a shuck / jive radio NAME like 'Willie B'...:-)

Ken Levine is a genius - and a kind soul. Quite the inspiration, as a MASTER of 3 very difficult careers! Will never forget us forcing you to share your MTM script, during the B100 sign on, at the old Travelator Motel!

In the presense of GREATNESS - sincerely!

Flattered to know you, again, sincerely! Keep those posts coming on HuffPo as well! And anytime you want to bring ole Beaver back - I have 2 shows in memphis and Madison...HINT HINT!

Willie B
WKQK Memphis
WOLX Madison

DougJ said...

Thanks, Ken. That brought me back to memories of waiting in the car and listening to the radio while my mom did her shopping.

I grew up in S.D. in the 70's so I probably heard your show many times, although I missed the adult subtext(and above-text) at the time. Great stuff.

Phillip B said...

Ken -

Have meant to pose a Friday question which would be something like "WTF is going on with the Dodgers franchise?"

Today Major League baseball seized the operation of the Dodgers and intends to appoint a trustee to operate the team until the ownership situation can be settled.

WTF?

Bobby Rich said...

A couple of interesting things to listen for in addition to the spot-on quick quips of Beave The Cleve (who never repeated an intro and always had something snappy ready to amaze and delight in :09 seconds or less.)

1. It wasn't 10 songs followed by 15 commercials. We played one record, stopped for one spot and rolled into another record. Sometimes you actually heard TWO songs without stopping!

2. We played every song from vinyl. Either the 45rpm or the album cut. Eventually we went to all (tape) cartridges.

3. There were 6 full time jocks doing 6 days a week, plus 2 or 3 weekend dj's. Every show was live and 4 hours (6a-10a; 10a-2p; 2p-6p; 6p-10p; 10p-2a; 2a-6a)

4. There were formatics then considered contrary to the norm. We played album versions of hit singles-no edits or early fades. We had no singing jingles. No talk-over beds to come out of spots. There were few required liners--maximum of two per hour. It was considered "under produced" in the industry.

And the program director (me) didn't have to tell jocks to talk less... they knew how little to say. The music and their energy and content kept the momentum moving forward.

Michael Hagerty, Founder/Editor said...

A great radio station, great program director and great jock!

Jeffrey Leonard said...

The format at B-100 was such a great success Jimi Fox took it to L.A. and created Ten-Q. Ah, those were the days!

Rich said...

Ken -- Wonderful post. There is a GREAT TRUTH in this post that no one else has commented on -- "He understood that you hire really talented people, give them all the support elements they need to succeed, and then just let them do their thing."

I was thalf of the morning drive time drive team on KTYD-FM, the Mighty Fine 99 from 1975 to 1977. It was the last (I think) of the free-form FM hippie rock stations -- meaning the jocks could play what they wanted, talk as long as they wanted, and take calls whenever they wanted. The Program Director was Larry Johnson -- a guy who believed in hiring talent and supporting it.

We killed in the ratings -- so much so that the owner sold for big $$$, and the next owner brought in a tight format, kicked out the hippies and the circus left town.

The problem, as you well know, is this -- "hiring really talented people and letting them do their thing" is the one format you can't franchise. It's sooooooooo much easier just to let a consultant tell you what to play, because "it's getting a 30 share in Des Moines."

I was on from 1975 to 1978 (1978 was KMEL-FM in San Francisco) and man was it FUN!!!!!!!!!

Ken Levine said...

Rich,

If it's the Larry Johnson I'm thinking of, we went to UCLA together and worked at the campus station together. Great guy. Went to San Jose and enjoyed well deserved success.

Pat Reeder said...

Note to Matt above:

I haven't been on the air fulltime in quite a while (been writing the material for other people's shows for years), but I don't recall ever blurting out a curse word on the air, even though I sprinkle them pretty liberally into everyday conversation. Something about being in the studio with a mic in front of me just seems to put up a subconscious wall in my brain that keeps me from even thinking of using those words. Obviously, a lot of other guys don't have that as factory equipment.

There's been only one time when I really had to think hard before talking, and that was when I was working my way through college by holding down two shifts at two different stations every day, one overnight and one midmorning, and getting about three hours sleep. I was so paranoid that I'd get them confused, I had to tape up cards in front of my face with the call letters and stare at them during every station break to make sure I didn't say the wrong ones. I think I still screwed up a few times. If anyone had called in about it, I would have told them their radio must be suffering from frequency drift.

DrBOP said...

Uhnn....oomph.....Uhnnn....oh......oops....sorry, just gettin' that Boogie Fever under control (as IF that's possible!)....FANTASTIC post...and although I didn't have the distinct pleasure of catching your particular brilliantness back in the day, and although there are MANY books by DJ's/program managers, you should check out "The Buzzard : Inside The Glory Days Of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio", by John Gorman. A tome that truly captures the radio station craziness of buiding it, then maintaining it, then watching it all fall apart. Keep on chooglin'!

WillieB said...

Friday Question:
When you moved into TV writing full-time, did your DJ background help or hinder you -- or ever even come up in conversation? Ever have a studio guy/producer/director/actor say: "I used to listen to you all the time?"

The other Willie B

Brian Phillips said...

Mr. Levine, how long were you with B-100? I moved to San Diego in 1976, so it's not impossible that I may have heard you. I will confess that I remember "Shotgun" Tom Kelly, because he did a bit of TV, too.

Regarding the aircheck, thanks, a lot of fun and good point about Kelly Monteith. Not only did this fellow get a TV show (I remember a promo. Freddie Prinze was the guest and the big laugh line was Prinze insulting Monteith with a Japanese accent, "Kelly velly smelly") in the US but he also had at least one in the UK! No WONDER they've disliked Yanks for so long.

I can somewhat vouch for the, if not hardscrabble, but mediumscrabble existence of the DJ's, if for no other reason the locations of the studios. KSDS and KPBS were fortunately on college campuses, KYXY ("Get the KYXY kick!") was in Kearny Mesa, I think, but 690 XTRA was just outside of Old Town in a forlorn section of town near the freeway and a Sambo's (happily for African- and Indian-Americans changed to "Season's" before being taken over by Denny's which treated some customers, like, well, Sambos), but KGB was on a bad stretch of Pacific Highway, next to the "Pacific Rest Motel" which must have been even less glamorous than the name implied, because when they moved studios, one of the DJ's said, "I can't wait!" on-air.

Where was, or is B100's studios?

Ken Levine said...

When I was there, B100 was at 5th & Ash downtown in the same building that housed KFMB Channel 8 and KFMB-AM. A few years later they all moved to Kearney Mesa and it just wasn't the same.

Boomer said...

B-100 FM...also my best radio experience ever:

1. Bobby once held a staff meeting in a strip club. None of us thought it strange.
2. A very stoned jock barricaded himself in the booth late one night and kept calling it "B-One-Motherfucking-Hundred." Willie B rescued him. There were no complaints from the public.
3. Many B-100 jocks have gone on to big things, proving Bobby's ability to spot talent. One is a noted surgeon, several are millionaire broadcasters, one is the famed writer who runs this blog, and I, of course, am the head of the Genitalia Search Division of the Transportation Security Administration.

--"Just" Kevin Anderson

Wayne in Maine said...

Ken, I heard somewhere Charlie Van Dyke came up with the pronunciation " KFM...BFM" is that right?

Roger Owen Green said...

There were some real insights in all that too, notably about DIANA ROSS going all Vegas, so we'd better give her Love Hangover.

Though the line about the Peace Corps would have probably gotten you booted off the air these days.

My favorite, for some reasdon, was the 2 minutes sillier reference to the Macca song. Oh and the Billy J. Kramer intro to the Beatles.

Chicodee said...

Ken - or should I say...Beaver...great stuff. As a former DJ myself...it brings back fun times and no money...But who knew you could do it all? DJ...Comedy genius...sportscaster???? You're the true American Idol to me!! :)

Chicodee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Larson said...

Excellent account of a great era in radio, Mr Cleaver.
Mark Larson

Anonymous said...

B100 was pretty good in first couple years, after that it was so bad John Lander body slammed it and beat B100 with a little old AM station. Try to listen to those air-checks today, there are unlistenable. Whereas the old KHJ, KCBQ, KGB stuff is stil pretty good. The only exception was the great Dave Conley, he could make any station sound cool.

The Doctor D

Mike Bell said...

And now there are so many more of them because I'm talking louder!

Anonymous said...

The thrill with which I anticipated reading your "most fun in radio" post was only exceeded by the profound disappointment I felt when I saw you were not referring to KLA. 

Oh, of  course I loved this post, but serious question: where do you place your KLA experience in the pantheon of influences and experiences that shaped who you are?

Up there with debauchery, gluttony, and sloth?

Consider the luminaries: lance ferguson, Mitch cannold, Billy pearl, Roz Gray, don Enright, Tom Greenleigh, walt Zeisl, Ken Levine, and more.

My greatest memory was anchoring the a multi-campus network covering the 1970 Moratorium.

By the way, no one in those days  could spin around at high speeds in a swivel chair with more style than Levine.

KLA

 "where even the carrier current didn't carry"

Best,

Steve Gorelick

Professor, Hunter College
City University of New York

http://brie.hunter.cuny.edu/?page_id=897