Thursday, July 12, 2012

Radio Daze

Here’s another tale from my colorful yet brief radio career. There may be a book in these stories (assuming I sell more of my current one. Why haven’t you ordered yours yet? Do I have to become Dr. Gene Scott and just stare at you people for an hour?)

Anyway...

Among the many things missing in radio today are pranks. Back when there were live local broadcasters and actual competition between stations (one company didn’t own them all), a by-product was one-ups-manship. I was involved in one stunt during my first job.

I was a sports intern at KMPC in Los Angeles. They were the big full-service station in town. Their disc jockeys were national celebrities like Gary Owens, Wink Martindale, and Jim Lange. They carried the Rams, Angels, and UCLA Bruins. And they had helicopters and mobile units. I think their local news department was larger than CNN’s is now.  The studios were essentially in the White House.

It was the summer of 1970. I worked Monday through Friday from 6 AM – 3 PM. (Yes, the hours were long but they were paying me minimum wage.) I wrote sports reports, made coffee, and emptied ashtrays.

Meanwhile, their competitor was KGIL in the San Fernando Valley. Their signal was nothing compared to KMPC’s. If they had a helicopter it was made by Hasbro. Their "skywatch" was probably a guy on a mountain top with binoculars.  But their morning man was brilliant. Sweet Dick Whittington was (and is) one of the funniest, most inventive radio personalities I have ever heard. I was a huge fan. We had met on a couple of occasions. Okay, so that’s the backstory.

Sweet Dick
I’m at my desk. It’s about 7:45 in the morning and my phone rings. It’s some goofball who says he’s the singing newsman from some station in Denver and wonders if there are any openings at KMPC. I tell him I didn’t think so. He asks if he could audition for me. This sounds strange to me but I say okay. Who doesn't like to be serenaded about a bus plunge?  He begins singing some news story. I figure it out. It’s Whittington using a phony voice. I assume he's on the air live. I let him finish, tell him he’s great. Then I say, “Y’know, I’m frustrated that I’m not on the air. I have a pretty good singing voice. Could I audition for you?” He’s a little thrown but says okay. I then sing the KMPC jingle. There’s a pause and he says, “You’re a rotten kid!” and hangs up.

I was right.  This bit went out on the air live, my singing KMPC’s jingle included.

So I go the rest of the morning feeling pretty good about myself. Word gets around the station and a few salesmen and other employees stop in the newsroom to congratulate me.

At around noon, Stan Spero, the General Manager comes in. He asks if I was the one who pulled that stunt on KGIL? Yes, I say proudly. He tells me there’s someone who wants to speak to me. Now Stan Warwick, the General Manager of KGIL enters the room. What the fuck is he doing there? Warwick is clearly pissed. He begins grilling me. “Did I think it was funny to embarrass his station?” “Is this how I conduct myself as a professional?” Needless to say, I’m sweating buckets. I look to my GM for support. He’s just glaring at me. Fun is fun but apparently I had crossed a line.

Just at the point I was ready to hang myself with a teletype ribbon they both break up laughing. I had been punked. Orchestrated of course, by Dick Whittington. The two general managers were friends and had planned on getting together for lunch that day anyway. Both appreciated a good radio prank and appreciated even more getting back at the prankster.

Dick Whittington is one of my favorite people in the world. But I hope he’s sleeping with one eye open. Because it’s my turn.

33 comments:

Julian said...

I'm a long-time reader; you often have funny stories, but I think this is the funniest one I have ever read from you! Realising you were being pranked was smart. Orchestrating to single the jingle was genius, and absolutely hilarious!

willieb said...

It's 1978 and I'm doing nights at a small radio station in Dover, NH. One of the commercials I play over and over (and over) is a commercial for a pizza joint pushing a pizza that's a real "meaty treat!" So after one of the spots run, I crack open the mike and say, "Angelina's, where the elite meet and ask -- is this meat?" Immediately, the phone rings. It's a guy with a bad Italian accent, who says he owns the pizza place and will file a complaint in the morning with the general manager. But the accent sounded just a bit too phony, so I'm suspicious. Our GM's name was Jerry Lipman, so when he asks for the manager's name for the complaint, I tell him to ask for "Mr. Lippazon." The Italian-accented guy cracks up as he repeats the name. Sure enough, at a remote two weeks later, a couple of guys from the local country station come over laughing and tell me they were drinking and listening and decided to make the call. My only regret was that I didn't tape it and play it on the air.

404 said...

Great story, Ken. Made me laugh out loud, definitely put a smile on my face this morning. Thanks!

Roger Owen Green said...

Funny stuff! Though the GMs were a tad cruel.

Anonymous said...

LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL

Michael Hagerty said...

When you intern, Ken, you intern right...at the greatest radio station on earth, and one-upping the funniest guy on a rival station on his own air.

Donald said...

Ken: In this story do we see the seeds of the practical joke episodes on "M*A*S*H" and "Cheers?"

Judy Berman said...

Judy Berman - Great payback. Loved it. I worked in radio news at several Central N.Y. stations, and with the most seriously-warped (funny) DJs imaginable. At my first job at WOLF-AM, DJ Charlie Brown knew how inexperienced I was and took full advantage. He was talking to me from his booth. I could see him, but I couldn't hear him. I began frantically turning up all the pots - nothing. Then, he starts laughing and I realize he'd been lip synching dialogue. I cracked up. Many great stories. Thanks for sharing yours.

RCP said...

Very funny story.

"Dick Whittington is one of my favorite people in the world. But I hope he’s sleeping with one eye open. Because it’s my turn."

I bet your prank will be a doozy, Ken. You've lulled him into a false sense of security for 42 years!

Anonymous said...

I only read this because I saw the name Sweet Dick and thought it help me get through this boring ass day today. Still bored.

heard it with my own ears said...

Here's a similar bit from Nick Charles on the legendary KXOK St Louis, one of the great Storz stations, in the early seventies.

Some smartass DJ working for a competitor called Nick on-the-air during his 7-Midnight shift. I don't remember exactly what prankish content ensued but the gist was this DJ was punking the number one DJ in the midwest on his little show. Nick caught on immediately and after a little while the other DJ had used all of his material.

At that point, Nick says "let me ask you a question." Caught by surprise the other DJ says "what?" Nick, in his coolest possible delivery asks "How does fuck sound on your radio station?" Silence.

After a brief pause, we here the KXOK jingle blast into number 7 on the countdown.

As far as I know their respective GMs did not celebrate the moment or get together for lunch to celebrate the milestone.

Johnny Walker said...

Ha! Great story!

Dave G said...

"Professionalism? Your guy phoned me!"

Craig L. said...

You had to bring up Sweet Dick, didn't you? He was personally responsible for what little radio career I had in the late '70s. Inbetween tenures at KGIL, he was doing a mid-day show at KFI and staged frequent live events with absurd premises.

I 'auditioned' for the first one, "The Luncheon in the Sewer" and got to do a slide show on radio (variation on the Jackie Vernon bit) in front of a live crowd of 100 (and thousands of confused radio listeners). This encouraged me - maybe too much, so I, on summer break from college, called his show every day with ideas, suggestions, punch lines and straight lines.

One day his Producer/TelephoneScreener Mike Horn (who went on to create Cable Radio, honest) said to me before I went on "Dick wants to do something special with you, are you available through the end of the show?" I said hell yes, but I was on a toll call (remember those?) so could they call ME? Yeah, sure, and I felt specially honored, which helped me handle what I was about to go through.

Dick put me on the air, "Oh, hello Wendell" (the not-my-real-name I used to call radio stations in order to be more memorable) Dick said with feigned impatience. I finished about a half-sentence and Mike came on-air to say "Uh, Dick, sorry, that call's out of order." "OK," Dick replied, "can I put you back on hold, Wendell?" He came back to me several times in the next three hours, giving another excuse to put me 'back on hold' until right before the end of the show when he said "We're out of time and I really want to give you enough time, Wendell, can you wait on hold until the start of tomorrow's show?" Of course, I played along and said yes, and a months-long running joke of "Wendell On Hold" and my radio identity was born.

I knew this 'bit' would be a keeper when four hours later, I heard Hudson & Landry on their show on KFI say "Who's this on Line 11?" "Oh, that's some guy named Wendell, he's on hold for Sweet Dick."

Going along with this led to a "KEEP AMERICA BEAUTIFUL, KEEP WENDELL ON HOLD" t-shirt, a call from a researcher for the Guinness Book of World Records who didn't know if it was a goof and who Dick and I tried to convince it was real, a part-time job as a Weekend Overnight Phone Screener at KFI, and when Sweet Dick returned to KGIL, a year as his Producer/Screener/#3InStudioSidekick (after Engineer Joe Pugia and Newsman Ed Ziel).

The highlight of that tenure was the "Give the San Fernando Valley Back to the British" campaign with resulted in a 3-day 4th-of-July-weekend trip to London for Dick, me and a dozen other people, documented here:
http://donosdump.com/sweetdick/sweetdickUK.html

And, per the article, when I worked for him, I went from "permanently on hold" status to "permanently on probation".

D. McEwan said...

As you know, I worked for Sweet Dick for years, and was working for him at that time. Though I didn't become his producer until 1974, I was writing for him and performing characters for and with him from 1967 (when I was 17) on. Though I do not recall this particular prank (There were, after all, thousands of them), it's totally in character, and it's quite possible I was sitting next to Dick at the time.

I can tell you that, much as he tired to keep it appearing otherwise in public, Dick genuinely disliked his similarly-named rival, your KMPC morning man Dick Whittinghill. Outliving Whittinghill was a big triumph for Dick. But he loved Gary Owens, and Al Lohman, who was on KFI opposite him and Whittinghill on KFI as half of Lohman & Barkley, remained one of Dick's close friends until Al's death 10 years ago.

BTW, we did not have a helicopter. We had a four-seater Cessna that flew out of Van Nuys Airport. I know this because I spent many happy hours in it. In 1970 our skywatch pilot was Bruce Payne, but Bruce had a problem - with bottles of alcohol. He hated their not being empty. About the third time he showed up for the afternoon drivetime flight too drunk to fly the plane, he was fired and replaced by the world-famous U2 spy pilot, Francis Gary Powers. I never flew with Bruce Payne, but I spent a lot of time in that plane, sailing about the skies of the "Sin Fernando Valley" with Frank Powers.

I am sure Stan Warwick scared you well. He was my boss, and he scared the crap out of me. Once I got assigned to pick up Mrs. Warwick at the airport. Oh man, was that a tense drive. I think all she said to me in the entire drive was "Thank you, young man" when I got her home alive.

Whittington was famous for his phone pranks. Anyone curious to hear one, Dennis Weaver listens to one on the radio under the opening credits of Duel, his Spielberg-directed TV movie.

"Sweet Dick" was my mentor and remains my friend. He even paid my AFTRA initiation dues.

Anonymous said...

Hate to break this, but KGIL had a lot more than a "Hasbro Helicopter"doing traffic reports. They had a fleet of planes (some owned by the employees), and KGIL's traffic reporter was none other than Francis Gary Powers! KGIL general manage Stan Warwick was one of the nicest people in the radio business - ever.

D. McEwan said...

"Craig L. said...
I 'auditioned' for the first one, 'The Luncheon in the Sewer'"


Craig, I've still got a photo from the Luncheon in the Sewer. (The "sewer" was, in fact, the mighty Los Angeles River.) Were you at the Wedding of the Queen Mary? Although the war on Catalina in 1972 remains my favorite
Whittington stunt, The Wedding of the Queen Mary was always one I was proudest of as it was my idea.

D. McEwan said...

Anonymous, we did not have a "fleet" of planes. We had one. Only one. We did have a fleet of ground mobile units but only the one plane.

VP81955 said...

Most of your readers know this, but the building pictured has a long and glorious history. Before Autry Broadcasting used it, the building housed Warners studios in the '20s, featuring the likes of John Barrymore, the original Rin Tin Tin, and the early days of Vitaphone (much of Jolson's "The Jazz Singer" was filmed here). By the early 1930s, Warners had moved out to Burbank (home base for First National, which it had acquired in the late '20s), but for some time the Warners animation unit stayed on Sunset; this is where Porky Pig and other characters were born. (Not sure whether Bugs Bunny was created here, as the unit eventually rejoined the live action crew in Burbank.) It also served as a bowling alley in addition to KMPC studios. A heckuva history.

Michael Hagerty said...

Reminiscent of the KXOK story...

In 1972, I was the 16 year old music director at KIBS, Bishop, California, population 3,000. Halfway between L.A. and Tahoe on the east side of the Sierra, it was the only station you could get in the daytime, but at night, signals from L.A. and San Francisco came in like locals. Back in the days of AM car radios with five pushbuttons, the kids in Bishop would have them set on KFRC, KHJ, KRLA, KIBS and KDAY.

I was going through the day's UPS shipment of records about 7:00 PM when I opened a packet containing a single by Wolfman Jack. Wolf had just moved to KDAY a few months ago and was on from 7-Midnight.

I went to the DJ on the air, who used the name "Noah Flood" and told him that I wasn't adding Wolf to the playlist, but if he wanted to give it a few spins just for fun, it was cool.

I'd barely gotten back to my desk when I heard:

"KIBS and Noah Flood. We've got the new Wolfman Jack record and I thought it would be a great idea to have Wolfman himself introduce it for us, so..."

(dial tone followed by rotary dial sounds)

Noah has had no time to set this up...it's not going to work.

(the line rings, and rings and rings)

I'm about to get out of my chair and tell him to dump out of this bit...Wolf probably doesn't even answer his own phones. And then:

"K-DAY!"

"Wolfman?"

"Who dis?"

"This is Noah Flood at KIBS in Bishop and we have your new record and I thought it would be great if you'd.."

"K-I-what, man?"

"KIBS in Bishop and we have your new..."

"K-I-what, man?"

"KIBS in Bishop and we..."

"K-I-what, man?"

"KIBS in Bishop.."

"K-I-what, man?"

"BS."

"You mean like bullshit?"

Noah barely stifled a shriek as he started the turntable.

He never put another phone call on the air the rest of his time in town.

Tom Quigley said...

Isn't the building pictured also the present-day KTLA Channel 5 studios? A friend of mine, Jennifer York, the former morning news traffic copter reporter worked there -- and flew out of Van Nuys airport.

Top 40 radio in LA in the 60's and 70's must have been something else. Nothing to compare with it in Western NY, except maybe for WKBW 1520 in Buffalo, but KB never really had a rival station to compete with (CHUM out of Toronto, right across Lake Ontario would have been comparable, but there was no international cross-border rivalry) and as such, no tradition of practical jokes or pranks as part of its repertoire. Top 40 radio here was sadly deficient... Hell, radio here is still sadly deficient.

Real Tooreal said...

Love the radio stories! I'm envious that you got to see G.O. creebling at the turntables with your very own eyes.

I was privileged to work for a couple of Top 40 pioneers, Sandy Jackson (KOIL), at the end of his career, and Scott/Bob Campbell (KJR) and lots of other really talented people and I miss the energy and fun.

If you write that radio book, I'll buy it.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Breadbaker said...

Friday question: when you write a blog post, do you consider how many comments you might get on it? And have you ever been really surprised one way or the other?

Mitch said...

We endured loads of pranks (off air) when I was at KFWB in the 1970s. I think a lot of the horsing around was really just a way some people managed the stress of a 24 hour high energy work environment. Yes, it could be crazy behind the scenes, but those of us behind the mikes were models of good manners and decorum.

Radio today is just the opposite: people scream on the air, but outside the airbooth it's as quiet as a morgue.

Michael said...

In Las Vegas when I was growing up, the king of morning radio was Red McIlvaine of KORK. He was so big that a competitor on KLAV used to call him while they were on the air and they would talk to each other.

Craig L. said...

Yes, D. McEwen, I was at the Wedding for the Queen Mary, leading the very incomplete attempted orchestra (made up of ex-classmates of mine from my high school band). You may not have known me, but I knew who you were and idolized you just for your close involvement with he-who-I-idolized-the-most.

I think when he did the "Jaws Lullabye" bit (which would take WAY too long to explain) in front of the old KFI studios, you portrayed the Loan Shark and I played Beach Sand Man and I was never sure if you really were annoyed at me for getting sand all over your shoes.

D. McEwan said...

"Craig L. said...
I think when he did the 'Jaws Lullabye' bit (which would take WAY too long to explain) in front of the old KFI studios, you portrayed the Loan Shark and I played Beach Sand Man and I was never sure if you really were annoyed at me for getting sand all over your shoes."


Probaby not. It sounds like something I'd do just to be in character, but as I have absolutely no memory of that bit whatever, I can't say with certainty. That was a loooonnng time ago, and I tend now to remember the stand-out bits, and/or ones I still have photos from. Those were fun days indeed.

Gee, I haven't been idolized since my baby brother grew up.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Ken, you mention that there might be a book in your radio stories -- but why not a memoir of television writing and directing? Please?

Mike McCann said...

Confession: I may have shared this story with Ken personally, but I wanted to share it with his readers. Growing up in New York, every major radio (and TV) station was located in an office building. None had a grand entrance or iconic architecture that screamed "SHOW BIZ!!!" Even NBC(where I worked for most of the '80s) was inside the historic 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which functionally is just another office building (albeit one laden with history). When I visited LA first the first time (on vacation in 1969), my dad was driving down Sunset and I saw this amazing mansion that looked like a recreated White House. I noticed the large call letters on the front: KTLA and KMPC. Yes, THIS was where a broadcaster should be located. Darned impressive. And being just a teenager in high school (and from back east), I didn't realized that the headquarters of Golden West Broadcasting was once the heart of the Warner Brothers empire.

It left an indelible impression with me.

And Ken, you lucky devil, you actually got to work there!!!

MFlaherty said...

Okay, I bought the book. I hope this means you can ease up a little.

Michael Hagerty said...

Tom Quigley: The building is actually office space for Tribune, which owns KTLA. But there's tons of history to it.

It was originally built as the first administration building for Warner Bros. in 1919. When the Warners put KFWB radio on the air, it went into that building, and the two broadcast towers were built on the property (one remains today, with the KTLA signage on it).

After merging with First National and moving the studio to Burbank in 1929, the big white mansion on Sunset became a secondary facility until Warners sold it in 1937. The new owner turned it into a bowling alley.

Paramount bought the lot in 1955 and moved KTLA onto a soundstage there in 1958.

Gene Autry bought KTLA from Paramount in 1961, but rented the soundstage space until 1965, when he bought the entire lot and began a renovation of the old Administration Building.

In 1968, he moved KMPC and his own offices into the big white mansion. It was there nearly 30 years, until it was bought by ABC/Disney and moved to KABC/KLOS' studios on La Cienega.

Autry sold KTLA to Tribune, and the mansion has beeen office space since. Tribune's bankruptcy forced them to sell the lot to a venture capital firm in 2008. Trib's been renting it back ever since.

There are plans on the books to build a 13-story office tower and a 7-story parking garage and a five-story parking garage on the site. The office tower would require moving the KTLA tower (purely decorative) from the corner of Sunset & Van Ness west to the corner of Sunset & Bronson.

The plans also call for the mansion to be restored.

Jeffrey Mark said...

Not trying to "top" anyone or "ego-trip out" here...but...I have a cool radio story, for what its worth. Had the good fortune of working overnights at K101 in San Francisco back in '80-83. Those were still the last, gasp dying days of reading live commercials on the air. Being "the kid" on the air, the morning man, the brilliant Ken Copper and our stellar newsman, John Emm - they were "THE PERFECT morning team in every way - would ALWAYS, ALWAYS try and make me "lose it" on the air while I was reading a live spot. Every morning 'round 5:30-5:45, every stop set where I read a live spot they were on me. One morning I come out of "Here Comes The Sun" at 5:50...I say, "yeah, here it comes - I can see the dawn - the light's coming up." Ken moves over to me and says, "You're lying!there's no sun - where?" "Hey!" I say, "I've been up all night in total darkness, and any little sun I can get right now, I'll take, thank you very much." I was totally cracking up, yet, kinda defending what I just said - giving it back to Ken. John Emm, morning newsman extraordinaire suddenly bursts into the studio and yells out, "What's he bitching about now?!" I'm losing it rapidly...Ken's saying, "We have trained and trained young Jeffrey to be in our radio image and follow in our footsteps and he goes and lies about the sun being out right now." Uh...well...you had to be there. I was totally out of my mind consumed with dead-drunk laughter. And I had to go into a live spot! I started to read...but Ken and John were looking over my shoulder. I stopped and asked, "do you guys want to read this, I'll leave." Cracked them up - we all cracked up. Then...Terri Cox our traffic person walks into the studio and while I'm on mic, says, "Morning guys" and walks over to everyone crowding around me. Terri ends up finishing the live spot with me, wiped-out in tears of laughter. What a party it was! Some damn good radio in San Francisco once upon a time.

David said...

Great story, Ken, brought back memories of my first few years out of college which I spent, much to my father's chagrin, in radio. Okay, here's a quick story from my first radio job, at WRAN in Dover, NJ (URL below)

I was the morning man (where else do you put the least experienced staffer but on the most important shift in radio? Why? Because I was the only one with a First Class FCC license, required for our crappy station's pattern. Okay, so it's winter and a terrible storm hits northern New Jersey and I get to be the guy to give the good news to kids everywhere that their school is closed.

It's about 6 in the morning and the studio phone rings and the voice on the other end says "This is Principal Evers at Randolph High, we're closing school today due to the snow storm." "Okay," I tell him, "we'll add your school to the list," which I do. Every half hour I say something oh-so clever like "here's something I've always wanted to do since I was in school, and that is to tell you lucky kids at Randolph High that you don't have school today." Jingle into spot set, feeling real good about myself. Until we get a call just before my shift ends from the REAL Principal of Randolph High. We had been punk'd (or pranked, as we said in the 1970s) The school had NOT been closed. In my excitement of the storm and all the things we were covering, I had failed to get the special code each principal had been given to validate the closing.

The next day the headline in the local paper (for which I still have a copy) read:

RANDOLPH STUDENTS LEFT OUT IN THE CODE