Saturday, March 22, 2014

My role in the Patty Hearst kidnapping

BBC Radio is airing a documentary tonight on the Patty Hearst case.  I was contacted and interviewed for that program.   Here's my involvement in that major international story: 

Before I became a writer and blogger I traveled around the country like a nomad “spinning biscuits” as a Top 40 D.J. 

It was 1974. I was working at KYA, San Francisco. KFRC was the big station then. Throughout my disc jockey career I always worked at the “other” place. There would be a powerhouse number one station like KHJ, KFRC, and CKLW in town, and I was always hired by K100, KYA, and WDRQ.


But KYA was a great station. We had a terrific program director, Bob Whitney, who believed in freedom and fun on the radio. That made us unique… at times amazing, and at other times, uh, well... strange. Our afternoon jock called himself Jimmy Jet and had a chipmunk-voiced sidekick named Wonder Wings. He also had all these airplane whooshes (the same sound Rocky the Flying Squirrel made whenever he took off) and would play them constantly over records. He was a lovely guy but yikes!  (Jimmy is now a commercial pilot, UFO investigator-journalist.  I'm not making this up.) 

Anyway, I was on from 10 P.M. to 2 A.M. I didn’t have any “whooshes” but I was pretty out there. I also had to read the news at 1:30. The name I was using was Beaver Cleaver, but I couldn’t call myself that during a newscast. At the time there was a late night program on NBC called THE TOMORROW SHOW. Host Tom Snyder would interview a different guest from 1:00-2:00 AM. Whoever his guest was, that was the name I chose for that night. So one night astronaut Neil Armstrong would report KYA news and next night it was Helen Reddy.

I used to take phone requests from listeners.  Hey, I was bored. One night I got a call from someone who identified himself as a member of the SLA.

Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and great-granddaughter of millionaire George Hearst had recently been kidnapped in the bay area by a radical group that called themselves the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army). This was the big story of the day. Back then heiresses had to get kidnapped to receive notoriety. They couldn’t just make sex tapes like today.

The SLA made their ransom demands through envelopes left in public places.

I guess they were fans of the show. I was told there was an envelope at the station’s front door. Before I could ask if he would say, "Hi, we're the SLA and KYA is our favorite radio station!" he hung up. 

I was a little freaked out I must admit. I wasn't used to actual listeners. I went to the front door and sure enough, there was a manila envelope. I called the station manager (who just LOVED being woken up at 1:00 AM) and he said he would handle it.

I should have called the program director, Bob Whitney.  He would have snapped into action and turned this moment into a contest.  "Guess what's in the SLA envelope and win tickets to the Lou Reed concert!"

So I go back to doing my show as if nothing happened. Five minutes later a hundred FBI agents storm into the building. My engineer was really peeved. He was very overweight and liked to work with his pants off.  Imagine how pleasant that was for me sitting across from him all night.   Now he had to wear his trousers.  I suspect a union grievance was filed.

Normally, the station is empty in the middle of the night.  But now there are agents, sniffing dogs, and SWAT team guys. I’m being interrogated between records.  "What did he sound like?  What exactly did he say?  Did you hear anything in the background?"   I have to excuse myself every three minutes to introduce the next KYA People Power hit and read the Gensler Lee Diamond spot. Just another night at the radio station.

Now an FBI agent begins manning the listener lines, hoping maybe the SLA will call back and request “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero”. So imagine Tim Kang from THE MENTALIST cross-examining and scaring the shit out of all the little teenyboppers just calling in to hear their favorite Donny Osmond song.

I finally signed off by saying, “Hey, I had a great time tonight! Would like to thank everyone listening in their homes and cars and hideouts. See you tomorrow night. Rock on! Be cool! And please don’t shoot anybody!”

I never heard from them again. If I ever actually meet Patty Hearst, or if perhaps she reads this blog, there's something I've always wanted to know.  Since the SLA obviously listened to KYA, why didn't they also kidnap Jimmy Jet?

27 comments:

Stoney said...

I found the stream link to BBC Radio 4 and now I'm scrambling to convert 20:00 GMT to Eastern Daylight Time. But BBC does podcast everything so I should be able to hear it sooner or later.

Only a true comedy writer and radio geek could give an account like that! Might make a good Ben Affleck film!

Anonymous said...

British guy who wrote Billy, Don't Be A Hero (and the Night Chicago Died, and Hitchin' A Ride, and The Ballad Of Bonnie And Clyde) just died this week

pumpkinhead said...

That was both interesting and funny, as most of your posts are. "Before I could ask if he would say, 'We are the SLA...'" To quote someone else, that nearly made me spit coffee all over my computer screen.

Patty Hearst said...

The SLA didn't kidnap Jimmy Jet because they were afraid that he would make those "whooshing" sounds all the time, leading the FBI to our hideout. That, and they just found him annoying anyway.

Hamid said...

That was a hilarious read. Thanks for the heads-up, Ken. I'll check it out.

It's on at 8. Here's the link to Radio 4:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ygwmb

SBell said...

I loved KYA! Thanks to this post, I now know the name of the store in that peppy, repetitive jingle:
Gensler Lee Di-a-monds,
Gensler Lee Di-a-monds,
The place to buy diamonds if you're really smart!
Gensler Lee Di-a-monds,
The sto-o-o-o-re with a heart!

Mister Charlie said...

Or Tom Campbell, "...from Matthew's at the top of Daly City!"

Anonymous said...

I was hoping you would write, "I was Cinque Mtume."

OTL said...

So did you ever find out what was in that manila envelope?

Kirk said...

"Back then heiresses had to get kidnapped to receive notoriety. They couldn’t just make sex tapes like today"

Hilarious.

Stoney said...

I'm about 20 minutes into the BBC show and it's very interesting the way the media was being played by the SLA in the time before cable news and the net. Just hearing Ken!The

wcmartell said...

Cool. When the SLA was hiding in a house in Concord, it was the house directly behind my grandmother's house. I was a kid, mowing her back lawn every week, and never knew how close I was to them. My grandmother said they were quiet neighbors.

Clavinator said...

Love the voice you did on "Would you play The Night Chicago Died?" Looks like you caught a moment that Forrest Gump missed! I assume you knew enough, from all the TV cop shows, not to touch the envelope.

Fred said...

I can't believe that you have been sitting on that story for years! I love the "brush with fame" stories like you went to high school with Jan Smithers, and you dated Ann Jillian, but COME ON, this is the SLA. I was pre-teen at the time, didn't watch the news (and even now I don't much watch the news), but even I know about that story.
What will you tell us next, you and Mark Spitz took swimming lessons together as toddlers? I know: Jimmy Hoffa is buried in your best friend's back yard.
My Friday question is: With what other famous news events do you have a personal connection?

Ken Levine said...

Mark Spitz was a fellow parent at Brentwood High School when our kids went there. Nice guy.

RCP said...

Great, funny account. I was fascinated by the Hearst kidnapping and had my older sister (who was living in the Bay Area at the time) mail me newspaper article after article (we were living overseas). In Hearst's book, she noted that members of the SLA loved to blast Pink Floyd's "Money" - do you remember receiving many requests for that song? (Next question: How much pocket change were you carrying on May 3, 1967?)

ODJennings said...

"Cool. When the SLA was hiding in a house in Concord, it was the house directly behind my grandmother's house."


I enjoy the fact that they also hid out across from Disneyland in a hotel at Harbor and Katella.

Angry Gamer said...

Ken,

You can really tell a story... Comedy Genius.

CraigS said...

Great story. Any chance James Courant was "Jimmy Jet"?

D. McEwan said...

When I was in college back in 1969 and '70, I was part of a group of hippie college students who called ourselves "The Family." (Primary business: protesting the Vietnam War.) We later found out that we'd all been investigated as part of the Manson murders investigation, to see if our "The Family" was an extension of The Manson Family. They fairly quickly realized that we had nothing to do with the Mansons, and were all about 100 IQ points above any of Manson's zombie-slave-killers. (And I had an ironclad alibi.)

mmryan314 said...

Ken- I want your life. I was so into this story way back when. I went to UW in the 60's so had a first hand view of the goings on at the time. Fascinating- The OJ story in the 90's paled in comparison although I did spend an entire summer off of teaching to watch that trial.I love true crime stuff.

Cap'n Bob said...

I visited Hearst Castle in 1988 and asked the guide if Patty was around. No answer, just an icy stare. Personally, I think sending her to jail was a farce.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Note to OD Jennings: I actually interviewed Patty Hearst at that hotel across from Disneyland! If you recall, they did a feature called PATTY HEARST, directed by Paul Schrader and starring the late Natasha Richardson. It was the first time Patty had been back and it was like an out-of-body experience to interview her where she had been taken when she was kidnapped! I was doing a behind-the-scenes piece on the film and the movie studio was so uptight about everything. I cleared all the questions with her husband prior to the interview, and she was very sweet and charming. Could have asked her anything. But that adventure is worthy of yet another blog piece! Great story Ken!!

Greg Ehrbar said...

You can listen to pretty much everything broadcast on the BBC radio channels for seven days after it is broadcast. Occasionally, BBC Radio 4 leaves streams up longer.

Not all these shows are also available as podcasts, but you can stream them any time of day.

Each station (and there are about 7 of them) has its own programming, but the bulk of comedy, variety, drama, documentary and vintage music are on BBC Radio 2, BBC Radio 4 and BBC Radio 4 Extra.

The best way to see what they have for any given week is to visit their websites and click the schedules. Anything up to 7 days ago is still available.

Radio still exists in the UK in forms that the US have long discarded, especially comedy and drama. And there are tons of shows about American pop culture and history, like the Patty Hearst program.

I owe this knowledge to Mark Evanier, who frequently lets readers know about notable BBC programming -- and BBC has become my main source of radio entertainment for many years now.

Anonymous said...

What is it about old-time (meaning 1970s and 80s) radio engineers and their weight? I swear the NABETs at WNBC-660 were larger than normal NABETs who worked TV or FM.

Ron Rettig said...

Tom Snyder was very good at KNBC News and its Sunday Show. But he was great late at nite on the Tomorrow Show. It was a shame Brokaw went to NBC Nightly News instead of Tom Snyder.

Metal Mickey said...

Any British reader will know John Peel, almost certainly the most influential DJ ever in the UK, now sadly deceased.

The amazing (and little-reported) piece of trivia about him is that he was actually in the room when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. At the time Peel was touring the US and managed to "blag" himself a DJ slot on a Dallas radio station by pretending he knew The Beatles... apparently the station's regular news reporter was indisposed, so Peel was sent along to see Oswald escorted from the police station "in case anything happened", and he saw history being made...