Sunday, May 04, 2014

My first radio job

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 flanked by one tower 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 were staggering. 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?

Update:

Thanks to Johnny Mitchell, my PD at KERN for holding on to the ratings.  They're just too good not to share.

From the April/May 1972 ARB report for Metro Area shares for KERN:

Sat. 7-M Teens 52.4
Men 18-34 57.1
Women 18-34 43.8
Men 18+ 36.8
Women 18+ 21.9
Persons 12+ 36.3*

Sun. 3-7 Teens - 47.5 Men 18-34 - 29.7
Women 18-34 16.0
Men 18+ 19.5
Women 18+ 11.4
Persons 12+ 21.0

* The highest 12+ rating in any time period ever recorded for KERN. (The next closest was
27.6)

Thanks again, Johnny.  I owe you lunch and a new couch. 

33 comments:

Jim Grey said...

I'm glad I was born with a radio-friendly name (Jim Grey) that all of the PDs for which I worked let me keep. I got my pro start on 1230 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Sundays 10 to 2. Which meant that all winter long I was pre-empted by Colts games. Boy, did they suck then. Anyway, point is, who starts out on some low-powered AM these days? How does one even break into radio now? (Not that I'm looking.)

Bradman said...

Another great radio story, Ken! Radio stories are like snowflakes. We jocks all recognize them even though no two are exactly alike! Love the blog every morning! The hits just keep on coming!

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

You perfectly captured the affliction many of us had from the bite of the radio bug in the '60's.

I'd get home from my boxboy job at Gelson's late at night and listen KDON in Salinas wondering if someday, someday I'd be good enough to spin the tunes there.

After dutifully fulfilling academic and military obligations, I was woefully unprepared for the ruthless, unfair world of radio. It seemed like it almost wasn't a legitimate business but acted more like a free-for-all, with employees being hired and fired on the whim of bosses who often were addled by personality disorders, drugs or other scary things.

But when it was fun, IT WAS FUN!!!
I'd do it all again in a heartbeat.

I began at the ucla station as did you and so many others. You've had a wonderful career. I'm just amazed at how technology has changed the audio/radio business because today I live in the mountains of western Oregon with a little audio studio that serves clients in Sweden, Britain, Canada...and if you call any of the Domino's Pizza locations in Riyadh and they put you on hold...that'd be me telling you about the great pizza deals this week. "Number One...with cheese!"

Be Boss,

Ox


Johnny Walker said...

Hard to believe your name would have made any difference? I guess "Levine" isn't especially sexy, but "Stevens" isn't that much better! I know "Levine" is Jewish, but would it really have made that much of a difference? A DJ by any other name would sound just as good, right? (Maybe it was a different time?)

Great that you had your dream job for a year, you must have been so happy. Also fantastic that you got to hone your skills without interference. Being crappy is the first place you pass through on the way to being great -- but you don't often get the opportunity to get there on the job.

This blog post feels like it needs to end with a theme song and some text explaining how "Ken Stevens went on to become one of America's greatest and most loved DJs". A pretty auspicious start to your DJing career! (What happened?)

Ane said...

I recently applied for a radio job. I've never been in that business before, so I probably won't even get an interview. But just in case they happen to like something on my resumee or the mp3 I sent, any advice, Ken? What do radio people look for in an interview? Someone who's outgoing and well skolen, I guess but what else? Thanks in advance.

Ane said...

Spoken, not skolen. Damn you autocorrect! :-P

Johnny Walker said...

Longtime readers will remember Ken's story about the filming of "Rat Girl", where Bebe Neuwirth had an issue with Lilith carrying a purse.

More recent readers may remember me commenting on how I'm watching CHEERS again... Well! I recently watched the episode that first introduced Lilith (as the worst possible date for Frasier) and guess what...

She's wearing a purse.

Of course Lilith's character wasn't quite as established then, but I wonder if it would have made a difference if someone had pointed it out.

GJ Goldwyn said...

I had a show on AM 1520 KVTA. The studios are in Ventura. The transmitter in Port Hueneme 5 miles east. The nighttime wattage and directional pattern pumped the signal due west... over the Pacific Ocean to protect 50,000 watt KOMA in Oklahoma. At night, I could barely hear the signal in the on-air studio monitors.

Ken Neben said...

Bonus points to you for the callback to yesterday's Neil Simon post.

MikeFab said...

My family moved to Bakersfield in '64, and most of us are still here. I was an avid listener of both KERN and KAFY, especially on those blistering hot summer nights "cruising Chester", in our hot rods during the early '70's. It was a lot like the weekend cruising scenes in "American Graffiti". So I'm sure I heard you on the air. And I also remember those three towers and the little crappy building next to them. Thanks for the memories.

VP81955 said...

Ken, there are a few clear channel (the term, not the firm) frequencies on the upper end of the AM dial. In fact, your voice was heard on one when 1500 WTOP in Washington broadcast Baltimore Orioles games for many of those 33 lonely summers when D.C. had no baseball team. 1500 still carries MLB (thankfully the Nationals, not the hated O's), with a signal that can be heard at night along much of the Eastern seaboard, but in 2006 WTOP moved its all-news format flagship station to FM (better suited for the D.C. area), and 1500's call letters now are WFED. When it's not carrying the Nats, Capitals or Wizards (all as a secondary outlet), it's something called "Federal News Radio." It doesn't have many listeners for that format, but it works in D.C.

Other 50,000-watters at the upper reaches of AM are 1500 in the Twin Cities, 1510 in Nashville, 1520 in Buffalo (the legendary Top 40 station WKBW, whose alumni include Dick Biondi), 1530 in Cincinnati and 1540 in Waterloo, Iowa. A few of these now have sports formats.

Johnny Mitchell said...

I learned an important lesson having Ken sleep on my couch. No, it was not how to get cum stains out of upholstery. It was that having a big Robert W. Morgan voice was not nearly as inportant as having something compelling and entertaining to say and saying it in a way that grabs the listeners and holds on to 'em.

Playing the right mucic can only take you so far.

Johnny Mitchell KERN PD '72-'78
("John")

Some KERN facts:

There was was just one tower behind the shack. KAFY had the three behind their shack.

From the April/May 1972 ARB report for Metro Area shares for KERN:

Sat. 7-M Teens 52.4
Men 18-34 57.1
Women 18-34 43.8
Men 18+ 36.8
Women 18+ 21.9
Persons 12+ 36.3*

Sun. 3-7 Teens - 47.5 Men 18-34 - 29.7
Women 18-34 16.0
Men 18+ 19.5
Women 18+ 11.4
Persons 12+ 21.0

* The highest 12+ rating in any time period ever recorded for KERN. (The next closest was
27.6)

Artie in Sin City said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Artie in Sin City said...

Ken...

Once again our lives mimic each others...

I would drive from a frat party at USC to the valley to play hits on a station NO ONE listened to, KVFM...

I did that for over a year each and every Saturday Morning...Transmitter was in a closet...There was no A/C in the Panorama Towers weekends...AND in the beginning I got ZERO pay...

But I hung in and a while later I was the PD and swizzling down all the "Double Bubble" cocktails I could muster at the local Howard Johnson's radio trade...

Our early radio days...Good days...GREAT days!

Ken Levine said...

Thanks, Johnny. I just added those numbers to the actual post. Thanks for believing in me.

Scooter Schechtman said...

The name Levine too Jewish for Bakersfield? But there's naught but God fearin' Sons of the Soil out there. You're lucky if the local greasemonkies don't start whistling Hava Nagila when you pass by (as has happened to me).

YEKIMI said...

Google mapped the KERN location [now has the call letters KERI]. Looks like the same crappy shack is still there, probably not much changed since you worked there. I remember working at a station in Florida that was in similar straights. We had cockroaches the size of VW Beetles crawling all over the place [you'd know when one went across the board when I was on the air because you'd hear me scream like a 10 year old girl and then it would sound like I was talking from Mars because I was standing 10 feet from the board yelling in the direction of the microphone. I absolutely am terrified of cockroaches!] They decided to fumigate the place and the pesticide people wanted EVERYTHING turned off, even the electric to the place. The transmitter was in such bad shape that we were so afraid that if we turned it off it would never come back on again once we tried to reboot it. We all had to travel out to the transmitter shack and do our shows from there. This place was so disgustingly bad that even Osama Bin Laden would have refused to hide out there. After the weekend from hell we were able to get back to the studios. Mountains of dead and dying roaches and other insects were all over the place. I asked if I could go back to the transmitter shack.

Jeffrey Mark said...

My first job in radio as a disc-jocky was back in 1977. I was a broadcasting student at Chico State U and on the bulletin board at the radio station there was a card saying that KOBO in Yuba City was looking for a weekend jock. A whopping $4 an hour. I got an aircheck together and ran back to my dorm. A friend said he would drive me down to Yuba City in his triumph spitfire. We drove out like a bat outta hell, going 80 miles an hour down highway 99.

Got to the station and the same thing like you Ken. The program director listened to my check and hired me on the spot. My first pro radio gig. I, too spent many a night sleeping on the couch when things got too loud on my floor in the dorm. (I had to be on the air Sunday morning at 7am.)

I did some pretty nice top 40 radio work at KOBO with dreams of making it in San Francisco. I totally relate to your early days of your radio career, Ken.

Jeffrey Mark said...

And I want to thank Jason W. Fine (a very strange Jew)the program director at KOBO for believing in me.

BTW, the station was in a small shopping center with a giant window of the control room where people would drive right past and stop to look in on the jock on the air. Felt like being in the fish tank.

KOBO...the worst call letters in the work. Horrible.

Mike Barer said...

Didn't everyone start at a station that looked like that?

Brian Drake said...

One of my early radio gigs was in a field very much like the one you describe. The station leased the land from a farmer, who like to set off dynamite to blast out the gophers. Every now and then, you'd hear a big "kaboom!" while in the studio, and I recall calling my father to explain that the farmer was trying to bomb us out of business.

Lorimartian said...

I don't know if I remember you saying you went to UCLA. Me, too, '67-'71. As I was reading your post, I was going to ask if you worked at the campus station until you mentioned that you did. I read the news for a while. It was fun. I remember when the station received a demo of Mason Williams' "Classical Gas." I predicted that it would be a big hit. I was right.

Victor Velasco said...

Another great tale from the magical world of radio. My question is: roughly, approximately how many top 40 American dee jays - or almost any format - ever had anything like or resembling an "ethnic" name? Dick Biondi comes to mind...Joe Niagra? Hound Dog Lorenz?... and now I'm really stretching...too bad, it would have been a kick to listen to Mickey the Macher or Nino Bambino...Long Tall Lopez, anyone?

Brian Drake said...

Victor,
Ethnic names are more common these days, depending on the market. I work for Clear Channel in San Francisco and we have several "urban format" stations--hip hop, R&B, etc.--and ethnic names are encouraged. If you don't have a genuine ethnic name, they give you one.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I don't see not having a long-range plan at 21 as a bad thing. I came out of college wanting to be a folksinger. People used to ask me if I could see myself doing it my whole life, and that really wasn't the point. It was what I wanted to do *then*.

Much more impractical than being a DJ, trust me!

wg

Anonymous said...

All I did was smile while reading about your first radio job.It brought back so many memories of exactly what I went through in Perry Georgia, home of my first job You really nailed it Ken with memories you will treasure forever.
Johnny Holliday

Irv Goldstein said...

Be there on the Jewish name thing. First radio job was working all nights at WFOM in Cobb County Georgia, perhaps the nation's most conservative. Newt later served it in Congress and another claim to fame was its "must carry" gun law. The PD suggested I not use my real name to avoid the possibility of some folks in white sheets waiting for me when my shift was done. Sincerely, Mark Rivers.

Yah Shure said...

A "graveyard channel" AM station was my first stopping point. You know the ones: 1230, 1240, 1340, 1400, 1450 and 1490, all with no more than 250 nighttime watts back in the day. With literally hundreds of other stations squeezed onto each of those frequencies, it was like trying to be heard over the simultaneous conversations of an auditorium crowd of five hundred with all the wattage of a toaster.

At stop number two, folks within a couple miles could hear the station *on* their toasters. Those who traded in their old Western Electric Bell System phones for the cheaper ones just coming on the market answered with "The Phrase That Pays" whether they wanted to or not. Ground conductivity was very good-to-excellent throughout the region, so even way up at 1520, daytime reception was possible out to 150 miles. With the nighttime skip, we were heard as far away as Perth, Western Australia. And yet, during a remote from east of Norman - not 25 miles from the towers - the signal disappeared at pattern change. So much for picking up the jock's on-air cues.

Now I'm back to where I was as a kid: using a tenth of a watt to rebroadcast internet radio and the music collection around the house and garage with genuine hot AM top-40 sound on Go-Go 12-4-0. It may not beat WiFi coverage, but it does get out further than the garage door opener. During daylight hours, anyway.

I used my real name throughout my radio years, but have always prized being completely anonymous in public.

Beau Weaver said...

I always thought Beever Cleever sounded Jewish.

YEKIMI said...

Glad to see Johnny Holliday posting. If people haven't done so, you need to read his auto-biography "Johnny Holliday: From Rock to Jock". Fasicinating read. Too bad I wasn't around in Cleveland when he was on WHK; would have loved to have heard him [airchecks just aren't the same thing]. Have run into people nowadays that, when you mention his name, their eye light up and they can remember listening to him when they were kids.

Joe Patti said...

Same here with the name change goofyness. Two PDs had me change my name from my given name (Joe Patti) to something more "generic" (Joe Matthews - taking advantage of my middle name). One PD's reason, "People will be so busy trying to figure out if you're Italian or Irish that they'll miss the call letters." Whatever. With the way I sounded back then, I was lucky to have the work...

Jaye Albright said...

That was indeed a magical time in Bakersfield radio history. Many of the folks who were on the air back then at KAFY and KERN are still on air now.

Meanwhile, I was listening to it all from the safe haven of that little Buck Owens country station which has also nurtured a lot of talented people as well.

Norm said...

Like, Ken, I didn't have the "greatest" pipes.

My "first" real on-air job was at KUDU 1590 (the BIG 16) with 5K of Country Power in Ventura, CA. I even cut part of the audition tape of KHJ-FM thanks to a friend that worked there.

I drove up to meet the PD, and after listening to the 3-minute presentation, he says: "Fine, all I wanted to hear was if you were tight." Wow, I got hired because I could hit the vocals!