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