Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Maybe the most ingenious radio contest ever

This was in the early ‘70s. There was a big radio war going on in San Diego between stations KCBQ and KGB. The program director of KCBQ was Buzz Bennett. Picture Frank Zappa.

The competition was fierce. They each had promotions and were giving away money and prizes.  Lots of bells and whistles.  (Stuff like this used to routinely happen when one company didn't own every station.) 

One afternoon KCBQ was having technical problems. The station would periodically go off the air. The engineers scrambled and usually got it back on in five or ten minutes. But five seconds of dead air is an eternity in radio. Add to that, the afternoon shift was considered “prime time.” Other than in mornings, a station’s largest audience would be in the afternoon.

So KCBQ really had a problem.

Until Buzz Bennett came up with a solution.

He instituted a contest. If the station went off the air again, the first person who called when it came back on would win $100. As a result he had thousands and thousands of people listening when the station was OFF THE AIR. Now to me, THAT’S a program director.

It’s one of the reasons I mourn the death of terrestrial radio. KCBQ off the air sounded better than most stations today on the air.

31 comments :

E. Yarber said...

If it had been my station, I would have had the DJ simply say, "And that was the new extended-play single by John Cage," but on the other hand I can see how the $100 was a more effective counter-measure.

Honest Ed said...

A US radio station called KGB? Please tell me that wasn't a typo!

Janet Ybarra said...

That is ingenious. We have a little baby classic rock station, based in north and western Maryland (think suburban to rural areas).

I'm not even going to mention the call sign, I don't want to embarrass them. I think their transmitter is in the 5,000 range. Certainly not much larger. You go to their website and they say, for advertising purposes, that they reach 50,000 listeners a week. They like to say, though, they take a bite of a four-state area, basically rural corners of Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, they have to compete with an I heart radio monster of 50,000 watts that basically reaches everywhere.

I mention this baby station because a year or two ago we had an ice storm which threw them off the air for two or three *days*.

They were still on, on their Web stream if thought to look. But for a business that depends so much on people listening in their cars, that wasn't going to help.

Anyway I always thought that was somewhat embarrassing, that granted they are a tiny station but they still basically lack any more pull than you or me in getting the juice back on after a storm.

Paul Knauer said...

I was filling in one day as the board op at KCMO-AM in the 90s, running the afternoon drive show. Chris Baker had just been hired to do a news/comedy show. The transmitter was probably 20 miles away and the board op had to take transmitter readings remotely. In the middle of the show, I dialed in for the readings and somehow accidentally shut the transmitter off. (The engineer insisted that wasn't possible - that the transmitter shutting down at that moment was coincidence, but I'll always believe he was covering for me.)

Anyway, Chris sat there calmly for probably a half an hour as the entire station swirled around us. The PD was freaking out (drive time/new show), the engineers were panicked. The phones were going crazy ("Did you know you're off the air?" "Uh, yes.")

When we finally got back on the air, Chris calmly popped the mic and pretended to say goodbye to a guest, then proceeded with a 5-minute monologue on the brilliance of the guest and how it was going to blow the lid on the whole Clinton thing. "Wow! What an amazing interview!" Callers were going crazy, insisting that Chris replay the interview, since the station was off the air. He spent the next hour insisting we were never off the air... even calling the program director in and having him angrily deny we were off the air. (Chris actually pretended to be the PD - and interviewed himself - going back and forth between two voices.)

It was brilliant. He turned one of my worst radio moments into one of my favorite radio memories.

VP81955 said...

But IIRC, KGB was the station that gave the world the San Diego Chicken. So there.

Pizzagod said...

When life hands you lemons...

Doctor Boogie said...

Favorite joke to pull on a young DJ when the station transmitter failed:

run into on-air studio and yell "quick--run the 'we are off the air' announcement!"

Todd said...

I remember hearing from the Q engineers when I worked there a few years later how insulted they were by the Buzz stunt. Seemed pretty darn cool to me.

Peter said...

Ken, the SAG award nominations have been announced, but also the recipient of the lifetime achievement award, who is Alan Alda! Very well deserved.

Mike Bloodworth said...

That was pretty clever. Maybe one of today's radio stations could do something similar as incentive to stay through their unbearably long commercial breaks.

When I was in radio I used to regularly have "dead air" nightmares. I still do occasionally. That is where you're scrambling to get something on the air. None of the carts are not marked, pages are blank, equipment is malfunctioning, etc. All you can do is give the call letters while trying to find ANYTHING that will help you break the silence. I've awakened in a cold sweat more than once because of that dream.
I'll take the naked-in-highscool nightmare over dead air any day. (Or night)
M.B.

Jim said...

The KGB call letters predate the Soviet Union organization by about 25 years.

mondofox said...

KGB was San Diego's first radio station. It originally had the call letters KFBC when it went on the air in 1922. In 1928 it was purchased by Pickwick Stage Lines - one of the bus companies that consolidated to become Greyhound in 1929. The radio station relocated to the Pickwick Hotel and bus station on lower Broadway in San Diego with its antenna on the hotel roof. The general manager was George Bowles, who modestly renamed the radio station after himself - thus, KGB.

John Nixon said...

KCBQ also did what they called (I think it was called) The Last Contest. The prizes were incredible! I remember them being stuff like a helicopter plus your own island to land it on. I don't remember much more than that but I do remember that entire banks of telephones were locked up whenvever the contest was on.

Anonymous said...

This promotion reminds me of once in Seattle when a truckload of maple syrup broke down/ crashed/ dumped a load of syrup in front of his Clam restaurant ( Ivars) next to ferry dock and Ivar immediately set up a "pop up" ( modern term) pancake booth on the sidewalk.

Donald Benson said...

Back when I wrote ad copy at a newspaper, I proposed a Count The Typos contest. Luckily for me, it never reached upper management.

Jim Grey said...

When I worked in radio in the 90s I'll never forget the DJ who let the station go silent because he spent too long in the can. When he came back into the booth he opened the mic, said, "Those moments of dead air brought to you by the Indiana Institute for the Deaf," and went right back into music.

Peter said...

Ken, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress has revealed its pick of 25 films to be preserved.

What do you think of their choices?

“Bad Day at Black Rock” (d: John Sturges, 1955)
“Broadcast News” (d: Albert Brooks, 1987)
“Brokeback Mountain” (d: Ang Lee, 2005)
“Cinderella” (d: Geronimi, Luske & Jackson, 1950)
“Days of Wine and Roses” (d: Blake Edwards, 1962)
“Dixon-Wanamaker Expedition” (clip) (1908)
“Eve’s Bayou” (d: Kasi Lemmons, 1997)
“The Girl Without a Soul” (d: John H. Collins, 1917)
“Hair Piece” (short film) (d: Ayoka Chenzira, 1984)
“Hearts and Minds” (d: Peter Davis, 1974)
“Hud” (d: Martin Ritt, 1963)
“Rebecca” (d: Alfred Hitchcock, 1949)
“The Informer” (d: John Ford, 1935)
“Jurassic Park” (d: Steven Spielberg, 1993)
“The Lady From Shanghai” (d: Orson Welles, 1947)
“Leave Her to Heaven ” (d: John M. Stahl, 1945)
“The Monterey Pop Festival” (d: D.A. Pennebaker, 1968)
“My Fair Lady” (d: George Cukor, 1964)
“The Navigator” (d: Buster Keaton, 1924)
“On the Town” (d: G. Kelly, S. Donen, 1949)
“One-Eyed Jacks” (d: Marlon Brando, 1961)
“Pickup on South Street” (d: Sam Fuller , 1953)
“Rebecca” (d: Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
“The Shining” (d: Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
“Smoke Signals” (d: Chris Eyre, 1998)
“Something Good: Negro Kiss” (clip) (1898)

Janet Ybarra said...

Didn't he know that's what "Stairway to Heaven" was invented for... ;)

Janet Ybarra said...

My favorite newspaper typos involved anyone's "girlfiend" and writing about the local "pubic library."

RF Burns said...

Paul: Chris Baker was (maybe still is) an amazing talent. I worked with him in Omaha and when he was on air, it was one of the few times I actually enjoyed listening to my own station. I think he worked at one time with Phil Hendrie and picked up the "fake interview" tricks that Phil was famous for, but I believe Chris did it better.

I'm sitting here cracking myself up, just remembering some of Chris's bits. He did a PD impersonation at our joint too. Neil was a really good sport about it, most of the time.

Janet: your little baby station may have been contending with problems other than just the power being off. Radio station transmitting antennas don't work very well (or at all) if they are covered with ice. But yeah, the little guys don't always have the resources of the big group-owned stations when disaster strikes.

Janet Ybarra said...

Nope. Today it's an iHeartRadio classic rock station.

Andy Rose said...

Back in my hometown, I was working at the radio station one Saturday that happened to be the Fourth of July. Naturally, I was the only person in the building. Around midday, a chance of pop-up thunderstorms was added to the weather forecast. People wanted to know whether the town fireworks were going to be canceled, and this was pre-internet. Since all government offices were closed, everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY called the station. Every single line was lit up constantly for an hour straight as I tried to answer them and simultaneously take care of my broadcasting duties, assuring people we would let them know on-air if the fireworks were canceled. (Of course, there's no way the organizers could have reached us because the phones were constantly busy.)

Eventually the storm started to roll in, and our power went out. We had no backup transmitter, so we were dead in the water. Plus, our electronic PBX phone system had no backup either, so all the phones died. After an exhausting hour of ringing lines and being yelled at by half of the city, it was suddenly the calmest I ever felt in my life. No lights and no sounds except the rain. I slumped into a chair in the lobby and immediately fell asleep, knowing that as soon as the power came back on, the phones would wake me up.

Janet Ybarra said...

Good point. In any event I feel a little bad for them because they are the little station that could and I really do believe non-corporate media serves the public better.

Brian said...

Love the radio stories!

senormedia said...

Cumberland area?

Paul Knauer said...

Mike B: Oh, man. I thought I was the only one who had those nightmares. My version usually includes one of two scenarios: I hit one element and all of them fire. Or, more commonly, I can only find elements that are 3 seconds long and I can never get ahead.

Glad to know I'm no crazier than any other used-up broadcaster.

Hans Laetz, GM, KBUU Malibu said...

KBUU-LP's studios are in my house in Malibu. The fire damaged our studio, destroyed one of our two STL relay points, and damaged the transmitter. It took us 8 days to get the fires out, to get access thru the smoldering power poles up the mountain, and then to get power back up in a blacked out city, with police roadblocks everywhere. At one point we had four generators, one solar installation, and one car battery installation running at four sites, 20 miles strung out in fire damage.

After all that, we got on the air. And then, the first two or three days, we would run out of power every morning at 5:55, as the batteries died and the sun had not risen. Regular programming on the internet feed. On the air, we looped every version of Here Comes The Sun on 99.1 FM.

An electronics imporvement at the solar panels took care of that.

Ah, radio memories. FROM LAST MONTH.

Coram_Loci said...

Poof! Just like that he created value out of a waste. Good for him.

MARK GLEASON said...

The real 136-KGB is now KLSD and is Fox Sports Radio.

Mark Ogden said...

Yes, KGB first began broadcasting in 1922, and the KGB call letters were created in 1928 (named after station manager George Bowles). It seems that the Soviet state intelligence agency wasn’t referred to as the KGB until 1954.

DyHrdMET said...

That's a BRILLIANT contest idea!
I can almost see that happening as a storyline on WKRP.