Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Radio daze

Thanks again to Elayne Boosler, Rebekah (our producer), and Jeff, (our spark chaser) for making the last two days on the radio such a pleasure. And to the very trusting Stephanie Miller who’s worked so hard to build a large national audience only to leave it to me.

I’ve always loved radio yet hated how transient it is. Like anyone who’s been on the air for more than five minutes, I’ve been fired repeatedly. And today, as I look back nostalgically on my checkered radio career, I am reminded of these events:

I was fired from KSEA in San Diego in 1974 six days before Christmas when the station changed formats and blew out the whole staff. Our promotion at the time: “Christmas the way it was meant to be.”

I was fired from K100 in Los Angeles in 1974. The program director really let me down easy. He called me into his office, didn’t even bother closing the door, and said, “We’re making some changes, babe, and you’re one of ‘em.” Nice.

I was fired from KMEN in San Bernardino in 1973. At first they didn’t want to. It’s not that they wanted me to stay, they wanted me to quit. That way they wouldn’t have to pay any unemployment insurance. So they demoted me to the all-night show. I told the program director to just fire me. Nope, he said. Show up at midnight. Which I did. We were a high energy top 40 station. At 12:30 I said on the air, “Y’know, a lot of stations are playing albums these days. They’re really the cool thing. So I’d like to play an album.” I then played the FIDDLER ON THE ROOF album (Yiddish version) in its entirety. It took the program director fifteen minutes to drive to the station to fire me…and finish my six hour shift.

When KYA San Francisco gave me the heave-ho (new station owners, new direction) they did so while I was on active duty with the reserves. That’s illegal. I almost had to call the Adjutant General’s office to get my severance. When the station manager learned he had to pay me he became enraged and yelled, “I know your type. You’re the type that likes to hang around the coffee machine!” Huh??? What??? He was soon relieved of coffee machine privileges himself.

I did weekends on top 40 Los Angeles powerhouse, KFI, in the early 80’s. In that case I quit the station to devote my fulltime energy to CHEERS. Two years later another disc jockey appeared on that station calling himself Ken Levine. Since the station went to the expense of making a Ken Levine jingle they decided to just re-use the name. I called AFTRA (announcers’ toothless union) and was told there was nothing they could do. For almost a year someone else was on the radio as me. If only he had taken my place in the Army and on the MARY show, too.

And finally, I was doing Saturday nights on TenQ in Los Angeles in 1978 while serving as head writer on MASH. After a truly fun year our program director got the boot. He called me at home to say he didn’t know if any other changes were forthcoming but “I should be okay because I had that MASH thing to hold me over.” Right, thank God for MASH to keep me afloat until my next four hour a week at minimum union wage job came through.

Interestingly, the only way I was able to get respect in radio was to get out of it. Once I was writing for television, suddenly all the bits and jokes I told on the air that resulted in memos to “shut up and just play the music!” were replaced with “hilarious! Just keep doing what you’re doing!” EXACT same jokes and bits.

But all the craziness was worth it for the good times. When I was at K100, I followed one of my disc jockey idols, the Real Don Steele. He had dominated the LA market in the 60’s as one of the KHJ Boss Jocks. Now he was on this insignificant little FM, working his own control board, battling equipment failures, headphones feeding back, low ratings, etc.. He once said to me, “Beaver (yes, that was my air name back then – Beaver Cleaver), do you ever wonder why I, the Real Don Steele, would be sitting in this shithole?” He gazed out the window at the Hollywood skyline and said, “Because when it was good, it was REALLY good.”

And these last two mornings it was just that.


Ger Apeldoorn said...

Hi, Ken.

On a totally unrelated matter...

How do you like it that a company called DVDavenue is selling complete sets of Becker (and Wings) taped from WGN9?

I decided to try it and I am very happy I did. Not because of the package, because everything about it shouts rip-off. The shows are totally out of order. I thought there was some confusion between the order of taping and the order of airing.

This happens here in Holland all the time. We once had a season of Will & Grace on tv, where Will's father was having an affair before meeting the girl he had an affair with.

But yesterday I found out that I had been watching a show from the second season on the cd that was supposed to have the fourth... and on looking back I found that some of those fourth season shows were on the second season disc.

No, the reason I am so happy about it, is that Becker is such a wonderful show. I think it was ahead of it's time. Although we are only a couple of years later, tehre seems to be more room for not so sympathetic characters these days. Too bad it didn't last a little bit longer than it did.

So now my wife and I watch one or two shows every night and we often laugh out loud. What great writing. And what a great comedic actor Ted Danson is. Could be the directing, of course... now who did that?

The reason I dediced to write about it now, is that yesterday I saw an episode written by David Isaacs (on his own). What struck me, is that it was better than any of the episodes surrounding it. I mean, the characters are there and the situations were well plotted as in every episode. But somehow the quality of the jokes and observations was so good, that you kept getting surprised. And it just build from one scene to another. Now I know that plotting is very important in a good script. But to have so many really original thoughts and observations in a script is very important as well. It's a totally different way of thinking about comedy writing, since we are all supposed to say it's about character and story... but you have to hit one out of the ballpark every once in a while as well.

The episode was the one where Becker has to play sex councellor to an eighty year old couple, when a man he has treated for depression suddenly refinds his sex drive. It starts with the wife asking him if he can reverse the treatment. When Becker has explained that these things happen, she just says: "Can't you give him a pill that makes him want to dust?" Genius.

When he explains his predicament to Margaret and Linda, Linda says: "Sex over eighty is dangerous. You can loose control of the car."

When he has the couple in for counseling the woman says: "Why didn't you have this energy sixty years ago when I wanted to go backpacking in Europe?" He says: "Sixty years ago the Nazi's were backpacking in Europe."

To top it all off, the man has a really moving speech when she says he only says he wants her, but never that he loves her anymore. "I have loved you since the first time I saw you. In fact, I fell in love with you three times that day. First when I saw you, then when I met you and then when you walked away." I wonder how many days that took to write?

And that was only the A storyline. In the other storyline there is another great line by Becker, after someone has bothered him at home. When they leave, he just says: "Too many people know where I live." That just sums it to for me... teh economy of the writing. I am currently struggling through a (commisioned) pilot... and it's so hard to keep the number of lines down and the number of jokes up, without it all turning to plactic. David Isaacs did it in this episode... with a lot of help from the actors and the director.

Ann said...

Hey Ken!

What great stories! Love the Fiddler on The Roof gag.

Back in the mid-eighties I worked for a private meteorological firm that provided recorded weather feeds for various radio stations across the east coast. It was a night/weekend job, and most of my time was spent analyzing weather maps and then sitting in a little booth and talking while the remote stations recorded several different loops.

One day I was asked to fill in for the full-timer during the day, and was required to go live for several minutes with a Connecticut station. The DJ was an absolute riot. We bounced off each other and had a blast. That five minutes or so resulted in me having a brief fan club of listeners in Connecticut.

It was the only time in my life I performed live and unscripted in front of an audience. There's nothing quite like that rush. Writing books is so much safer--I've got a seven-second delay!

Almost all of my co-workers went on to become TV weathermen. I often wonder what my life would've been like if I'd taken that path too.

Thanks for bringing back some wonderful memories.

snarlah said...

You were great with Elayne Boosler on the Miller show. She's great. I wrote her an email about this but she didn't answer yet.

Re: The Voting Rights Act being held up in Congress (yes, I've called my Rep. but he's Barney Frank, one of the greats)

I was at a folk festival on the weekend where there was a middle-aged black couple, excellent musicians, but given some time on a stage, and even though it was a political music workshop they never mentioned it! I was ASTONISHED. Perhaps I'll look them up on my program and see if I can contact them.

Mary Stella said...

Ken, I remember a disc jockey I worked with telling me that at one radio station, every mid-day guy used the air name Rick O'Shea. They had a series of Rick O'Sheas over the years. I wonder what the audience thought when the voices changed but the name remained.

snarlah said...

Enron Founder Kenneth Lay Dies at 64

He had a "heart attack." He was due to be sentenced on Oct. 23rd.
Do you suppose he was going to
make a deal? I consider this an odd coincidence. Any takers?

Anonymous said...

'The Real Don Steele' was the real mccoy. I ADORED that guy. I was listening to FM for music but that guy made that whole "Boss Radio" ethic really mean something. It was like performance art or something. Many radio types did that ridiculous over the top enthusiasm but,as far as I'm concerned, nobody could TOUCH that guy. I'm glad he was well used in a couple movies. you know, for posterity!

as for Stephanie Miller, sorry I missed you. I like the Boos and hope she makes a go of it. Funny and topical seldom go hand in hand nowadays. not on radio anywho.
Stephanie Miller is the VERY FIRST smiling talk radio billboard on my commute in YEARS. It's been a glowering Laura Ingrahm, a glowering Laura Ingrahm flanked with a constipated Dennis Prager or NOTHING. I like Stephanie and I like her smile and hope she smiles down at me at LEAST as long as Laura has been glowering at me.

Frank Strovel III said...

"Like anyone who’s been on the air for more than five minutes, I’ve been fired repeatedly."

How true. However, I must boast I may be a rare exception to the rule. I did some college radio and then worked part-time at a station in Maryland. I quit when the GM stopped paying us. After that, I got my current job in Tennessee in 1993. Been here ever since. Same show, same station.

Otherwise, corporate radio is a viscious not-so-merry-go-round.

wordcraft said...

You were great on B100!

Anonymous said...

Ken, are you serious, they called someone Ken Levine because of KL jingle??? Who was the PD...roger carroll

Anonymous said...

Ken, are you serious, they called someone Ken Levine because of KL jingle??? Who was the PD...roger carroll

Anonymous said...

Hey, Beaver.

First - If you remember, the overnight guy on all of the RKO stations was named Johnny Williams.

Second - You didn't stay in Detroit long enough for me to fire you! Somehow I doubt that would have ever happened though. You were the most refreshing talent on-the-air in that era, had a totally unique voice and delivery and your content was always right on in a very non-sequitur kind of way. And, besides, the receptionist would never have forgiven me.

Best wishes on your continued success.