My Story Chapter 20 – What The Hell Am I Doing Here?
As I have written before, I have worked for the best, the worst, and the mediocre. It is a cliché in today's business world to refer to employees as team members, or associates. My father referred to his employees as the help. I like that better. For almost 30 years, in broadcasting and for another 10 years in various other pursuits, I was the help. I preface this chapter with these comments because I don't want any of my readers to assume that the man who picked me up at the San Francisco International Airport, on that December afternoon in 1979, was one of the worst.
Bill Johnson, the General Manager of KOSO, wasn't normal. I am not sure what 'normal' is but whatever it is it wasn't Bill Johnson. He was a caricature. He was secretive and expansive. He was exasperating and caring. Bill was blind to what he didn't want to see. On one hand he could be imperious and on the other a fawning sycophant. Because he was short of stature and at least half as wide as he was tall, it was easy to dismiss him. Many people made that mistake. Like a poor night-time AM radio signal, my understanding and toleration of Bill's foibles faded in and out. That was my mistake. He smoked, ate too much of the wrong foods, was totally lacking in any healthful activity, and died too young of the stereotypical heart attack. It was the only stereotypical thing he ever did.
After dinner with all the tourists at Fisherman's Wharf, Bill Johnson, the Sales Manager, Bruce Markman and I wandered about with more tourists for an hour. I was so tired I was having trouble concentrating. Three days before, Gary had picked me up when I returned from Dallas and without any time to unwind or decompress I was on my way to California. During those days there was too much input and my mind had churned, using up my limited mental-energy reserves. At night, instead of replenishing myself, I tossed and turned, my mind racing with thoughts of the future. I couldn't stop thinking of possibilities and impossibilities.
As we passed the steaming crab cookers, I not only absorbed the sights, but mentally scratched at every scab I could conjure. Of course, the paranoia struck. First, I was worried because during our meal, I was the only one to order alcohol. I was obsessed by the prominent gap in Bill Johnson's front teeth and couldn't ignore it. It made him look like an adult playing a kid in an Our Gang comedy. I was over-dressed for California because I left Minnesota in December. It is normal for California winter visitors to be over-dressed. I was hoping to be able to spend more time in San Francisco. I was still smarting over WEBC and the L brothers. Bruce Markman hadn't spoken 50 words since I met him, and aside from a periodic smirk was as silent as a clam. Or a freshly cooked crab. As my brain strained not to strip a gear, covering everything like the Angel of Death in The Ten Commandments was the flippant comment of the waiter, “Oh! Modesto! Ish!”
The first part of the ride leaving San Francisco and heading toward Modesto has faded in my memory. I know that after a snack at the airport in Minneapolis/St. Paul, a couple of bags of peanuts and a meal on the plane, and way too much sourdough bread with dinner, I was stuffed to the point of discomfort. I was looking forward to a quick 90 minute drive and a long night in a motel bed. It was not to be. I was with Bill Johnson. With Bill, nothing was quick, expected, dependable, or rational.
We must have driven across the Bay Bridge and wound our way through Oakland but I don't remember much about that part of the drive. It was December dark 45 minutes later, even in the southerly regions of the U.S., when Bill pulled onto the exit in Pleasanton, California. Over the years and hundreds of trips to San Francisco, I would stop at this putative half-way point hundreds of times. Over the years, the Burger King just off I580 was a quick bathroom/Whopper stop. (That sounds gay) If for some reason, I wanted to prolong the drive, the Buttercup Restaurant right next to the BK was a good place for a longer meal. By the late 90's, BART, the San Francisco Bay Area intra-urban train-system reached Pleasanton and it was an easy 40 minute train ride to meet friends from the Central Valley or once a year, go to the Alameda County Fair.
When Bill hit that exit in 1979, he knew exactly what he was doing. The subterfuge of a bathroom break and gas hid his true motive for the stop. The Carnation Restaurant. Of course, I was familiar with the Carnation brand of canned evaporated or dried milk. I didn't know they had branded a restaurant chain. (It didn't matter because the Carnation Restaurant in Pleasanton closed within 3 months and I've never seen another) Keeping with the dairy theme, the Carnation Restaurant featured a full ice cream parlor. Looking back, I am sure that Bill began thinking about and planning for this ice-cream stop even before dinner. A cowboy trying to stop a lightning-spooked herd of cattle with a cap-gun would be no more successful than trying to stop Bill when he got it in his brain that we were going to have dessert. As we bellied up to the bar, Bill ordered a chocolate malt, and turned to Mark and I for our desires. Out of courtesy, I ordered a chocolate chip one-scoop cone. Without a pause, Bill repeated the order doubling the scoops. Since Bruce Markman had worked with Bill in Flint, Michigan as well as California, you would think he would know better but he firmly told Bill he wasn't having anything. A cup of water would suffice.
As if! Why didn't he just get a damn cone? That would have been SO easy. He wanted nothing! He was adamant. Bill spent 30 seconds trying to cajole Bruce into ordering something and Bruce continued to rigorously refuse. At this point, Bill began reciting the menu as if he was dealing with an unruly child. In fact, Bill was being Bill and Bruce was being Bruce. A voice in my head screamed, “Order something!” He wasn't hearing the same voices because he morphed into a re-incarnation of a mule (in the Carnation) and dug in his petulant heels. It was like waving a red-flag at a bull. Bill simply ordered him a banana split! While Bill instructed the soda-jerk on ingredients, Bruce carried on a whining litany of complaints. “I told you I didn't want to come with you to San Francisco.” “I hate ice cream.” “ I am still full from dinner.” “Why do you always ruin a good time.” “I don't want to be as fat as you.” “I won't eat it.” “You are wasting your money.” “You might as well toss it in the trash on the way to the car.”
If it was physically possible, my chin would have dropped to the floor and bounced up and down a few times. In my entire life I had never seen a general manager and sales manager engage in what could best be described as a 2nd grade play-ground argument. I was embarrassed to witness it and hoped my facial expressions would convey to the kid scooping the ice cream that I really didn't know these people and had been kidnapped earlier in the afternoon and would he please call the FBI and get me help!
Back in the Chevy Caprice. Bruce crawled onto the back seat, put the rapidly melting banana split on the floor and lapsed into lock-jaw silence. I learned much later, that Bruce HAD lost a ton of weight and suspected that Bill was trying to sabotage his diet and fatten him up. At that moment however, all I had were tension and uncomfortable conversational gaps. “...something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear...” Buffalo Springfield was singing paranoid folk-rock and I wanted SHOW TUNES.
We headed east past Livermore and up and over the mountains that separate the Amador valley from the Central Valley. I licked my ice cream and stared at the passing darkness. There was nothing to see but my dim reflection as we crossed the Altamont. If you took this drive in the day-time, about the only thing to see would be the acres of grass covering impossibly steep pastures and gaggles of spinning windmills. After coming down the other side of the pass, the freeway bears right and starts heading south towards its eventual meeting with I5. Heading south the highway is flat and boring. To the right was just more darkness and to the left darkness broken infrequently by a twinkle of light from some bit of civilization. Eventually, we were on State highway 132 and heading east again. It was a very uncomfortable ride. Bruce was sulking and Bill was upset. Bruce hadn't eaten even ONE bite of banana split. After a while on the two lane highway, Bill the Tour Guide, pointed to the darkness to the right where the Gallo Brothers family compound was hidden behind unseen palm trees. I didn't know it then, but of the several ways to drive into Modesto from San Francisco, Bill had chose the one most likely to live up to the mantra, “Modesto! Ish!”.
After an hour of darkness, now I could see. The infrequent street lights illuminated something frighteningly slum-like. I kept looking for street signs that suggested we were driving down Trailer Trash Avenue. What yards I could see were dirt, not grass. There was a generous supply of derelict cars. I didn't see any sidewalks and even in the dark the houses looked like moldy mobile homes that had lost their wheels. Even after driving across some railroad tracks and through a downtown area, everything still looked depressed and sad. My eyes were deceiving me. In the dark, at 11pm, tired as hell, and prepared for the worst, my mind wasn't working properly. I felt like Christopher Columbus walking up the sands of his Plana Cays - Bahama Landfall. It wasn't the Asian Spice Islands, but by God, it was dry land.
That was when Bill Johnson dropped his bomb. “Why don't we go see the station?”
I put a question mark there, but there was no question in Bill's voice. It would be easy to say that Bill was being uncaring, rude, or just stupid. Certainly he knew that I had been up since early in the morning, and although the Modesto clock said 11pm, it was 1am in my mental clock. Of course, he sensed my total exhaustion by action as well as comment. It would be easy to ascribe the basest of motives to him, but that would be a mistake. In fact, Bill was like the kid on Christmas Eve. He was the little boy on his way to the penny-candy store. He was so excited to have me there and so anxious to get started that he again became the herd of thundering cattle and nothing could stop this stampede.
Lamely, I begged for a moment to stash my suitcase, use the bathroom, and without comment splash some cold water on my face. When I came down the stairs from my second floor room, Bill stood smoking next to the car, Bruce the sales manager, nowhere to be seen. In this case, his petulance had become sagacity and refusing to accompany us to the studios of KOSO, he was walking to his car, three blocks away. I had a let's-get-this-show-on-the-road attitude when I hopped into the passenger seat, lighted a Kool Super Lite, and waited for Bill to squeeze behind the steering wheel and head to the studios. I figured an hour and I'd be good to go, back in the Best Western and in the arms of Morpheus.
I was wrong. Again.
When Heath Barkley told his mom, Victoria, he was going into town it was a longer trip than just going to the 7/11. The town he was heading for was Stockton. Starting in the north at the Stockton/Sacramento delta and spanning all of central California to the Tehachipi Mountains in south, it really is THE BIG VALLEY! Whether the valley was named after the river or the river named after the valley, we are talking about the San Joaquin Valley.
At that time, nearing midnight, it was if I were blindfolded as Bill piloted the Chevy out of Modesto and south on Carpenter Road. We were on a two lane county road and in the darkness there was nothing to see. I had the sensation that the road was straight and very flat. There is a legend that one of the original Mexican-California Grandees, established the valley floor using the San Joaquin River flood plane as the base. Over the years the rolling hills were plowed and flattened until the valley became almost pool-table-flat from north to south, flat as a thirteen year old girl. The smells of fresh fertilizer, live chickens, and dairy farms assaulted me in waves, acting as mile markers on what began to seem like an endless trip.
When the Mexican/Spanish priests and brothers first established their missions along the Camino Real from the south up towards San Francisco, their lives were cheap if they ventured east into the Diablo or Santa Ynez Mountains. They weren't big mountains like the Sierra, but they were lousy with grizzly bears. Bear sitings and attacks were so common that today the grizzly bear graces the California state flag even though, except for zoos, they are long gone. That mountain range forms the western border of California's Central Valley. Before Don Diego, or Alesandro Pinata, or whatever his name was began the flattening process, the San Joaquin Valley was a rolling prairie, semi-desert, and green only for one or two months during the rainy winter. The rest of the time, along with most of California, the grass and shrubbery turn a dull brown/tan that someone with a flair for hyperbole termed golden. Even in the days before the discovery at Sutter's Mill, California was known as the Golden State.
It was the green season, and if it hadn't been dark and I could have done some site-seeing, I might have admired the mountain to the right: Mount Oso. (Spanish for BEAR anyone?) If it had been a very clear day, looking east I might have seen across the valley to the foothills of the Sierra. Barely. Like Audra Barkley said, “Oh my god! It IS a big valley.”
When agriculture came to the valley, it came in the form of wheat. The almost endless prairie, the iffy water supply not withstanding, made the various grains the perfect crops. In another bit of Golden State hyperbole, Stockton, to the north of Modesto, was known as the “Bread Basket of the World”. And the ships that worked their way up the delta from San Francisco hauled out a lot of wheat.
We drove for what seemed like 100 miles and was actually more like 15, crossed a couple of stop-sign intersections, stopped at another crossing, turned right, and immediately right again, into a gravel parking lot, rife with pot-holes, next to a small and simple ranch house. We were there. This was KOSO.
Years before, on my first drive to my first job in Blythe, California, I had worried I would end up broadcasting from a Quonset hut. The KOSO studios weren't in a hut. It wasn't much better. We were parked by a simple California ranch. These houses were low to the ground (without basements) and universally roofed with wooden shingles. Covered in smooth stucco and without an attached garage, it was not prepossessing at all. I stepped out of the car and stretched my legs. A surprisingly warm breeze gentled my face. In the shadowy light of the moon, I saw what looked like an airplane hanger to the right and another house just beyond the one I stood beside. The only sounds came from the breeze causing a steel lanyard-clip to bang against a flag pole and the subtle muffled sound of music. A warm glow from one of the smaller windows in the tiny house was another sign of civilization. We stepped up to a little porch and opened the front door and entered my worse nightmare.
(If you would like to avail yourself of modern technology, you can get a Google satellite view of the original KOSO studio location. Work the plus and minus and you can see Modesto, Patterson, the mountains and the little KOSO corner of the Universe.
Here is the link to maps.google.com
KOSO was licensed to the tiny town of Patterson, California. Patterson is just east of Interstate 5 on the valley floor. To the west, looking like piles of dirt in the summer and green hills in the winter, are several peaks of the Diablo Mountain range. Patterson might be the Apricot Capital of the World, but in December of 1979 it wasn't much else. It would have been impossible for a radio station to make a living off advertising sales to the few businesses of Patterson. Of course, like radio station owners across the U.S., they hoped for a decent signal across the larger city (Modesto) 25 miles away. Compared to Patterson, Modesto was the advertising Mother-Lode! In those days of broadcasting, the FCC mandated that radio stations MUST have studios in their city-of-license. This explains the middle-of-nowhere studio location of KOSO. It was close enough to Patterson to barely meet the rules and 10 miles closer to Modesto than an in-town Patterson location. The question not yet asked, but facing me, was: Can this 1500 watt Patterson FM radio station morph into a Modesto radio station and turn into something?
When Bill and I walked through the front door, the room was dark until Bill found the switch plate and pawed the light on. The cheap ceiling light starkly lit what was intended to be the living room. Except for a couple of folding chairs and a ramshackle sofa, the room was empty. Straight ahead through an open pocket door was what I guess I will call: The Production Room. This room, originally intended to be the kitchen also had the back door. In the center of the 'kitchen' was a piece of plywood on saw horses. On that were scattered the basic mike, reel-to-reel, turntable, cart machine record and playback, and a four-pot amp that looked like the one my little dance-band combo, The Blue Tones, used when I was in high school. The tour continued.
I guess you could call the other exit from the living room a hallway. The first door to the right was the bathroom. I needed to use it. I didn't use it to throw up but I could have done. I reined in my stomach and closed the door, just to pee. It reminded me of the men's employee bathrooms at my father's grocery stores. Those various facilities were incredibly dirty and the floor was covered with reading matter. I managed to take care of my business without catching anything.
Across from the bathroom was bedroom number one. This was the heart of KOSO. A control board of unknown age and unknown provenance was connected by yards of zip-wire to turntables, carts, and microphone. Two huge speakers hung from the ceiling a crazy angles. (If Doug McKinnon of U100 shame had seen them he would have sued Mike Sigelman just for the hell of it.) Zip wire draped from speaker to speaker and then to who-knows-where. (zip-wire is the sort of two-lead wire you see on many basic appliances like lamps. I guess it is called zip, because it is easy to separate the two wires...like zip!) All the equipment was at stand-up height and that made me laugh. Chuck Morgan, the consultant of a month before, had argued often and heatedly for a stand-up board when we worked together at U100. The Chucker left his fingerprints on KOSO.
A young man named Mark Douglas was on the air working the over-night. Over the years all-night DJ's have told me they love that shift because they never have to deal with the day-time bullshit. They rarely see or hear from any management. They just come to work, stay awake and do their thing. In typical, Bill Johnson fashion, he hadn't warned Mark Douglas of the possible visit and the poor guy was totally surprised when we walked through the door. I can just imagine how Bill had hyped my credentials and pending arrival. The look on Mark Douglas' face was like the look on Aaron's when he was caught worshiping the Golden Calf just when Moses came down from Mount Oso (Sinai) with the Ten Commandments of Programming. Not only did Mark's voice quiver a bit, but his hands were actually shaking. I felt sorry for him and after a few more glances at this pathetic excuse for a control room, continued the tour. There wasn't much more. Bedroom two was full of junk. There was a chair, an old desk and a teletype machine. That made it a real radio station. In bedroom three were the engineering racks including a brand new audio processor (another Chucker fingerprint) and the equipment for the micro-wave. The transmitter was on top of Mount Oso to the west, along with a Burning Bush and the additional five programming commandments left off the tablets for lack of room.
The drive to the station took longer than the visit. Twenty minutes after arriving, Bill and I were back in the car, chain smoking and heading north to Modesto. He barely was able to contain his excitement and wanted a complete proposal right then. With the least encouragement, he would have happily spent another hour or so in some all-night restaurant talking about the future of KOSO. I only wanted to sleep. I wanted someone to hit me on the head with a hammer. I wanted unconsciousness. A coma would have been nice. Bill almost begged me to set a time to meet for breakfast. I demurred with the suggestion that I needed some sleep and wanted to listen to the station for a while in the morning. I told Bill I would call.
Zombie-like I stumbled onto the bed and turned off the light. On my back, in the dark, my eyes wide open, I stared at the ceiling. In spite of my utter physical and mental AND emotional exhaustion, I couldn't fall asleep.
In the past 18 months I had been separated from WEBC less than gloriously, been de-friended by a decade of acquaintances, and dispossessed of a ten year Twin Cities broadcasting career. Suddenly I was in a Best Western, in a strange city, at the mercy of the inmates of some radio insane asylum. The last dozen hours seemed unreal and in the dark all I could see was a future of belonging nowhere, of being without motive or purpose.
Out loud, I said to the dark, “What the hell am I doing here?”
Coming in Chapter 21 – The Strange Interrelatedness of Things