My Story – Chapter 23 – Do You Like Pot Pies?
Let me pick up the story where we left it so very long ago. My niece, Sue, and my friend, Lance/Gary, wound our way from Duluth to Bozeman. After dropping of Sue, Lance and I drove through Idaho, spent New Year's Eve in Salt Lake City, and arrived in Modesto on Tuesday night, January 1, 1980. Riding along the whole trip was my precious Harve. My cat. I almost lost her in a wood pile in Bozeman. She was an indoor kitty but was constantly trying to escape. I think she really liked me. She just wanted an adventure. At this time, there was a 7/11 just of McHenry Avenue on Floyd. It was “deja vu all over” when Harve made another break for freedom in the convenience store parking lot. Fifteen frantic minutes later we found her by a dumpster. By this time it was late, I was frazzled and frustrated and emptying the truck was too daunting to contemplate. So, Tuesday night we slept in the same, and very familiar, Best Western in Downtown Modesto. Less than a month before I was in that same motel staring at the ceiling in the dark wondering about the fine mess I had gotten myself into. The waiter in San Francisco dubbed it “oh, Modesto, ish!” and after a few weeks of frantic activity and unrelenting pressure from Bill Johnson, the KOSO General Manager I was committed to a station building project. I should have been committed for considering it. In fact, those three weeks were a life-changing experience and the Rob Sherwood who went to work that Wednesday morning was different than the Rob Sherwood who flew to California barely a month before.
I really do believe that we are the sum of all our experiences. Some of the things we do make us better. Some of our experiences and choices ruin the stew. Temporarily. Looking backward, certainly, leaving the Minneapolis/St. Paul market for Duluth and failing miserably left some scars. Those scars I carried with me into battle in California. Now I was not only ready to battle the competition, but I was ready to battle anybody and everybody who got in my way. For the first time I wasn't worried about my job. If fighting the honorable battle cost me a job; so what? You can always get another job.
At KDWB I worked almost 6 years in a paranoid bubble of insecurity and angst. I saw enemies all around me and spent more time agonizing over imagined sleights and plots thank perfecting my craft. It was like I was on a sled and just coasting. It wasn't until years later I realized I was trying to coast up hill...and that's impossible.
U100 was a slightly different story. Mike Sigelman gave me and my ideas more trust than they may have deserved and because of that we created something magical that became a legend in the minds of many. There were many there to help, a few to hinder, and some to coast alongside. I should have worked harder and achieved more. I am still amused at the mistakes I made. In spite of them, a legend has grown up around that station; a legend that really is so different from the facts.
The time I spent at KSTP wasn't totally wasted. I enjoyed Jack Nugent, the General Manager, and was awe-struck at times by the size and scope of the operation. If I can beat my metaphor to death, here was the problem with KSTP. When I joined them in the Late Summer of 1976, I merely jumped on a sled that was careening down a hill. I could hang on for dear life but I couldn't steer it and by leaving for WEBC in 1978 I just managed to jump off before it hit the trees.
At WEBC, the first time I drove home from the station, full of frustration, sick and tired of the lack of respect the owners had for me and the lack of respect I had for the owners, I should have called Fargo and told them to take their piece of shit AM station and shove up their brotherly asses side-ways. It may not have been the prudent thing to do but it would have been better than Prozac for both my mood AND my self-esteem. (Plus...the word would have gotten out and that silly 'legend' would have grown exponentially)
Added to the big pot of psychological stew that arrived for work in Modesto in January of 1980 were the months of non-radio, traveling, spending money, being cash-strapped, doing theater, being de-friended, seeing Doctors, and the effect it all had on me. As I said, we are the sum of all our experiences. In the past, a challenge had been met with a huff and a puff and a retreat. Now I was a ticking bomb, a water balloon, a pinata. Mishandle me and you could be blown to bits, covered with water or showered with candy. It brings a large smile to my face when I remember how fate partnered me with another pot of oozing pathological stew. Bill Johnson. The General Manager at KOSO. At this point in my life it couldn't have been a better match. It was mixing oil and water. It was trying to carry the leaking nitroglycerin across the mountain in an old truck. It was like using a match to see if the gas was on. To paraphrase Voltaire, if he didn't exist it would be impossible to invent him.
To every action there is an equal and opposite re-action.
There were a lot of things to do during that first week back in Modesto. Over the next few days I polished up my carpentry skills and started the only place I knew to start. At the beginning.
Just before I flew home for Christmas, Bill and I went to a home-improvement center by the airport and did some shopping. I already had some 1970's vision of what we needed to do to turn this house into a radio station. We were like some married couple picking out wood-paneling and paint. We had to get nails and tools and studs and sheet-rock, an all the various odds and ends needed to turn bedrooms into studios. While I was back in Minnesota, everything we bought was delivered and waited to the left of the front door on the porch. Someone was thinking because the dry-wall and paneling was stacked, out of the rain in the living room. That first Wednesday back at work we ripped up the carpeting in every room. Underneath was cheap plywood. I used a pencil to sketch the location of walls and counters and that, along with some scraps of copy-paper were our plans. Remember, the studio was in the first bedroom on the right. The production room was off the living room, in the kitchen The living room was empty as was the second bedroom. The technical engineering things were in bedroom number three.
To begin the construction we were going to work on the living room and the second bedroom first. We were putting walls in the living room and creating a space for a production room. The main studio would be in the second bedroom and we had to build counters. The main studio was first. Over the years I worked in a lot of control rooms at a lot of boards. My first studio in Blythe, California was great. A large room and a U-shaped desk-height control area. On each side was a turn-table and the cart-machine was angled to the left. The doors were covered with tufted Naugahyde and the walls with an egg-crate material. In Austin our radio control room was little more than a closet. If you leaned back in the chair, the door would open. You can see the picture of the studio in Cedar Rapids by following the link in the picture section. At least that studio was large enough to reduce studio-claustrophobia. Green Bay had high ceilings in an ancient building and the studio was just old looking. Two very high racks to the left and right gave a cave like quality to the board area. At WDGY the studio wasn't large or small. There was just enough room for the control, turn-tables and cart carousels. Most of the funky stuff we had at WeeGee were in racks just outside the studio. By most standards, the studio at KDWB was huge. The standard U-shaped desk-height counters with TT's to the right, and cart carousels to the left. At U100, the bottom of the U had a window. The DJ faced that window while talking on the mike. Carousels to the right and a stand-up height counter to the left. The DJ was visible from the small area just outside the studio to the left but the counter made sure whoever was hiding in the knee-well was out-of-sight. The main-studio at KSTP looked like a throw-back to the 40's. The RCA board was ancient. It was sit-down height with carts in a row atop the board. A reel-to-reel to the right next to the phones. I wasn't on-the-air at WEBC so I don't remember what the studio was like. Crap though.
So, it wasn't difficult to use these paper-scrap-plans to build the KOSO studio. We built a U-shaped counter at slightly lower than stand-up height. Something a DJ could use standing or sitting on a bar-stool. The leg of the U to the right of the DJ was the same height as the bottom of the U where the control-board would be. Until we could get our new cart machines and transfer all the music to cart we were going to use turn-tables and I made a space for them on the left leg of the U and slightly lower. That leg of the U was shorter than the other to make room for a cart-carousel. All we really did was make boxes of studs and plywood and cover the outsides with wood-paneling in a dark walnut. We put the same paneling around the room-walls like wainscoting and left room on the upper half of the walls for carpeting to absorb a little of the sound. Remember, this was originally a bedroom and there was a sliding door closet on the wall behind the jock. I can't remember what we did with it. It would have been a great place to hide things. Mini-blinds on the windows and plans for a drop ceiling and nice Formica counter-tops we put on hold while we moved to the living room.
At U100 I learned about studs. In a fit of industry, my friend Kathy, Stevie Perun, and I created an office in the basement of the building on Cliff Road. I knew nothing about building walls and only learned about things like proper positioning of the studs by the dismay I felt when the sheet-rock ended and no stud was there behind the edge. Was it 16” on center....or 18” on center? I have forgotten but whichever it was I didn't do it. At U100 I just put the studs where they looked right. What is the old saying? Measure twice, cut once? I didn't even measure once. Finally, in frustration I just added a stud where ever I needed one and got the job done. The carpentry at KOSO was slightly better. We built proper walls, leaving spaces for double-pane windows in front and to the side, plus a door. While we were in the middle of this contruction all the new equipment arrived. Between paneling the walls floor to ceiling on the out side and wainscoting just like the main studio on the inside and opening the crates with our new boards it was like Christmas and This Old House at the same time.
Our engineer, Steve Bouchet, as I've mentioned before, fit perfectly into this gang. He was twisted. In spite of his insecurity, accompanied by whining and fits of sighing and swearing under his breath, he was an excellent engineer. It was the perfect fit. He was a bit afraid of me and for the first time I could really MAKE an engineer do it 'my way'. I can't remember how many times I came up with 'tasks' and would watch him do them, mumbling under his breath and talking to himself. My mantra, repeated often was, “If they can put Man on the Moon, certainly we can make this work the way I want it to work!” I still remember how exciting it was when (while the music was playing on the air) he lifted out the old board and moved the new one into position in the new control room. It was heavy and I wasn't willing to wait until after midnight. Do it now! That was my motto. So he planned for it and accomplished the switch in about 5 minutes. He was golden.
Dean Johnson, the program director/General Manager at KDWB found our KOSO board before I was in the picture. Back at KDWB we had a beyond-the-state-of-the-art board that was ahead of its time. Not only was it modular, but each potentiometer (volume control) was on a slide rather than the standard circular knob. The electronics of that KDWB board were amazing. When you slid the volume control you were actually operating a little dimmer switch. As the light inside brightened or dimmed, a receptor responded and increased or decreased the volume. There was NO mechanical connection so the volume control worked in absolute electrical silence.
The board at KOSO looked similar and was also modular, but the mechanics weren't so esoteric. The slide moved along a Plexiglas tube and the contact changed along its length changing the volume. It didn't matter how it worked because it looked sweet.
I persuaded Bill that my carpentry skills weren't up to Formica and windows and doors and carpeting. Bill worked some magic and did a trade with someone who did it all for us professionally. He also traded mini-blinds for every window in the place. With the last bit of money in our budget we bought what we needed to self-install a suspended ceiling in the main studio. I even did a retro-installation of a wall-paper mural I loved. At my apartment at Cedar's North in Minneapolis I covered one wall with this whimsical elfin jungle mural. I covered the wall opposite the production room with this same mural. I understand that after I left, my successor couldn't wait to paint over it. Fuck him. By the end of January, most everything was done but the studio ceiling. We were on-cart, music AND spots. The production room was in full operation with two fine reel-to-reels, a cart machine/recorder and a cart-player. Gary DeMaroney was doing 10-2 (I think) and production. Mark Douglas worked Graveyard and then stayed around for three more hours to be my morning show side kick. What a mensch. Kenny Roberts was doing great work in afternoon drive. Much more talent there than Modesto ever utilized. Vince Garcia did the evening shift. The entire staff was doing it just the way I wanted. They didn't have to think about music or programming. That was my job. Just be smooth. Just be professional. With that staff, I lucked out.
When someone is lucky enough to build a station from ground up like this you understand it isn't done step by step in a linear process. Everything is done at the same time and it is the ultimate exercise in multi-tasking. With the exception of my silly mural, everything was muted and under-stated. No cartoon sky-line like the studio at U100. It didn't look like an antique studio display at some broadcasting museum like KSTP. On the outside it may have looked like a Central Valley $30,000 ranch but on the inside it was all a radio station that made us proud. Finally, the kitchen became my office and the first bedroom, the first main studio became the news-room and some place for the jocks to put their stuff.
Only that ceiling remained. The boxes cluttered the hallway and the ceiling tiles were stacked in the engineering room. In my typical way, one morning at the end of January, I looked at the ceiling and decided to fix it. Up and down a ladder during Gary's show and by the time he began his lunch-hour show, it was done. And looking good. When we took over the station, a left-over from the old days was the Sunday night oldies show. A local collector came in to do it and I kept the show on more to fill the shift than to program the oldies. I am NOT a fan of oldies. I swallowed my dislike of them to let Gary play an hour of oldies at noon. It wasn't consistent programming, but it DID generate some 'buzz' and we were new and needed people to check us out. It helped. I was sitting on the couch by the mural about 1:30 that afternoon when I heard yelling and commotion from the studio. Gary was yelling. Truth be told, he was screaming like a girl. Once at U100 I found a garter snake or some sort of field snake outside the studio and (as a joke) brought it into the station and just set it on the floor in the basement. Talk about screaming like girls! I think it was Mike's secretary who finally put it out the back door. It took hours for Pat, Bob, and the rest of the MALE crew's heart rate to return to normal.
I ran to the studio to find Gary completely buried under a suspended ceiling that was slowing peeling itself off that ceiling and onto Gary. I removed the tiles resting on Gary's head and he gave me that “Who-do-I-sue” look. I wanted to laugh but decided from a litigious stand-point that might not be a good idea. A quick examination showed that the anchor bolts provided in the kit had pulled out. We got some better anchors and later that afternoon re-hung the ceiling and we were good to go. For the next six months Gary worked wearing a hard-hat. I am exaggerating though. Just to bug Gary, I would stand in the studio when he was on the air and stare at the ceiling with a worried look on my face. He didn't think it was funny.
We were the new boys in town. And we didn't get no respect. Over at the AM leader, ????, we were dismissed as interlopers and parvenus. Only a year before they had a 20 share and like so many AM dinosaurs they didn't see the “FM Comet” hurtling down on them with extinction. In that first book they lost half their audience. At the FM rocker across town, they literally laughed at us. I heard so many stories from so many people about their disdain. Whether they were whistling past the cemetery or really so full of themselves, it is hard to say. I tend toward that latter. The FM station they worked at was a pit. The owners of that station hadn't spent a penny on improvements. During those first hectic days while we were building walls and un-crating equipment one of the DJ's from KHOP-FM and their PD showed their hubris by stopping by for a visit. The front door was wide open when they pulled into our muddy parking lot. I'd been back in Modesto for 3 days and it rained continually. I can still see in my mind's-eye the looks of envy on their faces as I showed them our new boards and reel-to-reels. I dropped brand-names for mikes and cart-machines and the tour included more puffery than a Century 21 tour. I am surprised I didn't tell them about the spa we planned for the bathroom and bowling alley we were putting in the basement. They left feeling worse than they had when they arrived. When it comes to bull-shitting a bull-shitter, I am a professional.
We weren't KOSO anymore. During the weeks before Christmas, I used a scissors and Exacto knife to cut up K-O-S-O 93.1 to make our logo KO93. So, we had a logo, before we had listeners. Word of mouth was working and before the end of January the phone company was complaining about phone volume. Back at U100, Mike $ and I always delighted (secretly) when we “blew” out the phone lines during a call-in contest. I remember as very concerned phone company representative worrying to us that if we jammed the phone system someone needing emergency assistance would be SOL. Oh well! We were informed at KO93 that we needed at least 4 more lines and that involved digging a trench and it would cost in excess of $2,000. Hello? That's when I called for my engineer. (And my fiddlers three...) “Steve. Dig me a trench.”
Looking out the window later that day, I actually had sympathy for Steve Bouchet when I saw him pounding at the hard-pan central valley dirt with a dull shovel in a pouring rain. I joined him with a pick and between the two of us (and with some eventual help from other staff) we had a fifty-foot, one foot deep 5 inch wide trench from the phone-pole to the building. We hopped in our truck and picked up some plastic pipe as per instructions and a few days later we had phone lines coming out our ass. Even though the music was pre-programmed and the jock had little leeway, we acted like we were playing requests and once again with the help of Steve could put people on the air. It was so fun to travel about the area and actually begin to hear our station playing on store radios. It was classic word-of-mouth in progress. All through January we grew and it rained. Constantly. It may have been raining but the temps were in the 60's. For a Minnesota boy that was a heat wave. With fondness,I remembers the cigarette breaks, protected from the rain on the station porch. Back in the Twin Cities, KSTP-FM was using a logo featuring a sun and sun-beam cartoon and the phrase..”Where it's always 95 and Sunny”. IDEA! It was raining constantly and the temp as far as Californians were concerned was cold. “Modesto...where it's ALWAYS 93 and Sunny.” It didn't work perfectly but for a few weeks it caused a lot of talk and talk was what we needed. The boys at the competition just didn't understand and they laughed and laughed at us. Eventually, we were going to get the last laugh. This chapter is just going on and on. Dear reader, you know it won't end until I get to the subject of the title, “Do You Like Pot Pies?” so there is still more to tell.
If I could skip ahead a couple of months, I want to mention a few more improvements. We ordered a new transmitter (double the power), put in a parking lot, and installed a gas generator at our transmitter on top of Mount Oso. And you thought Program Directors just picked the hits!
Bill Johnson planned for the arrival of our new transmitter like Dwight David Eisenhower planned his D-Day assault on the beaches of France. The road to the top of the mountain was an adventure. I rode it only twice. The first time I went up the mountain, our engineer Steve was driving. At points, I swear, it seemed that truck was at a 45 degree angle. There were several fences to unlock and open and “Y's” in the road. (Steve had a habit of forgetting to close the gates after passing through and more than one rancher called, angry that his cows were either looking for grass or sex in greener pastures) It was little more than a path and I can't imagine how scary it would have been at night or in a pouring rain. The view from the top was magnificent. To the west you could see the mountains of the coastal range including Mount Tamalpias north of San Francisco. To the east you could see across the entire valley to the impressive beginnings of the Sierra. Coming down the mountain, we passed a level spot where a new-born calf, still covered with the birth sac was mawing as its exhausted mother licked it clean.
The second time I sent up the hill was the Saturday morning in the fog when our new transmitter arrived. The big and lumbering pick-up truck I had driven off the road into a field in the fog had been replaced with one of those early 80's Japanese mini-pick-ups. Datsun? Toyota? Mitsubishi? It was a pick-up but it was tiny. The transmitter, although not large, was in a huge protecting crate that stood about 7 feet high and in the shape of a large refrigerator. Bill's plan was to helicopter it up to the top of Mount Oso. It was a great idea.
Just off Interstate Highway 5 at the very foot of the Diablo Mountain range was a gas-state and restaurant. Just behind the huge parking lot was the first of many locked gates and the road to the transmitter site. The transmitter was delivered to that parking lot. We were all there by 7:30am, that Saturday morning to meet the helicopter. The plan was to have some of us scurry up the mountain and wait the helicopter. The rest would stay with the transmitter and see it off on its 5 minute jaunt. The drive up the mountain easily took 30-45 minutes. The helicopter a fraction of that.
Houston! We have a problem. The central valley is prone to something called a Tule Fog. I'd only been in California a couple of months and already had my share of run-ins with this pea-soup weather. I had an unsettled foreboding as I drove to the truck-stop on I-5. The fog was thick and showing no sign of burning off. Waiting at the restaurant, we killed time by drinking coffee and then eating breakfast. Bill's original plan was to have a celebratory breakfast for everyone after our successful transport of our transmitter. By 10:30am success was looking unlikely.
Bill was on the phone every few minutes driving the helicopter company crazy. He was good at that and it didn't phase him that they were becoming as exasperated with him as he was with the fog. Our spirits rose a bit when things seem to lighten and visibility was thousands of feet if not a couple of miles. The helicopter company informed him that clearing at the bottom of the mountain made no difference. There was still fog (and clouds) at the top and if the pilot couldn't see the ground he couldn't carry the load. Bill wheedled and groaned but they were adamant. It was a no-go. So, now what do we do? I was so anxious to have our new transmitter installed I wasn't prepared to wait. JUST DO IT! If the helicopter can't get our transmitter to the top of Mount Oso, then we'll have to do it ourselves! Bill was with me one hundred percent. The rest of the crew didn't have a vote.
Somehow we wrestled that huge crate onto the bed of that tiny pick-up. The box looked bigger than the truck. Steve B. unlocked the first gate and like the settlers on the Santa Fe Trail we headed across the expanse of grass. Within yards the road tilted and that little truck began to labor. I'm not sure if it was 6 cylinders or 4 cylinders. Whatever cylinders were under that hood were straining like an Osaka coolie. The road was muddy and more than once some human help was needed to keep the truck moving. We didn't stop. To stop was to slide backward. Just before that 45 degree angle stretch, we bungied and roped the crate. A couple of people stood in the truck-bed next to the crate to warn us if it looked like it was going to tip-over and off. Couldn't you just imagine our transmitter falling off the truck and falling down the hill going through gate after gate without closing and locking them? It didn't happen. We reached the top, unloaded the transmitter, moved it into place in the building and left Steve to do his engineering magic over the week-end. We were off the air on Sunday night and on Monday morning when I began my show were were “new and improved' and double the power.
By 1pm that afternoon, I was back at the studios. There is where I made my mistake. I should have just driven home, gone to a movie, gotten plastic surgery, or moved to Alaska. I didn't do any of those things and that is why I was sitting on our couch by our Elfin Jungle Mural when Bill came through the door. Oops! I didn't realize that it had been almost 4 hours since we ate breakfast. Before I could reserve a room in Anchorage, Bill invited me to lunch. Maybe I'm sounding petulant and I shouldn't because, often, I enjoyed spending time with my General Manager. We both did what we did with passion. Since, I had worked off those breakfast calories and Bill would pay and 'what the hell' I agreed to go for lunch. Now it is time for the next mistake.
“Do you like pot pies?”
My mind was in turmoil because after a few months working with Bill I KNEW this was a trick question. Did he mean Swanson's? Over in Modesto was a Marie Calender's and they had pot pies, right?
“Sure,” I answered. “Great! I found a place with home-made pot pies.” You could almost hear oozing saliva as Bill contemplated the pot pies he had discovered in......
Modesto to Fresno isn't like Earth to the Moon but it IS 90 miles south and after cavorting on the mountain all morning, it wasn't on my agenda. It didn't matter. A couple of hours later, we dug into the best Chicken Pot Pie I've ever eaten. Till then or since.
Coming in Chapter 24 – Contests and Contentment