My Story Chapter 25 – Close But No Cigar
It was an early February, Saturday morning, somewhere east of Tracy, California where Interstate 5 becomes Interstate 580 and expands to 4 lanes when I noticed the Highway Patrol car flashing red in my rear-view mirror, hard the tail of my Chevy Caprice. In the next few moments I inventoried all the crimes I had committed in the last 30 years and contemplated whether to give up peacefully or go down in a blaze of gun-fire. After due consideration, and the realization that I'd left Modesto that morning without my Kalashnikov and (drat it!) my emergency Molotov Cocktails were in the trunk, I ease to the right and pulled to a stop on the shoulder. I kept my hands in plain site gripping the steering wheel, as the trooper approached. Slowly, I slowly moved one hand to press the button and lower the window.
“Sir! Are you having car trouble?” Dealing with the police always scares me. It must be a vestige of my youthful crime sprees. This reaction is just part of my nature. When a cop looks at me, I'm suddenly laughing manically and yelling, “Look at me, Ma! King of the world!” Next thing you know, I'm consumed by a huge mushroom of exploding natural gas. (I love movie references. I can use the same line next time I'm standing on the prow of a cruise ship. That would be a two-fer. Of course, the crew on the ship are so sick of that they would keel-haul me just for fun.)
Anyway, as I said, I hate dealing with the police and at that moment I wasn't having car trouble. I was having pee-in-my-pants-trouble. I'll skip the rest of the cop/miscreant dialogue and cut to the chase. The California Highway Patrol Officer had pulled me over for- - - DRIVING TOO SLOW. Actually, I was going 27 in a 55. Remember, this was 1980 and the maximum speed limit was, supposedly, 55mph although a Californian driving 55 on the interstate was as rare as a straight man at a Jane Oliver concert. Most Californians routinely drove closer to 65 on interstates. It took a few minutes for the Heat to ascertain I wasn't drunk. I just wasn't paying attention. He lectured me on the danger to myself and other drivers caused by inattentive driving, GAVE ME A TICKET, and wished me a GOOD DAY! Fucking Officer Poncherello wanna-be!
Sorry about my f-bomb outburst. Finally, I was back on the highway, crossing the Altamont and happy the Trooper hadn't noticed the half-eaten McDonald's Egg McMuffin on the passenger seat. I could have been cited for being well over the cholesterol limit.
There was a reason I was distracted. It wasn't stress or worry. Quite the opposite. At this point in my California story, I had been out west for a couple of months. I had a job I enjoyed, my station was moving toward success, it was February and the sun was shining and the early morning temperature in the 60's, and I was driving to San Francisco to spend the week-end. The lunch with the K101 GM and Chief Engineer was months in the future. I was quite satisfied doing just what I was doing. I had written finis to the Twin Cities, Duluth, and the strange years of 1978 and 1979.
During 1980, I drove to SF often. At first I was going every Wednesday and Saturday, but after a month or two it was one or the other a couple times a month. I had a 'standing appointment' at UCSF Medical Center. It wasn't onerous. It wasn't like dialysis or rectal message or something even less enjoyable. Usually, I was out of the hospital and back on Parnassus Avenue by 1PM and enjoying myself by two.
I hadn't fallen in love with San Francisco. Yet.
If you live outside The City (as the locals refer to San Francisco) no matter how many times you visit, unless you live there you are just a tourist. I learned a lot about SF during my first stretch in Modesto, but I was still just in for the day from the Central Valley and to the denizens of The City By The Bay that made me a country yokel. Remember, I got my first impression of Modesto, the December before, when a San Francisco waiter referred to it as “Oh, Modesto! Ish!” When I was a little kid I loved to wander about and explore big cities. At first downtown Duluth gave me my big-city-fix. Later, it was Minneapolis and Chicago. Living a 90 mile jaunt from one of the world's premier cities was just fine for me. The necessity of my regular trips was as much pleasure as it was a chore. During my visits I rode the street cars (The Metro), took BART here and there (intra-urban train service) and even joined the tourists on the cable cars. I did most of the tourist stuff but also visited the neighborhoods. I loved watching the 'city people'. Like street people. I could sit for hours as the unfortunates entertained me. And I promise you, San Francisco has a panoply of unfortunates. One I remember from those early visits to The City was a woman so bundled in multiple layers of clothes that she looked upholstered rather than dressed. She reminded me a similarly clad woman I saw sleeping on a bench in New York City. While she dozed in the sunshine dressed for winter in Skagway, an equally reprehensible old man sat by her feet on the same bench. He had a stick which was he using to lift the hems of her multiple dresses and coats, hoping for a peek up her legs. I wonder if that's where J.K Rowling got the idea for “Hairy Pooter”? But I digress.
My visits to SF during 1980 weren't my first. I had spent some time exploring San Francisco as a kid in the 50's and during 1975 at a broadcasting convention. I made the most of every visit. Yet, sad to say, I was just a “day visitor”. A tourist. Just as the fog rolled across Twin Peaks or tumbled down Geary, it was time for me to retrieve my car, pay the parking tab and head east, back to the boonies, back to Modesto.
With every visit, I became more enthralled with San Francisco. Subtly, that city was calling to me like the Sirens beckoned to Jason and the Argonauts. I was Odysseus but I didn't have Orpheus to distract me with singing or anyone to tie me to a mast. Way before my 'courtesy lunch' with K101, I was hooked. Until that meeting, programming a station in San Francisco wasn't even a chimera. It just never occurred to me. But after my lunch everything changed. During the autumn of 1980, I rarely fell asleep without thinking of staying in The City when the fogged rolled in.
But as usual, I'm getting ahead of My Story.
Back in Modesto, KO93 was doing just fine. Our studios were complete, our equipment was the best in the Central Valley, and I had enough new ideas, (or re-cycled ideas) plus the chutzpah of my manager, Bill Johnson, to keep things looking up. That I re-cycled ideas and contests from my 10 years in the Twin Cities didn't make me proud. In fact, when it comes to re-cycling, I have no pride. The prime example is the Secret Sound Contest. Of course, at KO93, I did the Secret Sound Contest. The same contest that Deane Johnson introduced me to at KDWB so many years before. Thank you Deane. I resurrected that chestnut at every station I worked. U100, KSTP, WEBC, and now, KO93, all saw this programming nugget. I think I did the tea-pot-trigger-spout-cover sound at three stations. I was still fighting with Bill but we were staying together 'for the children'. It was actually ridiculous. Bill had done the news at WLS in Chicago at some point in his career. I can just imagine his stentorian date-lines. When we decided to get the Mutual Network, Bill and I argued over whether or not there should be hourly news. At first we argued about whether our news should be at :55 or On-The-Hour. There was NO way we were going to do hourly news on KO93. (Except on the Morning Show) When I mentioned that argument about when news should be broadcast the whole subject was moot, because we weren't going to have hourly news. Bill and I argued for a couple of days on whether contemporary stations should even have a news department. The old newsman in Bill argued that “as much money should be spent on news as was spent on music programming”. I argued that in MY perfect world there would be NO news on a Top-40 or Rock station and limited news on Adult Contemporary. It was like we were arguing for the sake of arguing. He was Thomas Jefferson and I was John Adams. Like every Programmer/General Manager/Sales dynamic, we argued about spot load, remote broadcasts, DJ pay, Salesman pay. I remember one time after a particularly successful advertising campaign I suggested that the Jocks should get commission just like the salesman. I don't think he ever got over that one.
From the beginning, Bill regularly had bouts of paranoia, worrying that I was about to leave KO93 in the lurch. Quite honestly, I wasn't a Barack Obama. I just had a carpet bag of good ideas. All through the spring and summer of 1980 Bill would get jealous if I spent any time NOT thinking about KO93. Seriously. If I was in San Francisco and decided to stay over-night in a hotel rather than rushing home, sometime during the night the room-phone would ring and it would be Bill. The only way he could find me was to call multiple hotels until he found the right one. I considered many times registering under an assumed name. If I did drive home, it was a safe bet that as I walked through the door of my house, the phone would be ringing and it would be Bill. The only way his timing could be that good would be to call and let it ring until I answered. The phone rang at all hours and when I answered I would hear the click of a hang-up. It is unfortunate this was before caller-ID, but thank God, it was before cell-phones. I can imagine what my life would have been like if I had been cellularly available. I only THREW the typewriter at Bill Johnson, but if the new technology had arrived in 1980, he might have gotten a cellular rectal massage.
Bill's attitude and actions makes the meeting with K101 in September, all the more ironic. As I have written, with all his faults, Bill was a fantastic salesman. (albeit a dishonest one...he could use the words EXCELLENT and YUGO in the same sentence) A great salesman! He could sell a cave to Osama bin Laden.
In Chapter 24 I wrote of my lunch with K101. After lunch at the Washington Grill and a drive-by of the station, I spent most of the drive back to Modesto counting unhatched chickens. As autumn segued into winter, the deafening silence from K101 sent a very clear message. I wasn't going to be hired. When they settled on a young yuppie go-getter to program the station, my dreams were deflated. My visits to San Francisco in November were a chore. The city mocked me. If I couldn't make it TO there, I couldn't make it anywhere. I went from content to contempt and I suddenly found myself working in “Oh! Modesto, Ish!” I couldn't drive across the Bay Bridge without being haunted by all those might-have-been's.
My mood may be the reason why on December 8, 1980, when the phone rang and it was Bill Johnson, my attitude was sour and my mood lower than a well-digger's ass. Wait a minute? Isn't a well-digger's ass cold? No, that's a witch's tit. A well-diggers ass IS low but I think it is cold too. Screw it. I wasn't a happy camper when Bill called.
John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York. Certainly this news had programming implications for every radio station in the United States and United Kingdom and many all around the world. I knew what I should do but because Bill Johnson was expecting me to do it, I told him 'so what'. That was an attack of stupid. A few years before when Elvis had his ignominious end, the gang at KSTP and I cobbled together an Elvis special in just hours. Our Elvis Special in August of 1977 struck all the right chords. Historical, reverent, wistful, and in some cases ethereal. One ardent Elvis fan wrote a note to the big boss extolling the special, remarking that it brought her to tears. Without a doubt, the same was due John Lennon.
Instead, Bill and I exchanged 'differences of opinion' and I slammed the phone down and rolled over in bed to resume my sleep.
Of course not.
An hour or so after the face-off (phone-off) with Bill, I was awake and preparing a special. I called the station and told the all-night DJ to play some Beatles songs until I got there. We only had about 4 or 5 on our play-list. Let It Be, Yesterday and a couple of others. I rummaged through my vinyl and grabbed all the Beatles I had plus I miraculously found an interview with the Beatles that had been broadcast on the BBC in 1968. With no time to deal with dear Bozo, I loaded him in the backseat and headed to the studio. Starting at about 2am we went non-stop Beatles while I put together a John Lennon Tribute. I didn't have time to produce a stand-alone program, so I carted up John Lennon voicers on carts like wild tracks and when the morning show started at 6am did a live-semi-ad lib show all about the Beatles and John Lennon. We opened the phone lines to listeners for their thoughts and reminiscences and scored a live phone interview with Murray Kaufman, Murray the K from New York, who was known as the “Fifth Beatle”. We had been together at that Presidential Drug conference at the White House in Washington, D.C. in 1970 (see Chapter 11) and that little bit of networking got us included in the dozens of interviews he did that day.
By 9am, we were back to regular programming with an emphasis on the more melancholy Beatles songs. Bill Johnson walked through the door of our studios out there in the country a few moments later with his gap-tooth grin, happy as a clam and ready to reward our morning show effort with an invitation to lunch. I am not sure if he was happy because he had been right or I had actually done a good job. I owed him an apology. When my parents had told me what to do, I most often did the opposite. It didn't matter whether I was right or wrong, I had become an expert at cutting off my nose to spite my face and this was a case in point. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
Since I was guilty of not waiting for the chickens to hatch, it took me a while to settle back into life at KO93. At least, Christmas was coming and that meant another production of The Christmas Carole and a performance redux of my role as Scrooge. By this time, Rick Austin had joined the 93 crew and his mellow voice was perfect for the narration. He joined the Narrator Alumni that included Don Bleu at KDWB, Robert Hall at U100,and Charlie Rose at KSTP. Just before Christmas I hosted a Christmas Party at my home and Bill put together a more traditional company Christmas Party at some restaurant.
At the beginning of 1981, my life was so regular it was boring. It was a period of rapprochement with Bill. During 1980 any ratings indications we could get were positive and we were anticipating the important Spring Book. I believe the month or so BEFORE the ratings period is as important as the actual 2-3 week period people actually have their diaries. Word of mouth, buzz if you will, is the way to get a good book. It's what, in this new millennium, we call BRANDING.
There are dozens of arcane tricks conceived by programmers over the years that are designed to have an effect on Arbitron. Most of them are harmless at best and probably unlikely to make a loser a winner. There's the old adage about a sow's ear. At the top of the list I'd have to put “Sweeping the Quarter Hours.”
There are several reasons for doing this. I am writing about music stations. I am not sure if talk stations or all news stations consider sweeping the quarters. Here is the operating theory. If you can get an extra five minutes in an adjacent quarter-hour you will get credit for two 15 minutes periods rather than just one. Stations had been doing that basic programming trick for years. Back at WDGY we had 20-20 News. Instead of news at :55 or on the hour which was traditional, we did the news at :20 after and :20 till and played music across the top of the hour. The important periods between :55 and :05, :10 and :20, :25 and :35 and :40 and :50 had music (a tune-in for the target audience) instead of news (a target-audience tune-out). In 1973, at KDWB in Minneapolis/St.Paul, when KSTP began kicking our ass, the management in-crowd (I was not included) met at a restaurant in Hudson, Wisconsin and came up with the solution to our problem. A “Twin-Spin” across the quarter hours at :15 and :45. Guess what? It didn't work.
Think of how far you could take this; especially now, during the computer age. Play the most popular songs just before the Quarter Hour. How about promoting at contest the takes place just AFTER the quarter hour. KSTP did the ultimate Quarter-Hour manipulation during their first year as a Top 40 contender. They played several quarter hours of non-stop music thus removing reasons to change the station.
Of course, no diary keeper actually keeps that accurate a diary. Rarely did you see a diary that splits the hours into minutes. And then there are the contests.
There a several ways to use a contest to pile up quarter hours. The most obvious (and annoying to me) is doing an hourly contest that required listening at the beginning and toward the end of an hour. Common are the contests that pull audience in one day-part and try to transfer them to another. Usually that means mornings to afternoon drive or the reverse. Often that contest is also intended to cause additional or unusual tune-in. Once again, adding up those quarter hours. And so often, stations ONLY run contests during books.
A good clue for media observers is to pay attention to when they see advertising for a radio station on TV, on billboards, bus-sides, etc. It's a good bet that when you see the ads, there is a book in progress. I've always thought advertising JUST during a book was like Tylenol relying on sign-age on a shelf at Walgreen's to get you to buy their pills. It seems it would be better to have the person with the headache walk through the front door already planning to buy Tylenol rather than crossing your fingers that they'll come in to buy Aleve, but see your sign and grab the Tylenol. At KSTP, they were big on billboards. I'm sure that some sort of research out of Marian, Iowa had suggested that the ONE billboard they ALWAYS ran...”15KSTP – The Music Station” was the be-all and end- all. In his 80-plus-year sagacity, the senior Stanley Hubbard questioned the efficacy of billboards. I remember him telling us that he sat at the intersection of University Avenue and Snelling Avenue in St. Paul (where there was a huge KSTP billboard) watching the eyes of the people in their cars. He noticed that not ONE person ever looked at the billboard.
I did a lot of contests that involved reasons to listen. Clues. Also, there were times when I argued against a particular contest because I thought the prize was cheesy. It had to have at least a little bit of cool-ness.
Still, a contest or clock manipulation could not substitute for a poorly programmed station. At the same time, I have experience with contests or promotions that were so mistaken they had direct negative effect on the ratings. It is all about BRANDING. The audience will not forgive you when you screw up your branding. Contests, clocks, tricks, and gimmicks won't substitute for a station with a bad rep or no rep.
In fact, the goal was always, not to make people listen but to make people think they listen. Or maybe more importantly, to WANT to think they listen. If you ever had the chance to visit the Arbitron offices and read the comments and look at the diaries, you will see time and again people say things like “I never miss so-and-so's morning show on Station XYZ” when in fact so-and-so isn't on station XYZ but actually on station ZYX. It makes you wonder who got the credit. Does Arbitron give those quarter hours to the right station or the right DJ? No wonder so many Arbitron employees ended up as election judges in Minnesota. Often in the comments I would see a diary keeper say a particular jock was “so funny.” And that jock never did a funny thing in their life. Add to this the diaries with whole families listening to one station morning, noon, and night. Twelve year olds who only listen to the farm station and on and on. And sadly, careers rose and fell with these ratings that were often just a crap shoot.
Programming was doing well, but the other side of the business was doing well, also. The station was making money. Sales were good. Spectacular at times. Gary DeMaroney ran the production department and I was able to coast. That's not a good thing but it is what I was doing. During this time I got to do a bit of theater in San Francisco and to save myself a shit-load of grief it was a secret worthy of the Manhattan Project. When it became obvious that Bill Johnson was going to have a heart attack because I was so often missing in action, I brought him in on the secret. Bless his heart, he always wanted to be a secret agent, and not only did he keep my secret but he covered for me. That was a thrilling seven weeks and as I have mentioned earlier, it was Dr. Elbert Bott's Dots that saved my life. Leaving the theater at 10:45PM to drive the 90 miles to Modesto, I would start to doze before I was half-way home. Opening the window, playing music loudly, slapping my face, anal massage, singing, only went so far before my red Chevy started to drift. When my wheels hit those little round raised reflectors, they WUMP-WUMP-WUMP-WUMPED me awake and my guardian angel breathed a celestial sigh of relief. After just a few hours of sleep, I was on the air and three hours later, anxious to go home and sleep for a few hours before leaving for The City to do it all over again.
At the end of March, 1981, I was driving home from the station so exhausted I was having trouble staying awake even on the back roads south of Modesto. I pulled into a 7-11 to get a V-8. Unusual at the time, the store had a TV with cable tuned to CNN. As I was standing at the counter, they flashed that Ronald Reagan had been shot! Immediately, it reminded me of KAUS-KMMT in Austin, Minnesota, 18 years before, when I heard the non-stop bell on our teletype machine, ran to it and read the world-shattering news from Dallas. In 1981, the days before cell-phones, I ran to the pay-phone just outside the 7-11 and hot-lined the station.
Gary DeMaroney was on the air. Within seconds we jumped on our national network, I think it was Mutual, and were live on the air with the story. I quickly switched around the dial and our competition was still in music. We only used the network for audio feeds for the morning news and week-end talking head programming. (required by the FCC at the time) It is always nice to be professional and without a testy phone exchange with Bill Johnson, we were. (A couple of months later when Pope Paul II was shot I directed the K101 news department to interrupt programming for a bit with the news and the reaction was quite the opposite. Damned if you do.....)
As had happened so many times before, what happened next shouldn't be unexpected. I was actually floating in my swimming pool when...
The Phone Rang.
Coming in Chapter 26 – Open Up Those Golden Gates