My Story – Chapter 28 – On The Air and In Trouble
Now, where was I? Oh yes. K101. In the autumn of 1981, for better or worse, I finally could consider K101 my radio station. When I was dropped me off at the Trans-Bay Terminal five months earlier I wasn't prepared for the radio roller coaster I was about to ride. It wasn't like I was new to major-market radio. (At times I had to remind myself of my 10 years in the Twin Cities. Nobody could ever forget that immediately before K101 San Francisco there was the very medium-market KOSO Modesto. I was Cinderella and the Prince hadn't put the glass slipper on my foot quite yet.) Yes, I had worked the “Five-State Big Time!” I remember so clearly how so many Twin Cities broadcasters would cling to the “I work in the 15th largest market” mantra. That was true. Or maybe 14th. Whatever it was, it was the center of the Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Western Wisconsin Universe. For years, along with broadcasters from all the nooks and crannies of the upper-mid-west, I had dreamed of working in Minneapolis/St. Paul. It wasn't until I was sitting in the office (MY office) tucked on the second floor of a former Bank of America/Italy, at the corner of Washington and Montgomery in San Francisco, that I realized, “Dorothy...you're not in MINNESOTA anymore.”
If I can scratch out a sentence that makes little sense but tries to be existentialistic: San Francisco was different and it left a greater mark on me than I ever left on it. At times living and working in what they call The City was intoxicating and exhilarating. With the tick of the clock it could become daunting and depressing.
Every Program Director starts using the broom on the day they take control of the “office.” I moved in on a Saturday afternoon. I rearranged the office and distributed the office-supplies on my desk. Years earlier, when I got the job with Mike Sigelman at WYOO, soon to be U100, someone gave me a little faux-walnut desk sign that said ROB SHERWOOD Program Director. I put it where it could be easily seen. Proof. Now it was time to take the reins. In the months since I first didn't get the job and then finally DID get the job I had hours to contemplate K101 programming. I wasn't new to the task. Mentally. Reality was upon me. Now I had to produce and I began making decisions and making mistakes.
I wrote in the last chapter, so long long ago, that working with the National Program Director, Al Casey, was a chore from the day I was hired. It was actually a chore from BEFORE I was hired because I had never been his choice. I will admit that I don't play well with others. This time I was willing to try. But I'm a sensitive guy (ha) and I could tell Al wasn't happy. I felt it at every meeting and on every phone call. Paranoia is a way of life for some people and you can count me among them. Fritz had hired me because I was a cheap date. To the staff I was that Modesto PD and even I was wondering if I was really ready for the big-time. All this angst wasn't one of my mistakes. It was just me. The mistake I made, beginning even before I walked through the door, was the most common programming mistake there is. I wasn't the first to make it and certainly wasn't the last. In the early years of my career I had seen the mistake made in Cedar Rapids at KLWW, and during the later years at KDWB. The irony continues when I realize that it wasn't long before I realized I was making THAT mistake and yet I put a band-aid on it when it needed serious triage and surgery.
OK. I have stretched this out long enough. The mistake. How many times has anyone in radio complained about Program Directors, National PD's, General Managers, or the dreaded and odious, consultants, who install something “here” because it worked for them “there”. The cookie cutter ideas. The current fad catch phrases. The ginned up research. I arrived with years of programming-baggage from the Twin Cities and Modesto and in that office on the second floor, I began to unpack.
My first clue should have been my introductory dinner with the KOSO Modesto gang in December of 1979. I wrote about it in an earlier chapter. The waiter said, “Oh, Modesto. Ish!” That little comment was better than any focus group. That comment told me everything I needed to know about a KOSO/K101 nexus. There wasn't one.
Someone asked me in the early days at K101 what working in San Francisco was like. My answer was puerile. “It has a McDonalds, cable TV, and sidewalks.” Did I really believe that all cities were the same? If so, I made an early mistake.
In the current state of radio, the morning show is God. It wasn't like early in my career. The morning shows at WDGY and KDWB were competent and informative and nothing much to write home about. In Minneapolis/St. Paul, for decades, WCCO-AM took about 50% of the morning drive audience and the rest of the stations played catch-up. While 'CCO did weather, chit-chat, weather, news, chit-chat, weather, and more weather (there wasn't any traffic in the old days), the rest of the dial did their mild WCCO imitation. That was the state of the situation at KDWB until my last full year when they hired a hot-shot (can't remember his name but damn! He was good.) and for the first time I heard something morning-different. At U100 I tried to hire along those lines even before we became U100. Captain Billy joined the station from San Diego and inched our morning show in the right direction but didn't quite get there for me. When he left we found Jerry St. James. When I listened to Jerry's tape I knew I HAD to have him. When he was on-the-air at U100, I was like God observing his creation. “It Was Good”. It was also, too good to last. With the promised demise of U100, Jerry St. James continued his career odyssey and I became the morning show place holder. As much as I wanted to be Jerry St. James Jr., even I knew that wouldn't work. So, I pittered and pattered till the end doing morning drive on the Super U. A couple of years later and a magic carpet ride to the Land of Milk and Honey and I was about to do a morning show in Modesto, California. Here was the chance. I took Jerry St. James, Doctor Don Rose, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, and every joke-sheet available; dumped them in a blender; pulsed ten times and ran at puree for 3 minutes and...VOILA! I had a morning show.
And THAT was fun shit! For a year.
We move ahead to San Francisco. They say there are a lot of ways to skin a cat. I don't understand that but I will assume it applies. If my goal was to have an exciting, dynamic, laugh-producing, smile-inducing, morning show, I should have listened to the other stations and put my idea hat on. Instead, I MADE THAT MISTAKE. It was working in Modesto!!! so why not do it in San Francisco!!!??? What the fuck.....?
Before I arrived, joke sheets and shtick in hand, the morning show at K101 was in the capable hands of Ken Copper. Ken had a wry and subtle sense of humor. He loved the humor of irony. That was one of the reasons he so loved the sit-com CHEERS. It seems so dated to me now, but I distinctly remember at the time, Ken remarked that it was a “perfect” sit-com. He was talking about the writing. I could write a page or two on what I should have done with Ken and mornings at K101, but I'll make it short and sweet by just saying....I shoulda...woulda.....coulda. On that morning show concept, I'd like a mulligan.
I really believe that a morning show, if not an entire radio station, should exemplify the market. We should figure out who we want to listen, who is available to listen, who else is trying to get listeners and then hold a mirror up to the target audience. It should literally breathe with the same breath as its listeners. That explains the success of conservative talk-radio. Imagine a music-station where the majority...the vast majority of your audience agrees with virtually every music choice, every promotion, and every programming nuance. Could anyone have imagined someone like Rush Limbaugh in contemporary music radio in the 60's, 70's, 80's. “I will now take the first 15 minutes of my show to tell you what music you SHOULD like.” Would I have been able to sell Al Casey on a NO MUSIC morning show? So what was my K101 mistake? The radio station was never etched with San Francisco Identity and the morning show was the primary example. Toward the end of the third month in control, I had worked a week-end shift for some reason and leaving the station, walked down Montgomery to catch a bus on Market Street. The broad sidewalks were a mess. Paper, streamers, and debris was everywhere on what was normally a clean area. (It wasn't until a few years later that the street people took over and the sidewalks became polka-dotted with discarded wads of chewing gum).
The Gay Parade. The remains of the Pride Parade.
While thousands marched and tens of thousands watched, I did three hours without a mention. I cite this, not because we should have been the “Gay Station”. But this was San Francisco, and at this point in the gay history progression of that city, the station who got ahead of the curve would have owned a huge unserved and available audience. In the Arbitron it merely reports on 25-34 year olds. It doesn't tell you who they are sleeping with. On the bus home, I chastised myself for being out of touch. No matter, the lesson wasn't learned and like a bull in China Town I took the morning show to a place that didn't exist in San Francisco. Maybe it existed at U100. For sure it did at KO93. Later, we made it work a bit at FM104. But San Francisco? Not then. Not there.
Fortunately, I was only on until 9am. Ken got to do 9-10am by himself. Probably the best part of the morning show. (I'm kidding a little. It wasn't the kitchen on an episode of Hoarders. It just needed a professional organizer. ) I should mention that we had a good news guy. Professional as hell. Traffic was handled in house and the young woman who did it was great. There wasn't any traffic-service. All the contacts at DOT were hers and she was superb. I wish I could remember her name. Ken's wife said she thought our morning show “worked” but maybe she was whistling past the graveyard. I know one thing. Our national PD didn't like the show and he was hanging around corporate headquarters in San Diego and he had a big mouth.
Certainly in broadcasting, but probably in every business situation, one simple fact is constant. Whomever isn't there to defend themselves is to blame. In my early months my general manager and the corporate big-boss were impressed by all the busy-bee activity at K101. We weren't celebrating our half-year anniversary before the Fifth Column activities at corporate headquarters and on the executive suite telephones began to undermine their confidence.
This wasn't an unusual situation. At KDWB we were frequently being asked to 'critique' our colleagues. In my early days at Channel 63, Deane Johnson created this bizarre, laid-back, team of disparate personalities who loved doing what they were doing. Deane just never lost the basic 'nice-guy' attitude and it wasn't in his nature to dish dirt. I don't think we 'dished dirt' in the 70's. Before I left KDWB, a new crew was in charge. Our PD, General Manager, and consultant never did anything to your face that they couldn't do behind your back. I was lucky to leave KDWB without leaving a body outline in masking tape on the carpet. At U100, at times it seemed like our number one consultant (read that as critic) just happened to be the General Manager of our number one competitor. While the new KDWB PD, John S., sent put-down telegrams to the U100 staff and had his minions crank calling our private telephone lines, their general manager was whispering in our general manager's ear. That brings to my mind the image of the Devil whispering into the ear of Jesus but that doesn't work because our GM was Jewish.
KSTP was lousy with opinions. Not surprising because it was a big company with lots of assholes and to mangle the bromide....”Opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one.” (That was funnier in my mind then it was in print)
There were so many contrary opinions at KSTP that it deserves a list.
1.The old time employees who were still living in the 40's and 50's and would never be happy with the NEW KSTP.
2.The people who were part of the big change that became the NEW KSTP who considered IT the Golden Age.
3.The TV people who just instinctively looked down on radio because it isn't television.
4.The research company in Iowa. If they didn't think of it they hated it.
5.And finally, anything we did at U100 was no good.
Since I began this, I might as well equal-opportunity-bitch. I don't really understand why I was hired at WEBC. If everything I said was bullshit and every idea I had didn't apply to smaller market radio, what the hell was I doing in Duluth? If I had had a bigger pair, I would have quit in my first three weeks. First three days.
So, in the summer of 1981 I was pulling some big boulders up and down the hills of San Francisco. Nothing plasters over a rough wall like a good book. The Spring book was good. Although I was the PD, I'm honest enough to admit that I didn't have much to do with it and it was properly the final K101 legacy of the previous PD. When a book is up the atmosphere is happier than the opposite. I got the benefit of Rob Sisco's work. The Summer Book was my responsibility even though we were working with the Al Casey Format and the station was a work in progress. We had four books a year. The important ones in the fall and spring. The summer ratings were up a bit but nothing to crow about. The best thing that can be said; we didn't tank. Some concerns were allayed...for a few days. The fall book was looming and as ye are judged, so shall ye reap. (Mangling the Bible!)
I continued to work on the on-air team. Working in St. Louis were an interesting couple. Bruce Vidal and his wife were both DJ's. They worked at different stations and had a marital rule. They moved together to whatever city offered one of them the best job. When I hired Bruce, it was a good major market jump and his wife quit her job and came too. (She never worked for me at 101 but I wouldn't have minded if she had. The next year she got a great gig in LA and she left and Bruce dutifully followed) Bruce was perfect for mid-day K101. Smooth and professional and dependable. Another nice guy.
With Bruce doing 10am – 2pm, Hoyt Smith moved to afternoon drive until we could find a heavy-weight. When we did, he moved to the evening shift. Hoyt is still working in San Francisco which just suggests how lucky we were to have that level of talent working 6pm – 10pm. Vince Garcia from KO93 worked evening swing. The all-night DJ had worked at K101 since the Gabbert days and did what he was told and always showed up for work. The perfect All-Night guy.
I should mention the week-enders. I may have written of one in particular who worked Saturday and Sunday. When I hired him he leaped in the air and clicked his heels. Nice to know there were people like that in radio.
Heavyweight! That's what I needed in afternoon drive. It was imperative that this shift was quality. In my mind I knew what I wanted. I wish it could have been me but I didn't have the talent to pull it off. The one who did just landed in my lap.
The original Chucker. When I did U100 we hired Chuck Morgan for afternoon drive and he called himself 'Chucker'. The Chucker. Sounded good and it was new to me. Little did I know there was another Chucker out there and we'd cross paths in San Francisco.
I find it amusing when I see a potential DJ's resume mention that they are into the music. I liked Top 40 music (contemporary music) but I was part of a age of broadcasters who didn't give a fuck about what music was played. Of course we wanted the music to be the right music. Over the years there were lots of arguments about whether to play or not play this or that. What was really important to a whole generation of DJ's was - THE ACT. Either with natural talent or hard work, each break was a gem. They read cards in Los Angeles and they read cards and liners in Iowa. And there was a difference. The big-boys wherever they work, read those cards like they owned the air-waves. The wanna-be's just read the card. I'm trying to explain the intrinsic difference that makes one a star and another a chair-warmer. Like porno, I know it when I see it.
Chuck Browning was an old war-horse. He fought the battles in New York City in the Good Guys days, did some of his best Chucker work at KFRC in the early 70's. His work was legendary and he needed a job. It is rather sad, when I think how insulated I was by being part of the vaunted “Five-State World” of mid-west radio. I knew the name, but not the legend. I just happened to look out the window when the cab from the airport pulled to the curb on Montgomery and a bald guy in a brown sports jacket stepped onto the sidewalk. Barney Fife was coming to work for me? In my office moments later, I looked at him and found it difficult to believe THIS was The Chucker. The voice was golden but the face, full of wrinkles. showed every drink, snort, sniff, and swallow. Here was a DJ from the old school. Chuck Browning was a hard living radio-rebel with the talent and balls to back it up. He had lived and played hard and looked it. The enthusiasm was still there. It was like he was saddled and ready to get in the gate. He could hear the bugle and it was time for a race.
Through the years, I worked with disappointments and inspirations. How I wish that every one I worked with not only had the ability but also the love for the 'job'. How I wish I had had the same. Chuck didn't last long after I left. I often wonder if I could have corralled him and given and got for a while.
That was the gang. I had my staff. I had my music. I had my liners and station image...all I needed was a girl. Oops! Sorry! Got hung up on GYPSY for a moment. Speaking of THE THEATER...
***If my personal musings bore you and you are just in it for the radio MY STORY you might want to skip ahead to the next asterisks.***
In the 50's there was a great TV show. Perhaps only great in my memory. You don't see it anywhere because the whole Cold War with Communist Russia has been white-washed to the point where it only existed in the tortured mind of Joseph McCarthy. The TV show was I LED THREE LIVES. The true story of Herb Philbrick; family man, FBI informant, and card-carrying member of the Communist Party. To inaccurately quote someone smarter than I am, everything I know worth knowing I learned from watching TV. This 30 minute, black and white drama I watched on my parent's 18 inch Dumont, taught me that if they were snarky they were commie. Using that as my yardstick, I now know I have worked with a lot of communists. Their eyes also seem to move side to side too. Come to think about it, I saw a commie in the Mall Food Court just this afternoon. I'm losing my train of thought. If you think you are getting confused, imagine how it is for an author who only writes a chapter per year.
Let's accept the fact that I am readily admitting to many failures in the “Dedicated Program Director” competition. Sure, I spent hours obsessing about my stations and once in a while there were spurts of intensity, buy deep inside I was looking for dams to build. You can take the boy out of the creek but you can't take the creek out of the boy. I needed to waste some of my time. You can do a lot of wasting in a city like San Francisco.
The first few weeks in San Francisco I stayed at the Holiday Inn just up Washington from the station. It was barely a place to hang my hat because I still had the house in Modesto and was trying to do mornings there and afternoon drive in SF. I spent a few weeks staying in my swing DJ's apartment a few miles from the station on Franklin Avenue, taking the bus to work, having breakfast at the restaurant just around the corner from K101 and putting off personal, non-radio decisions. I needed to find a San Francisco home, I needed to get rid of my Modesto home, I needed to retrieve my dog, Bozo and my cat, Harve and most of all, I needed to wipe the Modesto dust from the bottom of my shoes. A friend's wife to the rescue.
On some Saturday in May, with the newspaper ads in hand, we began the task at hand. A rental Realtor showed me some apartments. One she suggested sounded funky. Ocean Beach view, English Pub rec room, three bedrooms. The rec room was crazy. It actually did look like an English Pub. Dark wood, a ten foot bar, and a built-in dart board on the wall. There was view of the Pacific Ocean ...if you stood on a chair in the kitchen and stuck your head out the window and craned your neck to the right. It was quite tempting. I was thinking of the fabulous parties I could throw in that English Pub. Cathy pointed out the orange shag carpet and sanity returned. San Francisco is full of old and funky apartments. Eventually, I was seduced by the one with the least funkiness. Stupid me.
We met my future landlord at the apartment on Hemway Terrace, a dead-end street off Fulton next to the University of San Francisco. It was a newly remodeled three bedroom-two bathroom standard with nine foot ceilings. In The City there are thousands of these buildings. Three floors with a garage on the street level and steps up to a landing where there are two doors. One goes to the second floor apartment and the other door to the staircase to the third floor apartment. Both apartments share the back yard. Everything was so fresh and the appliances so new and the rooms so roomy, I was seduced moments after walking through the door. Don Bleu's wife looked the perfect sophisticated suburban and brought some cachet to my desire to rent from John Lee. Without her I wouldn't have gotten to first base. My deal breaker weighed about 80 pounds and was covered with fur. The Chinese of John Lee's generation weren't sure about the Gweilo's love for their dogs. Mostly he was worried about the new carpeting and where Bozo ( and as an after-thought, Harve Tooky, the cat and the true boss of my household) were going to “use the toilet.” He had another apartment that might be better. I was about to make a mistake.
The other apartment was a little farther west, just kitty corner from the very beginning of Golden Gate Park. It was right on Fulton Street, the avenue that forms the southern border of the park all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Parking was a nightmare. The entry door was at street level. Immediately inside was a staircase. The floors were all hardwood and beautiful. In the living room was a tiny but working fireplace. The railroad design meant the the living room led to the dining room which led to the kitchen which led to the bedrooms and the one bathroom. And that one bathroom was the absolute definition of “funky”. It was the biggest bathroom I've ever seen. In my memory, the bathroom was at least as big as any of the bedrooms. There was a claw bathtub with circular shower curtain and a pedestal sink. That is it. Both looked as if Enrico Caruso had used them just before the earthquake. Toilet. I didn't forget. There WAS a toilet. But it wasn't in there with the tub and sink. Out in the hallway and just around a corner was a door. Inside was the toilet. Barely. The 'toilet room' was so small if you were sitting in there and closed the door, the door-knob would get very intimate with you.
Today I would rent this apartment in a heart-beat. It was even cheaper than the the other one. Damn it, I rented the other one. Oh well. The deal was made, the deposit was paid, and application filled out. This is sort of funny. Remember, I lived a rather gypsy life before moving to Modesto, so when they wanted to know my last three landlords, at the bottom of the list I put my sister-in-law back in Cloquet, Minnesota. Her maiden name. She had been born and raised Katheryn Lee. When my Chinese landlord, John Lee, called for a recommendation he assumed she was Chinese. Maybe they were related. She gave me a good report and on Monday he called to say I was in. I sent the rest of the money, rent and extra deposit (he was still worried about that big dog) and signed lease by bike messenger and called the movers. Three days later Bekins unloaded my goodies. On Saturday, Don and his wife brought the rest of the family by and we spent the day unpacking.
I was anxious to get on the morning show and off of afternoon drive, so we did some shuffling and I got into my K101 rhythm. My alarm jarred me awake a 3:45am. I got up early for years doing morning shows in Washington and California (and for a little while in Minnesota) I did morning shows where I crawled out of bed at 4:30 or 5am. That is getting up early in the morning. Getting up at 3:45am is like getting up in the middle of the night. I had to get up because I had to walk Bozo and catch the bus at 4:20am. That first Monday morning everything went smoothly. Bozo did his business and I was standing on Fulton when the bus trundled up. I made an easy connection on Market and even stopped for donuts on Montgomery. I was sitting prettily in my office by five. Ken Copper rode in on the first BART of the morning and was ready to go by 5:45. At about 9:30am John Lee called me with the suggestion that I should have my dog “put to sleep”. Poor Bozo. It was a strange place. Harve was being a bitch and he was stressed and lonely and at some point after I left he began to howl. I had never heard him howl, but my neighbors had. Fortunately it wasn't a permanent affliction and Bozo was spared the axe.
I was putting in a long day. The morning breakfast hadn't been good for me. I didn't need those regular calories. Even the daily Montgomery Donut wasn't as bad as bacon and eggs every day for a month. Of course, when the morning show was done for the day, Ken could head for the alcohol brunch at the Iron Pot while I headed to the programming wars. I was lucky to get home by six. K101 was getting my 12 hours most days. Not counting the time spent with my feet up on the desk, the time wandering about thinking how lucky I was not to be working at WEBC in Duluth, the two-hour lunch, and the one hour digestion, I was working my ass off. My favorite part of the day, was the bus ride home. \
If I did it right, just outside the station, I would catch the almost empty bus going the wrong way. This bus took me to the Trans-Bay Terminal, about a five minute ride. There I would get on the Fulton 5 and ALWAYS get a seat. If I got on nearer to the station, I would be standing. Not only did I get a seat, but I got a seat in the last row on the extreme side by a window. This was THE seat to sit in because you were so jammed in there was no expectation you would give up your seat to anyone. Senior, handicapped, it didn't matter. It took almost 40 minutes to get to the intersection of Mason and Fulton. On that corner was the most wonderful grocery store. Patrini's. It is gone now, but on many days I stopped there to shop. Then, a quick two blocks up an easy hill to Hemway Terrace, Bozo, Harve and home.
Sometimes I took other buses and often I hopped in a cab. After a month or so it seemed like I had lived in San Francisco forever and I began exploring The City. Living in San Francisco is so different from visiting San Francisco and I made it a point to spend a few hours each day (evening) checking it out. There was so much to see.
***Back to Broadcasting***
A radio station, in progress, is a perfect example of “multi-tasking”. While I was working on building a staff, both on-air and off-air, I was also working on music, working on research, co-ordinating programming and aggressive sales, playing politics with the local exec's and corporate, and creating advertising plans and contests. Plus, I love to schmooze and I did a bit of that. As more and more of the music decisions were made locally, the record guys discovered us and suddenly they were stopping by and buying lunches and dinners. If there was a good time for rob Sherwood at K101, it was from late August 1981 to January 1982.
Coming SOON in Chapter 29 – There is a Train at the End of the Tunnel