Nearly every ad in Broadcasting magazine for announcers said "heavy production experience preferred". I became a student of production. Rex Miller had told me to listen to anything Orson Welles ever did if I wanted to learn the art of the spoken word. I recorded the audio of "Citizen Kane" off television and listened to it over and over to hear how Welles spoke. I began to pay more attention to the words in radio commercials. I tried to discover the genesis of the ideas behind national ads. I wrote ads for national products then produced the spots. I ate, slept, and dreamed PRODUCTION.
Mac Curtis was the PD at WPLO in Atlanta and I had sent him a tape, hoping to get a weekend shift. He called and I started doing a Saturday night jock shift and a Sunday afternoon news shift. Country music in 1968 was Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash and so on. I didn't care I just wanted out of Winder and I figured this was another opportunity. On Sunday's, the jock on the air was the regular weekday afternoon guy. He was a notorious drunk and brought a fifth of whiskey with him every Sunday. He'd put it in the trash can, still in the brown bag, under the console and from noon until six, he'd catch a buzz. It was fairly hilarious to observe from the sanctuary of the newsroom because he THOUGHT I didn't know what was going on. The guy who broke me in for the shift had tipped me off about it. One Sunday, I got so tickled at him trying to hide his nips, that I couldn't keep a straight face and stumbled through the newscast. One of the stories was about gun ships in the Viet Nam war; I said gun s--t instead. We both cracked up; I couldn't finish the newscast and he kicked over the trash can and...well, his not so secret, secret was all over the floor. I went down the hall and found the janitors mop and helped him clean up.
One day in early 1969, Don Weir, General Manager of KLWW, called me from Cedar Rapids Iowa. Don could have been dialogue coach for the movie "Fargo". He was from somewhere in North Dakota and could he ever talk Midwestern. I'd sent a tape to him for an announcer's opening; it was a blind box ad. I don't ever remember consciously sending tapes anywhere north of Kentucky or Tennessee. He had listened to my tape, liked my voice, and wanted me to do mornings. I wasn't really interested in moving to Iowa, so I told him I was holding out for a PD job. He had a PD who was doing a pretty good job, so that took care of that, I thought. About a month goes by and I had almost convinced Cecil Grider to let me go to Panama City, Florida to be PD of WGNE, a station he co-owned. Don called again, offering me the PD job and mornings. Again, I tried to get out of saying "no" by asking to be flown to Iowa for a look see. To my surprise, he said "yes". Iowa from the air looked like a big corn field. It IS a big cornfield. The plane started to descend and there in the middle of the corn was a small airport. Don met me and off we went for a tour of the station. I don't remember much except the way everyone talked. "Yah, we talk a little different, there, but by golly you crackers have your own way of speaking too, there". Don, chomping on an unlit cigar, kept telling me how much he had to beg the home office in Waterloo to let him spend the hundred bucks for my plane ticket. If I didn't say "yes" they'd probably make him pay it back out of his pocket. I was intrigued. It was time for me to make a move, and if I became a PD in Cedar Rapids, that was far enough away from home that no one would notice if I screwed up. The sticking point was moving expenses. I learned from Rex, when you've negotiated all the money you can get, ask for relocating expenses. On the way to the airport, he made his final money offer, a little more than we had originally discussed. I told him I'd discuss it with my wife and let him know something by the weekend. I think I flew Atlanta, Chicago, Cedar Rapids, Chicago, Atlanta in one day. After a day or so, Don, called me. I said "well, I appreciate your flying me up, and the generous offer, but I don't have the money to relocate". Weir called back a few days later and said they could pay my moving expenses.
Driving a U-haul truck with four Siamese kittens and their mother in the front seat beside you is an adventure. Driving a U-haul truck with four Siamese kittens and their mother beside you from Atlanta to Cedar Rapids, Iowa is lunacy. My wife and sister followed in our car as we trekked to the Midwest. Don had sent me a check for moving and in April of '69, we bade farewell to family and friends, not to mention turnip greens, grits, and Krystal Hamburgers. We were in a trance as we traveled into Northern Illinois. We'd never seen land this flat, except in Florida, but you don't notice it there because you're at the beach. Crossing the Mississippi at Davenport, I was listening to KSTT. The afternoon jock was Bobby Rich. Later we would become friends and work together. My wife had a friend who lived in Ames; her husband attended The University Of Iowa. We stayed there while we looked for a place to live. We were aliens unaccustomed to the way people talked, ate, and reacted when we opened our mouths. This was going to be interesting.
I started working at KLWW and other than the cultural differences, everything was running pretty smooth. I threw out "the format" and made up new hot clocks and music rotations. I reworked the oldies, and I subscribed to the Gavin Report. Within a few weeks, I began to hear from the promotion guys out of Minneapolis and even some from New York & L.A.. One of the first people I met was Doug Lee, a regional promotion man with Decca. He lived in Minneapolis and we hit it off immediately. He'd come to CR and we'd go up the street from the station to the Sip 'n Stir. We always had good intentions to have dinner, but rarely left there. I'm not a big believer in cosmic things like past lives, however Doug and I were kindred spirits. He told me great stories about his life in the music business, his love for radio, and bluegrass music. He wrote a book on bluegrass, although I've never been able to find it. Months would go by and my phone would ring in the middle of the night, it would be Doug, sipping' whiskey and wanting to talk. He'd send me clippings of radio articles and tapes of talk shows and tips on books he'd read. Our friendship lasted throughout the years and sadly he passed away a couple of years ago. There was this guy in L.A. named Abe Cheyet. I guess he was working for MGM records because he promoted me on Donnie Osmond records. He was a neat guy although I never met him in person. Abe remembered little things like your birthday, anniversary, and where you were from. He was smooth as silk.
Bill Gavin loved small market radio station, especially those in the Midwest. That was where the hits germinated. When I started reporting to the Gavin report, I'd always talk to Janet. As my batting average got a little better, Bill would want to chat with me after I'd given my chart information to Janet. I picked a few hits in the first few months and thought nothing about it. One of the hottest television series was "The Partridge Family". One day I got a package from Bell Records. One of the records was "I Think I Love You" by The Partridge Family. I don't know why but I "heard" the song. I added it to the KL playlist and the request line began to ring. I told Bill about the response and he mentioned it in the next issue. Bell didn't know it, but they had a hit, but they sent me my very first gold record for breaking it.
I always asked Bill for advice and he'd tell me "I am not a program director, I just report what is reported to me and suggest things I like". He told me I should call a guy named Buzz Bennett at KGB in San Diego and ask for his advice. I'd read about him in Billboard and the Gavin Report and was a little reluctant to call. Buzzy was very cordial, answered my questions and made a couple of format suggestions. A couple of days later I received a composite tape of KGB from him. I listened, mesmerized, and nearly wore the tape out. This was the coolest station I'd ever heard. Prior to that WABC, WLS, and WCFL were the stations I revered. There was magic on that tape. It wasn't the records, liners, promotions, or jocks. It was a everything; a feeling. I made up my mind to make my station have a soul. Later in my career, Buzzy and I were together in Federal Court, on opposing sides of a criminal case.
Jimmy Davenport and I spoke long distance, frequently. He also gave me advice on programming and more importantly, how to get along with Don Weir. Don wanted the station to sound good with about 22 minutes of commercials each hour and two five minute newscasts. We signed off at 2AM and back on at 5AM. I argued and argued to stay on full time. We were 1,000 watts daytime and 250 at night. Our competition, KCRG was 5000 watts and on 24 hours a day. He finally agreed. Don was a hell of a salesman and whatever a salesman promised to a client, they got it. There was a guy at the station who had once been PD. He moved to sales and was a top biller. Don let him get away with murder. He was constantly going to Don and making cracks about the way I did certain things. It was supposed to be a secret that the ex-PD /sales guy was having an affair with the receptionist /traffic gal. He stopped undermining me when I caught them one evening in his car behind the Sip 'n Stir. Don didn't like much of the music we played and every time I added an R&B song, he'd freak out. I'll never forget the hell he gave me for playing "Polk Salad Annie" by Tony Joe White. We had a black part-time newsman who really helped me control that. The news guy would come in and tell Don that more and more of the black folks in Cedar Rapids were listening because the station was now featuring black artists. After the first rating book came out, KLWW almost doubled it's audience. Don liked me and started trusting my judgment. He even let me go to my first radio conference, The Bill Gavin Programming Conference at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Jimmy was going to be there and Doug Lee was going, also. I called Bill and asked him if he thought someone at the conference would listen to a tape of KLWW and critique it for me. He told me to bring it along and he'd see what he could do.
I was so excited, having never been to the coast. I had no idea what to expect. Jimmy & Doug told me to find them when I got there. There were a million people in the lobby it seemed. I'd be standing there and someone would come up and stick out there hand and say " Hey babe welcome to L.A." all the while trying to get a glimpse of my name tag to see if I was important. Upon not recognizing my name, it was "Hey, great to meet ya...got to run to a meeting". Little did I know that before the conference was over, a lot of people would know my name. I hooked up with Jimmy and he introduced me to a lot of people. He knew everybody in the business: Clive Davis, Joe Smith, Danny Davis, Russ Thyrett, Moe Preskell, Kal Rudman. They politely shook my hand and promptly forgot my name. I also met Bill Drake. He seemed to like me since I was a fellow Georgia boy.
I found Bill Gavin and introduced myself and asked him again about having someone listen to my tape. He asked me to come to breakfast in his suite the next morning. That night I hung out with Doug in the lobby. Gavin disapproved of record company hospitality suites, so most entertaining was either done in the lobby or off premises. Around eight, the lobby emptied into more limousines than I'd ever seen in my life. After getting something to eat, I went to my room, exhausted. About an hour later, the phone rang. It was Doug and he told me to come to his room. When he opened the door, I smelled perfume. Doug said something about "keeping her company" while he went back to the lobby.
I was a little nervous going to breakfast with Bill and Janet Gavin. I figured I'd play the tape for some big time PD, get a few tips, and leave. Joining us for breakfast was George Burns, a consultant and former national program director for Pacific & Southern Broadcasting. George was also chairman of the conference. After pleasantries, Bill said "John, tell George about your tape". I explained that I had a tape of KLWW and hoped that I could get someone to listen to it and give me some pointers. "How long is it?" I reached in my briefcase and showed him a seven inch reel of tape. "Is it scoped (edited to eliminate most of songs, just intros and outros)?" I replied it was about ten minutes each of the morning, midday, and afternoon shows. "That won't work, I don't think the audience will sit through thirty minutes un-scoped" said Gavin." George asked me if I had any way to edit it. An old friend, Tony Taylor from WQXI was working for KLAC in L.A. I called and asked him if I could use a production room, he told me to come over that night while he was on the air. When I came back to the table, Bill said "our scheduled speaker for tomorrow morning's general meeting had to cancel at the last minute, how would you like to play your tape for the audience and let them give you some feedback? I'm sure I looked like a kid who'd just won a bicycle; "Sure" I replied. They told me where to meet them the next morning and off I went to tell Davenport the good news. I told him I would be a part of the morning session. "You what?" was his reply. " You're not part of the morning session, you ARE the morning session. Do you know they're going to crucify you?" Well, I was Porky Pig "buduh -buduh buduh- buduh-buduh". Jimmy told me to meet him the next morning for breakfast. That night I went to KLAC and edited my tape, then back to the hotel where the late evening lobby party had started. I ran into Jimmy and he lambasted me for my naiveté and reminded me to meet him the next morning.
At breakfast, Jimmy told me: "When you get up there, say nothing. When they introduce you, say nothing. After they play the tape, say nothing. If they ask you a question, try to answer yes or no. Don't express your opinion. Don't react to any criticism. What I'm trying to tell you is to keep your f---ing mouth shut." That little talk certainly built my confidence as I mounted the platform a little later. After formalities and announcements, George Burns got up and explained to the audience the guest speaker had cancelled, then told them the story of how I'd brought a tape to the convention hoping for a critique by a more experienced PD. All the while I'm like a patient in a dentists chair. I know it's going to hurt. I just don't know for how long and how bad it's going to be. The tape is played. Hearing yourself on BIG speakers in a conference room is an interesting experience. In my mind every syllable I uttered was goofy, amateurish, just plain BAD. One thing that didn't escape the audience were the call letters. After hearing the tape of KGB, I instructed the jocks to come out of every record with KLWW first thing out of their mouths. Then there were the a capella jingles before every song. Mentally, I was reviewing my options since I had most certainly botched my radio career; suddenly there was silence. There is a God...the tape was over! Burns asked for comments from the audience. This part was easy cause all I had to do is listen and keep my f---ing mouth shut. Everyone from Chuck Blore, famous x-PD and now ad man, to Red Schwartz, a record guy from New York, got up and skewered not just me, but radio in general. The janitor at the Century Plaza, Doug, Jimmy, Bill Gavin, Burns and one other guy were the only people who didn't slam the tape. Then, one guy gets up and rips everyone a new one. He said something to the effect that everyone should get off my case. I was a guy trying to learn and get better and no one had given me the first idea to take back and try. He suggested that I make the station sound more like Cedar Rapids. The guy was John Rook, PD of WLS in Chicago. His comment made all the rest bearable; to this day I appreciate what he did. It was over. I made my way to Jimmy and he said "you done good kid". It was the last day of the conference and as I went through the lobby that afternoon and evening, a lot of people came up and shook hands, complimented me, and they didn't even have to look down at my name tag.
Billboard Magazine article about my appearance at the Gavin Convention. Not only did they not get my name right, they promoted me to general manager.
From then on the calls I got from record guys tripled. My kamikaze appearance at the conference also endeared me to Bill Gavin. In later years, I served on advisory committees for several conferences and panels at the conferences themselves. I cherish Bill and Janet's friendship. They were two of the most wonderful people I have ever known. I believe they were as much in love their last day together as they were when they first met in that classroom in Wisconsin. I never dreamed in a million years that my simple and naive quest for help on being a better PD would garner such attention. There was even an article in one of the trades that referenced my appearance at the conference and wouldn't you know it, they got my name wrong! The next year the convention was in New Orleans. Weir was so thrilled at KL's' rating and billing success and sent me again. There was an awards presentation produced by my biggest fan, Chuck Blore. It was fabulous. (If you want to hear it, go to Rick Irwin's Top 40 Repository: www.reelradio.com).
Shortly after that convention, Doug Lee started Mainstreet Promotions in the twin cities, doing independent promotion. Doug put out a monthly newsletter called "The Blue Sky Report". It partly satisfied his life-long desire to just write. In the nineties, Doug moved back out to the big sky country, Kalispell, Montana. He was going to college, writer's workshops, and battling health problems. I loved that guy. When I moved to Minneapolis in the eighties, he was the only friend I had there. More about that later.
This is a portion of "the blue sky report". Doug Lee's dry humor is obvious. He called 45's "big holers". Below a deck of playing cards Doug used as a promotional item.
Since my new found importance, I began to be invited to attend concerts in the Twin Cities, the most memorable was The Who. The promotion man for Heilicher Brothers took me out to Ira Heilicher's estate on Lake Minnetonka. The band was suppose to be there for an afternoon cruise on the SS IRA. We boarded and were immediately greeted by gorgeous girls in bikinis. They escorted us to a bar then to an elaborate buffet of shrimp, caviar, fruit, cheese, and stuff I could not identify. Occasionally, a guest and escort would disappear below deck. The escorts were clearly instructed as to which guests were to receive special attention. A PD from Cedar Rapids didn't fit the bill, so I just watched and waited for The Who to show up. After a few hours, an announcement was made that they weren't going to make it. I was disappointed because I wanted pictures and autographs. I really wanted to get them to autograph some stuff to use in an on air promotion. The promo guy later got some things for me. That concert was amazing. The Who were LOUD and good. There was enough dope being smoked that there was a blue haze hanging over the stage. It was the first time I had ever seen lasers. I went to Chicago to see the stage production of HAIR. The seats were about second row. I saw a lot of birthmarks that night. It was the first big time stage show I'd ever seen. Another memorable trip to Chicago was for the premier of a John Wayne movie, The Cowboys. I met the Duke. Man, he was a big guy. I also met a guy from a station in Tulsa, Les Garland and we struck up a friendship that has lasted since. Les and I met a girl who worked at WLS and persuaded her to take us over to the studios for a tour. It was neat to finally see the studios that had been home to Dick Biondi, Art Roberts, and Chuck Buell. WLS was a killer station that I had listened to since high school. I really liked Chicago. Rex Miller was working at WIND and tried to get me a job there to no avail. My closest shot to going there came when Paul Christy asked me for a second tape after I had applied for the all-night shift at WCFL. He never called me back and wouldn't return my calls. I vowed never to treat guys like that.
"Musicology" was really hip for Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Paul Drew was at CKLW in Detroit and we corresponded occasionally. The station was consulted by Bill Drake. Paul left there and went to Washington to RKO's WGMS AM-FM. The plan was to make the AM top 40. At that time it was classical and the FM was an after thought. When news leaked that the format was changing, community pressure forced RKO to abandon the idea. There sat Paul and Ann. I think they had already bought a house there. Paul began consulting; one of his first clients was WAVZ in New Haven. Little did I know that those events would greatly affect my career.
Paul is a man of few words, even in print!
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