Chapter 1 - Buried In Blythe
The chances of anyone born and raised in northern Minnesota hearing of Blythe, California in the Palo Verde Valley alongside the Colorado River bordering Arizona were next to none. How I ended up there proves that every decision, every happen chance, indeed, every breath we take combines in some sort of stew that eventually becomes a story. What is most amazing about this stew is we don't know the recipe, we don't always select the ingredients, and we really don't know what we're cooking. And it is never done.
My father started me on piano lessons before I could read. A fine old lady, Ella Cox, taught me that middle C was Mama C. Poppa C was an octave lower and sister C up an octave. My dad was a wonderful pianist. He played by ear, had studied and copied the style of some of the great musicians of the 30's and 40's like Frankie Carle and Fats Waller. I love that music. I have even been in a couple of bands that played the standards. I never played them as well as my dad.
It was anything conscious when my love of music moved in directions my family could never understand. When I was eleven I moved heaven and earth to see my first grand operas when the Metropolitan Opera toured through Minneapolis. Another piano teacher, Miriam Blair, introduced me to the Duluth Symphony and throughout high school, while others went to keggers, I went to the classics.
Because of this immersion in the musical arts, it was assumed my career would go in that direction. Miriam Blair wanted me to go east to a serious music school. I dreamed of being the next Arturo Toscanini and spent hours conducting the great classics while they played on my monophonic 'record player'. THAT was almost a secret shame, until I saw one of the more eccentric teachers at school, Bill Obst, furiously conducting an imaginary orchestra as HIS record player blasted the room with Beethoven.
It was not to be. It has been said that an surprising fact of life is how as teenagers we know everything and throughout the years forget it all. At least teenager THINK that is how it works. I lacked the passion necessary to practice six hours a day and lacked a mentor or slave driver to make me. I lived many days in a fantasy land and spent hours making maps of a mythical land called Futuvi. Actually, one spring I spent hours digging a new route for a small stream. Instead of adding something worthwhile to my 'stew', I played in the water like a 10 year old building gutter dams. Helping me to dig my own private Panama Canal was the previously mentioned friend, Nick. He is partly responsible for my career. He made me aware of that member of the lower animal species; the DJ.
When I got into radio most of my fellow DJ's had the 'DJ name'. Have you ever wondered why there were so many Irish broadcasters? O'Day, O'Shea, O' This and O' That. A common name for DJ's in the 50's and early 60's was Valentine. There was a famous Twin Cities DJ named Jimmy Valentine. Years later, when I worked at KSTP, Jimmy Valentine was vegging out the end of his career as the music librarian (and other duties) for the Hubbards. The impact on my career, however, came from a Valentine wannabe named Wayne Valentine. He worked for a while at a tiny AM station in northern Minnesota and at some point, while doing some amateur theater (and killing time between high school, Futuvai and my life) I met Wayne and casually asked him what he did for work. In a most perfect basso he informed me that he was a radio announcer. A DJ! How did you ever get to be a DJ? It was the natural question and anyone from the five-state area that makes up the Midwest Radio kingdom knows the answer. “I went to Brown Institute.”
The information that there was a school for DJ's was filed in my lame brain along with the other trash only to surface six months later. I was driving on Lake Street in Minneapolis after a conversation with my Mom. Damn, I hated those phone calls. Every minute I wasn't in college, playing the piano, doing 'something', just anything and exhibiting that Swedish-father work ethic, I was a disappointment to my parents AND to myself. Like the sun shining through the clouds a cheesy sign hanging on the front of an architecturally bland building appeared to my right. I may have even heard the sound of angels with golden harps as I read the words on the transmitter-tower-sign. Brown Institute.
Brown Institute. Brown Institute. Where had I heard that name before? My brain worked over-time and the Nick Jollymore synapse transferred to the WLS in Chicago synapse to the Wayne Valentine synapse to the DJ school synapse to the Brown Institute synapse and from there through my body and arms and hands to the steering wheel of the 57 Red Ford station wagon I was driving. I slid into a parking space and walked into my 30 years career.
I met with the Director of Students, John McKnight. They had a test. If you passed the test you were accepted as a potential student. Some people suspect they were testing if you had breath and a throbbing heart. In truth, Brown Institute was legit. If you had a lisp, they had ways to help you eliminate it. I stuttered at times of stress and that was fixable. In retrospect, the most important part of the test was whether or not you could read. I could. I did. I was accepted. I signed the paper and before I could say, “We paused now for station identification”, I was going to school.
Later that day I told my parents I had signed up for DJ school and it would be $19.50 per week. Would they pay? My imagination suggests there were gulps of trepidation, rolled eyes of disbelief, and sighs of disappointment in the Setterquist household. This was a long way from the New York Philharmonic but hopefully, it would pass, like Futuvi, and my parent's dreams would become my dreams and God would be in his heaven and all would be right in the world.
I was living in a basement apartment in South Minneapolis by Minnehaha Creek. I stayed there during all of my Brown Days. Downstairs, I made Chef Boy-R-Dee spaghetti from the little kit while the old lady who owned the home, her roomer (a peculiar man) and two dalmatian dogs of unfriendly disposition enjoyed the main floor. I listened to the DJ's on KDWB and WDGY and WCCO with new ears. Arturo was replaced by Hal Murray (mornings 6-9) and conducting Tchaikovsky with singing along with the Duke of Earl.
The eight months I spent at Brown had highs and lows. The classes were operated in a round-robin format with some students just beginning mixed with students almost finished. Three levels, beginning, intermediate and advanced were designated by the names of the studios each level occupied. About half the time was spent announcing, running equipment and learning hands-on radio. The other half was technique, pronunciation, and learning the standard delivery popular in radio during the 30 years before I got there. We were learning to be ANNOUNCERS. If you didn't keep pace with your fellow students you were given additional instruction, put on a sort of parole and in case that didn't work, sent home to catch up on your own. Twice, my stuttering and lack of concentration put me on probation. I also spent too much time being a DJ and not enough time being an announcer. A very serious John McKnight got through to me and the threats worked.
Brown Institute prided itself on their placement program. In that five state area I mentioned (Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Iowa) hardly a radio station existed without a Brown Institute grad or two on staff. The first jobs were minimal, small-time, big on pork futures, farm reports, and pop music from the pre-rock era. Already, the teachers and administration at Brown had figured out that in the normal first job situation, I wouldn't fit in. They were like the nuns in The Sound of Music singing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” For not the first or last time in my life I was the square peg trying to fit in the round hole. Or to beat the Sound of Music comparison, “A flippertigibbet! A will O' wisp! A clown!” They only had a month or so to solve the Rob placement problem.
As we neared graduation from Brown, we made our audition tapes (air checks). I thought mine was so good I could easily imagine playing it for a program director and being hired on the spot. My hubris was great enough that I took my tape to my home-town radio station, WEBC, to play it for the PD. I dreamed of being on the air where all my friends, family, teachers and doubters would hear me and marvel at my talent. The PD was Doctor Don Rose. The very same Doctor Don Rose who was my competition in San Francisco years later. He kicked our ass at K101. In 1962, he was nice enough to listen, give an honest critique and not kick my ass out the door.
It looked like I wasn't going to get out of Brown early until a week or so later when I was once again called into the office. This time it wasn't for expulsion. There was a job. Bob Roddy, a Brown grad and manager of a station in Blythe, California called looking for someone who could do Top 40 and would work cheap. The angels sang and plucked their harps. John McKnight gave me the skinney and showed me where Blythe was on the huge map of the United States on his wall. God did it seem like it was far away. Blythe isn't in the “5 State Area”. When Bob Roddy was on the phone, we played my tape over the phone. Actually, we held the receiver up to the tape machine speaker and it was good enough. I got the job.
Those were pretty heady days beginning in the winter of 1962/63 in Blythe, California. Anyone who has driven from Phoenix to Los Angeles knows about Blythe. Right next to the Colorado River, when I got there Blythe was a couple of dozen motels, restaurants, gas stations; all needed as a kind of “half-way” point between the two cities. I haven’t been back in 42 years, so I don’t know about the changes. There have to have been changes. There is an interstate now, so travelers don’t drive down the main street. It must have grown.
Blythe had a population of about 5,000. The entire county had 15,000 people when I made it 15,001 in February 1963. The manager of the radio station, KYOR, was Bob Roddy. He was paying me $70 a week to work at the non-directional 250 watt “powerhouse” in the middle of the Palo Verde Valley. Thanks to the Colorado River and miles of irrigation canals, it wasn’t the desert God had intended. Surrounded by scabrous mountains looking like clumps of dirt, the valley floor’s rich black earth produced year round bounty ranging from cotton, strawberries, tomatoes, and every kind of imaginable melon. At times Blythe smelled like what you expect from the huge cattle feeder pens outside of town; other times it smelled like onions as that crop came in. Often it smelled like a combination of onions and cow shit.
There were strong ethnic divides in Palo Verde County. Of the population of 15,000 about a third were Hispanic or black and about a third were hard core Okies who during the Dust Bowl hadn’t made it all the way to the Central Valley. The rest were your basic WASPs. Not listed in the 15,000 were the hundreds of “Braceros”. These ranch workers (virtually indentured servants) from Mexico lived in huge dormitories and labored in the fields. It was a strange mix of cultures and for a kid from Northern Minnesota I was a stranger in a strange land.
During my trip west, I worried about the unknowns in my immediate future. In the days before the interstate system traffic would slow at each tiny burg as the highway and main street were often the same. On the outskirts of these bleak little places, just before I speed limit returned to 65mph I would see a lone radio tower next to a single-wide trailer or a Quonset hut and a sign touting the town’s radio “voice”. The Voice of this Valley or that Valley. I imagined laboring in some shack in the desert and Blythe turned out to be a wonderful surprise.
The tower WAS in the bleak outskirts of town, but the studios were just off the main drive, on the second floor of an Insurance/Title office. The doors had leather padding (!) and regular double glass windows separated the studios. I walked up the long staircase at a little before 9am and was on the air at 9:30. Just like that, I was a “professional DJ”. Wow.
I can’t remember all the names, but one I can’t forget. Rusty Draper was the night guy. Six to 11PM. Friday and Saturday, he was on until midnight. The sales manager and along with the General Manager, the only sales staff, did mornings. Some religious show ran on tape from 9am to 9:30am and I was on until noon. The Chief Engineer did noon to three and I was back on until six for afternoon “drive”. We played the current hits, but for some reason (the Okies I guess) every fifth song was country. Everything you expect in a small town radio station you would find on KYOR. In town only two weeks and I was doing a remote broadcast from a plumbing supplies store. Hello! They didn’t teach me this at Brown.
There are more than a few stories from Blythe, but the promotions Bob Roddy came up with are unforgettable. We dropped numbered ping-pong balls from an airplane. The ping-pong balls were redeemable for prizes at various businesses in Blythe and you had to go from business to business to find which ball belonged where. It got the listeners involved in visiting our advertisers and participating in on-air events with their numbered balls. Except…nobody had figured on the near riot, the fights, the pushing and shoving, that accompanied the rush to retrieve the balls. No body had considered that the wind would grab these balls and carry most of them away from the “drop zone” onto streets, highways, farms, irrigation canals, and the Colorado River itself. It was chaos. A successful chaos it turned out, but chaos all the same.
My favorite though was the Hidden Capsule Contest. Bob Roddy hid a capsule with a $500 certificate somewhere in the Blythe city or county area. We gave clues on the air and it worked like a giant scavenger hunt. It was wild. Five hundred dollars was a lot of dough in 1963 and there was lot of interest. As the clues led inexorably toward the contest climax, there were crowds…..like 100 plus people digging in the little mesa just outside of the city limits. They had followed the clues correctly and where they were digging was where Bob Roddy had hidden the capsule. He had hidden it too well. People were digging and digging but they weren’t finding the capsule. They found cans, garbage, and at least a dozen rattlesnakes. The snakes, hibernating, often surrounded by dozens of babies, were exhumed and dispatched. As the day progressed without a successful “discovery”, Bob was getting worried. Even in 1963, there were litigious souls about and a couple of snakebites would produce a big lawsuit.
I have no proof of this, but I believe that sometime in the night, Bob Roddy solved the problem with another capsule. Early the next morning, a listener found the capsule in area previous listeners had dug, dug, and re-dug. How they missed it only Bob knows. And I know for months he worried that the original capsule would surface and he would be busted. He wasn’t and the contest was a smashing success. Everyone loved it. Except the snakes.
Working in Blythe, California, at a sorta Top Forty radio station was pretty heady stuff. There was nothing much around Blythe but dirty mountains and farms and more farms. The city (town) was the center of things because there was at least 60 miles of desert in every direction. Two theaters. One a drive-in. The only ‘fast food’, a Foster Freeze on the main drag. It was at that Foster Freeze I had my first taco. I’ve had 30 or 40 thousand of them since. There was pizza at a Mexican restaurant across the Colorado River, but it tasted like a taco. I lived in a cement block apartment building and saved money by putting $20 bills in the pages of the dictionary I was required to buy while at Brown Institute. (I still use that dictionary when the computer isn't handy)
At Brown Institute we were told frequently that our first job would be at a mom and pop station reading farm news. Many of my fellow students from my 8 months on Lake Street began their career doing just that. They worked in Mason City or Ames, Iowa. North Dakota or Central Minnesota. Small AM stations. They read farm news when there weren't any farmers. They labored on the mike when it seemed there were no listeners. I was fortunate. As far as I was concerned, I had dodged the bullet because the Top 40 gods smiled on me and welcomed me to their bosom. How lucky I was to be working in Blythe, California, playing the hits. Sure, I was supposed to play a country hit every fourth song, but in my first weeks as a professional, I learned how to "skip" the songs that sucked. I played It’s My Party by Leslie Gore and skipped the twangy, nasally, trailer trash. Blythe, was about a third trailer trash and I should have paid more attention to them.
Blythe was more than just 2000 miles from Duluth. It was on another planet. In January when I arrived, the temperature was often in the upper 70’s. I left Duluth in a blizzard, drove through New Mexico and Northern Arizona in another blizzard, and marveled at the palm trees lining the streets leading to my first broadcast job. My favorite restaurant, on the main drag, had an old-fashioned screen door that smacked and bounced when it closed, a center U-shaped counter and booths around the perimeter. It was mostly fried food but the 50's steam table food was also fantastic. Here I was introduced to the Southern/Okie influence. It was in Blythe I first tried okra, grits, and sweet potato pie. I also dug into the standbys. Hot beef sandwiches slathered with cups of gravy, greasy cheeseburgers and home cut, never frozen French fries. It was also in this restaurant that I saw black customers sit at the counter and never get waited on. They were just ignored until finally they "got the message" and left. I asked about this not so subtle example of "Jim Crow" racism and was told their policy was not to serve Negroes (as was the 1963 term). Always found that weird, since the entire kitchen staff was black. Bet they spit in a lot of food. I would have.
There was also a Denny’s type restaurant. We used to go there for breakfast late at night. In addition to the more slick versions of grits, okra, and pecan pie, it was there I learned about a stack of pancakes, oozing butter and maple syrup with a lightly fried egg topping it all.
The television came from Phoenix via a translator. In order for it to work, you had to have a UHF decoder. The equipment up on the mountain that made this all work was installed and maintained by the city. This little bit of socialism made sense. Leave It To Beaver, The Untouchables, and the Donna Reed Show brought the 20th Century into the homes in Blythe. So, I worked, I watched TV, I went to a movie or three and ate a lot of greasy, but wonderful, food.
I don’t remember the movies I saw, the names of the people I hung with, or any highlights of anything. Except for work.
KYOR was a crazy place. Full of crazy people. The morning man was normal. He was also the sales manager. He had a New York attitude and his hard charging got him a general manager job at another station in the group.
The Chief Engineer was a mousy guy with a mousy wife and two mousy children. I know for a time they were living in their car while working at KYOR. I asked how 4 people could live in a car and he told me, "The kids in the front seat and me and the old lady in the back seat". Okay. I was scandalized when I heard they used to go to a Mexican restaurant and order full meals for themselves and let the kids split a bean burrito. At some point the GM because suspicious that tools and equipment was missing. I was roped into being part of a sting.
Sunday night we signed off at 9pm. I was on the air at sign off. The Chief Engineer had been in early to "check everything was all right". I turned everything off, lights included, locked the door and left. Now, I had been instructed to move my car to an advantage point and see what happened. Within minutes, the Chief Engineer arrived and after a few minutes inside the building, left with a bundle. I told the GM about it the next morning and the Sheriff was called. At the engineer’s apartment, (they were out of the car) the Sheriff found a drill. I think it was a drill. Maybe it was a soldering iron. At least they caught him with the goods. He said he had just gotten the piece of equipment to use on some project at home. I suppose it was a good explanation, but you know how engineers lie……!
Why I was nominated to do the deed, but I was dispatched to fire the engineer. I went to his apartment and confronted him. His mousy wife, cowered to the side as he pleaded for his job. He needed the paycheck, his kids would starve, what would he do! What a sucker I was. I "loaned" him $20 and got the hell out of there.
Rusty worked at night. His presentation was aimed at the youth audience. Driving around I heard as many radios tuned to KOMA in Oklahoma City as to KYOR in Blythe. Every time that 4th country song rolled around the radios were switching as fast as possible. Of course, Rusty was a red head and that should have gotten me suspicious. He also had a mousy wife. But she was nice mousy and pretty mousy. She and Rusty were both from East Texas, like me, a long way from home. For some reason he seemed experienced and I looked to him for help, advice, and friendship. After only a month or two, his wife was pregnant and wanting to go back to Texas. In a short period the morning man/sales manager/ program director had left to be a general manager, the Chief Engineer had loaded up his family and headed to parts unknown, and Rusty had resigned to take his pregnant wife back home.
I had been a professional DJ for 3 months and I was the senior staff member and soon to be Program Director. Of course they made me PD. I was all that was left. (Except Earl L. Trout, III, who was a senior in High School and working part-time)
On my birthday, my parents had sent me a 1963 version of a boom box. It played cassette tapes, AM, FM (Not that there were any FM stations to play), Short Wave, and the marine band. That doesn’t mean a bunch of Marines were playing music about the shores of Tripoli. It means the radio would pick up ship to shore radios. Kind of a luxury in the middle of the desert in SoCal.
Rusty and wife faced a long, tedious drive across the Southern tier of the U.S. including a killing stretch in West Texas. These were the days when people traveled in the desert with canvas bags of water hanging from their car radiators. Both for emergency water for the car, if it over-heated, and the humans, if they were stranded.
The desert is more desolate then most realize. Especially a young guy from the shores of Gitchi Goomi. While I was in Blythe, the remains of a small airplane crash (with the mummified body of the pilot still strapped in place) were found. The pilot and plane had gone missing 7 years before. They were found less then 50 yards from a regularly traveled country road, less then 15 miles from the city limits.
Rusty’s wife was having morning sickness as the trip was about to begin. I felt I needed to do something to assuage the long and dangerous trip the faced in a car with no radio. I gave them my AM/FM/Short Wave/Marine Band/Tape Player radio to take with them. I also gave them the box it came in and addressed and stamped the box. When they got home, they put the radio in, slapped on some tape and dropped it at the post-office. That was 42 years ago. I never heard from them again.
Two things come to mind. They got a lot of use out of that radio or somewhere in the desert of West Texas, about 50 yards off a busy highway, there is a derelict car, a couple of empty canvas water bags, two mummified bodies and a really nice AMFM/Short Wave/Marine Band/Tape Player radio.
Coming in Chapter Two – The Engineer Poops