Chapter 12 – Around the world
Deane Johnson, Program Director, lured me to KDWB with flattery and perks. The flattery worked best. The perk, a trip around the world, was about to come due.
By autumn of 1970, the fires, strikes, and psych wards were behind me and it was time for me to collect on my perk. There were some catches. They only were giving me three weeks to make the offered trip around the world. Three weeks. I did a bit of investigating and it became clear that a trip around the world in three weeks would mean almost a week spent only on airplanes or in airports. Not a pretty picture. I was up a wonderful vacation, not an ordeal.
After thinking about it, I opted for a three week trip to Europe. I didn’t want to go alone so I took along an acquaintance and went. As trips go, it was good, but not great. New York for a day, Pan Am to Paris, a tourist until we left for Germany. The Hotel Traubel in Gringlingen outside of Stuttgart was sheer heaven. Food and goose down beyond any previous experience. What could be better? Rome, Madrid, the Prado, back to Paris and on to Copenhagen. On SAS to New York again and back to Minneapolis. In the years since, I have been to Europe again…and again…but never quite the same as that trip in September and October of 1970.
The best part. It didn’t cost me much. Of course, compared to a 'trip around the world”, it didn't cost KDWB much either. Deane Johnson and Company got off cheap.
Christmas that year meant another version of Ebenezer Scrooge, a ratings book, plans for our building remodel, a new car and dozens of school assembly appearances. As I relate the various events I remember from KDWB, my time-line may be off. Things happened but maybe it was in 1972, not 1971. On the other hand, maybe in 1973 and not in 72. One thing that happened in 1971 was a coup of sorts in the executive mansion. When I was hired, two people were NOT in my corner. The promotion director who screwed me out of a bunch of perks including that trip to Tahiti and the corporate attorney who tried to screw me out of the protection and guarantees of a signed and legal contract. In 1971 there were corporate shenanigans and when they were finished the corporate attorney was the CEO. It was one of my first experiences with people who knew nothing about radio, being in charge of radio. Bankers and lawyers running radio stations. It is why things are so creatively screwed up today.
Victor Armstrong, the CEO and Founder who hired me on Deane's recommendation, had a temper. Today, he would be sued, but in the 70’s he was the BOSS. Once, when KDWB made fruit baskets for advertising buyers to tout a good book, Victor went into a rage because the bananas were plastic. KDWB was “Top Banana” and the bananas were plastic! He threw them at the General Manager. I have this horrible memory of a man I liked being pelted with plastic bananas.
As I understand the story, here is how the coup took place. It seemed the corporate financial officer was terrified of Victor Armstrong’s rages. When the CFO asked Victor to sign-off on perfectly normal and understandable expenses, (electricity, heating oil, etc.) the financial officer caught the brunt of the anger. Rather than face this daily barrage of vitriol, he simply put any bill or potential tantrum-producing invoice into a drawer. Out of sight. Out of mind. Meanwhile, the station was producing profit on a prodigious level. Forty, fifty, sixty cents on the dollar and that money was going to the investors as fast as it came in. Meanwhile, nobody was paying the bills. Maybe it was the notice hung on the transmitter door, from the electric company saying the power was about to be shut off that prodded an investigation. Next thing you know, the station is in such debt it doesn’t look good. Step forward, the lawyer. Hum. The Board votes and the CFO is out. Victor, the CEO is out. For god’s sake, the company was ValJon; named after Victor’s kids, Valerie and Jon. It didn't matter, Victor was toast.
This may seem familiar to you. The lawyer takes over and the pocketbook snaps shut, our contests became picayune, the raises long in coming, the commercials endless and the competitiveness severely compromised. The seeds were sown in that palace coup for the soon to come overthrow of KDWB by KSTP, the birth of U100, the death of U100, and the agonizingly prolonged demise of WDGY. A funny story I heard. Years later, Victor Armstrong, Sam Sherwood, (no relation) and someone else, I can’t remember, were having lunch and the subject of that financial officer arose. Victor was free with four letter words and as Mame said, the seven-letter word that starts with a “B”. Sam Sherwood had a long history at KDWB as part of the golden age and eventually worked for Victor as GM. He left when he got tired of investigating the toilet paper usage and Victor was high on his shit list. He couldn’t help mentioning that “Jack”, the CFO, was doing all right. He had bought that “beautiful home on Lake Minnetonka” and was collecting “fine art.” Where he got the money to do it, was a mystery to everyone. Not to Victor. Aha! Now it becomes clear. Victor knew where the money came from. That blinky-blank-embezzling blankety-blink. When he saw the smiles and realized it was all a put-on, he stomped from the restaurant, back to Texas and out of My Story.
A new KDWB era was about to begin. The Doubleday Era.
Somehow, KDWB became part of the Doubleday Book Publishing conglomerate. Until the very moment I began typing this, I had forgotten all about Doubleday. What Doubleday meant to me was free access to the Doubleday Book Club and some great coffee-table books at Christmas. When Doubleday arrived, the soul of the station changed. Deane and Harold Greenberg were soon to be gone. The snippets of memory are all I have left of the next year or so. If we were looking at a sunset there wasn’t any red sky. No sailors delight for Channel 63. The horizon was dark and foreboding and soon the Huns would sweep in and destroy a legend.
When I got into radio, it was on the down-slope as a people business. Now, it is JUST a business. All the bullshit about 'team' and 'family' is a sorry facade of what used to be and SHOULD be a little corner of Show Business. And it takes “Show People” to do “Show Business”. When lawyers and bankers started calling the shots and making programming decisions, you knew the future of radio was going to be radically different. It is scary when you work for people with no sense of humor. None. I wonder if radio still attracts the demented? If it doesn’t there is “trouble…with a capital T”.
Through the years I have worked with some real characters. Because the resume, alcoholism, criminal record and personal hygiene could all be trumped by a great “air check”, radio stations attracted the slightly odd or absolutely batty like some great big nut case magnet. I hired an engineer in Duluth who thought the transmitter room was inches deep in blood. (I’ll get to that spooky story when I get to Duluth). When I got to KSTP, the owner was in his 80’s. He was a wonderful character and all that radio history he loved to share made for some great memories. Great stories. If the WEBC transmitter floor was deep in blood, the U100 floor was deep in sperm. There was an excess of testosterone at that station. All those stories are yet to come. (No pun intended) Radio was chock full of nuts. KDWB was no exception. The cast of characters would put a television reality-show to shame.
Charlie Brown. That’s a great name for a DJ. Right up there with Chuck Roast and all those Irish O’This and O’that’s. Anyway, Charlie Brown. I have no idea what he did on this show. I don't really know if he had any particular shtick. During the six years I was at Channel 63, I’m not sure I ever listened to him. I wasn’t awake for morning shows. Charlie Brown had a great voice. It was melodious, smooth as melted butter, but his act escapes me. A great name can make a great act unnecessary. As I write this, the history of radio includes the era of morning show shock jocks, morning show goof-balls, and morning show crazy crews. Charlie Brown was from the old school. WCCO Light. All about information, “Hey, how are you doing?,” “Go out there and make it a greeeaaaat day!”, and time and weather. WCCO was the icon that in some way or another every other station was trying to emulate. Once a listener told me that Charlie Brown was “so funny”. Duh! If his name had been Charlie Smith or Tommy Brown, he wouldn’t have been the least bit funny. When Charlie Brown and I worked at opposite ends of the KDWB clock, I thought of him as ancient. Being as immature as I was, EVERYONE was ancient. Obviously he wasn’t cooked yet, because he ended up a college president or something like that and his shady morning show past is a secret memory.
Some of the guys who worked mid-days at KDWB include Ron Block, Peter Huntington May…Hmmm. I’m thinking! The names aren’t coming to me. Ron Block worked at WEBC in Duluth and I listened to him while I was at high school. I had a friend whose nickname was Laaksonen, pronounced, lox and first name was Rob. When Ron Block said his name quickly it sound like he was saying Rob Lox. We were thrilled then and disappointed later when we figured out our error. A year or so later at the famous Brown Institute everyone was taking DJ names and Rob Lockes became mine. Thanks to Ron Block, Rob Lockes became Robben Locks and in 1966 almost became Robben Hood. A fate worse even than Chuck Roast, Patty Melt, or any of those Irish names mentioned earlier. There were more “Irish” DJ’s on American Radio than there were in Dublin. The manager and owner of WDUZ thought it would be a hoot to have their night DJ wear a green hat with a feather, call his listeners, the Merry Men, and refer obliquely to his “maid” Marian. Oh My Gawd! It took me only a moment to land upon a compromise. My career would have gone nowhere if I hadn’t persuaded them that Robben Hood should be Robb Sherwood. (You know, Sherwood Forest! Duh!) For a couple of years it was “Robb, Two B’s if you please”. Dropped that. To this day the majority of the people I know call me Rob. That’s fine and thank you Rob Lox…er…Ron Block. After listening to him in high school, I worked with him. That's the way it works sometimes.
My friend, Don Bleu. During the early 70’s Don Bleu was on his way to the success he both earned and deserved. I could start another web site with stories about him and his family. Most of my memories are like family memories. Things like baby-sitting his kids in San Francisco. Taking his kids to movies at the Castro Theater. Watching a knife fight with his kids at Jack in the Box. Going to the rodeo with his kids and worrying that Cory was going to win a pig. Taking his kids to the Riverbank, California historical museum. (They never forgave me) Eating a dinner that Cathy cooked. Eating a dinner that Cathy cooked. Eating a dinner that Cathy cooked. Eating a dinner that Cathy cooked. You get the picture don’t you? I ate a lot of dinners that Cathy cooked. In my top ten favorite cooks, Cathy ranks number 4. Except when she cooks a bland ham.
I have worked with heroes and mountebanks. I have worked with saints and sinners. I have worked with truly nice people and a whole shit-load of assholes. More than 90% of them, the relationship was a work relationship. Personal and impersonal. Friendly and standoffish. When writing about TDB as a part of my broadcasting experience, I get lost because it all becomes an extension of family. I hope they understand how much I love them all.
But it WAS pretty stupid of Don Bleu to end his show saying, “Hey Gene Leader…over the bridge, not into the bridge”. The WeeGee DJ (later of wrestling and hamburger fame) had crashed into a bridge so Don Bleu twitted him about it on the air. And every time I hear Rush Limbaugh say, “Hey, how’ryou!”…I think Don Blue should sue.
(A lot of poetry in that last sentence…eat shit Longfellow)
At some point, we lost our “underground” all night DJ, Tony Glover. I like to think I drove him away with constant repetitions of Donny Osmond, David Cassidy, and their brethren. A regular DJ took his place. Not regular in the Ex-Lax way, but, let’s say, traditional top-forty. Come to think about it, this was one anal DJ; and the source of some hilarious stories.
I’ve heard tales from other markets. One DJ told me about a permanent mark on his leg where he was kicked by said DJ. (A program director at the time) Another claimed the one we speak of tried to run him down with a car because he was breaking format. (Served the fucker right) I’ve gotten much mail about this “dude” and in every case they say…use the story, but don’t mention my name. Everyone seems to think they may be tracked down and horribly tortured and murdered.
I have my stories too.
The seven words you couldn't say on radio. Remember those? The George Carlin bit started it. It was based on some fact. I won’t mention them here but certainly one of them was FUCK. I don’t know if I was the first DJ in the Twin Cities to air a Fuck or the first DJ in the Twin Cities to say the Frankenheimer word On-The-Air Live, but I have to own up. I did both. Once accidentally and once when I was not in my right mind.
We were running a contest. One of the simple “book” contests where we made random calls, if the person knew what song we had just played, they won $6,300. There was a major problem with the contest. You couldn’t tape the call while the song was playing because they had to “know” the song that we had just played and we were still playing it. I don’t know why we didn’t have a delay system, but we didn’t. And most of the calls were to people who either weren’t listening, never listened, or wouldn’t listen if their life depended on it. Especially at night.
“Hi, this is Rob Sherwood at KDWB Channel 63 and if you can tell me the name of the song I just played, you win six thousand three hundred dollars!!”
What possessed me I do not know, but my caller answered by saying, “Fuck you Rob.” (Now is when I lost my mind) I answered, “Fuck you Rob is not right”. It was Puppy Love by Donny Osmond.
To this day I don’t know if the boss found out. Probably. It was a highpoint of the year memorialized by a cartoonist.
There was another fuck in my future. Country Joe McDonald. We were pretty hip and once in a while would play the album version of “Fixin’ to Die Rag”. They began with the famous “FISH” cheer. Give me an F. Give me an I, Give me an S. Give me an H. What’s that Spell? (FISH) What’s that spell? (FISH). Country Joe had been at Woodstock but the “FISH” cheer had become the “FUCK” cheer. Give me an F. Give me a U. Give me a C. etc.
I may have been high, but I wasn’t stupid. I cued past the cheer and started with the actual singing, totally forgetting they stop in the middle to exhort the audience to sing along louder and say, “…there are 300,000 of you fuckers out there…”.
This time, the boss found out. Oops. Enter the all night DJ who shall not be named. From the early days of KDWB they had a very smooth voice saying, “63 (pause) That’s easy to remember”. We were using it again in 1971 and the all night DJ did the following. Cued the tape past the “63…” part. Started the Woodstock Country Joe RIGHT from the beginning. Give me an F. Give me a U. Give me a C. Give me a K. What’s that spell? (FUCK) What’s that spell? (FUCK)
He played all four fucks and then after the last one, punched up the cued tape, which broadcast, “…that’s easy to remember.”
He got caught. Deane Johnson said he wasn’t really upset until the DJ got “cute”. Later, while doing the morning show with Ken Copper in San Francisco, a group program director our show, “inane”. In the central valley a group program director called my morning show puerile. In Seattle/Tacoma a group program director called my morning show misguided.
I may have been misguided, inane and puerile, but I have never been cute.
When Doubleday Publishing bought KDWB things began to change. KDWB was like a major market "ma and pa" radio station. Those of you who toil for the mega ownership groups will understand the not-so-subtle changes in store for Channel 63. At the top of the list was Chuck Buell. New Program Director. Forgotten were the slings and arrows, slights and ego injuries of my year at WDGY. The locked-down, tight as a drum format at WDGY made it easy to know what to do and when to do it. At KDWB, I got used to thinking for myself, making my own mistakes, and sometimes operating outside the box.
Deane Johnson was gone and Chuck Buell was going to put a stop to that.
For several years just before the holidays, a KDWB company Christmas Party tradition was a tape I would make to play on the big night. We would record the staff answers to benign questions like, "What's your favorite sausage?" and, "Where did you work before KDWB?" and "Describe the ugliest woman you've ever seen?" Then we would splice the tape with new questions to the recorded answers. The result was hilarious as people described the receptionist as "fat, with a huge wart on the end of her nose", and secretaries said about their boyfriend, "they preferred a foot long one to a regular one, but mostly just like the skin on kind". At some point in his career, Chuck Buell worked in Chicago. WLS in Chicago. If memory serves me right, Chuck came out of Nebraska Radio. (I've had a lot of trouble with people who came out of Nebraska Radio). WLS in Chicago. Certainly at that time, one of the most important stations in the country. Major, Major- Market. As a high school kid, I listened to Dick Biondi and Clark Weber. Those were the golden days at WLS and ten years later guys like Chuck Buell and others were pretenders on the throne. Chuck and his wife were kind of new at the Christmas Party when every question we asked had the answer… (Delivered in Chuck's mellifluous, deep voice) "WLS IN CHICAGO."
So Chuck, "Where were you born?" WLS IN CHICAGO. "Where did you meet your wife?" WLS IN CHICAGO "Where is the last place you had sex?" WLS IN CHICAGO.
This was not the funniest thing I have ever done. In fact, as a comedy bit it doesn't really rank in the top 100, but the staff roared and the Buells seethed. I hadn't made a friend. It wasn't long after Christmas that I learned the real meaning of the phrase: Hot Line. Was I getting all the Hot Line calls because the program director was from WLS IN CHICAGO or was I getting them because I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing? I have my suspicions. I leave the judgment to others. Did I get Hot Line calls? Did Rose Kennedy own a black dress? Sometimes four or five calls a night. "What was that?" "Why are you doing that?" "Do you understand the format?"
I'll admit, my ego was mighty large and I wasn't used to the dreaded Hot Line. I fought back. Remember Layla? Remember the bulk of the song is the piano solo. Chuck Buell had us fading out after the vocal. Every time we played the song, the phones would light up like a Christmas tree with complaints that we were cutting the song; ruining the song; leaving off the best part. To make the complaints hurt even more, the listeners were happy to tell us that WDGY and KSTP were playing the WHOLE song; unlike you bunch of fucking losers. In a staff meeting (meaning a meeting to tell us what we all were doing wrong) I brought up the Layla situation. You know why we were cutting the song off at the solo? I was told that many stations were cutting the song. In fact, that's what they were doing at WLS IN CHICAGO!
Eventually, one night after a half dozen Hot Line calls, I threatened to and did tear the phone off the wall and throw it on the PD's desk. At least I think I did. I had to pay for the phone. At least I think I did. If I didn't, I should have done.
Of course, while all this was happening KDWB wasn't operating in a vacuum. WDGY was still alive and kicking and KQRS was hip and on FM. And then there is KSTP.
Whenever I watch the Simpsons, Mr. Burns reminds me of Stanley Hubbard, Jr. Not really that old, but certainly ready to take advantage of any situation. His father, Stanley, Sr. was a legend in Twin Cities radio. Hell, he's a legend in radio period. The lists of broadcasting firsts at KSTP, at the hands and out of the mind of Stanley Hubbard, Sr. would fill a Steven King size novel. In three and a half years I would be working for the Hubbards, but at the moment they were the leopard in the tree. KDWB was the innocent antelope and KSTP was about to pounce.
No commercials. That was what was up the KSTP sleeve. And an unlikely sleeve it was too. In spite of their history, for at least a dozen years, KSTP had been WCCO light. WCCO was the 50,000-watt clear channel am powerhouse at 830. KSTP was the 50,000-watt directional "wanna be" at 1500. Steve Cannon was their star and even he didn't really make it until he switched to WCCO. If someone told me that KSTP would dump commercials for a few months, hire a bunch of first class DJ's and kick everybody's ass, I would have bet the farm it wasn't going to happen. I would have been farmless.
While Rome burned, Nero fiddled. When KDWB went into a power-dive, our PD didn't let up on the stick. They were playing a thousand songs in a row and we were "editing" Layla. And why were we butchering Derek and the Dominos? To make room for more commercials. We were loaded. During the early days of KSTP, while they played music non-stop, we were running at least 16 minutes of spots per hour and NEVER more than two songs in a row. And, on days when our log was light? We ran promos. Maybe our response would have been better if the competition had been KSTP IN CHICAGO.
Not all the blame goes to programming. For four years I was "Rob Sherwood", the screaming, laughing, sounding a little drunk, playing the hits, talkin' trash DJ. Did I change in face of the competition? The answer is …no. I DID do something. I kvetched, complained, and just about drove Don Bleu crazy. In the early days, he had to listen to my chemically induced complaints about everything and now in the latter days he had to endure more complaints as well as my competitive indignation. Why are we doing this, that, whatever, anything, etc.etc.etc. He did his job and weathered the storms and made a gazillion dollars. I spiraled into competitive depression and indifference.
Meanwhile, KSTP was not fighting fair. "In the next 134 minutes we'll play 133 minutes of music". Damn! KSTP raped us. We pulled down our own pants.
Our PD left for California.
Like a toboggan careening downhill, My Story is gathering its own momentum as I rush towards U100. The early, exciting and tumultuous days at KDWB were over now and it was like we were sliding down a rope looking for a knot. The cutting edge days were in the past. Gone were the incense, characters, and crazy contests.
Sometime in the early 70’s some radio stations (especially Top 40) stopped doing hourly news. We still had a weekly news commitment as part of our FCC pledge and we were getting by with no hourly news by doing a couple of solid news hours during the wee hours of the weekend. During my 10 months at WDGY we were doing 20-20 News. We did the news at twenty minutes after the hour and twenty minutes to the hour. It was considered clever programming to have a music sweep across the top of the hour when most radio stations carried a traditional newscast. Later, at KDWB, at a major management meeting to discuss the competition, they arrived at the startling stroke of programming genius; KDWB would play “three-in-a-row” at 20 after and 20 before when WDGY was playing their “20-20 News”. It was a good idea but soon WDGY dropped the news also and that was that.
Now, KSTP was kicking our ass and the programming geniuses foisted on us by Doubleday were rising to the competitive challenge by sticking their heads in the sand and hoping the big bad radio station would go away. I remember someone saying, “yeah, they’re doing great now with out any spots, but when they start running them the audience will be pissed and it will be all over for them.” Ever hear about whistling while walking through a cemetery to keep the ghosts away? Someone at KDWB was whistling as loud as they could and it wasn’t working.
Chuck Buell saw the writing on the wall and left for San Francisco. (As shabby as my treatment of his stint at KDWB has been in this memoir, in 1975 he actually gave my name to the program director at KFRC in San Francisco as a possible hire. Honestly, the job was never really offered to me, but then I didn’t give them any indication that I would take it if it had been. I like to think it was ALL my decision.)
With Chuck gone, a new program director was needed. I was so full of programming opinions that to my mind, I was the logical choice. There was a problem. Our morning man at the time had the same opinion. I can’t remember his name. He was most of the things I wasn’t. He was a brash, confident, self-promoting New Yorker. I was a shy, self-doubting, Stelazine and Tofranil taking Minnesotan. The General Manager at the time was a Doubleday drop. I think he was a nice guy. I can’t remember much about him. His name was Smith and he was as exciting as this name. He treated me okay.
He gave me my shot. I got to pitch for the job.
Have you ever wondered how radio got in the control of the corporate pinheads? Think about this. Some time in the 70’s the upper echelon of radio ownership and operation shifted from creators and innovators to bankers, lawyers, and MBA’s. So, here you are, a radio geek wanting to move into management. The guy you are competing with wears a tie and white shirt and talks like a used car salesman. You are wearing a record company t-shirt, your hair brushes your shoulders and you couldn’t sell a climax to a nymphomaniac convention. Guess who gets the job. Not me.
If my memory serves me right, the whole thing was a long shot. I knew it was a long shot. Psychotropic drugs may have dulled my mind, but I wasn’t exactly stupid. When the PD gig went to the fast talking morning man, there might have even been a bit of relief. The new PD wasn’t a happy winner. The mere fact I had the temerity to go after the same job put me high on his “New PD” shit list. During 1973 and the beginning of 1974, each event, each change, presaged my eventual departure from KDWB. The writing was on the wall and I wasn’t reading it. If I was on a slide out the door, the new PD was slathering on the grease.
The new PD had won…twenty-eight days. He basked in his PD glory for 28 days. During that 28 days, he burned up the phone lines with “Hot Line” calls, we had shouting matches in the production room and complaint and counter-complaint meetings with the GM. Twenty-eight days. How quickly victory can turn into defeat. How quickly defeat can turn into victory. For the first time in my career I heard uttered the dreaded word: consultant. My new PD and my GM were about to get consultants. In fact, they were about to get consulted out the door.
Nothing is as satisfying as taking over a radio station and putting your personal stamp on it. Hopefully, the programming decisions you make, when you move in and take over, are not based on personal likes and dislikes, but are based on what is best for the audience and radio station. It wasn’t until later, in 1980 when I went to Modesto, that I understood what it was like to be programming god. Of course, my personal stamp was on U100 and later on KSTP. Even at WEBC, I got to put into effect my programming ideas. It wasn't until late December of 1979, in California, I learned about programming slash and burn.
First, you tour the radio station with a supercilious smirk on your face, looking at the radio station slum about you, and looking at the people the way Citizen Marat looked at the King of France during the revolution. Next, you assure everyone that you are there to help and NO ONE need fear for their job. Then, you attack the play list, dumping the titles, you, in your infinite wisdom, know to be “poor researchers”.
There is an inherent power involved and it easily goes to the head. As Mel Brooks said in one of his movies, “It’s good to be the King”.
Which would you rather be? The consultant or the consulted?
Imagine you manage a radio station. From morning until night, you are trying to cover your ass. True success means you cover yourself in Teflon and make sure none of the shit sticks to you. If you are good at your job, you always have someone else to blame. You need someone to give you an alibi when failure looms. If you are this mythical GM or Group President, who would make a better “blame” target; the DJ you made PD or the buttoned down …here it comes…consultant.
As an example, in my hometown, the AM station I managed for six unfortunate months in 1978, dumped its format of local talk, Rush Limbaugh, Garage Logic out of the Twin Cities, and some pretty good numbers, for sports talk radio. I have to think that is a decision the GM is happy to blame on someone else. When I was in the Central Valley, the GM, hated my morning show, and in particular, hated my morning cook character, Betty. Each morning we visited our “cook” to find out what she was cooking us for breakfast along with some nutty chitchat. The GM suggested many times, he “didn’t think the Betty bit was working”. He turned to a consultant to back him up with suggestions of alternative morning show bits. There was a problem. The GM and the Consultant didn’t compare dance cards. Sitting in the GM’s office listening to the consultant drone on about potential morning show bits, I was surprised to hear the consultant suggest we should have a cook character who we could visit for the “Morning Crew’s Breakfast”. Hello! Hello! He must have forgotten where he heard that bit. In San Francisco, my morning show partner, Ken Copper used the word “scumbag”. The GM demanded to listen to the air-check tape and when he heard the tape of Ken using the offensive word, he switched off the tape machine, turned to me and asked, “Why is he still working here?” I do not believe it was moral indignation, coming as it was from someone who consumed cocaine like Michael Moore consumes gravy.
The management in Duluth, Modesto, and San Francisco were all doing the same thing. Covering their ass. If the problem comes from the local guy YOU put in charge, you’re in trouble. If the problem comes from the Consultants with the “Track Record” the trouble bounces off you and sticks to them.
The cast of characters that have tried and almost succeeded in changing radio from a “creative” medium to a “commercial” medium include sales based GM’s, National Program Directors, multi-station ownership conglomerates, and Consultants. There is a nexus among them. They have woven their web around radio and little good has come from it. There has been some good. Because of the change, I have been able to listen to Don Imus, Phil Hendrie, or Howard Stern in Duluth, Minnesota, San Francisco, California, or East BF, Idaho. Unfortunately, there are a host of very mediocre “acts” crowding out the good local shows and stifling the growth process that produced Don Imus, Phil Hendrie and Howard Stern.
By the way, take this as a warning. When anyone tells you, your job is safe because the consultants are just here to help, get your resume ready and make sure your long distance bill is current. You are about to go job hunting. Unless you are Don Bleu…everybody likes him.
Although for years I bounced my programming ideas and indignations off Don Bleu, when I didn’t get the programming job at KDWB I wasn't surprised and neither was he. But, I had thought about it. I dreamed about it. I had imagined how good it would be to be…The King.
In February or March of 1974 at KDWB, we began having corporate types “tour” the station. When this happens at your station its like the old sailor lament. “Red sky in the morning, sailor, take warning”. In this case, “Corporate in the halls, they’re going to kick you in the balls”. This was a lesson learned the hard way and it proved true as recently as that programming change at WEBC in Duluth that I already mentioned. I was listening to Brad Bennett (local guy) who was doing local talk from 5 to 6 pm. In an aside to his audience, he mentioned all the “corporate types” who were touring the station. I thought to myself, “Brad, you are history”. Less than a month later, it was announced, they were all out of a job because of the programming change. (Lew Latto, Brad Bennett, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity all ended up on another Duluth station that wisely changed format almost over night.)
When I was working in the central valley of California, our “corporate types” were close enough to be able to listen to my morning show every day. For that I must thank God. They liked the show (they should have…it was good and they were getting it cheap). THEY protected me from my GM who was as supportive as a jockstrap made out of Jell-O.
Back in 1974 at KDWB, the dismal state of competitive affairs was causing all this touring. There was concern at Doubleday. We didn’t know it then, but Doubleday corporate headquarters was massing the troops for the invasion. In short order, a new GM replaced the current GM. The new GM was one of those hallway tourists, Gary Stevens. I guess he worked in New York radio. He had some kind of a reputation and was certainly a hard-charger. He liked to think over the few years that he was a nemesis of mine, but aside from having to deal with some of his bullshit, he has been irrelevant. In 1974, though, he was about to have a major impact on my life and career.
There was no meeting of the staff to introduce us to the new management. Just, one day, one guy was in charge and the next minute someone new was in charge. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the Program Director, who got the job I coveted, met with Gary Stevens. Working 6PM - 10PM meant I missed the daytime politics. A couple of days later, Gary Stevens oozed into the control room during the first hour of my show. I felt like Steve McQueen confronting The Blob. He asked me, what my intentions were. What were my intentions! I was the fly and the spider had just asked me what MY intentions are. "Well, Gary, you big hairy arachnid, I am going to let you eat me".
When General Managers or Program Directors have these kinds of conversations with talent it is a facade. It means nothing. It means less than nothing. Years later in Modesto, as my career came to a close, the new owners told me how important I was to the team and at the same time placed ads in the trades for a new morning guy. At KDWB, after assurances and compliments, it was less than a week later the PD informed me they wanted to move me to 10PM - 2AM. Of course, it wasn't a choice. They had already hired a new DJ from Florida called...Walker…something. Dan Walker? Dick Walker? Something Walker! Imagine my hubris when I told Gary Stevens that I did not intend to work 10PM - 2AM on KDWB. He said think it over. I said I would not be working 10PM -2AM. He said we'd see. I said I did not intend to work 10PM - 2AM on KDWB. What I was saying, in effect, was if you change my shift, I am out of here. If Mr. Walker arrives before, let's say, two weeks, I won't work out the notice. I WILL NOT WORK 10PM to 2AM. Not for one shift, not for one minute, not for one second. Never! Not ever! For years, Gary Stevens voiced a strange animus towards me claiming I had abandoned KDWB without a proper notice. What a steaming pile of cow shit. I came to work and the PD had the new schedule posted. Mr. Walker was scheduled 6PM -10PM. My final day at KDWB was set in stone. Walker Something started April 1st. I said my goodbyes Saturday, March 30, 1974. A little more than a week since Gary had asked me about my intentions.
Now what? For one of the few times in my career I networked, and before the week was up, I was on the path to the most exciting two years of my entire career. But not yet. It would take 5 months to get from Channel 63 to Right On Super U!
I do not consider myself a schemer but there have been instances in my career when I schemed with the best of them. It came from a high school career of scheming how to avoid homework, how to avoid rule makers and how to avoid school all together. When I took a DJ job in Austin, Minnesota, I was scheming before I walked through the door. While in Blythe, California, our television signals came from Phoenix. They had an afternoon kid show called Wallace and Ladmo. I wanted so very much to do a Wallace and Ladmo TV show and the station in Austin was both radio AND TV. From the moment I heard about the station I figured I had to work there. Maybe I didn’t go there specifically to get on television, but I was closer to Wallace and Ladmo there than I was in Blythe.
When I got to Austin on Halloween night, I was a DJ and just a DJ and KMMT-TV down the hall seemed very remote, until I overheard a conversation between the sales manager and general manager. KMMT was running Heckle & Jeckle cartoons between 5pm and 5:30pm and the ratings for those British accented crows weren‘t good. They were discussing the possibility of putting the radio program director into a space suit, calling him Captain Atom, and giving him the 30 minutes. What? Captain Atom? How could they consider that when they had a Wallace and Ladmo wanna-be doing 9am to two? The next day I pitched the GM, Stan Stynicki, (also the weatherman) on a show. Uncle Rob’s Funny Company. Three days later, we auditioned in front of cameras with a makeshift set and studio audience. After a week of frantic preparation, we were on the air. The rest of that story I told you all earlier. My point is that there WAS just a bit of scheming going on.
When I went to Green Bay, I was replacing a “name & legend” named Bob Bandy. He was 30 and bald and I was young letting my freak flag fly. (See Crosby Stills & Nash) I wasn’t satisfied to do my show and let him do his. I schemed to destroy him. I analyzed everything he did and either tried to do it better or ridiculed him for doing it in the first place. It worked. To my shame, Bob Bandy was working in a music store a year later and I was dreaming of leaving Green Bay. Some bad Karma there, that may contribute to a next lifetime as a banana slug.
When Gary Stevens became the new General Manager at KDWB, everything changed. Perhaps, it needed to change. The ValJon people were gone. Dean Johnson left to end up with his own station in Oregon. Harold Greenberg was gone to an uncertain future in Santa Barbara, California. Walter Richey, who had taken over as the BIG boss during the coup that replaced Victor Armstrong, was buying radio stations here and there. Mike Sigalman was across town changing formats. Charlie Brown, Peter Huntington May, Ron Block…just memories. We had survived morning guys from California (he was good but the weather drove him away after 6 months), a certifiable all-night DJ, Chuck Buell, a newsman who carried guns and a newsman who dropped from the sky, a manic depressive night guy, play-lists from hell, hot-line phone calls, 16-18 minutes of spots per hour, and an attention to the bottom line that surpassed prudent economics and approached greed. We were bloody and bruised by KSTP. Actually it went beyond that. We were in cardiac fibrillation and someone needed to charge up the paddles. That first Saturday in April was the end for me. The day before I followed through on my refusal to even consider the swing evening shift, Gary Stevens introduced the new programming cheese to the staff. So much for the reign of the fast talker who got the job I coveted. Buzz Bennett. A name in 70’s radio that caused oohs and aah’s among the programming literati. Or illuminati. Was he REALLY a great PD? Like most of us, he had his moments, but if he were a genius, a student of radio programming who grows with the art, he would still be around today. At least into the 80’s and 90’s. I remember him sitting at the Program Director’s desk rolling a cigar in his fingers, saying the same phrase over and over. I also remember him walking through the parking lot of the Hudson House Restaurant, noticing an expensive sports car, and saying, “That went up my nose last year.” So much for KDWB.
If you think you can live on the past; if you think you can eat the “good old days”, you are going to be very skinny. KDWB had a great history and I was lucky to be part of it. Channel 63. Wow! I got to live my dream. I walked out the door in April of 1974 and drove for the last time out of the parking lot onto Radio Drive. I was never again in that building and the last time I drove on Radio Drive there was a strip mall. Of the couple of thousand days I spent at KDWB, I don't remember all that much. My memory is shallow. Since I started writing it has amazed me how often the readers have better memory than I do. The impassioned mail is often humbling. I was just a DJ. I was (and am) flawed. When I was 'Rob Sherwood', I was out of my shell, often recognized and adept at exploiting my notoriety. Everywhere I worked (with the exception of San Francisco and Tacoma/Seattle) I was easily recognized. In Modesto, California the constant recognition and the lack of privacy that went with it, become a blessing and a curse. In the Twin Cities, I visited High Schools, Junior High Schools, and Grade Schools. I spoke before organizations like the Kiwanis and Jaycees. There are many kids who graduated having seen me 6 times, in every grade from seventh to 12th. In 1972, I gave 173 presentations.
Many people I didn’t know considered themselves friends. I will take that as a compliment. It caused a few complications. In the early 70’s I got a phone call from Rapid City, North Dakota. Someone in had been arrested and listed me as a “friend”. The caller wanted to know if I was willing to post bail. The person in jail was a stranger to me.
Sometime in the early 70’s I got a phone call from a distraught woman. She had a right to be upset, because her brother had died.
I was on the air answering the request line when I got the call with what she called, “some bad news”. The night before, her brother (I will call him Dan) was working the graveyard shift and had gone to his car in the parking lot at three in the morning to warm it up and have a cigarette. He was found a while later, dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Dan’s sister was calling with the bad news. She also wanted to tell me about the funeral plans. I commiserated with her on her loss. Anyone would. There was a greater purpose in her call. In Dan’s sister’s words, “Considering you and Dan were such good friends, I know he would like you to be a pall-bearer.”
There was a problem. I didn’t know Dan. I may have met him at the State Fair, at a personal appearance, at some high school, but I really did not know him. I told the sister I was sorry for her loss and tried to explain that I really didn’t know Dan. My explanation fell on deaf ears and she let me know I was a lousy friend.
This would have been the point where I apologized, gave her my best wishes and hung up the phone. I didn’t. During the hurt silence from the woman, I came to several conclusions.
Dan was a son, a brother, a person AND a friend. Whether I knew him or not, he pretended, we were friends and had told this to his family and work. I had plenty of time. Continuing his deception was the right thing to do.
I told Dan’s sister I would be honored to be a pallbearer. Two days later, I did what a friend should do. At the wake, it became clear that the fantasy that Dan lived was no superficial thing. He had told many of his close friendship with Rob Sherwood. We had gone to movies, out to eat, and hung out regularly. All a part of his made-up friendship.
I HAD met Dan. There was a picture of the two of on his bedroom dresser. I had my arm around Dan’s shoulder, the picture snapped at some appearance.
If you have followed this endless ego trip, you know that uncertainty caused me many sleepless nights amid nagging self-doubt and raging insecurity. This time it would be different. Known only to me (I didn't even tell TDB) when I left KDWB there was already a bun in my broadcasting oven. I was talking to Mike Sigelman. Networking. He was now the manager of a long time middle-of-the-road station/changed to oldies. Oldies! Soon I would begin scheming again.
Coming in Chapter 13 – Jesus In The Lobby