My Story – Chapter 21 – The Strange Interrelatedness of Things.
At some point, exhaustion won the competition and I slept. Only a few hours earlier I had asked the ceiling, “What the hell am I doing here?” I was in Modesto because of networking gone wild! This was networking from hell. Names from my past including Deane Johnson, Walter Richey, Mike Sigelman, Don Bleu, all were part of weave and each of them contributed to the fabric that was KOSO. Comments dropped in a desultory fashion and acted on with a hubris and immediacy that was frightening. A couple of years later, when I was living and working in San Francisco, Mike Sigelman was visiting in California and Bill Johnson brought him to what San Franciscans refer to as “The City” for dinner. They were late. When almost an hour and a half later they finally arrived at my home on Hemway, a frustrated Mike Sigelman explained the reason. Bill, driving on Van Ness Avenue had come upon a slightly more serious than usual traffic accident. He then spent the next hour, first directing traffic and when the police arrived giving his eye-witness testimony. At one time in his life, Bill was an agent for the Treasury Department and once you carry a badge you never get it out of your blood.
While getting ready for the second day in California, I spent a horrifying hour listening to the KOSO morning show. In an earlier chapter I wrote about the engineer who pooped. Seventeen years later I was listening to someone on the air who sounded remarkably the same. (Later I met this morning show miscreant and he even looked like the engineer-who-pooped. More proof that everyone has a doppelganger or iin this case...a poopleganger) Before leaving Minneapolis, I had invested in a note pad. After visiting the studios and listening to the morning show, I quit taking notes. There was only one note to write: Change Everything!
Following the directions I got on the phone, I walked a few blocks to the tallest building in Modesto. Sealy Towers. All six stories of it. My memory fails me at this point. I think we were on the fifth floor. I have a sense of there being something above us. The offices weren't much. I met the sales staff. I think there was a sales staff. There was a perky young blond, the one who gave me the walking instructions. Another woman ran the office and even though I have actually done some research, none of my sources can remember her name. I am not the only one with creeping dementia.
Where to start? I remember writing about the exhilarating feeling that comes with taking over a radio station's programming. A little like fathering a child without the love and tears or the sex. I felt like Nanny Stella on Nanny 911 when I told Bill and the hovering Sales Manager, Mark, that I wanted to spend the day taking notes and learning about the dynamics that made up Patterson, Modesto, and KOSO. Of course I didn't actually feel like Nanny Stella because at that time she was barely a teenager and kids had to find the naughty spot without her.
Without much originality, I can say that Bill was like a pig in shit. We were doing what he loved to do. Driving around, stopping for snacks, and living his fantasies of major market radio. We began with a late breakfast at a restaurant a block from the station offices in Downtown Modesto. Bill drove. A block was much too far to walk. I began to understand our sales manager at that breakfast. Working with Bill, he had developed a permanent petulance. The night before he was bothered by ice cream and this morning he was bothered because his scrambled eggs were too moist. Fortunately, he had work to do and Bill and I set out on another day of adventure without him. The Caprice had a good radio and for the next few hours, as Bill drove aimlessly around Modesto, I listened to the competition, got a lay of the land, saw things in the daylight. It wasn't as bad as I imagined the night before. When you leave Minnesota at the beginning of winter, palm trees and warm breezes cover a multitude of defects.
If it weren't for Gallo Wine, American Graffiti, and Scott Peterson, you probably would never have heard of Modesto. Bill drove us by the Gallo Winery as part of my tour. The first time I saw Gallo it didn't match with my idea of a winery. It actually looked for like a paint factory. What can I say about the movie American Graffiti and Modesto. It wasn't long before I learned that too much of Modesto's identity was tied up in that movie and the memories of George Lucas. Even though the movie was actually filmed somewhere else, the 'original' locations of the drive-in restaurant, the 'Wolfman' radio station, and the streets where the cruising took place, still existed. I got a chance to see it all. I mention the murderer Scott Peterson but his connection to Modesto was far in the future. In 1979 he was a kid in San Diego needing a visit from Nanny Stella and a LOT of time on the naughty spot. There was a lot to absorb and not much time. Christmas was looming, so I figured I had about two weeks to figure out “Modesto-Ish”, tell them what to do and get the hell out of Dodge.
A little more than two hours after the soggy egg breakfast, Bill was ready to eat again and I got another lesson in dealing with Bill. I told him I was still full and not particularly hungry. That didn't matter. When Bill wanted something, he became obsessed until he got his way. Three days before he had decided that I should come to Modesto and help with programming. The night before he decided we should all eat ice cream and if there was a God in heaven, we were bound and determined by Bill (not God) to eat some. On this early Tuesday afternoon, the radio station, Modesto, Patterson, the Cold War, the earth spinning on its axis, were an entire orchestra of second fiddles because Bill had decided it was time to have lunch.
If I talked about the competition, Bill talked the steak sandwich at a restaurant in Modesto on McHenry Avenue. If I asked for some information on the air-staff, Bill talked about the all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant on Coffee Avenue. When I mentioned I would like to see Patterson, Bill enthused about a small diner in Patterson that had a great hamburger. In Patterson. It was futile to resist. There was a thundering herd of hungry buffalo stampeding down upon me and I was trying to deflect them with a note from my mother. I gave in. Patterson and burgers it would be.
When George Lucas lived his memories, Modesto was a city of less than 50,000 people. California worked its magic and by the time I arrived the area population was approaching 300,000 and suffering both growing pains and an identity crisis. When the Central Pacific began laying their ribbons of steel down the valley floor, they reached the area where Modesto is now and stopped. For a while beginning in 1870, Modesto was the end of the line with twenty five buildings newly built or recently moved there. The original town was too far from the tracks so the residents just moved the town. Legend has it the new town was to be named after one of the rail executives, William Ralston. He declined the honor and a Spanish speaking worker said that William Ralston was 'muy modesto'. Very modest. Ergo! I wonder if that story is true? It could have also been named after the sanitary napkin.
Now, that I had agreed to Bill's lunch plans, his equanimity returned. In the gray light of what became a misty rainy day, we left Modesto. I had spent a few hours touring a city of contrasts. There were beautiful old houses surrounded by stately trees and ghetto ugly ranch houses surrounded by cars without wheels. Mixed in were a wonderful style of house called a California bungalow and blocks of middle-class ranches. Every other block was a strip mall and the franchise gods had made sure that every fast food and restaurant brand was represented. Like all of California, there were cars everywhere. And no rust. And no snow. And then there was Patterson. Miles later and after passing acres and acres of farmland and we arrived. What a quaint little place, I thought. In the center of town, the Del Puerto Hotel looking like a throw-back to another age, reigned on what was the main traffic circle. I am not sure what the circle was called, but we referred to it as El Circulo. The Spanish speakers must get muy pissed off when Anglos treat their language so loosely. The person who planned this town must have considered himself a latter day Pierre-Charles L'Enfant. He designed Patterson using the Washington, D.C. model of streets radiating from traffic circles. I found it all very confusing. Six months later, stinking drunk I would get lost trying to find my way on foot from one circle to another. Fortunately, the delay gave me time to sober up a bit before getting behind the wheel.
Along with the hotel on El Circulo was the little restaurant Bill had discovered. First things first. We ate. Not for the last time, the food didn't match the reputation. The hamburgers were made from frozen discs of meat and the crinkle-cut French fries, straight out of the Ore-Ida bag. I found out later they DID make an awesome breakfast and had 400-500 of those breakfasts during the next year. After eating and being thoroughly embarrassed by Bill as he introduced me to staff and customers, we left. It wasn't raining any more and the temperature was in the 60's, a heat-wave compared to Minnesota. I stood outside the tiny eatery for a moment; the mountains to the west, miles of flat farmland to the east, dozens of impossibly tall palm trees along every street and every circulo, and felt contentment. There was so much to do. The day was almost shot. And yet, I was content. This was weird.
There was still one more item on the agenda. Back at the studios at Carpenter & West Main, the on-air staff was waiting to me me. We drove along a road lined with hundreds of Palm Trees. Logically, we were on Las Palmas Drive. We crossed the ubiquitous San Joaquin River where La Palmas Drive became West Main. To make it easy on you, imagine the KOSO studios were in the middle of a route from Modesto to Patterson. The night before we arrived from the Modesto direction. This time we arrived from the Patterson direction. No matter what direction we came from there was no improvement in the destination.
Inside the station, every chair had been commandeered and moved to the living room. As I remember there was Angie, the morning guy. (He was such a throwback to the DJ/engineer from Blythe, I naturally checked the couch to see if he had pooped) The DJ I had terrorized the night before was there. Mark Douglas wasn't quite as nervous. When we met, I didn't bite. Vince Garcia, a local Central Valley young guy, was doing nights and Kenny Roberts worked in the afternoon. Also present was a woman who worked part-time doing morning news. What looked like a chubby teen-ager turned out to be the Chief Engineer and that was it. I think. Wait. Bill Johnson was there and the Sales Manager had also driven out to hear what the oracle had to say. If there were more, I have forgotten them.
During the meeting I spent some time trying to learn a little about the guys. Mark and Vince were just getting started although they both had a little local experience. Vince was still living at home in a small city toward the Bay Area. I forget where Mark was living but I don't think he was local. I did learn that he had recently fallen asleep at the wheel and wiped out a couple of nut trees. To listen to Angie he had extensive experience in the Baltimore, Maryland area, but if his morning show was any indication, that experience wasn't in radio. Angie had been driving down Interstate 5 a few weeks before and hearing the signal and station ID had pulled off the road at Patterson looking for work. He eventually found the actual offices 25 miles away in Modesto and talked Bill into giving him a job. He was living back in Patterson at the Del Puerto Hotel. Kenny was the only real talent. In a way he was also the only regular guy. He had a wife and couple of sons. Except for one venture out-of-state, he'd worked around the area for several years. He was, by far, the most professional member of the air-staff. The meeting was actually quite light-hearted. I didn't see any reason to pile any more Bill Johnson angst on them. Rather than memos and staff meetings and new formats, and rules, I decided that I'd spend some time with them individually. I seriously wanted their input. There was a lot of input to be put in.
It was dark again when we left the studios and drove that long flat road into Modesto. Once again I marked the mileage with a melange of farm odors. Back at main offices in Sealy Towers, I spent a few moments chatting before announcing it was time for a little afternoon libation. This was not the drinking crowd I was used to and I didn't get any takers. Finally, the offer of a free soda and snacks lured one of the salesmen, Bill and Mark, and one of the women They weren't used to this. We dropped into the bar on the main level and while I tossed back a couple, the rest munched on popcorn and drank sodas. I was on overload. I needed to drink an entire bottle. By six, the party was over. Even Bill had reached the end and I was brought back to the Best Western and left on my own.
I spent the next hour making lists.
List Number One: What is wrong!
List Number Two: What can be done, before Christmas, to fix it.
Later that night, I composed a couple of mental lists involving personal things like what is the most painless way to commit suicide. And, if I can't find one...how should I spend the time allotted to me.
By eight o'clock I was bored with lists and needed more food. I knew there was nothing in the direction of the station offices, so I ventured in the opposite direction following the endless stream of cars. I was the only one on the sidewalk. Except in San Francisco, walking is NOT a California sport. After a few blocks, and actually sweating slightly in the humid air, I saw the sign of Der Wienerschnitzel. There was a D.W. in Crystal, a suburb of Minneapolis so this wasn't a 'California Experience.' I had to settle for wieners to go. Back at the motel, I ate my luke-warm hot dogs and fries, watched TV and fell fast asleep before 9:30.
On Wednesday I walked to the station early and actually had to wait for someone to show up and unlock the door. I carried the leather briefcase some record promotion guy gave me when I was at KSTP. Back when I was somebody. Denny Carpenter, the assistant at AM 1500 was miffed when I glommed onto that bit of payola (or briefola....or caseola). I continued to use it battered, scuffed, and scarred for the rest of my broadcast career. After 42 hours in California, I had a plan. An agenda. In the time before I returned home for Christmas and the rest of my life I was going to make sure that Chuck Morgan's were not the only fingerprints left on KOSO.
Here were the recommendations.
When Bill finally arrived, crisp and starched and smelling of shaving soap and cigarettes, I sat in his office and outlined my plan. I reminded him that I was leaving before Christmas. To say the 'starch' went out of him is stretching the simile. Bill just didn't want to hear about my departure. I still didn't get it. Remember the side trip to the Carnation Restaurant? Remember the hamburger lunch in Patterson? Remember the midnight ride to the studios? I may have arrived at the Sealy Tower office that morning with a leather briefcase full of MY agenda, but Bill had an agenda of his own. I didn't know it yet, but as far as Bill was concerned, I was it. During these early moments working with Bill, every mention of when I would wrap up my visit and return to Minnesota and my life was met with a sour expression and 'we'll talk about THAT later'. This was just the beginning of a full-court press that would make Modesto as much a part of MY STORY as KDWB or U100. Should I be surprised? This spider web in the middle of California had far reaching tendrils. Scott Burton turned me loose and Deane Johnson put be next to Don Bleu, Mike Sigelman, and Walter Richy and someone mentioned me to Bill Johnson who caught up with me when the L Brothers dropped me where I was working because Jack Nugent had a heart attack. Eventually, add Gary DeMaroney from the last days at U100 and Harold Greenberg, the GM from KDWB and the strange interrelatedness of it all is clear.
Sorry for the diversion. Back at KOSO, we had to deal with a budget. The new transmitter (already in the works) would cost about $30,000. The budget for everything else was about $100,000. For that budget, I have Deane Johnson to thank, but I'm getting ahead of my story. We were lucky to have that because if the big bosses had their way it would have been a fraction of that amount and spread over at least a year. Also, thanks to Deane, again, we were looking at some nice equipment. We got out the list of what was available and what it cost and what decisions had already been made and began putting things together. This was fun. Total fun. Bill was playing me. With every excited choice and decision I was being hooked like a trout in a stream. I was making the baby but planning to be elsewhere for the birth. By the time all the equipment was chosen we had about $4,000 dollars left. That money was a chimera because there were so many things needed besides equipment. Actually, we needed triple that amount. Just replacing the zip-wire would probably cost $2,000 alone.
Simultaneously with the technical needs of the station, I made some decisions as to programming and promotion. I learned something interesting about the competitive situation. The local AM giant, known as K-Five was going through the throes affecting all AM stations. The audience was deserting the sinking ship in droves. In the last ratings book, K-Five had lost almost half its audience. The audience had gone looking and the 'new' Top 40 FM, KHOP (FM104) had doubled their audience. They were still being beaten by K-Five but you know the writing was on that wall. Ironically, both these stations...the one going down on the slippery slope and the one feebly taking advantage of the FM-Stereo revolution were arrogant as hell.
Of course, there were a couple of successful country stations. That ship had sailed, thank god, and I didn't even have to consider a country format. It was obvious to me that rather than chasing after teens, the best format for KOSO would be a generous and liberal form of Adult Contemporary. At the time, I believed in day-parting and I figured that during the day KFIVE was too 'AM' and KHOP was too hard. There was a programming gap. Adult Contemporary. At night both of the stations chased teeny-boppers and I perceived an 18-24 programming opportunity. And there was one more surprising fact.
The San Francisco stations, as well as stations from Stockton and Sacramento had good signals over Modesto in the day and night and 57% of the audience listened to out-of-market radio! I was always a firm believer that people choose local unless something is wrong with it. When I was driving around in Blythe, early in my career, I was amazed at how many radios were tuned to KOMA in Oklahoma City. The format at my Blythe station was Top 40 with a twist. Every fourth song was country and every fourth song was the signal for the Blythe listeners to hit the KOMA button on their car radio. Something about Modesto radio was making more than half of the listeners hit the button.
At the very beginning of My Story, in the Prologue, I wrote about my own trip to Damascus when I figured out that my Green Bay radio show didn't sound the same as the shows from Chicago, Detroit, New York, Little Rock, Omaha, and Oklahoma City. Now, in Modesto, I was faced with the same thing. Modesto radio didn't sound like San Francisco radio. Or even like Sacramento radio. It sounded like Modesto radio and that meant it had a little bit of that “oh Modesto-Ish” about it. In Duluth, the L Brothers told me that I wasn't in major market radio anymore. (I felt like Dorothy having a chat with Toto) Modesto suffered from the same problem. The radio stations had convinced themselves that they weren't the same as major market radio and what they did was 'good enough for Modesto'. I fought this attitude for the rest of my career. As far as I was concerned, only the best was good enough. I wish more of my colleagues had bought into that belief.
Finally it was time to put together play-lists and programming clocks.
We had to dump KOSO. The name. The transmitter was on top of Mount Oso and that was clever, right? But Mount Oso was next to Patterson and we had to morph into a Modesto station. At U100 we buried our city of license (Richfield) in an early station ID. Burying KOSO Patterson wouldn't be difficult. The name-KOSO- was like an albatross hovering over the station and until we lost it we were screwed. I told Bill I thought we should change the name. A legal, FCC-sanctioned name change was out of the question. Much easier was something like U100 or AM1500 or Channel 63. KO93! Why hadn't anyone thought of it be fore me? As simple as that. Before springing it on Bill, I used a scissors and rubber cement to lift the K and O off of a sheet of stationery. I glued the letters next to the 9 and the 3 and just like that, our new logo. A week after arriving, the DJ's were saying KO93 first thing out of music and regularly referring to the station as Modesto's KO93. They weren't saying “O'clock” anymore and the music had direction and consistency.
Throughout it all, I was thinking of Christmas. I was absolutely going to be home for the Holidays. I didn't miss the weather back in Minnesota but Christmas is family and that is where it was. Even the Christmas lights on the palm trees couldn't put me in a California Christmas mood. What had begun as a let's-not-talk-about-it attitude, was now just begging. At every opportunity Bill cajoled and wheedled. There were no secret plans. Bill reluctantly allowed I might go back to Minnesota for the Holiday, but I HAD to come back. There was too much left undone. How could I just abandon the station before the job was finished? What else do you have to do? At least come back for a month or so. Give us six months. Okay! Just one year. Give us a year.
There was a problem. Bill was getting to me. Night after night in the motel I compiled mental lists of the pluses and minuses of KO93 and Modesto. There were lots of minuses. For over a year, radio had been my FORMER career and I had accepted that. Now it was sucking me back into the whirlpool. They weren't offering me much money. I hadn't been on the air in more than two years and at KO93 I'd have to do a shift. It wasn't major market radio. It was barely medium market radio. I was a long way from home. On the other hand, there were pluses. It was an adventure. It was steady work. Bill promised me perks and a company car. (Mixed in the decision process were some health issues I have chosen not to deal with in My Story but quite honestly, they didn't play a great part in my decision)
What kept me from boldly announcing my decision was my natural life-long irritation when someone told me what to do. Bill was his own worst enemy and the more he wheedled and whined, the more vague I got. Finally, he wore me down and I agreed to return after Christmas and stay through the spring. Six months. I gave him six months. It wasn't good enough. Now Bill needed constant reassurance. Several times a day he would grill me looking for proof that I, indeed, intended to return after Christmas. When he began calling me at the motel at night, singing that same song over and over, I got an advance look at the “Bad Bill”. Sometimes obsession is not a good thing.
Even though Bill wasn't convinced I was actually coming back, I did a couple of things that should have signaled my honest intentions. First, I talked to Gary DeMaroney on the phone. In the few days I had been in California, Gary had become jobless. The job at the disco station was history and he was looking for work. Without checking with Bill, I offered him the production director's job. Production and an air shift...what did he think? It didn't take this Wisconsin boy long to decide. He took the offer.
The other thing I did was rent someplace to live. I found a nice two bedroom duplex in north Modesto. It had cathedral ceilings, a huge fireplace, and a two car garage and they allowed pets. Remember, my sweet cat, Harve Tooky was waiting for me back in Minnesota. If I was going to spend six months in Modesto, it wasn't going to be at the Best Western.
Three days before Christmas I was due to fly to San Francisco and from San Francisco to Minnesota. I almost didn't make the flight. Since those first days of being chauffeured about by Bill, I had been driving the station/engineering truck. I was not used to driving a truck and luckily, had managed not to run over anyone. The night before I was due to leave, I was concerned about the horrible sounding microphone in the main studio. We had ordered two Electro-Voice RE20's but I wanted to replace that Sennheiser, now! Bill found a local music/guitar/band store that had an RE20. He arranged a trade and I only had to drive into Modesto and pick it up. Our engineer would install it and I could rest easy on my trip back home.
Central California is susceptible to something they call a Tule Fog. Tules are the reeds that grow next to sloughs and delta waterways and those same wetlands produce this incredibly dense fog. Certainly you have read of the huge chain-reaction highway accidents that plague the freeways in California. Fifty car Tule Fog accidents are not uncommon. After picking up the microphone I got back in the truck and following unfamiliar roads, tried to get back to recognizable territory and out to the studios. The fog was thick in the city and my headlights and the streetlights did little to clear the way. Fortunately, I stumbled on Carpenter Road and turned left. Out in the country, the fog thickened to pea soup comparisons and only the lack of twists and turns kept me on the road. I was moving at 10 or 15 miles an hour by the time I reached KO93 studios. I was not unfamiliar with fog. Duluth has some doozies. Driving from Cloquet to Duluth in my senior year in high school, the fog was so thick that in order to keep moving, a friend had walked along in front of the car. He could see the road and I could see him and in this manner we walked/drove a few miles until we began to move down the hill and underneath the fog. It was because of this experience and the false confidence it produced that an hour or so later I was ready to drive back to Modesto, Tule Fog or not.
Stranded at the station and hoping for the fog to lift were a DJ, the engineer and a salesman. Since I was bravely going to challenge the fog, they figured to follow me. Like my friend and I and our tandem assault on the fog up on the hill in Duluth, I would lead the way with three cars following my tail lights.
Now, several times I have mentioned the road out of Modesto to the studios of KO93. I have described at length the flatness and straightness of Carpenter Road. I was not totally accurate. About half-way to the station there was a very slight jog in the road. Going to the station, the road jogged – almost eased- to the left before straightening out. That meant that going into town, the road also jogged to the left. In the fog I forgot the jog and straightly and deliberately drove directly off the road and into a field of walnut or almond trees. Only luck prevented me from plowing into a tree and ending up dead and covered with nuts, or with a DJ, engineer, and salesman driving up my ass. A little chagrined, I reclaimed the road, and our little caravan continued into Modesto. My RE20 quest almost killed me.
The next morning, Bill and Mark drove me to the little airport. Bill wasn't in a great mood because he was convinced I was leaving forever. This was actually getting rather tedious. I promised to keep him informed on my itinerary and return arrival time, climbed on the puddle jumper and flew out of Modesto. By the time I changed planes in San Francisco my resolve to return was waning. A few hours later as the plane drifted on its landing pattern from the west into Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport (actually flying directly over the WDGY tower array) I wasn't convinced I would ever return to Modesto. I spent a night at my Loring Park apartment and the next day headed north for Christmas.
As happy as I was to be home, I was looking at my home with new eyes. The bare trees looked like mere sticks and the streets were dirty with winter grime. Compared to Las Palmas Drive, the streets of the Twin Cities were a sorry sight. There weren't any gentle breezes gentling my cheeks. My brown bathtub lost its panache. On Christmas Eve I called Bill and told him that if I was going to be in Modesto, I wanted ALL my stuff with me. That meant I wanted them to pay for a Ryder Moving Van and provide me with a station car while I was there. With only a bit of grumbling, Bill agreed and got his Christmas present.
I promised to arrive on January 1st. With the decision made, I was on the way to 21 years of profound change. It was like riding on a train. Was I going sixty miles per hour or was the train going sixty miles per hour and I was just sitting still. Either way, I enjoyed the ride.
Coming in Chapter 22 – California Here I Come!