My Story - Chapter 26 – Open Up Those Golden Gates
My first weekend at K101 in San Francisco was a crazy and wonderful roller coaster ride of promise and redemption. When the word got out that Rob Sherwood was the new PD at the most expensive radio station EVER, there were many in the business who wondered where I had been for the last few years. To say I had been off the radar would be putting it mildly. Programming at KSTP was fine, but, remember, it was just an old AM station and to many an also-ran. When I left the Twin Cities for a go at management at WEBC it seemed like a logical career progression. I might as well have moved to an igloo in Canada. And how could I forget the year of exile after my ignominious departure from Duluth radio? Like an acid burn on my ego, my memory often replayed the humiliation of riding a Twin Cities transit bus and being ignored (read: snubbed) by a former KSTP intern.
A month or so after becoming PD in San Francisco, I walked along Market Street on a late Saturday afternoon in June. I felt like a character from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. I wasn't John Carter on Mars but I WAS Rob Sherwood in San Francisco and in many ways there wasn't much difference. As is frequently the case on lower Market or on any street in the financial district, the streets can be almost deserted on the week-ends. This Saturday, however, the Gay Pride Parade had left the broad sidewalks covered with papers and people-garbage. At the time, I was totally unaware of what event had caused the mess. I had a feeling that I really didn't belong. It was all a mistake. Deep inside I was like the African deep in the jungle who doesn't want his picture taken because it might take his soul. Already forming inside of me was the worry that K101 might take my soul.
When another PD named “Rob” got the K101 job the previous autumn, I drifted back into the day-to-day operation of KO93 in Modesto. After a few weeks of mourning, I was again comfortable with myself. Spring comes early in the Central Valley of California and I had a swimming pool. The pool-heater was beyond the grape-vine arbor and behind a utility shed. It looked like a jet engine and burned natural gas greedily. I couldn't wait for sunlight to warm the water and by the middle of March I often drifted aimlessly in chlorine water the temperature of chicken soup. I quickly developed the ability to read while floating. I was still traveling to San Francisco often. On one Saturday, I turned on the pool-heater, and left for the City with it pumping out the BTU-s. That night I stayed in San Francisco. Sometime in the early evening of Sunday, I was back home. The little girl who lived next door took care of Bozo while I was gone, making sure he had fresh water, food, and companionship. When I pulled into my garage Bozo was cavorting in bliss at my return before I even opened the car door. I went inside and it was another hour or so before I glanced out one of the back windows and saw the steam rising from my swimming pool. I didn't have a thermometer but I did have a big toe and it told me that I could swim or I could cook a couple of lobsters. It would be unwise to attempt to do both at the same time. When my gas bill arrived for the month, that little lapse cost me about $200.
The phone rang.
As usual, I have gotten ahead of my story. It was common for me to be in the pool in the mid-afternoon. I left the station early in the afternoon, and made a bee-line to the water. I had barely floated to pool-center when I was paddling shore-ward to answer the phone. Nine times out of ten, I could expect my caller to be my Modesto General Manager with some manufactured crisis. This phone call beat the odds. It was the General Manager of K101. It would be simple if the phone call had gone, “I made a terrible mistake when I didn't hire you last fall and I'm here to not only rectify that terrible mistake but to beg you to come work for us at double any imagined salary we never offered you!” Didn't happen. Something wasn't working for the new PD at K101. It was best described as a personality conflict and in desperation, the were calling me. They weren't offering me a job. What they wanted was an opinion.
Suddenly my emotional equanimity was shattered by this Damocletian Sword hanging over my dreams. Hope springs eternal. I was being given a second ride on the Merry-Go-Round; another chance at the golden ring.
They wanted me to listen to the station for a day and write a report. That was good. Wait a minute! That was bad! They wanted me to be...(HORRORS!)...a consultant. At KDWB, U100, and KSTP I had been deviled by consultants of one stripe or another. Even a barely adequate consultant can write one of those bull-shit reports. It is genetic and they spew that crap out like the meat coming out of a sausage machine. There were consultants in my past and there would be consultants in my future. The only difference between a consultant and a viper is that a viper's fangs retract. What was I do do? Tell Fritz, the K101 GM, “forget it?” Of course not. If they wanted a report I have to swallow hard and give them one. It went down my throat like broken glass. Once again the ego-monster took over and not only would I write a report but I'd shove it up their current PD's ass if it would get me to San Francisco. I did not care that I was putting myself in the way of some frumious Bandersnatch, and as is often the case, be careful what you wish for because your wish may be granted.
At some point I drove to the city, yellow legal-pad and pens handy, found a parking place in Golden Gate Park, reclined the seat and spent the day listening to K101. I took a day off from KO93 so I could get to the city in time to listen to the morning show (Ken Copper), as well as the rest of the crew. The only other DJ I remember listening to on that day was Hoyt Smith. I can't remember if he was the night guy filling in mid-days, or the mid-day guy filling in at night. I listened to the direct competition as well and while I was at it, caught Dr. Don Rose on KFRC. While I listened I wrote my report trying not to make it sound uber-critical. The next day, I typed it and dropped it in the mail. Three days later I was hired.
When you are the GM of a station in the number 5 market, you don't worry too much about a station in the number ...who knows....market. Once they decided I was their guy, they wanted me yesterday. After my morning show on Friday, I hopped on the train to the city and met with the K101 gang for lunch. That morning, they had fired Rob Sisco. (I am sure that was his name. He was a nice guy and I've googled trying to find out about him but so far no luck.) After lunch we went to the station and took care of the details. I was casually introduced to the on-duty staff and got a re-tour of the station. It was a strange tour because I conducted it myself. In a way that was nice because I quickly got the sense that I could just go anywhere. I felt a little like a janitor in a whore house. Come to think of it, the K101 facility had much in common with a whore house.
The building itself was like a dream. The KSTP TV/AM/FM/ETC studios on University Avenue in Minneapolis had a sort of charm. On one had there was the remaining art-deco radio station chic' left over from the 1940s. On the other hand was a bunker building philosophy that meant third floor sales cubicles were made with cinder blocks and when it came time to change the desk arrangements you rented a jack hammer. WEBC had lost the mystic I remembered from my 1962 visit with Don Rose when the station was up from Superior Street on 4th Avenue West in Duluth. By the time I got there, the offices and studio were in an old Mom & Pop grocery store or drug store half way up the hill on 9th. Inside the epitome of style featured those four by eight wooden panels so popular in the 70s. The studios were archaic and the offices big on artificial ficus trees. When I got back into radio, I tried to create a little broadcasting oasis. A half block from the KO93 studios outside of Modesto they could have shot the crop duster scene from North By Northwest...flat as a novice nun and surrounded by acres of dusty crops.
K101 in San Francisco was a broadcasting Nirvana. The offices and studios were located on the eastern edge of the Financial District, a two or three block walk from North Beach or China Town in a stand-alone building built before the 1912 earthquake as the Columbia Savings Bank. The location was right where Montgomery, Washington, and Columbus meet. To make it even better, just across the street was the iconic Transamerica Building you might think of as the pyramid building. On the negative side, there wasn't any parking. The station had an arrangement with a garage a block or so up Columbus but if you parked a car there, you paid for it. I may be dwelling on the station location, but after a career of being out in the country or tucked away in make-do facilities, I'll have to admit I loved the facility more than I loved the job. No doubt.
It was a corner building and the front door aimed directly toward that corner. A few non-compliant American's With Disabilities Act steps and through an impressive and very heavy brass and glass double door and you were in the lobby. The previous owner, Jame Gabbert, had a certain San Francisco sensibility and because of it, the lobby looked like a set from La Cage Aux Folles. The ceiling must have been 20 feet high and the wall opposite the windows was covered with gold-veined mirrors. Various amounts of flocked wallpaper and guilt and a bright red carpet added to the ambiance. A gap in the wall led to the sales offices on one side, the sales manager's office on the other side and a wide and very red carpeted staircase going up to the next floor. On the second floor a center area, subtly lighted by hidden fixtures, was surrounded by the promotion office to the left, a staff area-coffee machine just beyond that, and the main bookkeeping office, traffic department and the executive offices to the right. The executive suite had a secretarial area in the center with the GM's office to the right, another office to the left, and a conference room in the middle. Behind the staircase were doors leading the the music director's office, the public affair director's office and straight ahead the program director's office. The PD's office was tucked above the lobby with a wall of windows. The round-topped windows swung open and had a great view of Montgomery Street. The walls were natural brick and during dozens of minor earthquakes would squeak and squeal as they rubbed and gnawed against each other.
Another staircase led to the third floor and the studios and engineering room. Trust me. I'll get to them in the next chapter. In the basement was a complete printing department capable of virtually any project we could devise including easily passable twenty dollar bills.
I spent the afternoon wandering around the building, snooping in corners and trading strange looks with the people I encountered. I felt like Scrooge McDuck diving into piles of money. I wanted to revel in every mirror and piece of flocked wallpaper. I wanted to lie on the carpet and roll around like a dog with an itch. In all the time I spent at K101, the best days were the first three. The rest were like a long ride down Lombard with brakes that sometimes worked and sometimes did not. After being officially hired over lunch at Washington Square Grill, The GM, the corporate PD, and I went back to K101 at 700 Montgomery Street together. The GM went back to work and the corporate PD disappeared into the executive suite.
The first time I met with Fritz at the WaBag the chief engineer joined us for lunch. The second time I met with Fritz we were eating with the corporate program director. That, my friends, is another word for...consultant. The format K101 was following was HIS format. When I wrote MY report I committed a grievous sin. I was a consultant criticizing a consultant. If there had been an interested-party vote, I wouldn't have been hired. In retrospect, not only had Bill Johnson, my uber-salesman General Manager in Modesto done a fantastic job of selling me to Fritz, he did a similar number on the corporate head of Charter Broadcasting. When the vote was taken, it was 3-1. CEO,GM, (and Bill) voted for me and the corporate PD voted “non”. I use the French word for no because the corporate program director drove a Citroen, one of the ugliest cars ever produced. An hour or so later I went looking for my next-in-line-boss, and found the corporate director of programming had left for San Diego. Without saying goodbye. Ahem. Citroen? Sometimes we should pay attention to seemingly unconnected omens.
The original plan was to connect with Don Bleu and drive to his home in Walnut Creek. TDB was working at KYUU – FM doing afternoon drive at the time. The station and call-letters are gone now, but I will never forget their studios on Polk Street. They were on the second floor. On the first floor was Hard On Leathers. Only in San Francisco. The plans changed when I was invited to dinner by the GM. I went. After dinner, Fritz headed home to Sausalito and I checked into the Chinatown Holiday Inn, up a block from the station. The hotel occupied the exact spot where Ironside's office was before they tore that building down. It would have been more fun to have dinner with Raymond Burr than my GM, but what are you going to do.
At the hotel, I plopped on the bed and did some thinking. The music wasn't mine so I didn't get to do the toss out the play-list thing new program directors usually get to do. The clock wasn't my creation so I didn't get to make pages of pie-chart programming schedules deciding where commercials went, where music went, where news went, and where promos went. I didn't even get to get some new 4 x 5 cards and write some new liners. What my San Diego leader expected me to do was be the Captain of the ship for the Admiral in Southern California. You know, THAT wasn't going to work. It isn't in my nature. I've told you the story of the show (theatrical) I was doing where one of the dancers told me he was tired because he had been at 'dance class' that morning. I wondered out loud why he didn't get enough dancing in the show 8 times a week. He said, “Hey. I'm a dancer. It's what I do. I dance.” Well, I stir up shit. It's what I do. I hadn't done a thing, except warm my desk chair, and I was already in trouble.
There was a lot of thinking to do. I had some staff problems at K101 and I had to deal with them. The previous PD had culled the staff of all the legends. Among those to go was Jim Lange of Dating Game fame. I was actually told he was still available if I wanted him back. I passed. I need someone in afternoon drive. I needed another mid-day personality. I needed someone at night. Mornings and all night were just fine. As I remember it now, my staff was a mess.
The jocks were picking their own music based on some arcane formula and I hated that. Since U100, I had preprogrammed all the music on every station and I wanted to do that at K101 too. No matter now good the intentions are, a DJ in control of his own music will make 'minor' adjustments to the system and eventually all control is lost. So, staff was number 1. Music pre-programming was number 2. The third item needing attention was image. That word you hear so often on Donal Trump's Celebrity Apprentice. Branding. K101 had had an image but it was the wrong image. The station identity was tied to the former owner, Jim Gabbert. It was the Jim Gabbert station or the station that Jim Gabbert sold. (The TV station Jim Gabbert bought with the proceeds from his K101 sale was the same. TV-20 and Jim Gabbert were interchangeable.) They bought a pre-packaged ad campaign the previous fall featuring live chimps acting human. The spot was great. Funny and entertaining. It was a total failure because everyone remembered the spot but few remembered what the chimps were advertising. We were known as the chimp commercial station. Most everyone had heard of K101. Not many knew what it was.
I still have the scrap of legal paper I doodled on that night. I wrote about air staff. I wrote about image. And I wrote the name of a song and underlined it with an angry pen three or four times. “A Lovers Concerto” by The Toys. San Francisco, there was a problem. (Another tedious reference to the Tom Hanks movie line) In my San Diego corporate PD's music system he had an interesting idea. Typically, radio stations have songs that repeat more often or less often, usually depending on how current they are, how theoretically popular they are, how they 'test'. At the time, an Adult Contemporary popular music station could expect to have a group of current hits played most often, another group played less often, but regularly, and a group of songs, once popular but ready to drop off the play-list. You might also have some new (debut) songs played in some particular fashion. I believed in day-parting, so there were some songs I would think fit best in different parts of the broadcast day. Generally, the oldies list would rotate through the broadcast week with the exception of day-parting. At K101, when I arrived, it was topsy-turvey. Instead of the currents (recent hits) being on a repetitive rotation, the oldies were repeating. I didn't know it yet, but The Toys were in the 'Hot Box'. It was playing twice a day! “How gentle is the rain?”
Should I have kept my mouth shut? Probably, if I zipped my lips I may have worked at K101 long enough for the French Citroen to grow on me.
The next morning Don Bleu's wife, Cathy, was doing something, so he brought the kids into the City. I threw my stuff in the back of his station wagon and we drove the block or so to the station and actually found a parking spot. Even though he was the 'competition', he was my friend and I was tickled as hell to give him the tour. Ironically, a couple of years later, he'd be working there. I had a standing Saturday appointment at the UCSF Medical Center and they dawdled while I ran in for an hour or so. Afterwards, we were looking for some place to eat and drove down the street to 19th, turned right towards Golden Gate park when TDB spotted The House of Piroski. It wasn't an impressive looking place but for some reason we stopped and discovered another bit of Heaven on earth. The dough was wrapped around various things. In some was meat and cheese. Others were filled with cheese and mushrooms. Still more with cabbage and stuff. And the most expensive with some of everything. They were filled and dropped in boiling oil to order. Don't think you know the Piroski or pirogi, or whatever because you've micro-waved one from the freezer department at Safeway. There is no comparison. It wasn't the last time I ate one of the “House's” Russian bowling balls.
I was the PD at K101 and I was STILL the PD at KO93. I was also the KO93 morning man and I had to get back to Modesto. The excitement of the last 48 hours needed to be tempered by a few Sunday hours floating in my pool before Monday arrived and I was back on the air doing six am to nine am from the little house on the prairie. Friday morning I rode the train to San Francisco and I was going back on the train. At the time, Amtrak from San Francisco to the Central Valley left from an old depot in West Oakland. In fact, all of the Amtrak trains left from that station. The Amtrak bus left from several places in San Francisco and in order to catch the last train of the day I had to grab the Amtrak bus from the Trans-Bay Terminal on Mission by 5:00PM.
We pulled into the passenger drop-off with 10 minutes to spare and I wrestled my bag out of the station wagon and with hardly a good-bye rushed toward the entry and escalator to the bus level. As I crossed that little plaza, Don Bleu stepped out of the drivers seat and stuck his head up over the car roof and yelled, “Hey! Isn't that the famous Program Director of K101, Roger Wood?”
Damn! That was a wonderful moment.
Coming in My Story Chapter 27 – Tested Friendships