Chapter 29 – Working Title
When months and even years go by between writing sessions on My Story, both good and bad intentions are forgotten. More than two years ago I wrote that Chapter 29 would be coming soon, entitled: What Have You Done For Me Lately? A year or so later I suggested a looming Chapter 29 would be called: There's A Train At The End of The Tunnel.
With a entirely different title, here, finally, is:
Chapter 29 – San Francisco – Gone But Not Forgotten
When you set about to dredge up memories you may find gold. If you're lucky. Along with the gold though, you are going to sift through a lot of dirt and chances are, a ton of whale shit. And so goes the part of My Story that includes K101 in San Francisco. The whales were eating well and their digestive tracts were functioning. But my time at K101 wasn't all whale excrement. I found some gold, as well.
San Francisco in the 80's was in the final moments of a golden age. Change was coming to what the locals refer to as The City. The Bohemian city of diverse and crazy neighborhoods was changing. The process can be called Manhattanization. Much of what was bad about New York City was being imported to San Francisco. What I had seen happen to radio was happening to an entire cultural experience. Of course change is constant. No matter what you do or where you are things are changing and you either adapt or you get out of the way. When the big changes came to contemporary radio, across the nation stations discovered hot clocks, much-more-music, Boss Radio, and Less-Talk-More-Rock. By the 80's you had programming that ranged from morning zoos to virtually automated everything else and I don't have to tell you what has happened in this new millennium. Radio is a whole different game and that's why old codgers invented phrases like The Golden Age.
In the late summer of 1981 we were preparing for the big autumn Arbitron. After a nice spring book I attribute to my predecessor and a summer book that was just unspectacular enough to allow me to wrest some of the programming power away from Al Casey, the national PD in San Diego, the ball was now in my court. In the years I spent in broadcasting, it seemed the results of the fall book would always arrive around Christmas. Countless Christmases had been ruined at KDWB, U100, and KSTP as I sat in one office or another waiting for the news. It didn't matter whether the eventual news was good or bad, the waiting was sheer torture. Often, I would pray the book was delayed so I could enjoy Christmas before the blade fell. Other times I would tie that sore tooth to the doorknob and hope for a surprise visitor. That period of was still months in the future at K101 and in the meantime we had some work to do.
Planning for this big ratings period was a heady experience. First of all, by KDWB, KSTP, U100, or KO93 standards, the 'book budget' was enormous. At the head of the spending list was money for our TV spot. Before I arrived, K101 had used a spot they bought from a syndication company that made generic radio commercials adaptable to any station. It was a good one. Chimpanzees dressed like humans and talking were the stars and the spot generated a lot of talk and hopefully new listeners. The executive suite at K101 and in San Diego liked the spots and there was pressure to continue the Chimp campaign. I argued that we were a different station with a new sound, new staff, new music and perhaps a new ad campaign would be nice. The GM, Fritz knew someone in the creative advertising world and soon we were meeting with what passes for Madison Avenue in San Francisco. Things were looking good because I was going to get my way. No more chimps. I prepared some goals I wanted to present to the advertising agency. (Sometimes they get so creative, the whole purpose for advertising is forgotten) I knew that my management would never go for advertising that featured the morning show. I also knew I didn't want the station identified by any particular contest and I wanted to feature our musical niche in the spot.
Paramount were several things I learned from someone smart about advertising a radio station whether on TV, Billboards, Bus Sides, or whatever. The spot has to aim at the people we want to listen, tell them what to do and why they should do it and make sure they know what station it is and where it can be found. Pithy is best and too much information is the kiss of death. At KSTP they were the pithiest. They spent a fortune on scads of billboards with a solid blue background and the words: 15 KSTP The Music Station. Nice to have the luxury. Just as an aside, once at KSTP we were sitting in the younger Hubbard's office discussing a coming advertising campaign. Just as we were discussing those ubiquitous blue billboards, the older Stanley Hubbard came into the room and suggested that maybe all those billboards were a waste of money. To research this opinion he had sat in his car at the intersection of Snelling Avenue and University Avenue in St. Paul. Looming over the busy crossroads was a huge paint lighted billboard trumpeting 15 KSTP The Music Station. Mr Hubbard said he sat there for 45 minutes watching the eyes of the people passing in cars and didn't see one person look at that billboard.
Back at K101, I wanted my advertising address the competition in San Francisco. You old timers will remember the players on radio in the 80's. Often there was one AM station that was the standard bearer for old-line radio and had been for years. (Remember this was before Reagan helped to get rid of the “Fairness Rule” and talk radio was a quite different thing) Of course, every major market also had the Top 40 (Contemporary) station still struggling on AM and the upstart FM Top 40's. Throw in a very successful album rock/underground FM station or two and the rest were imitators and also-rans. There was one format I have to mention. The Elevator Music Station.
K101 was an outgrowth of Top 40 radio. My concept had been to have DJ's that sounded like DJ's playing music that appealed to the listener (leaning female) over 25. Not oldies. Contemporary current hits. In direct competition for the oldest slice of those over 25's were stations playing what we called “Elevator Music”. Muzak on the radio. They worked hard to portray themselves as music you could listen to at work and by their very nature were the ultimate of less talk. There were actual companies providing covers of popular songs played by string orchestras. On any given hour you could hear The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and dozens of other rock icon songs given the 1001 Strings treatment and causing musical nausea across the country. ( Of course they evolved and some radical PD's eventually began adding cuts by Barbra Streisand and the like. Today these stations still exist playing the songs of the “60's, 70's, 80's, 90's and beyond”. They play from extremely limited and supposedly heavily researched) play lists and you can count on hearing Afternoon Delight 6 times a week in rotating day parts.
In San Francisco our elevator station was called KOIT. I believe it was KOIT. Named after the iconic Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco and not the drapery cleaners. While KOIT played Montovani and his Orchestra and their version of I Just Called To Say I Love You, I wanted our advertising to emphasize that we were playing the Stevie Wonder version of I Just Called To Say I Love You.
I was totally surprised when the creative geniuses at our advertising company suggested a 30 second animated spot. We aren't talking about computers here. This was real animation and I thought it would be expensive. I was right. The die was cast and animation it would be and as the creative process continued the excessive costs were kept in line by dumbing down our ideas rather than, perhaps, coming down to earth. Oh, I forgot one other important criteria I had emphasized for the fall book advertising campaign. It had to be San Francisco concentric. The chimps were hilarious but they used those same chimps in dozens of markets. There was nothing San Francisco about those apes. Everyone of a certain age must remember the dozens, maybe 100's of stations who hired this one actor (Not Leslie Nielsen but someone who sort of was like him) to pitch their station. He was very popular with the earlier elevator crowd.
We ended up with a clever spot that covered all the criteria; some better than others. Given another $100,000 dollars and today's computer animation it could have been a classic. Here's what it was:
Imagine a cartoon car trip starting south of the airport and working its way along highway 101 (Get it?) passing various obvious San Francisco sites (Candlestick Stadium, The South San Francisco rock pile, The City itself with the Bay Bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge and the Waldo Tunnel leading into Marin County. And on billboards along the way pictures of the artists we played showing simultaneously with audio snippets of their hits. We had three versions and each one had 4 different artists. The planning sessions with the animators in their funky studios on Folsom, south of Market, were a lot of fun. Throw in regular lunches at Hamburger Mary's with their shockingly pierced and tattooed waitresses (remember-the 80's) and eventually we had the final product in hand. It was all ours. An original. That fact alone made the money spent seem worthwhile.
We did contesting during the book as well. I really didn't want to be identified as the “Contest Station” so rather than one major all–encompassing contest, we had several consecutive ones and heavily promoted them in house. Each week-end had a theme and we took advantage of all the cross-promoting we could accommodate. How could we miss? Ken and I labored mightily in the morning, Bruce Vidal was as good a mid-day jock as anyone at any station anywhere could ever hope to have and the Original Chucker was a class act. The jocks at night were innocuous but competent. Hoyt Smith extended our drive time with grace and ease and late night and all night were quite worry free. Still, I wasn't looking forward to a Happy Christmas. I never had. When you are paranoid and insecure the glass will always be half-full. In the lowest periods the glass with be empty...and broken.
The book ended in late October and there was nothing to do but wait. Thanksgiving was in Walnut Creek. Except that someone at my friends Rick and Cathy's home barfed on the parquet floor after Thanksgiving dinner, the holiday passed with hardly a whimper. By early December we were planning our Christmas programming and as always I was preparing to do a K101 version of Ebeneezer Scrooge. I was sitting in my office twiddling my thumbs when Fritz came into the room and beckoned me to follow. It was midway through the second week of December and I had no idea what was happening or why I was being beckoned. Ah yes. Of course I assumed I was being fired. Always the optimist. The atmosphere in Fritz's office was like a balcony in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras without the beads and boobs. The sales manager was sitting at the desk and various others were hovering over him interspersing little gasps and loud cheers with silent anticipation. He was looking at the numbers! THE FALL BOOK! Two weeks before Christmas! We didn't have the actual book... just xerox copies of the pertinent pages the Sales Manager had glommed from somewhere. Take a deep breath, enjoy the moment, put away the wakizashi and live to love another day. It was a good book. By K101 standards it was a spectacular book. Eventually the calls came from San Diego with congratulations both real and begrudging. Life was good.
I know I got home late that evening and I know the next day on the morning show we were particularly giddy. Of the rest of the celebration I only remember what I will call....The Incident at Doros'. This restaurant was just down the block from the K101 building. It closed in 1991 but prior to that was one of the most elegant restaurants in San Francisco and the 'old man' (Old Man Doros, I presume) had his rules. ( I just Googled Doros and found someone on E-Bay selling a metal Doros ashtray for $25) At around 5 pm the executive suite guys and some of the sales crew had repaired to a booth at Doros to celebrate in the elegant Doros sort of way. They actually called and asked me to join them and for the first time in my life I walked through those elegant Doros I mean Doors. Without thinking (what was wrong with me?) I walked directly to the table unaware of the consternation that followed in my wake. My crime? I was in the estimable Doros without a coat! Without a tie! Horrors! Oh, the humanity!
Soon two or three waiters were huddling around with a tie I could borrow and several coats of various sizes to try on and don before the “old man” saw me. And shot me! Justifiably! On the spot. Once I was acceptably attired, the staff breathed a sigh of relief, the atmosphere lost its edge and I joined the par-tay. I still remember the several sales guys (and one sales gal) licking their chops and dreaming about all the money they were going to make. Just one more reason to hate those sales bastards. (Kidding) All I knew is that I had my reprieve, the next book didn't start until late January and my early Christmas gift meant Santa knew I'd been a good boy in 1981. After all, at Thanksgiving, I used my bare arm to keep the Thanksgiving barf from oozing off the parquet and onto the carpet. I was glad to make the sacrifice for my friends, Rick and Cathy. Later that same day I threw myself on a grenade.
The production of Scrooge went well, although the best of those many Christmas specials was yet to come. I got my Christmas shopping done by hiring a shopper to do the schlepping. She picked out wonderful gifts and those on my list were surprised at my cleverness. But most notable was my Christmas party. At some point, my basic paranoia kept me from a visit back to Minnesota. My California family, Rick, Cathy, Corey & Jenny were heading back to North Dakota for a family Christmas and I wasn't going with. You can only take that non-related Uncle thing so far. At some point, it occurred to me that I had a staff of people who for one reason or another would be spending one of those non-family Christmases. Christmas Eve was always my favorite day and I had the room, the inclination and a bunch non-Christians ready to celebrate. A good friend from the old days in the Twin Cities was working in Chicago and he decided to visit as well and before I knew it, my original intention to have a dozen or so over had become 25 plus and this was going to be spectacular. In keeping with half of my heritage, I was planning a San Francisco Swedish Christmas.
I love entertaining. Having the gang over. It seems like unplanned drop-ins were common in the 'old days' because I can remember it happening many times when I was a kid. There would be a knock on the door, a freezing bunch of exclaiming “Why hellos” followed by hearty and welcoming “Come on ins”. I wrote freezing because there seemed to be more of these sneak attack visits in the winter. This was years ago before internet porn and microwave popcorn when there was nothing to do. After the stamping of feet, the rubbing of hands together and the shedding of coats, everyone gathered in the kitchen for coffee. The proverbial Kaffeeklatch. Along with the coffee were some sweets and desserts. Varieties of meat and cheese along with home made rolls, jams, jellies, and herring and sylta. Remember, a lot of the visitors were Swedes. Over the next few moments mounds of food would appear from secret stashes and an hour or so later like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, the surprise visitors would head back to their aircraft carriers leaving behind mayhem and destruction.
So, being the host, having a party, offering piles of food, was part of my genetic make-up and the first time I had a place I was proud to invite strangers was while working at KSTP. I lived on the 16th floor of a building in Minneapolis, then called Cedars North. North because the original plan included a Cedars South. It was never built. I was only at KSTP for short of two years but I managed to squeeze in half a dozen parties. Amazingly 30 or 50 people would eat and drink at parties that lasted into the early next morning. Some of those stories have already been included in previous chapters. I think. I am too lazy to check the archives so if I haven't written about the boob cake, the Crisco can, the blizzard drive home, or the Groucho costume party, let me know and I'll ignore your email along with the others.
At KO93 we had some memorable impromptu parties and now with a bunch of radio station waifs with nothing to do in San Francisco on Christmas Eve, this one was going to be special. I had a plan. I wanted to have a 'family' sort of get together. I wasn't going to serve hard alcohol and I was going to try to keep things in line with the reason for the season. The holiday was just too important to me to ruin and Christmas Eve was the best part of my growing up Christmases. I am not sure if Vatican II changed things but the Catholics in our family had a meatless Christmas Eve dinner. At the time, Catholics didn't eat meat on Friday but also abstained on Christmas Eve and in our family at least, during Lent on Wednesday. Our traditional menu was a constant featuring boiled potatoes, lutefisk, white cream sauce, melted butter, brown beans (a Swedish version much like a kidney beans with a sweet & vinegary sauce), homemade Parker House rolls oozing butter and heaps of desserts. I ate it all. Enjoyed some of it. There was also potato sausage but most didn't eat it because it contained pork. There were also several most-delicious veal meat pies that were forbidden to everyone except the Lutherans. (My father and my Grandmother) For the sake of my grandmother I even ate a little lutefisk. I would put a quarter size piece of lutefisk on my plate, covered it in white sauce and butter and eat it in one gulp without chewing or tasting. It wasn't much different than having an oyster on the half shell which I tried once and was much like swallowing a snot.
I must mention that as my parent's grandchildren got older the meal got less Swedish and for that matter less Catholic. Someone got the idea that lobster would be a fine idea and the sacrifice of a 'fish' only meal went bye bye. The studied Catholics who read this will have to let me know if Lobster is acceptable in a meatless meal. It just seems like cheating to me and I have to wonder WWJD. Just like on Thanksgiving evening, was it really Kosher (to mix metaphors) to stuff yourself with a heaping turkey sandwich just minutes before midnight and the meatless Friday?
At the time, there was one Swedish grocery store/restaurant in San Francisco on Market just this side of Castro. They supplied the lutefisk, beans, current jelly, and anything else that seemed Svenska. And as the famous Swedish play-write Shakesbjorg wrote, “Yah, sure. Dar's da roob!” Lutefisk has come a long way. From the days when cod would be packed in a lye solution to rehydrate it (prior to re-hydration it looked like a white fireplace log). The butcher would have large barrels of re-hydrating lutefisk behind the meat counter and the cook would take these large slimey fillets home and soak them for days, changing the water often. The soaking removed the re-hydrating lye. Then the fish would be boiled until it took on the consistency of Jello. I am convinced that half the Swedes in Minnesota actually migrated to to the United States just to get away from the lutefisk but the pesky fish was not to be denied and soon followed. Just like the Asian Carp and the Sea Lamprey.
But time marches on and progress is inevitable. Just as Alfred Nobel fiddled with nitroglycerine some other Swede fiddled with lutefisk. Not only were butchers tired of the yearly fish-in-a-barrel invasion and the smell while cooking the delicacy was enough to gag a gopher. Someone enterprising came up with a pre-hydrated version, dotted with butter, salt and pepper and packed in an aluminum pan to be thawed, BAKED, and served. No rinsing, no lye, and much less stink. It may not have been an innovation of the Steve Jobs variety, still, it was an improvement and the result was something firmer and flakier and I am sure, quite unrecognizable to Ole Bull or Jenny Lind. And that's what I thought I was buying at the Swedish grocery on Market for Christmas in San Francisco, 1981. I thought I was buying the “new and improved” lutefisk.
My wonderful Grandmother passed away at the age of 84 in 1962. She left behind a large Sterling silver platter, very elegant in design. Along with several family heirlooms, the silver tray would take center stage on a buffet table to rival the wedding buffet when Sammy Davis Jr. married May Britt. As the party commenced the days of preparation paid off because there were mounds of standard party fair; dips and chips and cheeses and salads and sausages and meatballs (Swedish and BBQ) and sylta and breads and this and that. Even I was impressed and if someone from my past had dropped by for a surprise visit at that moment they would have said I was doing my ancestors proud. The lutefisk was in the oven and the Promotion Director was mulling wine at the stove. Everyone was keeping an eye on my dog Bozo who stared at the food constantly but never took even one bite. Unfortunately, the crowd of people made him nervous and he peed on the parquet floor in the entry. This time I didn't use my arm, but sopped it up with a quick mop and Bozo was exiled to the back staircase. Later when I went out there myself for some fresh air and a Kool Ultra Lite, he gave me a knowing look. He probably thought I was on the back stairs just like he was on the back stairs. For peeing on the parquet.
The cigarette finished, it was time to scare the folks with the presentation of the star menu item of the evening...the vaunted silver platter of Lutefisk. There were several of what today are pretentiously called “foodies” at the party and they were actually ready and willing to try it no matter what rumors they had heard or what their sense of smell was warning. I drained the fish and plopped it onto my Grandmother's sterling. Yah, sure. The silver immediately turned black. Ebony black. Black as Captain Kidd's beard. Black as a radio salesman's heart. Black as some famous hole in Calcutta. The lutefisk itself seemed to absorb the black and soon it looked like something suspiciously human, dead, and internal floating in ink. An octopus had attacked the cod and won. I found out later, that although the lutefisk came frozen in an aluminum pan, it needed to be rinsed. And rinsed. And rinsed. And rinsed some more. The lye had reacted with the silver and the tarnish in the scrolling and carving on this family treasure. Even the foodies passed on the lutefisk. No body ate any. That was a good thing because I am sure it was poisonous. Thank God for the mulled wine and the Little Oscars.
By the way. I am glad my Grandmother didn't live to find out her platter/tray wasn't Sterling, just sliver plated. I also hope there is no way in Heaven for her to find out that 5 or six years ago I finally gave the ruined platter to the Goodwill.
Before I knew it, we were preparing for the winter book and and things began to change. There were no changes in the staff. That was a good thing. Our music posture was where I thought it should be and our promotions were pithy. Honestly, as I've written before, I wish I had done something a little different with the morning show, but I was oblivious and Ken was happy as long as he and the morning newsman could get to the bar by 11am. We were finally in our new studios and the engineers were almost as good with the new equipment installation as they were with their booming cocaine sales. The station was making a ton of money and I went to Los Angeles on several sales trips to boast to ad buyers and give our side of the San Francisco story. I liked the trips because most times I got to ride back to San Francisco on the train. Just saying. Meanwhile, the National PD was st corporate headquarters in San Diego and his spin was getting more spin than my spin. Nothing is perfect. K101 was pretty good, but there were little leaks here and there and he certainly wasn't helping to plug them. It is a difficult lesson to learn; never underestimate the enemy. An even more difficult lesson is to learn that some of your fellow 'team' members are the enemy. February began and continued with a flurry of questioning memos from corporate headquarters. Every decision, every move, was sifted through a mesh looking for problems. I swear they were transcribing the morning show because almost daily the General Manager, Fritz, would call me into his office to ask if I really thought such and such was funny. Looming in March were dreaded focus groups to prove whatever point they were trying to make. (Actually a form of retaliation) And while all this swirled around us, we were planning the winter book.
In San Francisco, at the time, the spring and fall books were based on Arbitron diaries kept over a 4 consecutive week period. I know that many cities only had the two books, but larger markets often had a winter and summer book as well. Early on, I remember those ratings being based on a two week period but in San Francisco I think they were all four weeks. I don't remember. Over the years I've thought about this and had several discussions with some of the premier programmers of the time about the value and the placement of “book contests”. Even in the late 60's and early 70's at KDWB any significant contest would be run during the book. We've discussed this before but why have a contest? To attract new listeners. To keep current listeners. To increase the amount of time people listen. To encourage one day-part listener to listen to other day-parts. To emphasize to the listener what station to which they are actually listening. The question was whether it would be a good idea to start the contest BEFORE the actual diary keeping weeks to create a snowball rolling-down-the-hill effect. In theory we would have a rating crescendo peaking just as the ratings period ended. At K101, it was suggested we take it one step further. How about starting the major book contesting during the winter book and continuing it right through the gap into the spring book, thus killing two birds and achieving that snowball effect in two ratings periods.
Not a bad idea, but there are some problems. I have always thought that contests should be a bonus to the listener. Fun. Entertaining. Why do people watch the Wheel of Fortune or similar chance-based TV shows? I think there is a vicarious enjoyment watching (or hearing in the case of radio) other people win. The one thing I never wanted was for the station to be identified only by or mostly by its contest. KSTP had it right. They were THE MUSIC STATION. That said it all. The fact that there were more ingredients in the mix was a way to keep them listening. But when you say, we are the music station, you better be the music station. Getting the public to sample your product is one thing. Getting them to sample it after they were disappointed is another. It can be almost impossible. When I was at KDWB and KSTP was kicking our ass playing hours of non-stop music, we countered with a three times an hour three-in-a-row. KSTP The Music Station...the listener tunes in and hears....music. KDWB – And The Hits Just Keep On Coming...the listener tunes in and hears...commercials. Sorry sales departments. I am not naive about the bottom-line nature of business, but I am not the bottom-line-guy. I was a Programmer and we can have the chicken-or-the-egg argument at some other time.
Once again, in a planning session for our advertising I argued for spots that were call to action, identified our type of music, and identified us with the The City. This time, the TV spot for the radio station ended up wagging the dog. We didn't advertise the station as it was. We put together a commercial and changed the station to fit the commercial. Here's what it was: A cartoon slot machine...the pull and the spin.....instead of lemons, cherries and jackpot, the machine shows three Olivia Newton John's and you hear her music....another pull and three Chicago's and you hear some Chicago. And so on. And on the 4th spin....three in a row....every time...all the time...24 hours a day or we pay the first caller $25,000.
Yikes! And egad!
This WAS a contest totally taking control of the programming. Suddenly, every placement of spots, news, traffic-reports, and just general 'fun' was altered to accommodate Three-In-A-Row. Of course, the plan was....at certain carefully planned and hinted at times, we would on purpose play less than 3 songs in a row and give away the $25,000. I was trying to convince myself that this was a good idea. This is what happens when a committee designs a horse. They get a camel. I sensed that I was in a get-along-go-along situation and I wouldn't be doing myself any good fighting about it. Just like KDWB, Three-In-A-Row was greasing up my ass and French-car driving National PD, Al Casey, was going to drive his fucking Citroen right on in.
(For editorial purposes I've going to take a chapter break here. But don't panic. Chapter 30 is already written and will follow)
Coming in Chapter 30 - Scumbags, Receptionists and the Axe!