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You’re Caller 9!

“Lucky caller nine! You’re a winner! Who doesn’t love to hear those words on their phone and radio?

Over the years, I’ve given away tens of thousands of dollars, trips all over the world, lots of records and concert tickets, opportunities to meet celebrities, and at least a couple of “brand new cars”!!

Radio contests have probably been around since, well, radio. I began my career as a radio DJ in 1964, but things really began in the early 60’s, when I won a copy of The Shoop Shoop Song by Betty Everett from San Jose station, KLIV. I remember my mom drove me to the station, which was on the outskirts of San Jose, to pick up a 45 RPM record, a top hits survey and a cheap ballpoint pen. The image of the radio station lobby, with my favorite DJ just a few feet away on the other side of the studio glass, is forever in my memory. The contest was called “Name it and Claim it”. You had to identify a song and be the first to call with the answer. We had a rotary wall phone in our house, so when the DJ said to get ready to win, I would dial the first 6 digits of the station’s number, and then dial the last when the song started. Radio contests were a way to belong – radio was cool, and if you won a prize, you were cool, too.

So after I graduated high school in 1963, I spent the summer in radio school, learning the tricks of the trade, and getting my FCC license in early 1964, and went to work at a Gilroy station, KPER. I was on from noon to 5:30 spinning records and telling corny jokes. Since I had been such a fan of winning contests, one day I decided to give away an album – the new Rolling Stones LP, to the first caller in. Nobody called!

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And over time I learned that it’s important to treat winners like winners. A while later, I was working in Texas at a country station and the contest was to be caller 9 and win a “six pack” of 45s. The PD would bundle these 45s – usually one hit with five losers. If you won, you would have to come to the station, in a suite at the local Holiday Inn, to pick it up. First day, a guy came in and said he’d won the day before. The PD was a bit of a jerk, and he just grabbed six-pack of records and threw them at the winner. It was a fun moment for a listener. They won a prize and came all the way to the station to pick it up. We should smile and thank them for listening, no? Yes! Being a contest winner gave me perspective that the PD didn’t have. After that, we made it a point to congratulate our winner/listener and say thanks.

What’s the craziest contest you ever experienced? For me it was at the same Texas station, where we made a deal with a local supermarket to give away $100 to the first one to make it to the store. Not a good idea, even in a small Texas town. First time, two cars raced to the store and into each other!       That was the end of that! No future contests involved driving like the cast of “Fast and Furious”.

Car giveaways have been a staple of radio contests, but they don’t always go so well. We gave away a new Chevy at one station, by giving keys to 50 qualifiers, and if your key started, you were the winner. We lined up all the qualifiers in the area in front of the station and each one would try a key. There were 100 qualifiers. Who won? A blind woman! Another time, in San Francisco, the station I was working for was giving away a new Pontiac GTO. But the winner didn’t like the car, and immediately began complaining loudly that he didn’t want it. Management decided to negotiate with the Pontiac dealer to give the guy what he wanted: a four-door sedan! That was a first for me: a winner who whined until he got what he wanted. If I had been responsible, I think I would have just given it to the next contestant.

DJ friends have been writing me about their favorite contests: Some are pretty crazy. Steve Garland tells of a Survivor contest, where 7 listeners/strangers had to live together for a week in a camper, while the song  “I’m Still Standing” played 24/7. They put the camper in the station parking lot and had cameras on it the whole time, while contestants were voted out one-by-one. The last Survivor standing received front row tickets to see Elton John in concert, and the camper! That’s a great contest!

At COOL 101.1 in Sacramento, John Sarquis (“Johnny B”) reminded me they had a contest every January called “Live Free For a Year”. The way I remember it, if you won, all your utility bills and rent/mortgage were paid for a year – could’ve been free gas too. Perfect timing, with Christmas bills coming due.
COOL 101 was a fun station and I was lucky enough to co-host mornings with two great partners. Thursday was comedy day, and an old pal of mine at the time, Bobby Slayton, (“The Pit Bull of Comedy”), was coming in, and I warned him that we were a “family” show, so no obscenity, please. Bobby is the consummate professional, always on time and always a team player. That morning I greeted Bobby at the door and as I shook his hand he said “So I can’t say f**k, huh?” I laughed and told him he maybe could say it once. He was a perfect guest, and he joined in our contests. We were giving away a big screen TV just in time to watch the Super Bowl, and Bobby volunteered to join us on a street corner in Sacramento to do the giveaway. We were having a great time that Friday, doing our show remotely with listeners driving by all morning. Bobby said, on air, that he’d moon the next car that honked its horn. I’ll never forget the chaos when Bobby dropped trou on a carload of laughing listeners. We even gave away the TV and the winner picked it up, joining Bobby on the platform, waving to listeners that drove by!

Chuck Kennedy tells of a KNBR San Francisco contest called “Where is the Maltese Falcon?” Clues were given out daily. Chuck doesn’t recall what the prize was – probably lunch at John’s Grill?

No budget? No problem! According to Nancy Plum, KYMS in Santa Ana gave away crap prizes like whoopie cushions for the best jokes people told. It’s all about winning, no matter what the prize is!

Once, when I worked at a local TV station, the station was giving away Austin Powers’ favorite prize –  one million dollars! The catch: the million bucks would be distributed over 20 years, 50K per year. The contest boiled down to three finalists and we picked the new millionaire out of a hat on live TV. The winner turned out to be an 84 year-old man!  I’ve always wondered about that contest.

Contests were a fun way to connect with people, especially when the prizes were fun, like concert or sports tickets. But when  we gave away real money, the situation got pretty real, too. Once, we were giving away $1,000 a day, when the “song of the day” played. I did middays at the time, and that was the first time I had to deal with professional prize winners. Prize pro’s worked systems – “60 Minutes” did a feature on one prize pro in Texas who would surround himself with radios and listen to them all at once. One such “pro” was a woman who listened to several stations at a time, and was always in the mix when to win the thousand bucks. She picked up several checks for $1,000 while I worked at the station. But once, she called and was caller number eight. She wasn’t going to let that pass. She called our (new) Program Director and complained that I had cheated her out of her prize! My new boss came in and told me I had cost the station a thousand dollars because he gave her the money on top of the $1,000 that I’d already given to another listener, to keep her happy. Seems to me the idea is to generate loyal listeners, but there is nothing loyal about listening to several stations at once. The PD didn’t last. I did. 😊
One of the great Disc Jockeys of all time, the late Chuck Browning, once gave away a cart machine! Greg Vick tells me that the cart machine kept “sticking”, so Chuck gave it away to the fifth caller! Greg, who’d tried to help him fix the machine, told The Chucker “You can’t do that!”. Chuck simply replied “I just did!” 

KCBQ in San Diego set the standard for BIG contests in the early 1970’s with “The Last Contest”, which named elaborate prize packages you might win every day. The prizes added up to millions of dollars, but many were just mentioned and never won. It was an expensive one, but really, not all that expensive. 

I’m getting stories about a lot of radio stunts and gags that are also big fun, but I’ll save them for later. 

Honestly, there were so many great radio contests, it’s hard to recall them all, but those are a few of the best. I hope you enjoyed them. If you have a fun contest story, look me up on Facebook for next time!