Some of Radio’s Unforgettables
Most occupations have their share of weird, interesting people. Disc jockeys are among the weirdest and most interesting, in my opinion. Broadcasting has provided enough characters for several sitcoms over the years. Not all DJs are funny, but enough are to keep it interesting.
John Gregory was my first radio boss. When I showed up at KPER in Gilroy in 1964, he was doing the midday show – really the only live show at KPER back then. The regular jock, Chuck Schultz, had failed to show up that day and John had been unable to find a replacement before Chuck moved on to KKHI in San Francisco. So, in one of the many lucky breaks of my career, I walked into the station in a sport coat and a skinny dollar tie I bought at GEM, the discount store where I was mic announcer, and John, needing someone immediately, hired me immediately! John was a pleasant boss, and we hit it off right away. The only time he was angry with me was one day when I played an Isley Brothers song which was not on the playlist. He stormed in and yelled that if I ever played that (N-word) song again I’d be fired. Weird to hear from a guy who was once the boss at KSOL. 1964 was an unusual time in American History. Civil Rights was a big issue and so was racism in America. JFK had been assassinated the previous November, and the Vietnam War was just getting warmed up. Tense times, indeed.
My next gig was awhile later, after I’d finally gotten my First-Class license, in 1971. My Dad and I had cobbled together an aircheck on the living room floor, and I sent it off to Texas, where my father’s family lived. I was hired to do the nightshift at “KTEO Rodeo Radio” in San Angelo. Six PM to 12:30 AM, because bars closed at Midnight and it took less than a half-hour to get home. They gave me the moniker, “The Night Creature”. The PD was a character named Doug Davidson. Doug was such a goofball it was surprising he managed to run the station, which was located in the top suite at the San Angelo Holiday Inn, overlooking the swimming pool. Doug did afternoons and his contribution to humor was saying things like “If you don’t like that joke, I hope your dog dies”. Doug once spotted John Davidson in the pool and shouted to him over the railing to come up for an interview. John Davidson declined Doug’s charming request.
The midday guy, Greg Norberg, was a genuine character – with talent! He did voices and was funny! For weather reports he’d take on a character voice: “Aunt Gusty”. We became good friends, and I learned a lot about theatre of the mind from Greg. For a side hustle, Greg ran the local Little Theatre, playing Dick Van Dyke-type characters, and the theater’s “angel” was Jerry Bridges, who was Leon Russel’s brother. On Sundays we’d go to Jerry’s ranch and ride motorcycles on the plains – Honda 50’s and the like. Jerry had a bunch of bikes because his company made prosthetic arms and legs and he traded them for the motorcycles that were no longer appealing to their former riders. We’d drink beer and barbecue goat and ride around drunkenly. We were lucky to survive! Jerry’s brother Leon Russel never showed, and Greg Norberg and I moved on, but we kept in touch. Years later, when I was at KIOI, he called to say he was moving to LA to write for Pat Proft and Jim Abrahams. They produced comedy flicks like “Police Squad”, “Hot Shots” and “Jane Austin’s Mafia”. Greg wrote for those films and had cameo roles in all of them. The “Nordberg” character in “Police Squad”, played by the notorious O.J. Simpson, was named for Greg. He’s a very funny guy, and I was lucky to work with him. I did a call-in Public Affairs show once a week, and I remember once when the topic was the legalization of marijuana, a good-ole boy called and said “Don’t know if you know it, but there’s already legislation in the works to legalize it: the legislation’s called “F**k You!”! We had no tape delay, but I have never hit a jingle and a record that fast before or since. Lesson learned!
KTEO’s morning man was an old guy named Thurston Springer, whose main talent was a deep voice. I worked the late shift, so I seldom heard Thurston, but once, when I did, he hilariously
“lost it” when a tornado watch came through. Tornado watches were common in West Texas, much like earthquakes in California. Usually we just were a little more alert when they came across the Civil Defense system. This time, though, Thurston went nuts! He ran into the studio, cracked the mic, and shouted for everyone to run for their lives! West Texas just ignored him.
Despite having family in San Angelo, Texas was not for me, so after my son Justin was born, and my then-wife expressed her distaste for the Southwest (“Get us the hell out of here!”). I started sending out airchecks. The first response was from the PD of KDON in Salinas. He told me he could give me some fill-in and weekend work, and that was good enough to pack up the station wagon for California. When I got to KDON a few days later, I was told the PD who’d hired me had been fired the day before! I was in a panic, but they took pity and told me they’d give me a tryout – midnight to six shift on Saturday night – and if I worked out, they’d give me weekends. I was doing my very best “Boss Jock” impression on KDON that night, when the new PD came in and said “You’re pretty good – do you want to do middays?” I was ecstatic! But the current midday guy didn’t want to move, so I wound up doing afternoon drive, which was fine with me. Chuck Brody was the midday guy, and we’re friends to this day. His real name is Rick Wiseman, but his intro had been voiced by the legendary Bill Drake, so he insisted on keeping the Chuck Brody name. Fun guy. He later came to San Francisco to join me at KCBS-FM but moved on to KIOI and then KABL for years. He’s retired and living in Oregon now – the old DJs home state.
KDON’s cast of characters that year included the incredible Christopher Lance, who was truly an exciting rock DJ, but who had the most unusual set up. Chris followed me, and when he would sit down, he’d raise the mic over his head, put a stuffed toy on the console, along with a few other cute “decorations” – all before he said a word. He was energy personified on the air! He was also a good and fun friend. Lance moved around a lot – years later, when I’d been at KCBS-FM and KIOI, we compared careers; he’d been at over 20 stations while I’d been at two! The last time we worked together was in the early 2000’s, at KFRC in San Francisco. He was the same old Lance, complete with stuffed toys and elevated mics – and energy personified. Some of the other DJs at KDON went on to solid careers – it seemed like people jumped off to bigger markets from there. Dean Goss is one of the most successful. Dean did impressions and was very funny and a real professional. “Pros” were rare at that level. Ed Hamlin was the new PD when I left for San Francisco, and asked my advice on who he should hire to fill my time slot. I told him to hire his friend Dean, since I was sure he’d be needing a friend. Dean went on to Los Angeles, where he thrived and moonlighted as the on-set announcer for “Let’s Make A Deal” with Monty Hall. Once, Dean famously and accidentally gave away a new car live on the air, but he later told me Monty Hall and the producers forgave his mistake. The last time I saw Ed Hamlin was about 1998. I tried unsuccessfully to get him hired at a station in Sacramento. Ed had “great pipes”, but sadly, radio had changed and Ed hadn’t.
Dennis Holt was briefly the morning guy – his sign off was “Save chicken fat” – and it wasn’t long before he did sign off, making way for Byron Lawrence, whose dad was Dick Van Dyke’s manager. Byron drove a red vintage Morgan ragtop roadster his dad had bought for him at a Hollywood Studio auction. His partner, TN Tanaka, went with him to L.A., where they ruled the airwaves on rock stations for a good long time. “Wonderful Walt” was the overnight guy – a charming hippie type who had the best pot at the station. He left KDON when he was arrested for providing some of that pot to a minor. Like good friends, we all visited Walt in jail later. KDON was a great place to hone my skills, and I happily made a few good friends during that year.
Next time: Guess what? San Francisco has had a few colorful characters, too…