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 “The Holidaze”

By Sam Van Zandt 

We love our holidays – it’s a special time to celebrate, relax and enjoy the company of the ones we love. But for DJs, not so much. Our job is to play music for others who are celebrating Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays. Most of us radio elves have had to toil during the holidays through the years, and that’s a chore and a blessing. The chore was to entertain people doing what you wished you were doing – celebrating with loved ones. The blessing was spending time on the air, doing what we love, then being with the ones we love after the show.

When I began working in San Francisco radio, DJs were expected to play music and create fun, holidays or not, so we tended to support one another by bringing food on Thanksgiving and Christmas and wearing costumes for Halloween. Listeners couldn’t see us or know what we were doing, but by celebrating with each other, our shows were more festive and entertaining.

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The legendary Bob Keive, (above), who owned KLIV in San Jose, had holiday dinners sent to the staff on-air, CBS Radio was good about throwing Holiday parties, and later, KIOI, KYA, KNEW and KFRC spread the holiday cheer amongst us. 

But I can’t recall those stations bringing the holiday spirit to the naughty and nice: listeners. In the 80’s I began to do little things on my own, like taking a trunkful of toys to Toys for Tots and doing what columnist Jon Carroll did – giving the UNTIED way – just giving twenties to guys on skid row, no questions asked. Once at Thanksgiving I brought new shoes and a turkey sandwich to a homeless guy I encountered on my walks to KFRC. By Christmas, he was shoeless again. That’s life in the Big City.

As the years passed, and radio became more a corporate entity than a community station, money for any community outreach went the way of the dodo. So, I began promoting station activities during the holiday season, like having the whole crew serve food at Thanksgiving, or volunteering at the local Food Bank. One year I got to work with The Oakland A’s Barry Zito, making mashed potatoes while he handed out food and signed autographs. It was a meaningful experience for me because I got to see the gratitude in peoples’ eyes. And it got me thinking that doing something nice that doesn’t cost a fortune could be good for everyone involved. It made us radio peeps feel good about ourselves, and it helped folks in need of help, while generating great public relations for the station. Joy to the world!

I’m sure many stations had holiday activities that did all that, and if you enjoyed times like that, it’d be great to hear from you about your joyful experiences. But in my memory, stations just played a little Christmas music and maybe gave Holiday music CDs to people lucky enough to be caller nine.

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My friend Dana Jang, (above), worked at KSJO in San Jose for many years, and that station gave prizes to listeners who put the station call letters in their Holiday lights. KSJO’s DJs also did Christmas caroling at listeners’ homes.  Dana also told me that the morning team of Lamont and Tonelli held a turkey bowling event on Thanksgiving Eve and held a funny Christmas contest called “What’s in Santa’s Sack?”. 

In the 90’s, stations where I worked began to do more to spread Holiday Cheer. KFRC had an annual Christmas music CD for many years, featuring a different set of Christmas songs on each CD, and the station threw an excellent Christmas concert every year. It was at one of those concerts that I met Dr. Elmo Shropshire, whose holiday song “Grandma Got Run Over by A Reindeer” is burned into the brains of anyone who ever heard it. It’s a Christmas classic; you either love or hate it, but you can’t ever forget it.

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And Dr. Elmo really is a doctor, he’s a veterinarian who does many kind things for animals and humans alike. I believe the royalties from that song help to pay for all the things he does for animals and their owners throughout the year. In short, he’s truly a nice guy, and I feel lucky that I got to know him. We hit it off at a KFRC Holiday concert and did a couple of interviews for the public affairs program that I hosted. So, when I went to Sacramento as part of the morning crew, “The COOL 101 FM Breakfast Club”, I looked Elmo up as Christmas approached. He came in for a brief on-air chat, and our crew loved Dr. Elmo.

But the next year, we decided to have him in to perform “Grandma” and a couple of other songs to celebrate the season. COOL 101 was an Oldies station and a perfect fit for his musical talents, and he was happy to be a part of our celebration. What we didn’t know was that Dr. Elmo, naturally seeking as much exposure as possible, was also set to perform that morning on the Paul and Phil Christmas show at a small theatre nearby.  No worries – he could perform during the 7AM hour for Paul and Phil, then come over to our studio for the 8AM hour. The problem was nobody told them! When those guys found out, we learned that the spirit of holiday giving didn’t include sharing Elmo. We sent our producer over to the theatre to fetch Elmo after his performance. No Elmo! When he finished singing, Paul and Phil’s producer spirited him away and our producer came back Elmo-less. A few days later I asked Elmo about it. He said he honestly didn’t know what had happened. Was he run over by a reindeer? Did Grandpa pick him up and take him home for Christmas dinner? All I know is that Elmo didn’t show up for our show.

Years later, when I was doing mornings on KBAY, I contacted Elmo again. My partner Lissa Kreisler had been at the station for 20 years or so, and she always took two weeks of the Christmas holiday off. That left me to find entertaining things, and Elmo was always entertaining, so he agreed to co-host a show with me. Elmo brought his guitar, and we had a lot of fun together that morning. All was forgiven.

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And it was at KBAY that the Holiday spirit really came alive. The station had a long-running event called “Stuff the Bus”, where we filled a huge city bus with toys for the Toys for Tots campaign.

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Hundreds of listeners brought toys, and we often filled a bus and brought in a new one to fill! The U.S. Marines sponsored Toys for Tots, and they would send a contingent of Marines to collect the toys at our location, next to the annual “Christmas in the Park” celebration, which features trees decorated with ornaments representing local schools and charitable organizations. Local car and motorcycle clubs would cruise up with cars filled with toys, and we would personally thank them as we broadcast our shows live. It was a wonderful way to get into the Christmas spirit, and the toys brought lots of joy to kids each year.

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KBAY also produced an annual CD of Holiday music, and from Thanksgiving to Christmas, we KBAY DJs would give them out at personal appearances throughout the South Bay. My radio partner and I would also host the annual Salvation Army luncheon, which launched their holiday fundraising campaign.

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I’ve always considered radio as an extension of the community it serves, an attitude that sadly is dying as corporations take over hundreds of stations and are interested in serving the bottom line, but not the local community. I retired after the 2018 “Stuff the Bus” event, but the memory of those times, joining with local politicians, civic leaders and fellow citizens always fires up the Christmas spirit in me.