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Friday, August 23, 2002


B. C. Stangl



It was twenty-five years ago this summer and that was the graffiti Tom Mixx had scribbled in giant letters above the KSJO on-air booth. Led Zeppelin had just headlined the second of two "Days on the Green" for Bill Graham and I was hurrying down the Bayshore to make my evening shift on time.

Lobster, Mixx, and Young Billy Vega were the stars then on 92.3 FM. I did late nights in thick clouds of mellowness that always accompanied the dreadlocked crustacean’s show. Perennial Bay Area darling KSAN was on the ropes and we in the South Bay were confident that whoever prevailed in the endless battle between KOME (Come the Radio) and KSJO (Industrial Strength Rock & Roll) might just rise to rock supremacy in perhaps the world’s most respected market.

KFRC (610 AM) with Doctor Don lead the contemporary radio pack then and with KGO (810 AM) regularly roared through ratings contests to make off with the lion’s share of radio revenues. It’s quite interesting – if not landmark – to note that KFRC thought so little of FM radio as recently as 1977 that then-owners RKO Radio sold 106.1 FM to a young, hungry rock group out of Chicago for a mere $160,000. Century Broadcasting originated in St. Louis and earnings from its flagship there (KSHE) propelled its FM purchases in the Windy City (WBBM), KWEST in Los Angeles, and 106.1 in San Francisco.

A fellow named Bob Burch was getting an awful lot of credit for their on-air successes, but most of us looked at him as some sort of weenie whose only real claim to fame was being married to Michelle Phillips, formerly Mama Phillips of the 1960s folk rock quartet The Mamas and the Papas.

Our own red hot mama, Tawn Masterey, had just accepted Burch’s offer to do evenings for the upstart dromedary. This meant that an impressive contingent of groupies, hangers on, druggies, and a handful of bona fide rock stars would now be traipsing north to SF’s Stockton Street to be in her midst, rather than south to Moorpark Avenue in San Jose. Nonetheless, Moorpark, right off the newly extended Highway 280, was precisely where I was heading that very night. Deejays never frequented KSJO’s offices and half probably didn’t know where the front door was located. The back door off the parking lot opened into our sanctuary and I have no clue how the daytime staff adjusted to all the clouds of smoke that could in no way have dissipated overnight.

Still, that staff somehow convinced advertisers that our brand of rock was superior and consequently drove KSJO to dazzling profitability. In fact, KSJO in those days was the only radio station I have ever heard about in my quarter of a century of experience, that ever shared monthly profits with its on-air staff.

Oddly, advertisers were not even of consequence to the Bay Area’s newest rock version of a beast of burden. Yet. In those days Arbitron Ratings – still today the Bible for determining radio listenership – conducted four-week surveys in most of its markets. Larger markets might get rated twice yearly; bigger cities like San Jose, three times. Only the ultra-large markets like San Francisco would have a fourth, summer ratings period. The City and the South Bay were profoundly separate radio "markets" in those days. Oddly, San Jose was in the San Francisco market but SF was NOT listed in San Jose’s. So within days of KMEL’s sign-on, it was enmeshed in a critical ratings battle. How did the most recent radio addition confront the challenge? Two words: Commercial Free.

KMEL kicked off with a commercial-free month of what we called canned rock that just happened to coincide with the summer of 1977s 28-day ratings sweep. How much Steely Dan, Eagles, new Stones and Starship, old Beatles, and Genesis would a Bay Area rock listener stomach? Where were Jimi, Janis, the Doors, vintage Airplane and classic Stones, Carlos and the Dead? Dry hump indeed.

I, like other South Bay jocks and those at KSAN, were used to choosing our own cuts from mapped-out formats and disdained this new jukebox rock, which was pre-programmed in the Midwest. Remarkably, if not predictably, KMEL rode into the radio picture on an unheard of 8.1 share, which is to say one in twelve radios was tuned to 106.1 FM at any given time. Needless to say, this raised eyebrows for many of us freeform junkies.

In fact, before I knew it, I was aboard the dry hump KMEL under the tutelage of Mama husband Bob Burch. I would join pedigreed company including half the on-air staff from a longtime, legendary rocker. Together we would watch something called Pier 39 rise from the empty dock across the Embarcadero.

More next week.