KMEL IS A DRY HUMP
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.