JAY THOMAS IN KPWR’S HOT SEAT
The glib, the obnoxious and the patronizing have all tried their tongues at knocking morning drive-time champ Rick Dees out of his comfortable perch at KIIS-FM (102.7) over the last three years, but no one has come near.
Worthy radio veterans like Robert W. Morgan and Charlie Tuna have surrendered to Dees’ morning mouth power. Whole formats at rival stations have been dumped or resurrected in a vain attempt to compete with Dees.
Anywhere else, he already might have gone down in history as a mysterious Dick Clark clone who created that stirring anthem of the 1970s, “Disco Duck.”
But after three years atop the Arbitron ratings heap, Dees remains the quintessential Los Angeles morning deejay--the virtual king of the road.
Now comes stand-up comic Jay Thomas.
“Greed,” Thomas said the other night, following a sumptuous dinner of macaroni and champagne in the Valley, where friends joined him in celebrating his triumphant return to Los Angeles.
He was answering in one essential word just why he signed a one-year, six-figure contract to become the latest Dees challenger. Beginning this morning, Thomas will work the drive-time shift from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m at KPWR-FM (105.9).
“Yes, it was greed,” repeated the 38-year-old actor-cum-deejay, best known for a two-season stint as a deli owner on ABC-TV’s “Mork and Mindy” comedy series.
“They (KPWR management) flew me out here. I was up in the front with George Carlin and Bianca Jagger in first class. When I got here, they put me up at Le Mondrian overlooking Hollywood. I said, ‘Hey, this is where I oughta be!’ ”
But it is not where he has been since his first taste of Hollywood greed in the “Mork” days of the late ‘70s. As Remo DaVinci, the New York deli owner in Boulder, Colo., where the show was set, Thomas seemed finally on the verge of hitting the big time. He still speaks fondly of how his 73-year-old tap-dancing mother called him after each television appearance to tell him how proud she was.
“The third season (of ‘Mork and Mindy’) they brought in Jonathan Winters and put five character actors in the street,” recalled Thomas. “Winters said, ‘I’m 58. I need the work.’ What, and we didn’t?
“Afterwards, I did a guest shot on ‘Love Boat.’ In Hollywood, you know your career is over when they call you to do a guest shot on ‘Love Boat.’ ”
He still got some acting work, but the roles were somewhat limited.
“I’m Italian-looking so I have to play a killer or a cop,” he said. “It’s like in high school: if you’re Italian you’re either a priest or a hoodlum, nothing in between. So now you can see me on TV driving into Boston Bay on ‘Spenser: For Hire.’ ”
For a time, Thomas was on what he lovingly refers to as the “green chicken” circuit: dinner theater in North Carolina and Florida. Then, two years ago, he went to New York under the mistaken notion that he might get back into television there.
“Can you imagine? Thinking that there was television (work) in New York? There is no television in New York, unless you want to do ‘What’s My Line!’ ”
But there is radio and last year, he was doing a morning drive-time shift on WKTU in Manhattan. One day in July, the station changed formats and dumped Thomas overnight. Then it was back to repertory theater, Off-Broadway and unemployment until he got the call from KPWR.
Like Thomas, KPWR has had its ups and downs.
In a million-dollar promotion last year, the station--then known as KMGG or “Magic 106"--tried desperately to push KIIS and Dees out of the ratings with a barrage of yellow and black “Magic 106” bumper stickers, bus boards, car and dream vacation giveaways. Venerable KMGG morning man Robert W. Morgan was reduced to doing Friday-morning shows from various Denny’s restaurants in a desperate effort to meet Magic’s nonexistent listeners on their own turf.
Despite all the effort, KMGG still was creamed in the ratings.
So, last February, the station owners--Indianapolis-based Emmis Broadcasting--switched formats to a combination of Top 40 and rhythm and blues music. And it worked. The old station with the new call letters of KPWR, for “Power 106,” has soundly beaten KIIS in the ratings at all times of the day except morning drive time, when Dees still reigns supreme.
Now the KPWR broadcast strategy moves to its second level: targeting Dees.
It is a strategy that has already been used successfully in Boston, Washington and other urban centers, according to Thomas.
“Get the music right first. Then start bringing in the personalities,” he said.
Thomas returned to Hollywood this week prepared to transform his newly refinanced avarice into full-blown gluttony. His first move will be to trade in his gray ’83 Toyota station wagon on an Audi 5000.
“What do they cost?,” he asked. “About $20,000? I’ll have to wait until I get my third pay check.”
He swears his morning stint at KPWR is no launch pad for a renewal of his television acting career. He plans to let his IRAs mature and open a bed-and-breakfast in Carmel. He openly dreads the game-show fate of other aging deejays, like Bob Eubanks and Jim Lange.
For the moment, Thomas is concentrating on unseating Dees. Following the obligatory soliloquy about how much respect he has for his opponent, Thomas goes right for the KIIS deejay’s current cause celebre : Broadcasters Against Drugs.
Jumping on the presidential and congressional bandwagon, Dees formed his own disc jockey organization to encourage listeners not to use drugs. Thomas, for one, is not likely to join. “It’s just a promotion, probably just for the rating period,” Thomas said. “I’d rather give away T-shirts.”
Thomas’ own philosophy on drugs and deejays goes something like this:
“I’m not big on giving speeches or anything like that, but I think if you’re dumb enough to do something that’ll kill you, goodby.”