THE KMET-FM STORY: REFLECTIONS ON A FALLEN FORMAT : A GAMUT OF FEELINGS -- FROM ANGER TO HOPE
Was it the long overdue death of a dinosaur? Or a Coke Classic situation? Those are the questions being asked in the wake of rock giant KMET-FM’s Black Friday.
As reported in Calendar Saturday, the station’s management fired its entire on-air staff Friday, just three weeks after it reunited the core group of disc jockeys who fueled KMET in its heyday. This Saturday, KMET (94.7) will cease to exist. New plans include a change in call letters to KTWV-FM and a completely different music format.
While management contends that KMET’s format no longer worked (see Patrick Goldstein’s story), fans of the station suggest that it may have been as foolish in pulling the plug on the Mighty MET as Coca-Cola was when it canned (briefly) its classic formula.
Other radio stations have suffered similar fates (“Magic 106" and, most recently, KFAC), they concede, but not with the attention accorded KMET. Throughout the weekend, radio and television airwaves were filled with homages to de-microphoned deejays Cynthia Fox, Pat (Paraquat) Kelly, David Perry, Jack Snyder, Rick Scarry, Jim Ladd, Rick Lewis and others:
--Friday night, sympathetic stories eulogizing the station and its staff aired on KCBS-TV Channel 2, KNBC Channel 4, KABC-TV Channel 7 and KTTV Channel 11.
--Deejays at arch-rival rocker KLOS-FM (95.5) paid tribute to their KMET colleagues all day Friday, capped by an hourlong on-air opportunity for KMET jocks to say goodby to listeners (who called in droves) during Joe Benson’s show on the ABC-owned station that evening.
--KCBS-TV aired a second story Saturday about a “wake” held by former KMET staffers in Malibu.
--KLSX-FM (97.1) funnyman Frazer Smith (formerly of both KLOS and KMET) praised KMET’s jocks during his show Saturday night, then proceeded to lampoon its management throughout his show. KLSX also promoted heavily the appearance of the KMET staff in its studio Monday afternoon.
--KCRW-FM (89.9) deejay Harry Shearer reminisced about the station Sunday on his program, “Le Show,” wryly noting that he had been fired twice from KMET during the 1970s.
--On KHJ-TV Channel 9, “Midmorning L.A.” host Tommy Hawkins, a radio jock himself, interviewed the staff Monday, saying “They can’t do this to my people.”
Forced to reflect on their situation throughout the weekend, the deejays expressed the gamut of feelings, from shock and anger to nostalgia and hope.
“Essentially, what we were all about was our great love and faith in music’s ability to touch and bring people together--whether to party or to change the world,” Fox explained during a wake Saturday at Kelly’s Malibu beach home.
KMET rose from the ashes of progressive-rock pioneer KPPC in the late ‘60s. With the incomparable B. Mitchell Reed at the helm, the fledgling FM station grew in size and notoriety as Reed, Jeff Gonzer, Ace Young, Mary Turner and the aforementioned staff steadily siphoned listeners away from AM-giants KRLA and KHJ with their laid-back patter and steady flow of innovative album-oriented rock (AOR).
KMET was there when Bruce Springsteen danced on the tables during his performance at the Roxy. It broadcast the California Jams and it was on stage during Pink Floyd’s performance of “The Wall” at the Sports Arena. When John Lennon died, mourning fans found solace as equally shaken deejays produced incredibly moving hours of music, news reports and memories of the fallen Beatle.
“This is the group of people that cared enough to support organizations like Greenpeace and the Alliance for Survival,” said Jim Ladd, who had been with the station at its peak and had rejoined the staff three weeks ago. “Now, we didn’t get one dime more in our paychecks for that and we got a hell of a lot of hassle from management.
“We did it because we believed in it,” Ladd said. “To us rock and roll ain’t a show, it’s life.”
“What distinguished KMET at its peak was an irreverant, rebellious attitude on the part of the air staff,” said Steve Feinstein, AOR editor at music-industry trade publication Radio and Records. “Like any great radio station, they had a bead on the city.”
Feinstein, who plays an oldies show on KLOS each weekend, added, “They would do crazy things like hang their billboards upside down; they took a nonsensical phrase like ‘Whoo-ya!’ and turned it into a common phrase.”
In 1978, KMET pulled ahead of the rock pack in the Arbitron radio ratings. At its zenith, in 1980, KMET was the second most-listened to station in the market, behind KABC-AM talk radio--a first for a contemporary FM rock station.
It stayed at the top of the rock ratings for three years, until KLOS edged ahead in 1981. After that, the station lost ratings ground steadily.
By 1987, KMET had fallen on hard times. The fired jocks blame an endless series of program directors for eroding their artistic and creative freedom and the station’s ratings. Playlists grew smaller and more strictly formated.
“None of the program directors after Sam Bellamy had a feel for what KMET was,” Dave Perry said. “They got the mechanics down, but they didn’t know where the heart was. When they turned the radio on, all they heard were cash registers.”
By the time Frank Cody arrived as program director last September, the station’s Arbitron ratings had slipped to 2.4. By November, it was at 1.6.
“They were humiliating us on the air with the things they were making us do,” said Jack Snyder, who had been with the station on and off for 10 years. “We were playing music that wasn’t even selling in the stores and there was nothing we could do about it. We were letting the listeners down, but we couldn’t say ‘Hey, it isn’t us; it’s management.’ ”
Just as animals sense earthquakes days before they occur, radio people apparently possess an extrasensory sensitivity to impending changes in their environments. In separate interviews, all but one of the staff recalled the “vibe” in the station that last week. It wasn’t good.
“The vibe was so thick it was hanging like a San Francisco fog in the hallway,” said Rick Scarry. In fact, the feeling grew so strong that Scarry, with 22 years of radio experience, cleaned out his office Thursday afternoon.
Scarry recalled, “I honestly didn’t think that the whole station’s days were numbered, but I was pretty sure that Pat (morning show partner Kelly) and I were history.”
When the two went on the air at 6 a.m. last Friday--"Finally a Friday” in KMET jargon--it was with a sense that it would be their last show.
“We didn’t know for sure,” Scarry said, “so we started joking around.”
Scarry went on the air calling the day “Finally a Final Friday,” Kelly threw out his jingles and promos and, instead of the programmed format, the two played what they wanted.
“We joked about the songs we were going to play, like ‘Three Steps Closer to the Door’ and ‘Roll Another Number for the Road’ and all these great songs,” Scarry said, adding, “It’s funny, you start to laugh in the face of tragedy because there’s nothing else you can do.”
At 7:45 a.m., Cynthia Fox called the station and told the two that she had been summoned to the Sheraton Premiere by station manager Howard Bloom and program director Cody for a meeting. Up until then, Fox had been the only jock at the station who hadn’t felt “the vibe” that week. Said Kelly, " I told her, ‘Here’s what I think: The whole station’s gone.’ ”
Kelly attempted to go on the air to thank listeners and say goodby about three times in the remaining hours, “but I kept breaking up (into tears),” said Kelly, whose lightening wit is normally anything but somber.
The last songs Kelly played on his show: Bob Seger’s “Beautiful Loser” (“for the station”) and the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It),” (“for the staff”).
Kelly left the broadcast booth at the Hollywood studio without even waiting for the Stones’ song to finish.
The era came to a close in Room 572 at the Sheraton Premiere Hotel near Universal Studios, where KMET’s on-air staff was summoned, one by one, throughout the day. (Cody said that management felt a location outside the station was better for delivering the bad news.) There they were handed a severance check, thanked for their professionalism and asked for their station keys.
“It was cold,” said Dave Perry.
“They took a piece of Southern Caifornia heritage and just flushed it down the toilet,” said Rick Lewis.
However, when Bloom and Cody suggested to Kelly that his nine years at the station had surely been financially profitable, Kelly snapped, telling them: “You don’t get it! I didn’t work there for the money; I believed in what I was doing. I gave it my heart and everything I have.
“I told them that KMET being gone was the equivalent to driving down the Hollywood Freeway and seeing the O falling off the Hollywood sign, and a parking lot in place of Capitol Records.”
In the meantime, KMET has been broadcasting a steady stream of deejay-less rock, interrupted occasionally for pre-recorded commercials and a spooky promotion for the new format.
While a dirge-like drumbeat echoes in the background, a disembodied male voice intones the number of days remaining before the change. (As of Monday, it was “five days.”)
“I can’t listen to it,” said jock Cynthia Fox. “It’s just too depressing.”