Fans Recall When Radio First Rocked : Return with us to those exciting days of yesteryear when disc jockeys were kings and the new sound of rock 'n' roll ruled the airwaves

In his movie "Radio Days," Woody Allen took a nostalgic look at the golden age of radio as it sounded to a boy growing up in New York City during the 1930s and '40s.

In San Diego, the halcyon days of radio, in the minds of many, came in the late 1950s and early '60s.

It was a time when radio stations like "fun-lovin' KCBQ" were introducing a new kind of music with the strange name of rock 'n' roll, and when deejays like Don Howard and "Happy Hare" became teen idols.

Rock radio fans and disc jockeys recall those special times.

With a memory that would make elephants green with envy, Kathy Ontiveros recalled how important radio was to teen-agers growing up in San Diego in the late 1950s and early '60s.

"The radio never went off," she said, waxing nostalgic about her own years at San Diego High School, Class of '65. "We went to bed with the radio and we woke up with the radio; sometimes, we even kept the radio on all night, stuffed under our covers so our parents wouldn't know."

In those days, Ontiveros said, nearly every teen-ager's radio was tuned to KCBQ-AM (1170), San Diego's first, and most popular, rock 'n' roll station.

"I remember all the great things they did, all the great contests," she said. "There was this deejay who made random calls and played you a song, and if you could name it, you would win that record.

"One day my phone rang and somebody asked me to name a song I correctly identified as 'What's the Reason I'm Not Pleasin' You?' by Fats Domino. I got all dressed up to rush down to the station and pick up my 45, but when I walked out of the house, a bunch of my friends were on the sidewalk, laughing.

"It turns out, they had played a joke on me because they knew I listened to the radio all the time."

Ontiveros, now 40, still cherishes the autograph she got from her favorite deejay, Harry Martin, or "Happy Hare," as he called himself each weekday morning on "the fun-lovin' KCBQ."

'Tons and Tons of People'

"One morning, I heard he was going to be doing a promotion at a car dealership, so I hurried down and there were tons and tons of people waiting to meet him," she said.

"You couldn't even see him, but eventually I made my way through the crowd and got his autograph, which I still have somewhere in an old scrapbook."

In those days, Ontiveros added, "There were only a couple of big concerts in San Diego each year, so the deejays were our closest link to the music we all loved."

"They were our friends, our heroes, and we knew each one of them, on each station, by name," she said. "That scene in the movie 'American Graffiti,' in which the girl was calling up Wolfman Jack and crying over her boyfriend, was so true.

"They had a lot of power, a lot of influence on our lives, and we were constantly trying to meet them."

The "Happy Hare" himself, who retired from the airwaves in 1972 and now sells advertising time on country combo KSON-AM/FM (1240/97.3), vividly recalled the day KCBQ brought rock 'n' roll radio to San Diego in December, 1955.

"When we started playing that music, none of us thought it would do very well, but boy, were we wrong," Martin said. "Within a few months, our share of the audience went from 5% to between 30% and 40%, and for the next five years KCBQ was the highest-rated radio station in town.

"You know, I still remember the first Elvis Presley record we ever got. To us, he sounded like just another hillbilly, and we were wondering how he could possibly be as big as he was."

Before long, however, Martin overcame his initial aversion to rock 'n' roll and had even befriended many of the performers, including the late Ritchie Valens, whom he convinced to fly into San Diego and perform a one-hour concert at Clairemont High School in 1958.

"The school had just opened, and the principal called me up and asked if there was some way I could put on a special show," Martin said. "In my naivete, I phoned Ritchie Valens, who had three Top 10 hits at the time, and simply asked him to fly down here as a favor to me.

"He agreed, but when I picked him up at the airport and took him to the school, the gym where he was supposed to perform, wasn't ready. So he ended up singing out in the yard, on the hard Clairemont clay.

"He did all the songs he was famous for: 'La Bamba,' 'Donna,' 'Come On, Let's Go.' The kids went crazy, and then I put him back on a plane and sent him off again.

"That was the last time I saw him. A year later, he died in a plane crash."

Charles Wilson, who was Clairemont High's principal at the time, remembers that staging a rock concert on a high school campus was "a pretty daring thing."

"But we knew the kids really enjoyed the music, and we wanted to give them something special on opening day," he said. "Still, we were all very worried. We knew that if we got some raucous group in there, we might have problems.

"As things turned out, however, the show went very smoothly, and Valens was just such a nice, personable kid that I went away with an entirely different opinion about rock 'n' roll."

The year that Valens performed at Clairemont High School, Spirit nightclub owner Jerry Herrera, now 44, was a sophomore at Point Loma High.

While most of his friends were attending school-sponsored record hops hosted by popular radio deejays, Herrera said, he was "working each night in a little kitchen, washing dishes."

Still, he said, "I listened to the radio every chance I got, mostly to KCBQ, even when I was at work. There wasn't nearly as much variety as there is today, but even then, we all had our favorites.

"The guys were into black acts like Little Richard and Fats Domino, while the girls were into Elvis Presley. And whenever a song by Elvis came on, I would turn off the radio, wait a few minutes, and then turn it back on.

The Record Hops

"At the time, there were only a couple of radio stations in town that played rock 'n' roll, so you couldn't switch around until you found a song you liked the way you do today."

Tom Cresci, 43, became a sophomore at Point Loma High in 1959, a year after Herrera. And unlike his older classmate, he attended virtually every school dance there was, some featuring local rock bands and others, deejays spinning records by the likes of the Del Vikings and the Silhouettes.

"The Saturday night record hops were always held in the girls' gym, while the bands played at larger dances, put on by several high schools, in places like the War Memorial Building in Balboa Park and the La Mesa Recreation Center," Cresci said.

"And as soon as we got in the car to go home, we turned on the radio full-blast, because that was the cool thing to do. Even in junior high school, as soon as radio stations started playing rock 'n' roll, those of us who had older brothers knew they were coming to pick us up because we could hear their car radios before we saw their cars."

As important as radio was to typical San Diego teen-agers in the 1950s and early '60s--when deejays, veteran local broadcaster Don Howard said, were "the next thing to movie stars"--the job of spinning records for a living wasn't nearly as glamorous as most star-struck youths might have thought.

Ernie Myers, who came to KCBQ in 1953, two years before rock 'n' roll, to play records by such pop crooners as Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra, remembers how hard he used to work in the days before songs and commercials were put on "carts," or two-track tape cartridges, as is common practice today.

"Everything was on record, even the commercials, and you had four or five turntables, all going at once," said Myers, who left KCBQ in 1955 for KOGO-AM (600), which a short time later became one of several other local radio stations to jump on the rock 'n' roll bandwagon.

"While one song was playing on the first turntable, you'd be cuing up the next song on the second turntable and two or three commercials on the others," he said. "You pretty much needed help from an octopus, just to get all the work done."

Promotional Stunts

Just as difficult, said Howard, was executing the outrageous promotional stunts he pulled, first on Big Band station KUSN-AM (1130)--now KSDO--from 1948 until 1955, and later on KCBQ, from 1955 until 1963.

"I did remote broadcasts from all kinds of places," Howard recalled. "I've been inside a monkey cage at the zoo, on the roof of a nightclub in a car, and at the bottom of a swimming pool, in a diving suit, with a microphone in my mask.

"Most of the time, however, I was in a mobile studio, broadcasting from department store openings, high school record hops and nightclubs. Still, it was never easy.

"Today, when you do a remote broadcast, the music is played at the station and all you have to worry about is the microphone and being pleasant to the live audience.

"But in those days, you had to play all the records from the site, so you were constantly jumping back and forth between the turntable and the audience."

The fringe benefits to local deejays, however, more often than not made up for all the hard work. There were personal appearances attended by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of screaming fans; countless requests for autographs, either by mail, by phone, or in person; and, in Ernie Myers' case, a personal endorsement from the Beatles.

"My brother was a deejay in New York, and he interviewed the Beatles shortly after they arrived in the United States in 1964 and got John Lennon to cut an intro to my show on KOGO," said Myers, who since 1980 has been morning news co-anchor on news/talk station KSDO.

'Hi, This Is John Lennon'

"It went, 'Hi, this is John Lennon of the Beatles, and you're listening to Ernie Myers,' " he said. "I played the hell out of that tape the entire time they were hot."

And then there is Don Howard's recollection of the time he was afforded the honor of emceeing a concert by legendary saxophonist Big Jay McNeely in the Mission Beach Ballroom, sometime in the late 1950s.

"All of a sudden, while playing his horn, he walked out the side door, across the sand, into the water, and then walked back up across the sand into the other side door," Howard said.

"And the kids were all following him, dragging sand, water, all that stuff back into the ballroom, as though it was perfectly natural.

"It was then that I realized rock 'n' roll had arrived."

Today, deejays are no longer so prominent in the community--with a few exceptions, of course, like Art Good and KFMB-FM's (B-100) "Morning Zoo" team.

Instead of selecting the records they play, most now follow tightly regulated "play lists" assembled by program directors who base their decisions on research studies and national radio tip sheets and record sales charts.

With hundreds of big-name concerts in San Diego each year, rock 'n' roll fans no longer see deejays as their only link to the stars.

At most special events, television camera crews have replaced the mobile broadcast booth. And more often than not, the only personal appearances deejays make are in nightclubs, where they emcee shows by local bands.

And even that's not as prevalent as it was in the old days, said Good of jazz station KIFM-FM (98.1).

"I'm out in the clubs six nights a week, but I'm forced to it for financial reasons," Good said. "I can't think of any other deejay in the entire country who does it as much as I do, and in San Diego, there are only a handful of deejays who do it at all.

"For the most part, deejays are voices on the radio, and hardly even that, because they are so restrained by formats and play lists that they can't really inject too much of their own personalities.

"And now you have stations like The Wave (new-age station KSWV-FM (102.9)), where there aren't any deejays at all--just music."

Still, memories die hard, and Kathy Ontiveros, for one, laments the fading role of radio deejays "as big influences on teen-agers growing up today."

"It just isn't like it used to be, and that's too bad," she said. "I'll never forget when the Beach Boys came out with 'Be True to Your School,' and this deejay on KCBQ started a contest in which he gave a prize each week to the school that brought in the most names on a petition.

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