Golden Oldies : KCBQ Radio to Reunite Voices From the Past
For a group of well-traveled disc jockeys, working in a business that is transient by nature, mention of radio station KCBQ evokes memories of a golden era, a time when they were No. 1 with a bullet.
“It’s the most special place I ever worked, by light-years,” said Rich Werges, a.k.a. Rich Brother Robbin. “Asking a guy in his middle 40s about KCBQ is like asking about the ‘60s. I get all choked up.”
KCBQ achieved greatness--industrywide recognition--not once but twice. In the mid- to late 1950s, it was one of the country’s first big rock ‘n’ roll stations, a pioneer of the music that swept the country. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was one of the last great AM music stations, a last hurrah for AM before FM music stations began to dominate the airwaves.
On Thursday, KCBQ-AM (1170) and KCBQ-FM (105.3) will bringtogether three decades of the station’s personalities for an on-air reunion from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. They will broadcast from the Marriott Mission Valley, where marketing and promotional paraphernalia representing 35 years of the station’s history will be on display. The public is invited, and a free “sock hop” will top off the day from 8 p.m. to midnight at the hotel.
In December, 1955, the Bartell radio chain purchased KCBQ-AM and switched it from traditional block programming--an hour of country music, an hour of classic music, etc.--to the music of hot youngsters such as Elvis Presley,
and other pioneer rockers. It was one of the first rock stations in the country.
Powered by the incessantly upbeat announcing of Ralph James, Don Howard, Jim O’Leary, Earl McRoberts, Jack Vincent and Harry (Happy Hare) Martin, the station soon became the most popular in the city, earning as much as 40% of the audience during some time periods, according to several surveys.
Through much of the era, the disc jockeys worked in a glass booth in the El Cortez Hotel, where listeners could drive by and see them at work.
“I would say that it was as near to being at one with myself as I’ve ever been,” said Martin, now an account executive with KSON and doing voice-over work. “Imagine going into a station knowing that everybody loved you and you were going in with a spoon to stir up that love.”
Station owner Lee Bartell gave the disc jockeys unprecedented freedom on the air, and they were known to take advantage of it. Among other stunts, Martin recalls running for mayor and staging Indian rain dances on the air.
“I was being paid to be crazy, which saved me a great deal of trouble having to go in for therapy,” said Martin, who left the station in 1962 for a lucrative offer in Cleveland, although he returned to KCBQ in 1969 to anchor the morning lineup for three years.
James, who worked at KCBQ from 1955 to 1961, remembers that Bartell never told him not to do anything on the air. Despite the rowdiness, the emphasis was always on the positive and being upbeat and helpful to the community.
The station called itself “family radio.”
“People often ask me what there was with KCBQ,” said James, who went on to a successful career as one of Hollywood’s most recognized voices. “To me, it was a very community-oriented station. We were ahead of our time. . . . The success wasn’t so much the music but the guys who worked there and how they integrated themselves with the community.”
Although “The Q” was consistently a success, it didn’t again approach the remarkable popularity of those first years until the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Locked in a battle with the “Boss Radio” of KGB, KCBQ again concentrated on Top 40 hits and the power of its on-air personalities to post double-digit ratings and again dominate the market.
Again, the emphasis was on being friendly and upbeat, creating a family atmosphere among staff and listeners.
“We frequently screamed but we always smiled,” said Werges, who worked at the station in 1971 and ’72, and again in ’73 and ’74, serving as program director. “It was always something that warmed the inside, was always ‘up.’ ”
Former KGB program director Buzz Bennett, a firm believer in positive thinking, directed the station through most of the successful years in the early ‘70s. As program director, he gave the staff books on self-motivation and regularly preached to them about believing in themselves.
Things were loose and open, both on and off the air. One disc jockey even remembers the “I Ching” being consulted on a decision.
Magic Christian, Rich Brother Robbin, Bobby Ocean, “Shotgun Tom” Kelly and the other KCBQ personalities became household names, as the station regularly posted audience shares of 20 and 30 rating points. In contrast, the top-rated station in San Diego for the past few years, KKLQ (Q106), usually earns a 9 or 10.
“We played the hits and only the hits,” recalled Werges, now general manager of KQYT-FM, an easy-listening station in Tucson, Ariz. “It was like pulling teeth to get a record on the station.”
It was a heady experience for the disc jockeys, who could gauge the station’s success every time they went out in public. Chuck (Magic) Christian recalls taking the station’s dune buggy to the beach for a summer promotion and seeing waves of people flock to the water when the station announced his location on the air.
“It was an unbelievable feeling that that many people listened to that much radio,” said Christian, now doing morning shows for KLCY-FM in Salt Lake City. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
For the disc jockeys, it was a 24-hour job; their identities both on and off the air were linked to the station.
“You might play golf, or you might ride a bicycle for fun, but you worked for KCBQ,” Werges said. “It was a privilege. . . . I was Rich Brother Robbin. It was everything.”
Werges left the station in 1974 because, he said, he was an alcoholic and “couldn’t cope anymore.” But, in some ways, he misses the glory days of KCBQ.
“Nothing can compare to it,” he said.
Most of the disc jockeys who worked at the station held a variety of jobs before and after their stints with KCBQ. It goes with the territory in the radio business, where careers are affected by ratings and the whims of management.
“To this day, there are a lot of negative aspects in this business,” Christian said. “But at least we were united in that one effort.”
By the late ‘70s, FM music stations began to dominate radio markets, and it took several years for KCBQ to adjust and establish its FM side. Though consistently successful, it has never achieved the success of the ground-breaking years of the ‘50s or the period in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
The station has gone through several owners through the years, and for a period in the early ‘80s, it even switched to a country music format. It reverted to oldies rock in 1986. Currently both the AM and FM side feature oldies rock (the AM uses the syndicated KOOL format), playing many of the same songs it did in the station’s heyday.
In December, the station was purchased by Adams Communications, which decided to emphasize the station’s history, dropping the “Eagle 105" moniker in favor of concentrating on the KCBQ call letters in all marketing campaigns.
“They feel KCBQ are legendary call letters that people are familiar with locally and nationally,” said station spokeswoman Leslie O’Neal.
In addition to James, Martin, Werges and Christian, the reunion is scheduled to bring back to the KCBQ airwaves such familiar names as Charlie Tuna, Jerry (Shadoe) Jackson, Dean Goss, “Shotgun Tom” Kelly, Jack Vincent, Charlie and Harrigan, Jerry G. Bishop and others.
For the disc jockeys, it will be a chance to revive old acquaintances and, for some, to relive the good old days.
“Harry Martin owes me a dollar and I’d like to collect at 10% interest each year,” James said with a laugh. “I’d also like to see if Don Howard still looks as funny as he used to.”