The year was 1966. A late-night call came in to the switchboard at KHJ-AM, Los Angeles’ powerhouse rock ‘n’ roll station. On the line was Brian Wilson, the creative force behind the Beach Boys, the local surf band that had already attained superstar status.
He was calling from the recording studio where he had just finished cutting the seminal rock record “Good Vibrations.” Did KHJ want to be the first to play it?
“Bands would cut a record on Tuesday, and Wednesday they’d give us a tape,” recalled former KHJ deejay Charlie Tuna.
It wasn’t just musicians and record industry types who tuned in. At the peak of KHJ’s popularity in the mid-1960s, the station was attracting 1 of every 4 radio listeners in the Los Angeles area, and the deejays who played the music were almost as famous as some of the artists themselves. The station provided them with superstar salaries, opportunities to emcee the biggest concerts of the day, invitations to parties with rock stars and even their own custom-made white Nehru suits.
At a “teen-age fair” held at the Hollywood Palladium during that period, kids were polled as to who were the biggest influences on their lives.
“The order was: God, disc jockeys, then parents,” former KHJ deejay Robert W. Morgan said.
“When the music was hot, so were we,” said Humble Harve Miller, another KHJ veteran. “We were right in the midst of the hottest place in the world, musically. This was the center of everything--all the recording studios were going 24 hours a day. We were right in the center of all that energy.”
Twenty-five years later, Tuna, Morgan, Miller and two other superstar deejays of that era--the Real Don Steele of KHJ and Dave (the Hullabalooer) Hull of rival rock station KRLA--continue to broadcast in Los Angeles, spinning the very same records they did back then. But the music is no longer hot, and neither are they. They’re employed by what are now called oldies stations; they peddle nostalgia rather than revolution.
Simply remaining on the air in an industry that runs through people almost as fast as it runs through records is a significant accomplishment. But not everyone realizes that, and the five veterans sometimes struggle to fight the value judgment associated with having gone from being stars-- the coolest guys at the coolest stations--to just another deejay at an oldies station.
“People have the wrong idea about oldies,” Miller said. “They think it’s just a bunch of old guys playing dead music. . . . But we’re not sitting here dredging up old skeletons from the past. We are reliving wonderful memories. That’s our job.”
That does seem to be the mandate, according to management at both KRTH-FM (101.1), which employs Morgan and Steele, and KCBS-FM (93.1), home to Tuna and Miller. (Hull works at KRLA-AM (1110), his old stamping ground.) By hiring people whose names and voices are integrally connected to the past, the stations hope to forge strong allegiances with listeners.
“There’s a factor in radio called ‘heritage,’ ” said KRTH General Manager Pat Duffy. “It’s based on familiarity. It’s easier to listen to people that you’re really familiar with. . . . It’s sort of like the same thing that happened with Walter Cronkite. He became your friend delivering the news. Morgan and Steele have been around so long doing this format that people are comfortable with them. They trust them. Also, these guys have been doing this format so long that they know every song. They know when to talk over it, they know what to say about it.”
The strategy seems to have paid off at KRTH. The station’s ratings are fairly high, ranking 10th in the Los Angeles area, according to the latest Arbitron ratings survey. Advertising revenue rose from $1,666,272 in 1991 to $1,781,076 in 1992, fourth among all Southern California stations.
The picture at KCBS is not so rosy. It ranked 18th in advertising revenue in 1992--at $647,664, down from $653,440 in 1991--and came in 20th in the latest Arbitron ratings. Still, the station’s philosophy in hiring familiar voices is much the same.
At the same time, however, KCBS Program Director Tommy Edwards points out that Los Angeles is unusual in its employment of veteran personalities.
“It’s been my experience in other markets that heritage disc jockeys are not that important to the listeners,” Edwards said. “I think research shows that, for the most part, people just wanted to hear the music. They don’t really care who’s playing it. Los Angeles is rather unique. There’s a great affection for these guys.”
And they in turn have great affection for the music.
“I’m on the radio because I love what I’m doing and I hope I can convey that to the listeners,” Miller said. “The emotional impact of some of these songs never ceases to have a hold on me. . . . Today there’s a lot of formula music, a lot of homogenized jive. Today’s music is more violent, anti-love, spouting selfishness and appealing to the darker side. What we play was the poetry of a generation.”
Each of the five employs a different methodology for keeping his approach fresh, for finding something new to say and for keeping his sanity. It’s one thing to listen to “Michelle” or "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” over and over, quite another to put on “Wooly Bully” or “Wipe Out” for the 10,000th time. A frequent ploy is to take off the headphones while the music is playing so they don’t hear it.
“There are some songs you might get a little burned out on, but you’re not really paying so much attention,” Tuna said. “On the other hand, you have to realize that someone else may be hearing the song for the first time.”
Robert W. Morgan
A cheerily delivered “Good Morgan!” is what Robert W. Morgan is perhaps best known for after nearly three decades as a morning drive personality on the L.A. airwaves.
He began as morning man at KHJ in 1965 and remained at the station until 1973. Then for 17 years he was morning host at KMPC, while the station played standards from the ‘40s and ‘50s. After KMPC switched to an all-sports format last year, Morgan returned to his rock ‘n’ roll roots, taking over the 5-9 a.m. slot at KRTH-FM.
Morgan doesn’t consider it a move backward to be playing the same tunes he played in the ‘60s.
“I still feel the same way about the music,” he said. “At the time when these records were hits, they were the cutting edge of pop rock. What the cutting edge is now I don’t know. But this music now has become pop standards. The Supremes have replaced the Four Lads, and Stevie Wonder has replaced Sinatra. This kind of music and this kind of station is really like what an old middle-of-the-road station was once. I think the (ratings) success of KRTH has proven that these were the glory days of popular music.”
Morgan keeps his morning show topical with wry observations and quick satirical bits.
“I don’t come in here in the mornings and say, ‘I’m going to come in and play oldies again,’ ” he said. “I come in and do a radio show and say, ‘I happen to be playing these records.’ . . . Just because people listen to this music doesn’t mean they want to hear about things that happened in the ‘60s. Our listeners prefer this music compared to what else is available to them.”
Whatever you want to call them, however, he acknowledges that there are advantages to working with oldies. “I know how they end, I know how they start,” Morgan said. “I don’t have to watch the American Music Awards--and that in itself is reward enough for not playing current music.”
Nebraska-born Art Ferguson has long felt as if he got away with a major coup.
“When I first came out here at 23, it was like ‘Who’s the kid?’ Everybody was saying, ‘He’ll be gone in 90 days'--and here I am 25 years later and no one’s caught on to it,” he said. He now does the 5-10 a.m. shift on KCBS-FM.
Ferguson--whose nom du radio is Charlie Tuna--has been driven to succeed in radio since the age of 16, having started on a late-night shift at a station in his hometown of Kearney, near Omaha. He was also a high school athlete and sports editor of his local paper at the time, but radio soon took precedence.
He had on-air stints in Wichita, Kan., Oklahoma City and Houston before joining KHJ in 1967.
“I love the business,” Ferguson said. “It’s very comfortable. It’s not work. You play records and talk to people. You meet celebrities. God, what a dream.”
But the business of radio has changed radically over the years. “I’m much more regimented than I’ve ever been used to,” he said. “It was a lot more unstructured then and, to be honest, a lot more fun. It was a whole different era then. Now there are a lot more bankers and accountants in it. It’s not as fun. But you just kind of adapt.”
He is convinced that oldies are popular because of the powerful emotions evoked by music. “I guess I’ve lasted because oldies bring back so many memories,” he said.
Unlike some of his colleagues, Ferguson likes contemporary music; he even serves as host of a daily one-hour show for Armed Forces Radio that features the latest rock acts. “I’m playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica, then I turn around and play Bo Diddley (on KCBS),” he said. “I relate to both. I love oldies and the new stuff.”
A father of four, Ferguson counsels his children--among them a 25-year-old aspiring rock musician--on choosing careers wisely. “The advice I always give my children is to find something they really enjoy and have fun at it,” he explained. “And if they pay you, that’s a bonus.”
Dave Hull speaks with longing for what he recalls as the innocent days of the 1950s and early ‘60s. In fact, when his 6-10 a.m. weekday show at KRLA-AM wraps up on Fridays, he immediately heads out to his home in Pine Mountain, a sparsely populated area in Kern County, near Frazier Park. It has a small-town feeling, he explains, that reminds him of those simpler times.
Though one cannot tell from his voice, Hull is approaching 60. He began his radio career in Dayton, Ohio, and achieved fame locally as a disc jockey at KRLA from 1963 to 1969.
“I would say that my best times were in the ‘60s because that’s when I was really a giant in this town,” Hull said. “But they weren’t necessarily my best times within myself. My best time, my best spiritual well-being, has been now.
“But I’ve got to tell you that those times were so great,” he continued, his voice breaking with emotion. “They’ll never be repeated. There will never be a time as great or as innocent or as fun as those days. We’ve lost our innocence.”
Shortly after leaving KRLA, Hull was host of a music and talk show at KMPC-AM (710) called “Lovelines,” which he later developed into a television dating show called “Matchmaker.” He returned to KRLA from 1981 to 1985, then left to write a television movie called “Loveline.” “I couldn’t even tell you how bad it was,” he said, laughing. “But it kept me on the lot at Columbia for two years.”
He sold real estate for a while, then returned to KRLA in 1991. He tackles his job by adopting a special mind-set.
“It really is like a time warp,” Hull said. “It’s not like an oldies station in the ‘90s. It’s like a popular music station in the ‘50s and ‘60s. That’s how you have to gear yourself when you go into work. It’s like ‘Back to the Future.’ . . . If you walk back into the place thinking you have actually returned to the time, then you can get into the frame of mind needed to sound like nothing has changed. It’s like deja vu .”
“There’s not too many guys like me left,” Humble Harve Miller said of his straightforward, music-loving approach to being a deejay. “Now you have a lot of card-readers or guys who have to resort to a lot of low-life stuff in the morning. They have to dig down in the garbage can rather than use a double- or triple-entendre. They have to grovel down because they don’t have any other act.”
Miller, heard 6-10 p.m. weeknights on KCBS and formerly on KRTH, believes strongly in separating his real life from his on-air existence.
“It’s difficult to get to the top, and it’s very, very difficult to stay there,” he said. “I work here (at KCBS). I don’t live here. We do our jobs and go home. You have to put it into perspective and live as if you’re in Omaha and work as if you’re in Hollywood. If ever the twain meets, you’ve got problems.”
Ever since Miller started as a deejay at 17, his love for the music has been a driving force.
“We are emcees,” he said of the deejay’s role. “Some people think the music is an interruption to their act. But . . . the music has always been the act for me. I try to be as entertaining as I can in presenting the music. But the music is so powerful it will speak for itself 99% of the time.”
Life at KHJ in the ‘60s was “like New Year’s Eve every night,” Miller said, and he looks back at that era nostalgically. “We played happy, fun music. The music was inspired. It was the poetry of a generation. They used real instruments, instead of electronic crap. Milli Vanilli could never have happened then.”
The Real Don Steele thinks he is still real, after all these years.
“I don’t think I’m any different now,” he said, attempting to compare what he does during his 4-7 p.m. show at KRTH to what he did at KHJ in the ‘60s. “I’ve never stopped. I’ve never changed. I never did anything else. This is the music of my life.”
He was at KHJ from 1965 to 1975, then went to work as a deejay at KRLA from 1975 to 1985.
The runaway success of KHJ in the ‘60s took him by surprise. “We were standing literally at ground zero, then it became a huge giant,” Steele said. “It was like a mushroom cloud that went up--heavy on the mushroom.”
He has continued to play essentially the same music during the 30 years he has been in broadcasting. A California native and a graduate of Hollywood High School, Steele got his first job in San Francisco in 1962. He was heard on KCBS before moving to KRTH last year in the afternoon drive-time spot.
Steele also has a nationally syndicated radio show called “Live From the ‘60s,” which airs in about 300 cities around the country, and he is hoping to resuscitate “The Real Don Steele Television Dance Show,” a popular program that aired in the ‘60s.
He thinks of oldies as “nothing more than a generic term that describes a particular classification of music popular in America. What was once cutting edge is now middle of the road.”
His fast-paced style from the KHJ days continues at KRTH, and he is still known to occasionally shout the nonsensical phrase that caught on locally in the ‘60s: “Tina Delgado is alive! Alive!”
Steele shrugs. “You can’t be mature and play this game.”