Catch of the Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can a man who spent the 1960s peddling revolution on the radio find happiness peddling nostalgia there in the '90s?

If his name is Charlie Tuna, he can. Well, actually his name is Art Ferguson; he just goes by Charlie Tuna. But we'll get to that later. The point is, after successfully working a dozen disparate formats, from country to contemporary and from talk to Top 40, why should Tuna flounder in his latest role playing big band and swing records for KLAC-AM (570)? After all, they're the same tunes he played in his first radio job 38 years ago.

"It's just like I've come full circle," he says. "Everything old becomes new again. Not to knock what everyone else does, but this is real music. These are the standards."

For Tuna, however, a little traveling music would probably be more appropriate. After all, he's averaged a job change once every two years during his long career--once even pulling a six-month stint in San Diego that gave him a three-hour commute.

"Everybody always wonders what your first words are going to be when you sign on to a new station," Tuna said when he signed on at KLAC for the first time Nov. 30. "Hey, when you work 13 different morning shows on different stations around the city, you just want to get the call letters right."

Actually, getting the song titles right might be more of a challenge for someone who cut his teeth playing music by the Mamas and the Papas and wound up playing music more commonly associated with grandmas and grandpas. But the man who hired Tuna insists KLAC's format will be just as current as anything MTV plays--even if many of the artists it features died long before cable TV was invented.

"Our presentation is a now, today situation. We just happen to play adult standards, big bands and that kind of stuff," says programming consultant Bob Hamilton. "One of the things we're not going to be is we're not going to be your grandfather's radio station."

But grandpa is probably going to like this better than Headbanger's Ball. That's because, as KLAC makes the transition from Westwood One's syndicated shows to locally produced programming, the station will be adding segments with titles like "Big Band Jump" and "When Radio Was." The latter show, which debuts Monday at 9 p.m., will feature old-time radio classics from the drama, comedy, mystery and suspense genres.

The music, however, will be the star, and Hamilton is confident it's a star that's rising. A similarly formatted music station in Las Vegas is No. 1 in that market, and Hamilton's San Francisco station, KABL-AM (960), has taken a big band-swing playlist to sixth in the local ratings.

"There's a whole new wave of young people just getting turned on by this music," says Hamilton, alluding to swing-inspired pop hits by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. "It's really exciting to see the young people finding this format. It's a niche format that is unique because there's not a lot of great new product coming out, so they're going back and finding the old stuff."

And it's a niche that KLAC has to itself in Southern California. Already the station claims to be drawing 600,000 listeners a week, making it the most listened-to big band-swing outlet in the country. And drive-time deejay Tuna is definitely the big fish in KLAC's pond.

"What's important for a disc jockey is to be entertaining," says syndicated deejay Casey Kasem. "And it doesn't matter anymore whether you're a country jock or you're a top music jock or a rap jock. Being good is being good.

"And he's good."

Tuna's first radio job was a three-hour overnight shift on a low-power station in Kearney, Neb., his hometown, where he worked under the name Art Ferguson, the one he was born with. Shortly after he started, management fired its morning deejay and offered the open spot to the 16-year-old Ferguson.

"They said, 'Kid, can you do it?' And I said, 'Yeah, but I have to be to high school by 10 o'clock.' "

After high school, he jumped to Wichita, Kan.--where he adopted the nom de radio Billy O'Day, and then to KOMA, a 50,000-watt powerhouse in Oklahoma City, where he was handed the name Charlie Tuna.

Turns out that while Ferguson / O'Day was in transit from Wichita to Oklahoma City, a flu bug crippled KOMA's staff. Desperate for fill-ins, management turned to a news reporter, who refused to take to the air without a pseudonym. With nothing more than a six-pack of beer and a TV set for inspiration, the reporter eventually settled on the name Charlie Tuna midway through a Star-Kist commercial.

The show was such a hit, the station had no choice but to keep Charlie Tuna on the air--only it was newcomer Ferguson not the news reporter they put behind the mike. From Oklahoma City, Tuna went to Boston and finally to Los Angeles, where he landed at KHJ-AM (930) in 1967.

At its peak, KHJ was the most-listened-to radio station in the country. Although its catchy jingles, wild promotions and tight playlist of top 40 hits were revolutionary, what really made KHJ stand out was its stable of talented disc jockeys. They were the Boss Jocks--the Real Don Steele, "Humble" Harve Miller, Robert W. Morgan and Tuna--and often they were more popular than the artists they played.

They were famous even in North Carolina, where a teenage Rick Dees grew up listening to tapes of KHJ made by a flight attendant friend who worked the Greensboro-L.A. route for Piedmont Airlines. "She always got [to L.A.] in the morning, so she'd tape Charlie Tuna," remembers Dees, who hosts a popular morning program on KIIS-FM (102.7). "And I thought, 'Wow! He is amazing!' Because of his timing, his way of doing fast humor. He just embodied top 40 radio the way I loved it."

"KHJ," Tuna admits, "is the benchmark of my career."

From there, he moved more often than Al Davis, establishing KROQ--on an AM signal--in 1972, working as both program director and morning deejay on KIIS-AM and FM, anchoring a drive-time oldies show on KCBS-FM (93.1), even hosting a sports-talk show on KMPC-AM (710) before settling in for a Methuselah-like--for Tuna--four-year stay at country station KIKF-FM (94.3).

Along the way, he's refined his witty on-air persona and developed popular features such as "Tuna Trivia," "Tuna Tabloids" and "The Hollywood News." He's also perfected the timing and rhythm that have become trademarks of the '60s generation of top 40 deejays.

"I think Charlie has always had great presentation," says radio historian Ben Fong-Torres. "He knew what it took to succeed and he did it. He has had it all. And now he simply enjoyed the communication, the entertainment of radio.

"The great ones," says Fong-Torres, "will transcend formats."

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Radio Theater: KLOS-FM (95.5) will air a live broadcast of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" Friday beginning at about 9 a.m. The broadcast, which will originate from the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills, will feature performances by Christine Cavanaugh (the voice of the Rugrats' Chuckie Finster), Roxann Dawson (of "Star Trek Voyager") and KLOS personalities Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps.

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Temporarily Yours: The holiday season on talk radio has suddenly become fill-in time.

KABC-AM (790) has been scheduling weekly co-hosts to be partnered with Marc ("Mr. KABC") Germain, the thus-far permanent-temporary replacement on KABC-AM's (790) 5-9 a.m. morning-drive show that was formerly hosted by Ken Minyard and Peter Tilden.

On Wednesday, KABC announced that actor-environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. will be paired next week with Germain. This week's partner is Los Angeles Times columnist Mike Downey.

Meanwhile, as KRLA-AM (1110) awaits the release of Michael Jackson from his contractual obligations at KABC, its 9 a.m.-noon slot is being held by syndicated host Doug Stephan (who also airs weekends from 1-5 a.m.), paired with a variety of partners. Jackson arrives Jan. 4.

Conservative columnist Arianna Huffington was scheduled as a fill-in for Friday but she recently canceled. In the wake of former husband Michael Huffington's disclosure in Esquire magazine that he is homosexual, station management was not surprised. Instead, comedian Tom Dreesen, who used to open for Frank Sinatra, will be at the mike. Dreesen's presence is also timely. On Dec. 12, Sinatra, who died May 14, would have been 83.

Upcoming co-hosts include Fritz Coleman, Sam Rubin and Fred Coleman.

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New Partners?: Public radio station KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena may soon have a new partner in Minnesota.

Minnesota Public Radio, which operates 30 public radio stations, has presented the Pasadena City College board of trustees with a proposal to create a new, not-for-profit entity. The proposal would change the way the station is set up, forming a nonprofit company with a new board made up of personnel from both Minnesota Public Radio and the board.

KPCC's station manager, Cindy Young, said that a joint operating partnership would help the station to raise more money, and give KPCC greater stability. "Current regulations make it very difficult for the college to run a 24-hour, 365-day radio station. As an affiliate, the station would have its own governing board charged with development responsibilities."

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Times staff writer Judith Michaelson contributed to this report.

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