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AIRCHECK, The Story of Top 40 Radio in San Diego

San Diego Reader, Ken Leighton, February 17, 2006 

One for the Road After broadcasting for more than 50 years in English, last week the Rosarito-based 690 AM dropped American music for noticias, chismes, and deportes (news, gossip, and sports). Clear Channel sold the station to Spain's Grupo Prisa, which flipped it to Spanish talk February 6.

Ernie Meyers played big-band hits at KCBQ (AM 1170) when the Mighty 690/XEAK became San Diego's first Top 40 station in 1957. He moved to 690 a year later.

"My first year there we taped our DJ shows at the Mission Valley Inn," says Meyers. "Someone had to drive the tapes down to TJ all day long." Meyers says he decided to move to the Mighty 690 because "Top 40 [Elvis, Frankie Avalon] was the coming thing. Plus, 690 had the best transmitter in town, 50,000 watts. It went all the way up to Canada. They made me a pretty good offer."

In 1960, Meyers says Mighty 690 DJs began to drive across the border every day to do their shows. Meyers moved to KOGO in 1961, just before Top 40 was dropped and 690 became XETRA, Southern California's first all-news station. According to Aircheck: The Story of Top 40 Radio in San Diego, the station switched to "beautiful music" in 1968, returned to Top 40 in 1980, and then to oldies in 1984, when Wolfman Jack joined the crew. XTRA Sports arrived in 1990.

For the last year, the station was dubbed the "Fabulous 690, the Lounge" and played music by Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. The Fabulous 690 DJ staff signed off with a tearful on-air farewell. One of the emotional DJs was Mel Torme's daughter Daisy. The last song played was Frank Sinatra's "One for My Baby, One for the Road." -- Ken Leighton


Orange County Register, Gary Lycon's Column, April 11, 2004


We know from reader mail and e-mail many of you often listen to San Diego stations that can be heard in southern Orange County.

Here's a book you'll love to read: "Aircheck: The Story of Top 40 Radio in San Diego." David Leonard adapted the format used in Don Barrett's popular books on Los Angeles radio to chronicle 50 years of music, DJs and pop culture.

"I started with the early 1970s, intending to focus on the KCBQ-KGB radio war of 1971. The story was to end at the time I left the area in 1972. But a KCBQ Web site provided the names of its on-air staff of the 1950s, so I leaped back to that era," he writes.

Chuck Browning, Bobby Ocean, Shotgun Tom Kelly (now at KRTH) and Rich Brother Robbin are among the hundreds profiled. The book focuses on KGB, KCBQ, KDEO and XEAK "The Mighty 690."

If you love radio, it's a fun read. For more information, or to order the book, go to home .earthlink.net/{tilde}leonarddla/


 Wednesday, April 28, 2004 11:45 AM PDT

Looking back at San Diego radio







By: RANDY DOTINGA - For the North County Times
Editor's note: This is the first of two columns exploring the history of San Diego radio in the 1960s and 1970s.

When he first started interviewing people for a book about the glory days of San Diego radio, David Leonard figured the dozens of local disc jockeys from the '60s and '70s would hesitate to reveal memories to complete strangers.

He should have known better. Leonard, a San Diego native who's now a land planner in Riverside, got an earful. Boneheaded management decisions, ratings triumphs and disasters, firings and hirings and more firings ---- Leonard relived them with more than 50 radio personalities who graced the local airwaves

"There was quite a pent-up desire of people in the radio industry to express their experiences, both good and bad," Leonard said. "It was a thrilling ride to go through the process with people I had respected over the years."

The result of Leonard's work is "Aircheck: The Story of Top 40 Radio in San Diego," a new self-published book that offers an exhaustive but never exhausting look at the many personalities who populated San Diego's pop and rock stations, particularly KCBQ-AM and KGB-AM.

As a kid growing up in the San Diego neighborhood of Clairemont, Leonard listened to DJs spin records and collected radio memorabilia, like station "surveys," distributed at record stores, which spotlighted personalities and the top songs of the week. He grew up and moved away but kept his collection in order and discovered in the eBay era that plenty of the old-time surveys and photos were for sale.

"I realized I was buying them from the very people I used to listen to on the radio," Leonard said. "I started developing a curiosity about the business side of radio and what was involved in putting a show on the air."

Leonard decided to write a book chronicling the stories of the Top 40 stations and every DJ who ever picked up a mike from the late 1950s to 1980. And there were quite a few: Nearly 100 worked at KGB alone during that period. Before Top 40 appeared during the early days of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s, stations had often switched formats repeatedly during each day. KCBQ, for example, "began with a religious program, followed by a morning talk show, followed by a news show, followed by soap operas, followed by a music program, then an evening drama," Leonard said. "They went through all forms of programs out over the air to see which ones would stick."

Instead of focusing on a particular style of music, the Top 40 stations played the 40 most popular songs on the sales charts, no matter what they were. An Elvis song might be followed by a Henry Mancini instrumental number, then a country-western tune.

"You'd never know what song would come next," Leonard recalled.

From the late 1950s on, the two Top 40 heavyweights in San Diego were KGB/1360 AM and KCBQ/1170 AM, while rivals XEAK (now XTRA) and KDEO tried to keep up with disc jockeys such as Mike Ambrose and Morton Downey Jr., who both later went on to TV fame.

The book's many photos reveal how strait-laced radio was before about 1965. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, crewcuts, horn-rimmed glasses and neckties ---- neckties! ---- were par for the course for personalities who included the likes of Don Howard, Harry "Happy Hare" Martin, and Ernie Meyers, who all continued their careers for decades. (Howard died in 2001, while Meyers retired a couple of years ago; Martin hosts a show on golden oldies station KPOP, which took over KGB's old AM frequency).

In many ways, KGB was the creative leader and often landed on top of the ratings too. Starting a nationwide trend, it pioneered a format called "Boss Radio." Instead of allowing disc jockeys to gab the day away, programmers started to tighten things up and focus on music. New station rules specified that disc jockeys had to play 14 songs an hour, not speak for more than 15 seconds between songs, and play the news at 20 minutes after the hour. This was revolutionary. Staffers at KDEO got so discombobulated that they tried to cram even more tunes onto the air.

"They were literally taking songs, recording them on tape, and then manipulating tape by splicing or speeding it up," Leonard said.

Meanwhile, the rock music revolution ratcheted up the competition between the stations, which hired and fired like crazy. Then, in 1968, KCBQ started getting its mojo back.

Next week, Part II: Reliving the last glory days of AM radio in San Diego before FM dominates the scene. Leonard's book, by the way, sells for $20, plus shipping, at http://home.earthlink.net/~leonarddla.

Randy Dotinga remembers when vinyl wasn't just a type of chair covering. E-mail him at NCTimesRadio@aol.com.



Wednesday, May 5, 2004 1:45 PM PDT

    1968: Boss Radio takes hold in SD

    Remember 1968? It was quite a year. And not just because a future North County Times radio columnist was born, destined like children everywhere to grow up and assume his mother had managed to immaculately conceive him. The year of the monkey ---- no wisecracks, please ---- has another distinction: It turned the San Diego radio scene upside down.

    In the tight battle for local rock listeners, upstart KGB-AM and its innovative Boss Radio format ---- heavy on the music, light on the talk ---- had landed on top, and arch rival KCBQ-AM was DOA. But suddenly, KCBQ started getting its groove back, as described in a new self-published book called "Aircheck: The Story of Top 40 Radio in San Diego."

    As author David Leonard describes it, KCBQ began playing an early version of alternative rock ---- songs by artists like Country Joe & the Fish, Arlo Guthire, Canned Heat and Velvet Underground that didn't make the conventional Top 40. DJs included well-known names like Scotty Day, Gary Allyn and the legendary Lee "Babi" Simms, who once fooled a KGB disc jockey into thinking a new Beatles song was called "Broken Down Old Merry Go-Round."

    Simms reportedly got fired five times, once for referring to an advertiser as "bandits."

    Meanwhile, disc jockeys were getting shaggier and shaggier. Not the women, of course ---- because there weren't any. At that time, local Top 40 disc jockeys were all men ---- and virtually all white. Black disc jockeys began to appear on the San Diego airwaves only in the 1970s, and even now the airwaves remain almost entirely lily white.

    As they let their hair grow, disc jockeys took time to engage in, um, leisure activities. Leonard ignores the juicy bits of personal gossip as much as possible, and mostly declined to dip into stories about sexual affairs with women (or men).

    "What I did cover was when people's lives were ruined, and it was rather publicly done as a result of drugs and alcohol," he said.

    "You see that as a repeating theme throughout the era, and it comes back to the pressures they were under to compete."

    Then, as now, ratings were king. A station without listeners soon found itself without employees. Luckily, KCBQ and KGB ---- which eventually recovered ---- stuck around. But it didn't take long for them to become shadows of their former selves.

    By the mid-to-late 1970s, FM stations began to dominate the dial as listeners realized that music sounds better in stereo. The era of AM-only car stereos began to come to an end. In San Diego, legendary stations KPRI ---- featured in the movie "Almost Famous" ---- and KGB-FM started to rule the roost.

    Still, the AM stations fought around through the Me Decade, trying out different formats and boosting the careers of DJs like Gene Knight (now at KyXy), "Shotgun Tom" Kelly (now at L.A.'s K-Earth), "Charlie & Harrigan," and others.

    If you troll around the dial today, you won't find KGB-AM. The station fell into decline in the late 1970s, and its simulcast of the fledgling CNN headline news network in the early 1980s didn't improve its fortunes.

    Eventually, its call letters changed to KPOP. The station formerly known as KGB-AM now plays golden oldies. (Ironically, Leonard said, his parents now listen to KPOP host Harry "Happy Hare" Martin, the same guy who entertained Leonard and other young listeners on KCBQ three decades ago.)

    KCBQ, meanwhile, broadcasts conservative talk radio nowadays. A few years ago, KCBQ explored its storied history in a Saturday night show called "I Q in My Car." The show was later canceled, and the only way anyone can relive KCBQ's past now is to get ahold of old tapes or read Leonard's book.

    If you'd like to buy a copy, visit the Web site http://home.earthlink.net/~leonarddla.

    Who's on top? When it comes to the ratings, it's news/talk station KOGO, once again. More county listeners tuned in to KOGO's motley crew (Roger Hedgecock, Rush Limbaugh, Stacy Taylor and the no-longer-ultrapermed Dr. Laura) than any other station during the winter months, according to the latest Arbitron report.

    But KOGO needs to watch its back. Talk station KFMB-AM (home to Sean Hannity, Rick Roberts and Bill O'Reilly) is close on its heels in fourth place, behind soft-rock KyXy and hip-hopping Jammin Z90, both tied for second.

    San Diego CityBEAT  September 15, 2004

     “I had collected weekly radio surveys in my youth and somehow managed to save them for 30 years,” remarked David Leonard, author of a new book Aircheck: The Story of Top 40 Radio in San Diego. “When eBay came along, I would surf the categories of things that might appeal to me. I came across a page listing Top-40 radio, and in time, some San Diego station surveys were offered. I started buying them for nostalgic purposes and to grow my humble collection.”


    That radio ephemera now forms the visual heart of Leonard’s book. The minutely detailed information isn’t for the casual reader, as Leonard makes little attempt to spin the information into any sort of narrative. But for music history buffs, the info is fascinating, including the minutiae of San Diego radio stations and their promotions, plus detailed information on pretty much every DJ who ever spun a platter over the air. It also includes radio signal coverage maps, in case you’ve ever wondered which stations can be heard in which communities.


    In his research, Leonard says he “exhausted Internet and published resources,” and then contacted former on-air personalities and management staff at radio stations—present and past—to flesh out the information.


    “It was amazing how willing and open they were to talk about their radio experiences,” Leonard said. At that point, he still had no intention of writing a book on the subject, but the sensitivity of time and compelling nature of the stories led his hand. Many of the old radio pros he interviewed died either before he had a chance to glean their stories, or passed away soon after.


    “My inspiration came [directly] from developing access to radio personalities, hearing stories that were worthy of documenting and realizing that the time was running out to have an opportunity to get their story or perspective about the events from the 1950s through 1970s,” Leonard explained. “Plus, [collecting the information] was fun, and still is.”


    Leonard, who is still an avid follower of radio, cites one major difference between the airwaves then and now.


    “You will find that during the era Aircheck covers—given the size of San Diego, station coverages, contests and format advances—radio air personalities had star power that was not experienced anywhere else. Completely the opposite in San Diego today.” For more info on Aircheck, go to home.earthlink.net/~leonarddla.



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