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Radio AM to FM: September 2, 2005

Too Many Passings

Last week was a sad one for many radio fans. I know it was for me.

First I read that radio engineer Bob Kanner passed away on August 20th, after a six-year fight with lung cancer.

Then came word two days later that personality China Smith suffered a heart attack and passed away.

Two more days later, and it was personality Big John Carter who passed.

Kanner was the Chief Engineer for RKO's Los Angeles stations KHJ and KRTH from 1977 to November, 2000 when he retired due to health reasons. Prior to that he was in the same position at KRO's KFRC AM/FM up in San Francisco. He was one of the reasons that RKO's AM stations had such a great sound, especially when heard on a good radio.

His lung cancer was of the type associated with exposure to asbestos, according to reports. Friends say he felt he had been exposed when doing a major studio renovation as CE of WMCA/New York in the early 1970s. Apparently asbestos-based sound-deadening material was removed with no protective measures, as exposure to asbestos was not considered dangerous at the time. He may have been exposed doing rewiring jobs at other stations as well.

China Smith was born Thomas Wayne Rorabacher. His Los Angeles radio career began at KDAY in 1971, but it was at KCBQ/San Diego when he picked up the name "China." Programmer Gary Allyn thought it gave a unique ethnic balance of exotic and American.

Along the way, he worked at KRLA, KROQ (AM), KMET, KLOS, KWST, KMGG, KUTE, KTWV, and KAJZ/KACD. For five years he hosted a popular jazz-based syndicated program called Fusion 40, of which he was very proud, and was the voice of television's Solid Gold in the 1980s.

I first heard China myself on the new K-WEST, when the former AOR station made the switch to top-40 in the Summer of 1981. I absolutely loved that station; most of the personalities were from the last top-40 days of KHJ -- as was the presentation -- but China was a holdover from K-WEST's previous album rock format. He worked the evening shift and was absolutely fabulous with a great voice. I always felt that other shifts didn't work as well with his attitude and voice, but evenings were a perfect match.

Former KACD programmer Manon Hennesy said of China: "He loved a wide variety of music, one of his biggest passions, another being basketball and the lakers. He had a good heart ... despite hardships he faced in recent years and a number of health problems, he basically believed that people were good, and was an optimist. China passed away at home. His wish was to be cremated and have his ashes spread over Hess Lake in Michigan.

I met Big John Carter over the telephone while he was at "Car Radio" KHJ, except that I did not know it was him. He was using his real name, Johnny Yount, as he played the hits and gave traffic reports every ten minutes. I was one of the few who listened to the station (my KHJ fondness borders on fanaticism), and Yount took the time to speak with me when I called. Numerous times.

I didn't even find out about Big John Carter and the fact that he previously worked at KHJ in 1975 until the last night of the Car Radio format. Yount ran gag where he was "fired" because he didn't want to do the traffic reports any more. His replacement? None other than Big John Carter, introduced by playing his old jingle. Of course KHJ was gone completely by midnight the same night.

He previously worked at stations in San Diego, Honolulu, Fresno and another favorite of mine, KEZY/Anaheim. He passed away in a Fresno hospital, where he was in critical care with an infection in his brain.


Copyright © 2005 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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