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Airwaves: January 9, 2015

Martindale on KHJ

Recent mentions of KHJ (930 AM) and the format change to religious talk brought in some amazing emails and letters. radio and television personality Wink Martindale was among the senders, and I share his story here. This is the first time I have ever heard of rock music being played in KHJ prior to the well-known game-changing Boss Radio format launched in April, 1965.

“The year was 1959. KHJ's  EARLIEST rock year!” Martindale began. “I was morning man at RKO's WHBQ/Memphis during the fifties. The RKO stations, with WHBQ leading the way, were preparing to make the programming switch from network radio to this trendy new format termed  ‘rock 'n roll.’” 
KHJ -- until 1950 a part of the Don Lee Broadcasting System until the chain was bought by what would later become RKO Radio -- had for many years been the West Coast feed for the Mutual Radio Network, Martindale explained. “Many of radio's most popular dramatic shows had originated from its studios at the corner of Fountain and Vine. Thus a move from drama to music was considered a pivotal event. Rightly so.

“As a 21 year old kid from Memphis I just happened to fall into the mix.” But it wouldn’t be easy, especially for a chain that had no experience in the format. “The station had its work cut out for it...big time! 

It was rock and roll radio’s infancy. “Just a year earlier KFWB (980 AM) had ushered in rock in Los Angeles with Chuck Blore at the helm introducing ‘The Seven Swingin' Gentlemen.’ Almost overnight ‘Color Radio Channel 98’ took the city by storm with ratings never before imagined ... on AM no less.” Of course this was years prior to the rise and dominance of FM music radio.

“To its credit RKO bigwigs had recognized rock as the force it had become early on” Martindale said. “They simply didn't know how to successfully implement it at KHJ. As one who had played rock in Memphis I was brought in to be the ‘morning man.’ But with several of its Mutual network voices still under contract they foolishly elected to have these dulcet toned voices become rock jocks. It was almost comical.” 

Proving that management in radio could be as bad then as it can be now, Martindale showed how RKO messed it up: “The station's playlist would include ‘Venus’ by Frankie Avalon ... But not ‘Stagger Lee’ by Lloyd Price. Their rationale? Far too 'loud!’” All the while attempting to compete with KFWB. “Needless to say this ‘chicken rock’ format never got to first base.”

His tenure at KHJ was short-lived. “Thankfully within a year I was offered the morning show at Pasadena's KRLA (now KDIS, 1110 AM), which by now was in competition for KFWB's vast audience. I felt I had been given a get-out-of-jail reprieve! In a note of irony, by late '62 Gary Owens departed KFWB for afternoons at KMPC (now KSPN, 710 AM). Program Director by then, Jim Hawthorne offered me the slot. Finally I felt the joy of hosting my dream job, the coveted morning show at KFWB.
“By 1966 I had left the station to further my career in game shows, though I continued in radio doing middays for 12 years at Gene Autry's KMPC.

As to KHJ itself ... “History shows the introduction of Boss Radio by programmer Ron Jacobs and consultants Bill Drake and Gene Chenault made mince-meat of the powerhouse we once knew as Color Radio, KFWB.”

So, as the late, great Paul Harvey used to say, “now you know ... the rest ... of the story.”

Marketing 101

While I’m on the topic, I cannot believe that Immaculate Heart Radio is totally blowing the marketing for their new religious talk format on KHJ. Instead of using the legendary call letters, they use the lame “AM 930” moniker with some generic words to “sell” the format. Same thing with their on-air ID ... so devoid of the stations’ rich history that could be used to help promote the format, even if it is a long way removed from top-40.

If I were Immaculate Heart, I’d take the history of the station and hype it. In years past, the call letters were said to connote Kindness Happiness and Joy. The billboard and on-air IDs should say something to the effect of:

“Kindness, Happiness and Joy ... Immaculate Heart Catholic Radio on 93/KHJ Los Angeles.” The billboard could mention “AM radio” or “on your AM dial” if management is worried about potential listeners who never venture off of FM. But that’s an easy addition.

The KHJ calls have a long history in Los Angeles, dating back to 1922. I tune in periodically because of that, and I’m not even Catholic. The owners should use that to their advantage. Few stations have such a history; even fewer have the same call letters they had at inception.


Copyright © 2015 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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