The Summer of 1986: Two Steps Back

April 9, 2020

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote the latest chapter in my continuing radio saga. I should make this into a book and title it “I was a Roaming Radio Gypsy” or “Fifteen Years as a Radio Drifter.” I’m only up to station number 3 and there are about 20 left to go! I figure I’ll have this finished by the end of this year.

As I mentioned in the previous chapter, I left KWKR to return to Minnesota and attend college. That didn’t work out as planned. In the preceding chapter, I mentioned that I would come back to KCHK whenever I was “between jobs” and needing an income source. Put these two together and you can guess where I made my next stop on Radio’s Road of Fortune. I went back to New Prague and filled in as needed for a couple of months. Back to playing polka records and reading obituaries on Sunday mornings. It wasn’t all bad, though. My parents lived close enough so they could hear me. I happened to be working on the morning of Mom’s 50th birthday. I played “The Old Lady Polka” and dedicated it to her. Ah, the perks of small market radio! During this time, I supplemented my income by working as delivery driver for Domino’s Pizza. Since I didn’t finish driving until 1:00AM and KCHK sign-on was 5:00AM, there was no point in going home to sleep. It was here that I learned the fine art of sleeping on the control room floor, hoping to get a few hours’ rest before my shift began. Later, I would learn to carry a sleeping bag in the trunk of my car for this very purpose. All for the princely sum of $4.00 per hour. Was I crazy or just plain stupid?

In late June, Bette Bailly called me. As you may recall, Bette was the General Manager at my first station: KNAB AM/FM in Burlington, Colorado. I had talked to her a few months earlier when I decided to leave Mankato State University and get back into radio. Bette had an opening. She usually hired beginners out of Brown Institute. But in this case, the guy who was leaving had been there a few years and was quite good. She wanted someone with experience. So of course, I packed up my reliable ‘ol puke green 1973 Buick Century and headed west. Again. Whereas my first KNAB adventure lasted 9 months, Round Two was over in just 6 weeks. Bette and I clashed on too many issues. Since I now had experience at a larger station, I would question procedures and policies that I felt were incorrect. Bette would have none of it. She was the boss, pure and simple. If I had a dime for every time she said “I don’t give a rat’s ass WHAT you did in Garden City!”, I would be a rich man today. So, I left KNAB for the second time on Wednesday, August 6, 1986.

During the time I was attending college in Minnesota, Jim Davis had replaced Lee Barr as Program Director of KWKR. I had worked with Jim and he knew of my desire to return to KWKR. He assured me the next air slot to open up would be mine. Burlington was only 170 miles from Garden City. My purpose in coming back to KNAB was to get back on-the-air and draw a paycheck until I could get back to KWKR. After leaving KNAB, however, I had no idea what my next move was going to be. I didn’t have a home phone. This seriously complicated one’s ability to find a new job in 1986 B.I. (Before Internet!)

One week later, I was awakened to the sound of a car horn, frantically blowing in my alley. I lived on the third floor of an apartment building that was locked 24/7. Since I had no phone, my friends would contact me by driving through the alley below and either honking their horn or throwing rocks at my bedroom window. I opened the window to find my friend Betty Boland, yelling through the open T-tops of her ’79 Trans Am. “Some guy named Jim Davis called for you at the beauty shop. He says to call him right away. He has a job for you!” The fact that Jim was able to track me down via Betty’s Beauty Bar was nothing short of amazing. Yay for small towns where everyone knows each other!

Mr. Davis had come to my rescue in my time of need! I threw on my clothes and ran down to the beauty shop to call Jim. I told him I was ready to come back to Garden City! I was so happy to be coming back to KWKR. I could be there tomorrow, if need be. Then, Jim said something I will never forget: “I’m not in Garden City. I left last week. I’m Program Director of KKEZ in Fort Dodge, Iowa. We’ve got 100,000 watts that cover more than 30 counties. We’re Number One! I want you to get the (expletive deleted) up here and do nights for me!”

I was excited, but I was also scared. This was a much bigger sandbox than Garden City. Fort Dodge was only 70 miles from Des Moines as the crow flies. With a good radio, KKEZ could be heard in Des Moines. The capital of Iowa. There had to be at least a few hundred thousand people within that signal contour! At age 22, I had an ego that wouldn’t quit. But deep down, I knew I was still pretty “green” and not all that behind the mic. What if I couldn’t cut it? Jim had over 20 years of radio experience, including heritage Top 40s KIOA/Des Moines and KOIL/Omaha. I knew his standard for performance was pretty high.

On the day before I was to leave for Fort Dodge, I received another phone call. This one was from Ron Isham, my General Manager in Garden City. Jim Davis’ departure created an opportunity in the budget to hire another person. They could move some people around at KWKR, making room for me to return. What to do? What to do?

It was the classic choice of risk vs security. KWKR was a known commodity. The company was solid, the operation was successful, and I would have that job for as long as I wanted it. But it was an unrated market in Western Kansas. I knew people who had been on-the-air there for 20+ years. I did not aspire to become one of them. Fort Dodge was a huge opportunity: the chance to work with an experienced programmer and do my thing on a big signal. But it was also risky. I knew nothing about the company or the market, other than what Jim had told me. If I wasn’t as good as Jim thought I could be, I was outta there in short order.

The next morning, I left Burlington. I stopped at the McDonald’s in Colby, Kansas and sat in the parking lot for about 20 minutes, making a decision. This is where the road split: US 24 east towards Fort Dodge or I-70/US 83 to Garden City. I carefully weighed all the pros and cons. Finally, I pointed my car east on Highway 24 and headed for my future: the new night jock on Fort Dodge’s Hit Radio 94, KKEZ.