Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Last Day, The Last Hour, Part 2: David B. Treadway

This is the part of the story that hurts to tell, a chronicle of the last day of KAAY. It’s no stretch to say that April 3, 1985, was the end of an empire. It was the day we threw a Lion to the Christians.

The rumors were confirmed in a staff meeting in December of 1984: KAAY was for sale—and the high bidder was a religious broadcasting company which would end the station’s music format. The powerful Mighty 1090 signal would become the province of radio preachers and per-inquiry sales entities as soon as the deal closed and the FCC approved it. We could see the end coming, but we also had a tiny sliver of hope.

Philip R. Jonsson, whose Signal Media of Arkansas owned KLRA (10,000 watts at 1010 Khz and for decades the dominant country station in the market), expressed an interest in buying KAAY along with its FM counterpart KLPQ (100,000 watts ERP at 94.1 Mhz with a country format). Trouble was, under the ownership limits at the time, he had to find a buyer for KLRA so that Signal could divest itself of one AM station at the exact moment it acquired another. Even under perfect conditions, this would have been some tricky business—but the phrase “deep pockets” was coined for Mr. Jonsson. If there had been a way to pull off the deal, I believe he would have found it. Time ran out on him as well as on us.

Still, it gave us a little hope—an invaluable commodity among any demoralized group of people. And demoralized is exactly what we of the air staff were. I think we shared a sense of abandonment and, in my case, betrayal. “How can Multimedia DO this!” was the thought that kept coming to me in those few remaining months. “If they don’t know what to do with a music station, why don’t they sell it to someone who DOES?”

(Please note: I don’t intend this piece to be a hatchet job on Multimedia, nor do I mean to belittle anyone’s religious beliefs. They are just two facets of the story.)

KAAY was doing rather well for an AM station, ratings-wise. It had as much as an 8 share of Adults 25-54 in the 10:00 AM-3:00 PM daypart, according to the now-defunct Birch measurements. On Yom Kippur, 1984, KAAY had changed formats from Adult Contemporary (can anybody tell me what that means?) to Oldies—a simple move that made the station resemble the franchise that a BUNCH of people had grown up with. There was another simple move that may have had a little to do with the ratings increases as well.

I told my air staff that I didn’t care how long it took to say the call letters: it WAS going to be K-A-A-Y, not K-Double-A-Y or K-Y. There would be no shortcuts on the air. “If you have trouble saying the ‘A-A’ back-to-back, go somewhere and PRACTICE,” I told ‘em.

The station had received any amount of mail addressed to KWAY, KWUY and even KUUY. I had seen Arbitron mechanical diaries where “Unknown AM” came in with 5 or 6 shares. My theory was that that Unknown AM HAD to be KAAY, but whatever call letters the listeners were trying to write down did not exist in the Little Rock survey area. The diary keepers were trying to give the station its props, but they had become completely confused by the on-air shorthand!

I had returned to KAAY in the late summer of 1983 to do Afternoon Drive at the request of my friend Rick McGee. When he left Little Rock in 1984, he recommended me for his Program Director position and I got the gig. I also got his Morning Drive gig. It was, simultaneously, among the best and the worst times of my life.

It’s puzzling to me that my memories of that last day are fuzzy—and have been since the day itself. You could say that I was too preoccupied with all the little details that Programming involves. And you could certainly say that I was stressed out. I hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks, and when I did dream, I dreamed about being at work. NOT good. But though I’m unable to recall the facets, I do have the big picture of that day.

Sonny Martin III (Matt White) had graciously agreed to come down from Heber Springs to do the morning show, and he arrived around 6:30. We bantered on-air for a while, then I handed off the show to him. We called WOAI in San Antonio in hopes of getting George Jennings to join in via phone, but we were told that he was out covering a story. Talk about being perfectly in character!

Sonny did not lack for company, though. The two request lines had been ringing non-stop for the previous 48 hours after word had leaked that KAAY was (in the minds of a great many people) going off the air. Sonny spent as much time on the phone as he could, talking with people who remembered him from Back When. I had thought that I might have to run the board for him, but he took one look at the setup and told me to get out of the way. There was a tradition at KAAY where the microphone switch had a white key, all the rest being black. (We had brought this one over from 1425 West 7th Street.) Sonny saw it, grinned at me and fell right in!

About 7:00, I called Felix McDonald and asked if he would fire up the original RCA transmitter. He said it sounded like a great idea, but it would take him a few minutes to get over there and “get her warmed up.” Around 7:30, we heard the audio go dead for a couple of seconds and then Big Mama came on! The difference in sound was apparent to me right away—there was a depth, a roundness and a “punch” to the music and the voices that only comes from vacuum tube circuits. Those old hits that Sonny was spinning (many of them direct from vinyl) sure sounded good through that RCA! Meanwhile, the request lines kept flashing. I never saw an unlit button.

Mike McCormick II (Barry Wood) came in to do 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM. He also tried to keep up with the phone calls, but the volume was simply overwhelming. We had calls from Canada and even Germany—people who had grown up listening to KAAY had somehow gotten the news in their faraway new homes and were phoning in to say goodbye.

By 11:00 AM, it became impossible for me to listen to the station. Newspaper reporters and TV news crews had taken every available seat in the lobby and were spilling over into the halls and the downstairs break room. They all wanted their sound bites and quotes. They all knew that a legend was passing into history, so I spent as much time as possible (in hindsight, probably too much) answering their questions and taking video/audio crews into the control room.

Eric (Weil) Lundy did 2:00 – 6:00 PM, his usual shift. You’ve probably not heard of him, but he is a very competent air talent with a quick and quirky mind. He was (probably still is) EXACTLY the sort of people I prefer to have working with me.

Though he tends to sell himself short, Barry Mac (who regularly did 6:00 – 9:00 PM and babysat the religion block from 9:00 – Midnight) is another good example of people I want on my staff. Give me five regular guys/girls who WANT TO WORK and I’ll meet or beat a collection of “stars” EVERY TIME.

I left the station around 5:00 PM to go home for a bit of supper and maybe a nap before coming back for the last few hours. Got a glimpse of myself on the 6:00 News and thought I looked like I’d been run over. Which I had been.

It might have been 10:30 when I got back to the station, thinking what a raw deal it was for us to be running those religion shows when we should have been bringing a last night’s worth of Solid Gold to 26 states and 10 foreign countries. There were half a dozen cars that I did not recognize in the parking lot—listeners who had just showed up to keep vigil, ordinary people who simply wanted to be nearby when The Mighty 1090 went down. Or MAYBE they had heard that Clyde Clifford—the completely, utterly beautiful Dale Seidenschwarz his unduplicated SELF—was coming in to do The Last Beaker Street at 11:00? I invited them in, too choked up to even remember their names for more than a few seconds. It was a serious violation of company policy to have visitors in the building after hours. Somehow, I didn’t care. Nor did I have any qualms about “losing” the taped program (Kenneth Copeland, I think) that was supposed to air at 11:00.

Just as I brought our visitors upstairs, Clyde arrived with a big box of albums and what we called a “cueless cart” (meaning it would not stop running until you hit the switch) containing the world-famous Beaker Background. I still remember the hush that fell over that hallway, the saucer-eyed faces of our guests and the way they whispered his name to each other. You’d have thought Jimi Hendrix had risen on the third day and appeared unto the faithful!

Clyde took a few moments to chat with the folks, to thank them for coming, and I believe he even signed a few autographs. Then it was seriously close to air time, so I sat down at the board, rolled the Background and spoke “Beaker Street. KAAY, Little Rock” into the main mic while Clyde stood at the guest mic. I turned the board-op duties over to Barry Mac and wandered the building to listen to what we all thought was The Last Beaker Street on the house air monitors. Every now and then, I’d pass by the control room window, moved beyond words by the visitors who were content to look at Clyde’s back while he did the show. There was a monitor speaker in the ceiling by the window and I had cranked up the volume far beyond levels that would have been tolerated in the daytime.

Yes, I rolled tape on that Beaker Street, but I only remember two songs from it: Jamie Brockett’s “The Legend Of The U.S.S. Titanic” and the song Clyde chose to close the hour—Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” I am gratified beyond words that a recording of that Last Beaker Street (little did we know, except Clyde may have picked up a message from the future) is available to readers of this blog. THAT’S THE WAY IT SHOULD BE. Everything we did at KAAY, every song we played, every word we spoke, every stupid stunt we pulled in public, BELONGS TO OUR LISTENERS. Then, now, and always!

So midnight came and Joni’s last notes faded into the skywave, followed by a rather uncomfortable and lengthy stretch of dead air before the new owners could get their programming on the frequency via some remote arrangement. A few days later, Felix explained to me what happened: the RCA transmitter would not disconnect from the antenna array!

WELL, I TOLD YOU SHE WAS ALIVE, NOW DIDN’T I?

Very Truly Yours,

David B. Treadway
Doc Holiday VII
The Last P.D.

EPILOGUE: There are undoubtedly people I failed to mention in this piece. I’m SORRY for that and I mean NO disrespect by it! I was in a Twilight Zone that last day, and the passage of twenty-five years (can it really be that long?) has done nothing to shore up a notoriously bad memory. If you were there and I left you out, get my email address from Bud and give me the lashing I richly deserve. I won’t ask you to go easy on an old man, but please know that I love you ALL and I am grateful for your part of the Legend.

 The final Beaker Street on KAAY, 3 April 1985, Part 2:   stream   |   download

3 comments:

  1. Wonderful piece, David! I can tell it was written from the heart, about a time that may never be recreated.
    Doug

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  2. Heard someone snap a photo right after Clyde gave the final ID and the mic was fading down. Hopefully someone can upload that here.

    Love that the RCA transmitter didn't want to let the real KAAY go. This is a great story.

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  3. Maybe it is because I'm feeling emotional after just having heart surgery, but this story brought more than one tear to my eye.

    Ron Henselman

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