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Independent ... Ten Years and Counting

Ten years ago, when cell phones were still the size of small mobile homes, my friend, Denny Hafer, called me to let me know he was listening to a new station on 102.1 FM. He heard that they were looking for help in sales and I was recently out of work.

I was out of work because in San Diego, California, my radio station was being dressed up for a sale. That station, if you dare to remember, was known as KKBH… The Beach. It had been know as 102.9 KCLX, Classic Rock, Classic 102.9, and Classic 103 for a while. If that sounds like a radio station with an identity crisis, you are correct. That's common with corporate radio. 102.9 The Beach, put me out on “the beach”. I was 37 years old, with one baby in diapers and another on the way. I didn’t like what I’d seen in big market radio. Outside of the programming people, it seemed like it was an accounting operation.

But the 102.1 FM signal wasn’t owned by a corporation. Instead, it was owned by two guys who’d lived in San Diego for about 3 years. One of them, Jonathan Schwartz, had been at CBS FM in New York. He was a business analyst. The other, Bob Hughes, had been one of the creators of what is now known as the Soft Adult Contemporary radio format.

I met with them at their offices in the old KCBQ building in Santee. I quickly found myself calling Santee, “Brown Acres”. It was hotter than hell and everything was brown over there.

In San Diego, I’d been a Music Director for 4 years and a director of promotions for 3 years, hosted an album show called “The Seventh Day”… and was the go-to guy when any of the jocks called in sick or went on vacation. I’d been asked to go full time on the air but frankly, I just didn’t like the music formats.

And that’s when Jonathan and Bob, the two local owners of KPRI, were experimenting with a SETS format. The SETS format was one where all the music was played in SETS of songs by the same artist. Each hour might have three to four sets. The concept was an album and music fans dream. It was a grand experiment. As a show host of the format, you won’t find a more music-oriented station anywhere. It was an artistic success. In San Diego, it didn’t translate into a big audience grabber.

But where a corporate environment would have found the management gunning each other down and trampling each other to fix blame, where most of the radio executives I know have been afraid to take chances, Jonathan and Bob weren’t. Their idea was revolutionary. Let’s get back to the roots of what radio, particularly album rock radio, was all about.

KPRI as we call it now is still an extension of that risk taking. Bob had always wanted to call their station KPRI in honor to the legendary radio station that was the first underground album rock station in San Diego. (Tony Morgan, my former morning show partner, had been telling Bob this for years and the opportunity availed itself.)

In the early KPRI days (back in the 60’s), show hosts were hired because of what they knew about the music. That’s still the way it is today at KPRI. We are all music fans.

And the bottom line is KPRI is still about the music first. We care about our listeners, and inside the doors of the business, we care about each other, which is why I’m writing this article about the guys who’ve let me be part of this innovative radio format.

Ten years ago, with that two year old infant, and my expectant wife, I didn’t want to make a decision I’d later regret. Yes, I’m a radio junkie. Yes, I knew that working for the “independent guy” was a huge risk. The corporate raiders were buying up all the little guys.

So I asked the experts about the chances of Jonathan and Bob making it in San Diego. The experts, included the creative manager behind KGB in it’s hey day and one of his program directors. The manager said “Keith, I wouldn’t take a job with them if I were you. They’ll be bought up in six months to a year.” The former KGB program director just looked at me and said, “If that’s your only option, I’m sorry for your kids.” (What can I say? Radio is a hard business.)

The experts are now out of the radio business. I’m still in it. Jonathan and Bob are the only independent major market owners left.

Sometimes, you’re right to go with your hunches. My hunch about these guys was right. I’ve had more fun in the last ten years of radio than I did in the first 20. And during this month, Jonathan and Bob are celebrating the 10th Anniversary of their ownership.

The Wikipedia Entry for KPRI