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The Golden Boy Of Radio

By Shannon D. Love  -- Written in 1995

The term Golden Boy of Radio signifies Steve "Sparky" West; what he touches turns to gold. Steve West has worked in radio most of his life -- 32 years, starting as an on-air personality disc-jockey and news journalist, and later becoming a program director, then assistant manager, finally, general manager. West has always believed in one thing: Radio is an entertainment, people business; if you treat your people with respect, let them have fun, then only good things will happen.

West started in radio in Hoquiam, Washington, at the young age of 19 years old, where West was raised and went to school. After High School West Landed a job with radio station KHOK. West's brilliance first came to light when he put together a concert at the Hoquiam High school gym, featuring none other then the Beach Boys. That event proved to be a success with the station and opened the door for a move to Bellingham, Washington as an on-air personality.

In 1967, West came back to Seattle joining the market as KJR's all night disc-jockey and newsman. West was proving he had a natural touch and feel for radio -- so much that he was wooed by three Seattle businessmen who owned Tacoma radio station KTAC. West was asked to join the station as Program Director. West replied, "I will go down there if I can do two thing: Number one, if I can turn the station into a Top 40 station; and secondly, if I can just focus on the Tacoma market." West believed there was a sizable market that was not being served by any other medium at that time, and felt success would follow if you were to fulfill that need.

After just nine months, and without any promotional budget to speak of, KTAC climbed to the top rated position in Pierce county, replacing nine year leader, KJR. One of the original on-air staff that West hired at that time was Gary Crow. West got a call from Bruce Cannon over in the Tri-Cites: "There's this young guy on the radio that sounds pretty good. His name is Gary Crow. You should give him a listen." Steve West gave Crow a call and Crow sent an air-check over to West. West reflects on receiving Crow's air-check: "A couple of days later I get this 9 X 12 envelope in the mail. I dumped the stuff out, and there's a reel-to-reel air-check and a nicely typed resume. Also enclosed was about 3 or 4 Kellogg's box tops, and handwritten at the bottom of the resume was, 'PS. Don't let the monetary value of the box tops sway your decision'. Well it just struck me as so funny and clever that I called him up and said, 'why don't you come up and we'll talk', and Crow became the original night guy on KTAC."

If you take the technical part of what you do -- that being the right programming, the right songs, structuring a stationality, well it's just like building a foundation for a house. You can't have a great house without having a great foundation.

Gary Crow recalls West, as Program Director of KTAC. "West was tailor made for that position, he had great charisma, he had an ability to see talent in people and let people go with their talent. At night what I recall is that West allowed me to go deeper in to album tracks, which in 1970 was unheard of at that time. When any thing hot would come out, we played it, and played a lot of it, and went deep into the album. Another thing we all did real well at KTAC, we really localized that radio station, we came in and forgot Seattle all together, and just really tailored that station to Tacoma. And I think that's why KTAC became so huge so quick."

How did KJR feel about their all night DJ going to another station and then overtaking them in the ratings? They felt strongly enough that they offered West a job as Program Director at KJRB, their Top 40 sister station in Spokane. West refers to the Spokane market as a good training ground -- like a Class Triple A Team getting ready to play the majors. Personalities such as Charlie Brown, Rick Hanson, Joe Michaels, and Tracy Mitchell all found success in the Seattle market. West states that KJRB was a successful station before his arrival in 1971, and continued to be very dominant up until the time he left in 1974.

In 1974 West was transferred back to Seattle, and would become the new Program Director for radio station KJR. His job was to rebuild the station and get it back on top. West has always had this philosophy: "That if you take the technical part of what you do -- that being the right programming, the right songs, structuring a stationality, well it's just like building a foundation for a house. You can't have a great house without having a great foundation. So I look at the foundation as being about 80 % of the importance. What separates you from the other radio stations is that 20 % and how fancy of a house you built on top of that foundation. I believe in a strong promotional effort and in strong personalities -- ones that can make somebody feel good on a day-to-day basis."

Up until this point, the radio waves were dominated by the AM market. Most of the cars had stock AM radios and 8 track tape decks. Cassette decks had the illusion that the tape was too thin to get a full fidelity, and most thought the tiny cassettes would not hold up to the mighty 8 tracks. FM was on its way in, and the band was wide open.

Radio station KJR had a sister station called KISW FM, occupying a little back office on the dark side of the building, utilizing about 15% of the KJR office complex. West was promoted to Assistant Manager of KJR, then shortly after, in 1979, was offered the job of General Manager of KISW FM. West did not say "yes" right away. AM was the King and FM was nothing at this time. He told the owners that he wanted to think it over first. West recalls that waiting period, "The same day the job was offered to me, I happened to stop in for gas at a little service station down on Fourth Avenue South. There was this young guy that was filling my car up with gas He noticed my KJR sticker on my back window, and said, 'Man haven't you heard of FM? Haven't you heard some of the stuff going on at FM? Don't you think AM is becoming a dinosaur?' Well that input, which was the same day I received the offer to go to KISW, I thought, ' you know, it's time to make the move from AM to FM'."

KISW had been rock since 1971 but only maintained a small share of the market place. West felt that when he arrived at KISW, they already had some good talent. The station was loose; they just needed someone to believe in them. West believed in the "team concept" for his on-air personalities. They began to team up their DJ's -- singular DJ's was the common route at that time. West did not invent the "tandem DJ team", but he firmly believed in it, and was a strong advocate for the concept. "The brainstorming that comes along with the tandem DJ is essential to the entertainment that the listener receives."

Soon KISW would take on the identity of the Bad Boys Of Radio. Their on-air-staff were outrageous. Their promotions were outrageous; so outrageous that in 1980, KISW put together a deal where they purchased a hydroplane on a Monday afternoon (before the Sunday Seafair race). The whole sales staff and the air staff showed up in Kent at 6:00 p.m., Monday night, with four gallons of black Dupont paint and a bunch of degreaser. They stayed until 4:00 a.m. getting the boat ready for the first coat, and then back again on Tuesday night for the second coat. Two sign painters were scheduled to work on it on Wednesday, and then on Thursday they pulled the "Miss Rock" into the pits to compete with all the BIG BOYS.

The Miss Rock was there on Seafair Sunday (1980) trying to qualify with all the other hydroplanes that day, but was unable to do so. They were given one more chance, and on the North turn they blew an engine. West says, "I will never forget the reaction toward the radio station as they towed the Miss Rock down in front of the beach. There was a standing ovation as the boat went by. It was so loud, you could hear it from the pits. We knew then that the station had arrived."

One of the favorite parody skits that KISW lampooned, was the Leave It To Beaver TV show. DJs John Langen and Mike West both liked the show a lot and thought it might be fun to do. It was a big success in Seattle. At parties and night clubs across the City, you could always hear somebody imitating Mike West as the Beaver, "I don't feeeel -- tooo good".

Mike used to play the Beaver, June, Wally and Whitey. Gary Crow played Eddie Haskel and John Langen as Ward. John and Mike would create a script over the phone on a Tuesday night. Then produce the episode on Wednesday, sometimes taking 5 or 6 hours on each episode. Thursdays and Fridays they would air the show. Mike somehow thought that Beaver should be a black person, so they wobbled his voice with effects to get a black dialect. What effects? They used a technical term known as, putting your fingers on the tape and moving it back and forth. They had no special effects to work with. In one episode, Beaver took his dog to school with him. The only thing was, that Beaver's dog had died. So as Beaver walked down the stairs, dragging his dog down with him, you heard Beaver's dog going, "THUMP, THUMP, THUMP". The day before the episode aired, John Langen was dragging a stack of books down the stairs with a microphone tied to the books. This, in effect, would become their sound effects library -- using imagination and an ability to create the desired sounds which they needed for their shows. That's what Mike West remembers, "It was the only way to go. You can get the best sounding effects by doing them yourself." What the KISW crew was doing worked. In 1981 the Arbitron ratings had KISW as the number one station. It was the first time that an FM station had beaten out an AM station.

The ownership of KISW changed in late 1986, purchased by a Mid-Western Insurance Company. West says things changed at that time. "There was no longer the same feeling of entertainment. The freedom to express new and creative ideas were not encouraged, to the extent that it had been." At around that same time, Shamrock Broadcasting had purchased an FM signal in the market that was not making any significant impact on the airwaves. Disney-owned Shamrock Broadcasting offered the job as General Manger to Steve West. Shamrock took over in December of 1986 and the station KXRX debuted on January 5, 1987. Within just one month West started from scratch a new radio station. In those first weeks, West received calls from his former employees asking about job opportunities. Some fourteen of the KISW staff elected to join West at KXRX. Many of us (Joe public) at the time looked at this as a "COO" -- a takeover of some sort. We had loved KISW and now half of our favorite DJ's were switching stations. Loyalties split between the best of friends -- stay with the established KISW or dial into the new KXRX. In the first rating period, the station debuted with the largest entry level rating share in Seattle history.

This struggle between KISW and KXRX created an unprecedented rift between the two stations, which, in time, opened the door for other stations to erode away each of their share in the market place. It's considered healthy competition to have two stations going at it, but when several other stations come on board, such as the "Alternative" station, KNDD and KMTT, appealing to the more mature, sophisticated, rock audience, and then add the rising popularity of the "Classic Rock", KZOK and the "Golden Oldies", KBSG, the business side becomes very aggressive in maintaining a reasonable returnable percentage on the stations investment, (the "bottom line").

If, for example, in the rock genre of music, there were ten market shares available to split among those rock stations, and all are vying for the same advertising dollars, it's easy to visualize that two, maybe three, stations would fair OK. But when you split the pie into more slices, there's generally not enough to go around to justify a reasonable profitable return on an investment.

The business side of radio changed dramatically after the Federal Communications Commission ruled that companies could now own and operate more than one FM station in the same local market -- the term known today as "duopolies." Radio has forever been changing. Look back in history to the days when AM dominated the air waves, and then, how FM came on so strong, almost making the AM band an obsolete commodity. And now, AM has restructured itself in the market place as the information ban, where as FM now takes the position as the music band.

Can it, and will it ever change? Steve West says, "That aspect may never change, but what will change is the players involved and how the game is played." Like in the FM market, strategies in the stations' war rooms were now making maneuvers to maintain and control a respectable share of the market. All aspects were now being considered, radio "stationality", fragmented music formats, and changes in demographics of listenerships. All this was consequential to survive in this new competitive world where business was now having a larger impact on how stations were going to be operated in this new future of radio. Although the entertainment in radio is what brings in radio revenue, it's still the bottom line that is going to determine any decisions from a business standpoint. Thus, a duopolie could make the difference in the survival of a station in today's market.

Steve West mentions that KXRX was not a station that was utilizing a duopolie scenario. The benefits that accompany owning and operating two stations are that of down-sizing your support staff. Instead of operating two complete, separate businesses, you could now operate two businesses with one staff. This, of course, is attractive to investors; and in radio, as well as in major companies, stock of the company can change at any time. And with the change, so does the direction of the company; and with that change, a new bottom line can occur.

Disney-owned Shamrock Broadcasting, KXRX, took on a new financial partner that was very bottom line oriented. New strategic plans were set forth by Shamrock and KXRX management, and the search was on to purchase another radio station, thus giving Shamrock a duopolie. After a year of research of possible radio stations that had a potential to be acquired, it was determined from that search, nothing was available from the standpoint of making a good business decision. And from that decision of not to purchase another station, (giving Shamrock a duopolie situation) was to sell KXRX. In 1994 Alliance Broadcasting purchased KXRX and changed KXRX to KYCW, Young Country. Alliance had a proven track record of successes in reshaping and fragmenting a new audience of Country Music, focusing on the Young Country side of that music genre. Alliance felt the Seattle market was ready for the change.

Steve West states that several years ago Radio & Records did a survey on the top twenty markets in the country, and Seattle came out as number one, as the most competitive market in the nation -- with Seattle only ranking as the thirteenth largest market. Seattle has around fifty signals in the market. By the close of 1993 there were around one hundred million dollars in radio revenues to split between all the stations, which makes the business very tough. West has another theory on why the Seattle radio market is so competitive, "It goes back to the point I made about Seattle having a lot of signals available in the early years. Over the years there were a lot of people that came from out of town to manage or program radio stations. And basically they were on their way to San Francisco or LA or someplace else to a bigger market. Seattle was considered a stepping stone to a larger market as they arrived in Seattle and saw the lifestyle, and realizing that Seattle was a great place to live, these people stayed. A combination of having a lot of signals available, and with an abundance of very qualified radio people running them, all they had to do was find their little niche." Radio revenues increased 11% in 1994 over 1993 and sit around One Hundred and Sixteen Million Dollars. Radio is about finding that little niche. Radio stations are becoming very specialized in today's competitive marketplace.

Today, in the world of radio, one aspect is very common. On-air personalities have become entertainers. As you look to many of the successful stations, you will see the byproducts of Steve West's works and visions. West believed in the human aspect of radio is the most dominant factor in successful programming. West had an ability to bring one's talent to the surface. He instilled pride and ownership in each employee, empowering them by listening and acknowledging their thoughts and ideas. These values that West taught are vividly present in today's programming. In the closing weeks of KXRX, the station received over 500 fax's, hundreds of telephone calls, and large mail sacks of letters. It was the most endearing show of remembrance for a local radio station ever that had decided to pack its bags and move on.

Was KXRX a successful radio station even though it went off the air? Yes! Extremely so! Radio will be forever changed for the better from what Steve West and all his staff members from over the years accomplished. Steve West captured the essence of the local times that we all lived, on a day to day basis, and shared it with the world. We thank you, Mr. Steve "Sparky" West!!

ęCopyright 1995 -- 2005 Jet City Blues Review

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