LONG BEACH — David Creagh wasn't quite ready for the audience reaction when radio station KLON discarded its eclectic format of occasional opera, Portuguese programming and a parade of polkas in favor of the smooth, mainstream jazz and blues sounds of Dizzy Gillespie, Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday.
On Sept. 1, 1981, the first day that "It Don't Mean Nothin' if You Can't Tap Your Feet to It" replaced the "Beer Barrel Polka" on FM88, "something ugly hit the fan," said Creagh, who was the station's newly imported general manager at the time.
For weeks, the Cal State Long Beach-based station was bombarded with bomb threats, obscene telephone calls and racist hate mail.
Angry polka lovers wrote to the university president, the Federal Communications Commission and their congressmen, demanding that such polka greats as "She's Too Fat for Me" be returned to their rightful place on the Long Beach airwaves.
The format change was nothing short of revolutionary, Creagh said, and received about as warm a reception as the Emancipation Proclamation got in the South in 1863.
"It was one thing kicking a relatively successful show off the air," Creagh said, "but you have to remember that polka music is a bastion of Germanic, Polish, Aryan interest. To replace a polka show with a blues program with artists named Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Sam Hopkins, B.B. King and Z.Z. Hill, to put black performers on during polka hour, sent people through the roof."
But becoming "Jazz Radio" wasn't KLON's first metamorphosis, and it won't be its last.
In less than four years, FM88's audience more than tripled and its budget increased nearly eightfold. And another period of change began Thursday--the station's first day without Creagh, who left the station Wednesday to head a National Public Radio station at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Looking for Replacement
Eugene Asher, Cal State Long Beach's director of university relations, took over Thursday morning as interim general manager, and KLON is searching for Creagh's replacement.
KLON sneaked quietly onto the Long Beach airwaves on Jan. 3, 1950, as an adjunct of the Long Beach Unified School District. Its shows were broadcast into classrooms and used as teaching tools throughout the system. The station spent 28 of its 35 years at the far left end of the FM dial broadcasting such educational programs as "Mr. Make Believe," "Adventures in Books," and civics lessons so outdated that they called Ralph Bunche the undersecretary of the United Nations well into the 1960s, even though he was promoted from that position in 1955.
"Everyone who grew up in Long Beach knew KLON," said Ken Borgers, the station's program director, who listened to the unified district's programming while a Long Beach grade-school student. "But I think we've lived that down by now."
Polka Music Was Popular
Proposition 13, Howard Jarvis' 1978 tax-cutting initiative, put an end to KLON's educational radio days. Realizing that the tightened school budget could not be stretched to include such luxury items, the school district put the station up for sale, Creagh said.
Cal State Long Beach purchased the station in 1981 and hired Creagh away from his Washington job producing "All Things Considered" for National Public Radio.
When he arrived in Long Beach, the station's strongest shows were its three hours of polka music on Saturday and Sunday mornings, Creagh said.
But that wasn't all the station played, and polka lovers weren't the only ones who were concerned when the format changed.
"I don't think there was an ethnic group in the Los Angeles basin that wasn't affected by it: Polish and Slovenian, Portuguese, (fans of) salsa, bluegrass, (and) there was an opera program," said Walter Romanski, whose "American Polka Parade" ran from May, 1980, to May, 1981.
"It was a potpourri of just about everything you could enjoy," Romanski said. "When they went, it hurt a lot of people. . . . But how can anyone argue with success?"
Ski Demski was one listener who could. Demski runs a Long Beach bumper sticker business, selling slogans ranging from the Alcoholics Anonymous classic "Easy Does It" to "You Bet Your Sweet Dupa I'm Polish."
He listened to the station religiously and attended every packed KLON-sponsored polka dance on the Queen Mary.
"I don't listen to it no more," Demski said. "I listened to it all the time when there was different programs on it. I liked the polka music myself. I still don't see . . . what's wrong with one hour out of the week of polka music."
But the station more than survived its transition, and Creagh contends that many of KLON's former listeners and subscribers are still loyal to the station.
Even if they are not, "Jazz Radio" FM88 has attracted a new and growing following. The station has only 1,200 watts, compared to its public radio counterparts KUSC, which has 6,000, and KCRW, which has 10,000.