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Golden Oldies : KCBQ Radio to Reunite Voices From the Past

February 28, 1990|KEVIN BRASS

SAN DIEGO — For a group of well-traveled disc jockeys, working in a business that is transient by nature, mention of radio station KCBQ evokes memories of a golden era, a time when they were No. 1 with a bullet.

"It's the most special place I ever worked, by light-years," said Rich Werges, a.k.a. Rich Brother Robbin. "Asking a guy in his middle 40s about KCBQ is like asking about the '60s. I get all choked up."

KCBQ achieved greatness--industrywide recognition--not once but twice. In the mid- to late 1950s, it was one of the country's first big rock 'n' roll stations, a pioneer of the music that swept the country. In the late '60s and early '70s, it was one of the last great AM music stations, a last hurrah for AM before FM music stations began to dominate the airwaves.

On Thursday, KCBQ-AM (1170) and KCBQ-FM (105.3) will bringtogether three decades of the station's personalities for an on-air reunion from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. They will broadcast from the Marriott Mission Valley, where marketing and promotional paraphernalia representing 35 years of the station's history will be on display. The public is invited, and a free "sock hop" will top off the day from 8 p.m. to midnight at the hotel.

In December, 1955, the Bartell radio chain purchased KCBQ-AM and switched it from traditional block programming--an hour of country music, an hour of classic music, etc.--to the music of hot youngsters such as Elvis Presley,

and other pioneer rockers. It was one of the first rock stations in the country.

Powered by the incessantly upbeat announcing of Ralph James, Don Howard, Jim O'Leary, Earl McRoberts, Jack Vincent and Harry (Happy Hare) Martin, the station soon became the most popular in the city, earning as much as 40% of the audience during some time periods, according to several surveys.

Through much of the era, the disc jockeys worked in a glass booth in the El Cortez Hotel, where listeners could drive by and see them at work.

"I would say that it was as near to being at one with myself as I've ever been," said Martin, now an account executive with KSON and doing voice-over work. "Imagine going into a station knowing that everybody loved you and you were going in with a spoon to stir up that love."

Station owner Lee Bartell gave the disc jockeys unprecedented freedom on the air, and they were known to take advantage of it. Among other stunts, Martin recalls running for mayor and staging Indian rain dances on the air.

"I was being paid to be crazy, which saved me a great deal of trouble having to go in for therapy," said Martin, who left the station in 1962 for a lucrative offer in Cleveland, although he returned to KCBQ in 1969 to anchor the morning lineup for three years.

James, who worked at KCBQ from 1955 to 1961, remembers that Bartell never told him not to do anything on the air. Despite the rowdiness, the emphasis was always on the positive and being upbeat and helpful to the community.

The station called itself "family radio."

"People often ask me what there was with KCBQ," said James, who went on to a successful career as one of Hollywood's most recognized voices. "To me, it was a very community-oriented station. We were ahead of our time. . . . The success wasn't so much the music but the guys who worked there and how they integrated themselves with the community."

Although "The Q" was consistently a success, it didn't again approach the remarkable popularity of those first years until the late '60s and early '70s. Locked in a battle with the "Boss Radio" of KGB, KCBQ again concentrated on Top 40 hits and the power of its on-air personalities to post double-digit ratings and again dominate the market.

Again, the emphasis was on being friendly and upbeat, creating a family atmosphere among staff and listeners.

"We frequently screamed but we always smiled," said Werges, who worked at the station in 1971 and '72, and again in '73 and '74, serving as program director. "It was always something that warmed the inside, was always 'up.' "

Former KGB program director Buzz Bennett, a firm believer in positive thinking, directed the station through most of the successful years in the early '70s. As program director, he gave the staff books on self-motivation and regularly preached to them about believing in themselves.

Things were loose and open, both on and off the air. One disc jockey even remembers the "I Ching" being consulted on a decision.

Magic Christian, Rich Brother Robbin, Bobby Ocean, "Shotgun Tom" Kelly and the other KCBQ personalities became household names, as the station regularly posted audience shares of 20 and 30 rating points. In contrast, the top-rated station in San Diego for the past few years, KKLQ (Q106), usually earns a 9 or 10.

"We played the hits and only the hits," recalled Werges, now general manager of KQYT-FM, an easy-listening station in Tucson, Ariz. "It was like pulling teeth to get a record on the station."

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