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Radio | Around the Dial

Catch of the Day

Deejay Charlie Tuna plans to lure listeners to KLAC as it switches from syndication to swing music.

December 10, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can a man who spent the 1960s peddling revolution on the radio find happiness peddling nostalgia there in the '90s?

If his name is Charlie Tuna, he can. Well, actually his name is Art Ferguson; he just goes by Charlie Tuna. But we'll get to that later. The point is, after successfully working a dozen disparate formats, from country to contemporary and from talk to Top 40, why should Tuna flounder in his latest role playing big band and swing records for KLAC-AM (570)? After all, they're the same tunes he played in his first radio job 38 years ago.

"It's just like I've come full circle," he says. "Everything old becomes new again. Not to knock what everyone else does, but this is real music. These are the standards."

For Tuna, however, a little traveling music would probably be more appropriate. After all, he's averaged a job change once every two years during his long career--once even pulling a six-month stint in San Diego that gave him a three-hour commute.

"Everybody always wonders what your first words are going to be when you sign on to a new station," Tuna said when he signed on at KLAC for the first time Nov. 30. "Hey, when you work 13 different morning shows on different stations around the city, you just want to get the call letters right."

Actually, getting the song titles right might be more of a challenge for someone who cut his teeth playing music by the Mamas and the Papas and wound up playing music more commonly associated with grandmas and grandpas. But the man who hired Tuna insists KLAC's format will be just as current as anything MTV plays--even if many of the artists it features died long before cable TV was invented.

"Our presentation is a now, today situation. We just happen to play adult standards, big bands and that kind of stuff," says programming consultant Bob Hamilton. "One of the things we're not going to be is we're not going to be your grandfather's radio station."

But grandpa is probably going to like this better than Headbanger's Ball. That's because, as KLAC makes the transition from Westwood One's syndicated shows to locally produced programming, the station will be adding segments with titles like "Big Band Jump" and "When Radio Was." The latter show, which debuts Monday at 9 p.m., will feature old-time radio classics from the drama, comedy, mystery and suspense genres.

The music, however, will be the star, and Hamilton is confident it's a star that's rising. A similarly formatted music station in Las Vegas is No. 1 in that market, and Hamilton's San Francisco station, KABL-AM (960), has taken a big band-swing playlist to sixth in the local ratings.

"There's a whole new wave of young people just getting turned on by this music," says Hamilton, alluding to swing-inspired pop hits by the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. "It's really exciting to see the young people finding this format. It's a niche format that is unique because there's not a lot of great new product coming out, so they're going back and finding the old stuff."

And it's a niche that KLAC has to itself in Southern California. Already the station claims to be drawing 600,000 listeners a week, making it the most listened-to big band-swing outlet in the country. And drive-time deejay Tuna is definitely the big fish in KLAC's pond.

"What's important for a disc jockey is to be entertaining," says syndicated deejay Casey Kasem. "And it doesn't matter anymore whether you're a country jock or you're a top music jock or a rap jock. Being good is being good.

"And he's good."

Tuna's first radio job was a three-hour overnight shift on a low-power station in Kearney, Neb., his hometown, where he worked under the name Art Ferguson, the one he was born with. Shortly after he started, management fired its morning deejay and offered the open spot to the 16-year-old Ferguson.

"They said, 'Kid, can you do it?' And I said, 'Yeah, but I have to be to high school by 10 o'clock.' "

After high school, he jumped to Wichita, Kan.--where he adopted the nom de radio Billy O'Day, and then to KOMA, a 50,000-watt powerhouse in Oklahoma City, where he was handed the name Charlie Tuna.

Turns out that while Ferguson / O'Day was in transit from Wichita to Oklahoma City, a flu bug crippled KOMA's staff. Desperate for fill-ins, management turned to a news reporter, who refused to take to the air without a pseudonym. With nothing more than a six-pack of beer and a TV set for inspiration, the reporter eventually settled on the name Charlie Tuna midway through a Star-Kist commercial.

The show was such a hit, the station had no choice but to keep Charlie Tuna on the air--only it was newcomer Ferguson not the news reporter they put behind the mike. From Oklahoma City, Tuna went to Boston and finally to Los Angeles, where he landed at KHJ-AM (930) in 1967.

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