10 Questions with ... Jim Slone
June 13, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Slone's career began at KRZE Farmington, NM in 1960, but by 1963, he was in Tucson, AZ where he would remain for the duration of his career. He purchased KCUB-AM there in 1972, then KIIM in 1983, launching it Country immediately. KIIM soon became the market leader both in ratings and billing, while garnering national recognition as well. Slone grew his station portfolio to El Paso and Lubbock and owned nine stations at one time. He was inducted to the Arizona Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2001. He sold Slone Broadcasting the same year, only to return to ownership in 2006, before retiring in 2009. Slone will be inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame on Wednesday, June 22nd in Nashville.
1. Let's begin by asking what induction into the Country Radio Hall of Fame means to you and what you think it says about your radio career and your accomplishments.
It's very meaningful. I would say it caps off my career with a very nice honor. There have been a lot of milestones as you know, being in this business. There have been a lot of highlights along the way but this is a special honor, so I would say that it's the best. I was in the Arizona Broadcasters Hall of Fame along with some of your buddies at KNIX, Buck [Owens] and some of the rest of them, and that was very nice. But I would say this is probably the best of all. I would say pinnacle is a good word.
2. Growing up, did you have a particular radio station and/or personality that you listened to that may have gotten you interested in radio or just peaked your interest in music?
No, it was all about the music. My hero was Perry Como. He was my favorite. I just turned the radio on to hear the music. Of course I would listen to the local radio station which was 35 miles away from where I grew up. But I could get KDAV over in Lubbock, which was 70 miles away. It was one of the original Country radio stations. And then there was KLLL where Buddy Holly worked. But at night I'd listen to KOMA. Obviously everybody listened to KOMA at night. Those jingles sure were great. And there was a station in New Orleans, WWL, which I could get at night. But that was about it. During the day time I just had to listen to the local station because I was too far away from a good signal. I liked Top 40 radio, but when I was in college, I got a Country show - a little Country program in the afternoon called "Ridge Runner Roundup." So that's where I was exposed to Country music, Carl Smith, Faron Young and Webb Pierce.. all the country singers who were popular at that time. I enjoyed that, but my favorite was Pop music - Nat King Cole, Perry Como, The Four Aces and The Four Freshmen... those were my favorites. That's the kind of music I sang. I liked Country, too. But I've always liked Contemporary music. I liked them both, but I was really a Top 40 fan.
3. Let's go back a little bit and talk about your first radio job. Where was that and how did you get started?
I got started in radio when I was in college, at a small college in the area where I grew up - Eastern New Mexico University. I had to have a job to make a little money to court the girls with. I worked at the school cafeteria for the first semester, and that was a nasty job. I had a friend that worked at the local radio station - it was the only station in town, KENM, which stood for Eastern New Mexico. That was the only station in Portales. I just wanted to be an announcer at the time. They weren't called disc jockeys. They were called radio announcers. The manager said there were no announcer openings, But she did say, "I have an idea. You know all the rural schools. Why don't you take a tape recorder out and do play-by-play of a game on Saturday night and bring it back to me, we will play it back the next afternoon and I'll sell it to The Portales Hardware." I went out and did a play-by-play of the game and brought the tape back and the next afternoon they sold it to the Portales Hardware. So that was my first radio encounter. A few days afterward the manager called me up and said, "my morning man didn't show up. Would you like to open the station up every morning?" So that was my first actual radio job, but it was part time. I never had any idea of being in radio as a career. I was just doing it as a lot of fun and to make 50 cents an hour.. After college graduation I went to the army and got out after six months. About that time I had a man call me and say, "Jim, there's an opening for a new station here in Farmington".. It was KRZE and already on the air. He said "they're going to change the format, and I've been asked to find two disc jockeys. I thought of you. Would you be interested?" I said, "Sure I'd be interested." I didn't know what the format was going to be until I got there. When I arrived, I found out it was going to be all Country. There weren't very many stations in America that were all Country in 1960. I was there for six months, and then the man who owned the station bought a station in Albuquerque... asked if I'd like to go to Albuquerque and be a disc jockey there. I thought, "Boy, Albuquerque, that sounds like I am going to Hollywood!" I was at that station(KRZY) two years. That's where I became friends with Glen Campbell.. A new radio station was going on the air in Tucson called K-HOS, so I was hired to do mornings. I've been in Tucson ever since. I didn't have any ownership at that station, but I did become the manager in about two months. I was a disc jockey, sold advertising and the manager all in one job description..
4. You spent the majority of your career based in Tucson. Was there ever any consideration about moving somewhere else, since you eventually owned stations in other markets.
Well, I was eight and half years at K-HOS as a DJ and Manager.. I was making good money because I was the manager and I just never considered going anywhere else. Then Dan McKinnon called me in 1968. He had KSON in San Diego. He needed to take a leave of absence, and asked if I'd be interested in coming and managing KSON. I went out and I listened to the pitch. I went back to my owner at K-HOS and I said, "I've got this opportunity to go to KSON. I'd like to stay in Tucson, but I'd like to have some stock in KHOS," and he said, "I will never make any stock available. I'll pay you good, but no stock." I didn't take the KSON job. I didn't have any big goals. I was enjoying the job I had and I was trying to do the best I could. Then in 1972 I got a call from a lawyer, who wanted me to come over to KCUB, and make a deal for me to get some stock. So I did, and I got K-CUB as an owner. And then later KIIM. I looked hard for an FM starting in 78' because I could see the writing on the wall. I didn't get an FM until '83, and that was KiiM. It was 100,000 watts, but it was sitting down in the valley, just running some tapes and it didn't have any listeners. So I was able to buy that station. I knew I'd have a great signal if I could get up on the mountain.. when I got that station, I switched the call letters to KIIM-FM, got serious about it and boom! I was really happy because I knew I owned the Country franchise in Tucson with an AM and an FM. KIIM took off like a rocket! But I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for Buck Owens. I had a deal to buy this FM from Ray Kandell who lived in Los Angeles. I was supposed to go the next day and sign the papers, but Mr. Kandell called me and said, "I just got a call from Buck Owens and he wants to come to Tucson and look at my FM." I said, "Oh no, I thought we had an agreement". So I called Buck because I had booked him a lot in Tucson, and I was still playing his records when nobody else was. I said, "Buck I understand that you're coming down to look at this FM in the morning." "Oh yeah, I'm just going come down and take a look at it," Buck told me." I said, "Buck! If you buy that radio station, you'll ruin me." He said, "Oh, competition is a good thing." We got into this whole conversation and he said, "Competition makes others better," and I said, "Buck this is your old friend Jim here. You get that FM and you hook that up with your stations in Phoenix, I'm toast. You'll have the whole state and everything else." He said, "Well don't worry about it. I'm just going to come down and take a look." I remember exactly what I said: "Buck, friends don't do friends this way." I spent a very rough night - I was sweating bullets because here was my opportunity. I could see it going, flying away. Well, he called me the next morning at 7:30 and said, "Jim, I've been thinking about what you said. I'm not coming down this morning. I've been thinking about what you said - that friends don't do friends this way. You've been a great friend, and I know you need that station for your family, so I'm not coming to Tucson and I hope you get it - I wish you lots of luck." I cry thinking about it. I would've been a goner if he had gotten that FM
5. What a great story! You know, thinking about KIIM, one of the trademarks of that station was your staunch refusal to play songs with anything that might be perceived as an offensive lyric - any song with "hell" or "damn" or anything close to that were off the table. Some of these were big hits. Was it ever hard for you to maintain that position?
That didn't bother me at all because I had my own set of standards. A long time ago I chose to have "the Granny Rule." The Granny Rule is: I wouldn't play anything on my radio station that I was uncomfortable with sitting at the breakfast table with my grandmother if she was listening to the radio. Well, they latched onto that in the media here in Tucson, and they worked me over. A woman in the entertainment section of the local paper was writing all these critical articles about me, and said, "I don't want your grandmother telling me what to listen to." I said, "I'm not telling you to listen to it. I'll go buy you the record if you'd like. And you can go play it all you want. And if it wears out I'll buy you another one." I really took a lot of heat for that. The first one that was really troublesome was Travis Tritt. His manager talked to the entertainment editor and that's what really started it up nationwide. That was quite a time in my career. There weren't that many records with profanity... What, three or four? And of course, the manager of Garth Brooks called me and was putting the heat on me and I said, "No I'm sorry." I can't remember whether it was "(Damned Ole)Rodeo" or "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)," or whatever the titles, but I don't think Garth suffered too much if I didn't play that record. (laughs) It's the principle. And the principle of it is I don't play music with profanity in it. Period. I said, "Look I love Garth! "If Tomorrow Never Comes" is one of the greatest records I've ever heard. But that doesn't mean I'm going to play every record. Regardless, you're asking me to do something that I'm not gonna do." And it never even occurred to me that I wouldn't stick to that. But back then, that was where my heart, my principles and my standards were. I am as proud of that stand as anything that I have done in the radio business - I didn't crack and didn't let people push me around.
6. KIIM was and is recognized as one of the premier country stations in America. How did you accomplish this operating out of Tucson, which is not generally recognized as a high profile radio market?
Well, it's kinda like Phoenix. You don't find a lot of people out here that don't like Country music. So if you've got an FM radio station, you've got to be pretty bad to mess it up. I picked all the music and all the DJs and the promotions. God blessed me with an ear for what people want to hear. That's what I've always said. I didn't like sales and all that, but I did have an ear for what people wanted to hear and what would draw them to the station. So I used that to my advantage and the station had enormous ratings. It was not the crown jewel like KNIX but it was good. There was a market for it. I couldn't have gone to New York City and done it. But it could be pretty hard to mess up a station in Tucson or Phoenix.
7. Mentors - everybody has a few of them. Who was it that helped you, challenged you, and made you believe you could actually make this a career?
The first guy I worked for that gave me my real enthusiasm was Boyd Whitney? He was at the station in Farmington. He was the manager, and the best salesman and promoter I've ever met. He had been a disc jockey himself in Beaumont; he had an ear and he knew show biz.. He'd come up with fabulous promotions and anything to get people to listen to the station. I got enthused about radio through Boyd and how clever he was; how he could make a radio station compelling to listen to. I took a tape recorder everywhere I went, and I'd tape stuff. If I heard things I liked - liners or contests - I'd come back and adapt to my station. And I was listening to Top 40 stations - it was amazing the great things you could take from Top 40 stations. I always had something going, but I "stole" a lot of ideas too.
8. Since you are now retired and have a sideline seat to the business, let me ask your perspective: How harmful are the imminent sale of CBS Radio and the financial woes of iHeart and Cumulus to the overall perception of radio as a business model?
I think it's ugly, brutal, and I wouldn't want to be in it. No. All you have to do is be aware of the failures monetarily that everyone's going through and the bankruptcies and consolidation, and it's plain to see from a financial point of view - I wouldn't' want to put my money in that. I don't know how much the listening has gone down with all the other avenues of listening but I've been told by a couple of brokers that the number of people that still listen to radio is still high. I still listen. But I'm 80 years old, so I'm out of the demo. I wouldn't throw my money out there at it personally because all you have to do is read and see... Corporate is squeezing them down. I went to KIIM not long ago, and it's half empty! And I said, what's going on? They said, "Well, it's a cutback on personnel. We're calling corporate every 15 minutes to tell them what we've sold, and we just don't have the personnel. And nobody really enjoys working anymore because the pressure is too great." They asked me, "would you buy the radio stations back", and I said I'm sorry my wife's already spent the money. You find a lot of people are really unhappy with being at stations where they are because the pressure is on so heavily and well, you know all the reasons. They took the fun out of it. I know that KIIM is doing pretty good. It's been consistent and they told me recently, "You built such a great radio station, we've tried our best not to mess it up." That's probably the best compliment I ever had. Someone said, "I want to tell you something. We still follow the Granny Rule." That really made an impact on me. I'm an emotional person so please forgive me. Those are the things that mean the most to me. Not the money - I mean, I've got a lot of money but I never started out with any money. It wasn't about the money. It was because I just loved radio.
9. I wonder, Jim, looking back, for a guy who spent so many years in radio, can you think of one or two moments in your career that you are most proud of?
You're going to find this really odd, but when I was at K-HOS, KTKT was a Top 40 station in Tucson was a station that was known nationwide. It was a one big time powerhouse. They had some big time disc jockeys go through there. When I went on KHOS, I was really really pumped about trying to build a good station and I never really felt we could beat KTKT, but we were always number two, and we were hot on their trail. We had the "Pulse" survey once a year, you'd get in the mail and see where you stood. I went to the post office in1968 to get my packet of "Pulse" booklets, and I ripped it open real quickly and it showed KHOS as the #1 station in the market in every daypart. That was the most thrilling moment I ever had in radio! I couldn't believe it. I still have the "Pulse" to prove it. I break that out every now and then rub it in with a couple of ex-KTKT guys. I have to tell you that was the most fun, the most exciting thing that ever happened to me in radio. There have been a bunch of exciting times, but that one is special. I was 32 years old. I was pumped up. I was enthusiastic. I was listening to radio at every waking hour. Everyone else was watching TV I guess and I'm carrying my portable radio with me from room to room to make sure the disc jockeys were playing the records in the order that I wanted them played, and that there was no dead air, and that they were following the instructions I had given them. I didn't let people loose and say get us some ratings and have a good time. One D.J. didn't like this and said "You're a micromanager." I said, "Well, I'm telling you, I know that I know what I know. And I know what people are going to like. And I want it done my way. That door is open. You can come in anytime and make suggestions and I will listen to you.. and if your idea is better than mine, we will do it. But your job is to follow what I have laid out and that is that we're going to do on this radio station." And I was a real stickler about that.
I'll also tell you something I really like is the fact that my children all worked for me. They did a good job, and they created extra value for the station. You know all those awards and that stuff; they're sort of secondary. Very seldom was there ever a bad day. I got up ready to go, and I never went home and bawled about anything. I was just thankful I got to be in radio and that I was doing something I loved. This award is very nice, and I'm very, very grateful for being chosen.