Here's A Memory You Might Just Flip Over
August 14, 2015
This is a column that's probably better suited for a year from now, when the 10-year anniversary of a particular station's format flip will take place. But the way this crazy business is going, who the hell knows what will happen in the next 12 months; if anybody will be in a position to check in on the people affected, on Thursday, August 17th, 2006, when KZLA/Los Angeles was abruptly flipped from Country after 26 years in the format. That day, it became Rhythmic AC as KMVN (Movin') -- a shiny new flavor-of-the-month format which lasted just short of two years in LA.
Did I say that with my outside voice?
It's awful to be fired. And who in this business hasn't been -- or won't be -- at some point, if we work in it long enough. Getting blown out, or what we in the trades water down with the word "exiting," can happen for any number of reasons, usually very few of them under our control. New boss, new ownership, change of direction, downsizing, restructuring … you name it. Yes, of course it's often about performance, ratings (two different things!), attitude, and yes, lack of talent. Getting fired sucks, because it's the ultimate rejection. YOU are no longer needed. YOU have been singled out among all the other members of the staff. It's worse than not getting picked for the kickball team in grade school, because in essence, the kickball team is kicking YOU off of itself. Horrible!
But when the entire STATION is flipped out of its existing format, it stings just as hard. Sure, there's some kind of collective unity among staffers that emerges, but bottom line, the message is: Not only does the company no longer want YOU, it doesn't want your format, your music, your artists, your culture, your call letters, your banners, your station vehicle, your street team, your co-workers, or your KIND anymore. They don't just want you off the kickball team; they don't even want the entire damned kickball team anymore.
So after the team is involuntarily disbanded and the five stages of grief have passed, life usually goes on. Such is the case for the staff of KZLA, all of whom persevered and came out the other end stronger and better than before (#talent). One year shy of a decade later, I thought it might be fun to see just how well much the programming crew of KZLA has done since, which hopefully gives you some indication of what an awesome staff that station had, and what a special group of people it really was.
Of course, I will always be biased. Full disclosure: I was the OM/PD; they were MY staff, and I remember they'd run through a wall for that station. They loved the format, the artists, and the idea of making Country work in a tough market like L.A. Together, that bunch created a culture and a belief system they themselves kept feeding -- and feeding off of. Probably the best staff I ever worked with.
I'll start with mornings and the last live voice ever heard on KZLA. It was none other than Blair Garner, now host of the NASH-branded "America's Morning Show." Though technically not an official staff member, Blair was hosting the nationally syndicated "After Midnite" at the time and filling in for our regular morning guy, Peter Tilden, who was on vacation. But we always tried to treat Blair like a regular staffer, because as an "After Midnite" affiliate, he was on the air five days a week at KZLA and was L.A.-based at the time. Blair and I had also previously worked together, when I spent a year as OM for "After Midnite" in the pre-Premiere days. Blair of course, remained with "After Midnight" until he was recruited by Cumulus to launch "America's Morning Show," which he still hosts today.
Peter Tilden eventually returned to Talk KABC-A/Los Angeles, and has been there since, in a variety of dayparts. Peter had already gotten involved with Brad Paisley's team, helping him conceptualize Paisley's videos, which started to become a big part of his branding. It was a frantic mess trying to reach Peter that morning, as he was out of pocket for much of the day. I hated giving him the news via phone, but that was a situation that falls under the "it is what it is" category, and Peter totally got that.
Peter's co-host, Ashley Paige, had been with Blair that entire week of Peter's vacation. She became part of KKGO (Go-Country)/Los Angeles, which picked up the Country baton seven months later. Ashley did several dayparts at Go-Country before leaving radio for a short time to work in a family business she and husband Neil started while she was at KZLA. Just recently, she got back into radio, co-hosting a morning show on Country station KWSV (The Ranch 99.1), a small Simi Valley, CA. station. Working alongside her? KZLA's morning show producer at the time of the flip, Mike Raffety.
Shawn Parr handled middays on KZLA and had the distinction of playing the last-ever song on the station. He and I shared a hug and a few tears at roughly 10:10a, five minutes before the flip. We'd first worked together at KZLA in 1993. For a time, neither of us worked there. I remember having lunch with him in San Antonio during each of our respective exiles from the station. I was programming KCYY in the Alamo City, and he was on the beach. We both returned to 'ZLA within a year or so of that lunch, and by the time of the flip, we'd been through a lot together, between my 17 years at KZLA during three tours and his 12-over-two stints.
That morning, Shawn asked what song should be the last played and I said, "Use your best judgment." When he fired up Keith Urban's "Tonight I Wanna Cry," I just about did. It was the perfect choice. Of course, Shawn is now hosting the NASH-branded "NASH Nights Live" for Cumulus and is heard on nearly 80 stations every night. But immediately after KZLA, he was the first air personality hired for Mt. Wilson's KKGO when they decided to go Country.
Afternoons were hosted by Whitney Allen back then. After literally 10 years of courting, coaxing and -- I'm not ashamed to admit -- begging, Whitney had finally agreed to work for me a couple years earlier. On August 17th, 2006, she was getting ready for a live broadcast from L.A.'s Staples Center to kick off two nights of the Tim McGraw/Faith Hill "Soul2Soul" tour. I had to call her moments after the flip and tell her not to bother -- another conversation I hated doing via phone. At the time, Whitney had just launched a short-form, syndicated countdown and weekend show, "The Big Time With Whitney Allen." KZLA was her first affiliate, and the show has gone on to grow substantially, now part of the Westwood One family of syndicated shows.
We had recently shifted to mostly tracked nights, with Brian Douglas hosting. He'd been our live personality in evenings for a few years at that point. Brian ended up as a personality on the Westwood One 24-hour Country format and remained until last month when the company announced layoffs. By the way: he's looking for his next opportunity, and he's a talented dude.
Vicki Pepper was the station's programming assistant and pretty much the equivalent of the Radar character from the "MASH" TV show and movie. She also became part of the KKGO staff, eventually serving as morning producer -- for Shawn Parr. Vicki always aspired to be on the air, as she had done a lot of that in college. She took a job doing weekends at KUZZ/Bakersfield -- commuting up there from L.A., and really honing her craft. CBS Radio KFRG/Riverside PD Lee Douglas recognized her growing talent and hired Pepper for nights in 2013. She does a great job there -- especially expanding her brand onto social media.
KZLA's APD/MD was Tonya Campos. Within hours of the flip -- no exaggeration -- Tonya had been offered and then accepted a regional promotion gig with Lofton Creek Records. She was part of the staff that worked one of 2006's most incredible singles, Heartland's "I Loved Her First." But when KKGO made the decision to become a Country outlet, they called Tonya, who was hired as PD and helped launch the station during CRS-week in 2007. Tonya remains in the PD chair today.
One of the strongest parts of the station was its imaging presence. It was active, aggressive, ever-changing and dynamic. Mike Madrigal was our imaging guru; this guy was and is a true genius and magician. He stayed on to help image "Movin'" for a few months but eventually left, because he absolutely hated the format. Mike and some other imaging savants had already formed their own production company, "Short Bus Radio." It was really taking off, and I knew we'd lose Mike eventually. His company still exits -- thrives, actually -- providing imaging and working parts to virtually every radio format in existence.
Programming a radio station requires a large emotional investment, and when you are suddenly removed from that role, it's jarring. At 9:00a on August 17th, 2006, my GM Val Maki called my office, asked how the day was going so far, and if I had a minute. "I'll be right down," I replied, but she said, "No, let me come to your office." I thought that was odd, since we always met in hers. Before she arrived, Rhythmic clustermate KPWR PD and Emmis VP/Programming Jimmy Steal appeared at my door, asking "Has Val been here yet?" She soon was; the door was shut, and Val calmly looked at me, saying "Well, we have some news about KZLA."
And just like in the cartoons, a bubble appeared over my head, revealing my first thought, which was: "Wow! I am so fired today!"
As it turned out, Country music in L.A. was fired, and it was happening inside of an hour. I have zero experience with either, but I suppose hearing that news was similar to having social services show up and take your kids away, or perhaps an intervention, where your entire world changes in an instant. You feel as though you've failed your mission and let an entire staff, listeners, the company, and your family down. I guess I should have seen the signs, but then again, I had my head down, trying to program a radio station in a big, challenging market for a huge, demanding company -- and that world can be a complete vacuum.
Only through hindsight, different experiences, and most importantly -- years of distance -- do you realize none of that stuff about failing is true. In the exact moment of a format flip, it's painful and traumatic, but in the long run, true talent always prevails and endures. Everybody on that team -- better yet, family -- have each gone on to do awesome things in their respective careers. I am so proud to say I used to work with all of them -- and will shamelessly embellish my resume by including their names forever.