Tahoe disc jockeys spin away from city life
It’s a daily ritual. The hands are tense, the throat is cleared and those darn butterflies are fluttering in their stomachs.
With a flick of a switch, their voices resound through offices, homes and automobiles. Their shows stimulate intelligent conversation and seedy gossip. No subject is too tame for these audio mavericks. They are called “shock jocks,” “on-air personalities,” but are commonly referred to as disc jockeys.
Disc jockeys do more than play Top 40 tunes and read public service announcements. They humor, inform and, in dire emergencies like a severe winter storm, they are the lone beacon for the community.
The profession has evolved from the early days of radio when records were an industry staple. Today’s announcers must have a firm grip of music trends, technology and know if one of the Spice Girls broke a fingernail.
With all of the information an announcer must organize, most of them still have lower-rung salaries. In Tahoe, the sentiment among DJs is the same: they love what they do and who they do it for.
Hot dogs and Musburger
The wacky world of radio is rarely seen by the thousands of listeners who tune in. But it sits somewhere between salivating dogs and correctly identifying call-in celebrities.
Maxx Flite, the morning man at KTHO (590 AM), remembers when he was distracted by a co-worker’s canine. The border collie was parading around the cramped office and paid a visit to Flite when he was doing the news live. The dog distracted him when he was reading when it crawled under the desk and caused a commotion. Flite tried to shoo the pooch away but it was intent on getting a bark or two over the airwaves. Perturbed with the dog, he reached down for the dog’s collar and fell on the floor. The microphone came crashing down and there he was – reading the news and having his face licked.
Jerry Hurwitz, the news director at KRLT (93.9 FM), is a tough man to convince. One of his most embarrassing moments came at the expense of famous sportscaster Brent Musburger when he was working at KTHO. During the hoopla that led up to the 1984 Super Bowl, it was learned that Musburger would call some of the CBS radio affiliates. Hurwitz, believing Tahoe would not be one of the chosen few, was broadcasting when then-news director Steve Teshara said they had someone important on the line.
“Hey Steve and Jerry, this is Brent Musburger from CBS,” recalls Hurwitz. “Let’s talk Super Bowl.”
Filled with disbelief, Hurwitz could only blurt out an expletive this paper can’t print but which live radio had no control over. He eventually filed the verbal slip with the Federal Communications Commission.
Band of gypsies
Employment in the broadcast field is like being in the circus. You move from town to town and you’re there to captivate an audience. KRLT disc jockey Bill Kingman, who is on from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., has spent nearly 40 years jumping from one opportunity to the next. His trail started in Los Angeles, where his mentor was Bob Eubanks, who went on to garner television game host status and fame. He worked in California suburbs like Pasadena, Gilroy (twice) and Escondido. He found his way to Tahoe in 1961 but didn’t start earning his retirement perks with the radio station until 1963.
“You hang around enough in this profession and something will open up,” Kingman cracked.
Kingman, well-known for his baritone pitch, gets into a zone when he enters what the DJs call the “star chamber” – the square room where announcers broadcast from. He visualizes one person at the office water cooler or driving their car listening to his show. The mantra of broadcasting is the one-on-one connection.
Announcers must also use brevity and clarity. They have a short time frame to spit out gobs of information while not falling into the trap of “dead air.” Pronunciation is also crucial. When Chris Roberts was hired at KTHO, he pronounced Placerville with a long “a” and the Unabomber, with the “u” like lukewarm. Getting tongue-tied can also be a problem.
“The first time I did a one-minute spot, it took me about five minutes,” said Flite, who exercises his voice every morning on the way to work. He recites the alphabet twice and says such phrases as “unique New York” and “he makes lists of compact discs.”
Flite (a.k.a. Max Epps) traded his bowling shoes for headphones in 1991. He broke his stint as a professional bowler and took a broadcasting job in Huntington Beach before leaving the feeding frenzy for Tahoe. The 42-year-old DJ wants to join the senior bowling circuit when he is in his radio twilight years.
“I’ve been bowling since I was 3,” he said. “I wanted to do something different for 10 or 12 years and I think broadcasting is a great diversion.”
Living on Tahoe time
Most of Tahoe’s DJs abandoned the hedonistic lifestyle of Southern California, a major hub for the radio industry, for the Sierra. Adapting to the cold winters weren’t so much of a problem with a community that greeted them with warmth.
“Being a DJ in Tahoe is great because we’re a part of the community,” Hurwitz said. “We try to know who the listener is and talk to them directly. How many places are you going to run into the mayor at the grocery store or get to brag about your daughter winning a soccer championship on the air?”
Roberts agrees that a smaller market benefits the station as well as the community.
“You get a better feel for the listeners,” he said. “You get a quicker and sometimes stronger reaction in this market.”
The radio announcers have kindled a special relationship with the Tahoe residents. They even have secrets. When there is the threat of a school closure during a major storm, an informant from the Lake Tahoe Unified School District calls the station with a password.
“We have that confidentiality because some prankster can call up and say school will be closed today,” Flite said. “It’s those important aspects, like providing accurate and timely information, that makes our job worthwhile.”
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