(Above: 1706 Brady Street used to be the launch pad for flamethrowin’ beautiful music.)
In the fall of 1989 I moved away from home to take my first full-time job in radio at KRVR in Davenport, Iowa. Earlier that year I had decided to spend more time at my radio job and less time in college, and it should have come as no surprise that summer when the folks at Lewis University decided that maybe I shouldn’t be back on campus until I decided where my passions lay. The prospect of attending junior college that fall wasn’t enticing, so I started mailing demo tapes to ads in the back of Radio and Records. Only one station appeared interested, and that was KRVR.
K-River, as it was called, was a “beautiful music” station. Younger readers of the blog may be unfamiliar with the format, but for a time it ruled the roost on the FM dial. The first FM station in the country to win its market was WOOD-FM in Grand Rapids in 1970, and it served up the soundtrack to every dentist’s office and waiting room in town. KRVR was still running an old Harris automation system when I got there – the kind where you loaded up 12″ reels of tape with the music that played in a sequence set by the computer. I should say that the music played eventually – there was enough dead air in-between the songs that we once calculated it to add up to about three weeks a year, or something like that. (I believe the technical term is “savor time.”)
The studios of KRVR were in an office building at 1706 Brady Street, on the main drag through Davenport that was designated as Highway 61. The station was upstairs from a Walgreens at the corner of Brady and Locust, housed a Jazzercize facility, and had a huge mast on top of the building that sent forth 60,000 watts of pure goodness. Interestingly, the station only had one studio – if you wanted to do production, you had to automate the place. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the board was wired backwards – instead of “audition” and “program,” the toggles above the pots stood for “air” and “production.” You needed to key the mic to the left to do a live break. Often air talent gave great tidbits of information that went nowhere but to the tape machine. That rarely happened at night, since the 7-midnight show I was hired to do was pre-recorded. I would record my voice breaks onto carts, load the carts into the Carousels in the automation system, and sit back and listen to myself on the radio. (Once, a friend came to pick me up on a Saturday afternoon, and I amused her by standing in the window drinking a glass of water while I spoke over the air.)
So – about the music. Clearly I desperately wanted a job, as the format was the exact antithesis of what a 20-year-old guy would want to listen to at night. Or during the day. Or at any time, really. For every five songs we played, one was a vocal. The rest were instrumental versions of songs you recognized and likely heard in elevators. Imagine Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” performed by a string section. That’s what KRVR sounded like. And yet it was popular. Because of the “at work” background listening, it fared respectably in the ratings, and had loyal listeners. So loyal, in fact, that in early 1990 when the station began adding more vocals, they were pissed. (They were passionate in other ways: for example, there was a contest where we gave away dinner and a show with a limo ride as a prize. In all my career it’s the only time where the prize winners had sex in the limo after the show. Not any of the rock stations: this one.)
Imagine my surprise when I actually started to recognize the songs. I was still learning my oldies at this point, and the station gave me a valuable education in the softer ones. Years later I was still adding B.J. Thomas’ “Most of All” to playlists, despite most listeners having forgotten about it. (It made #38 on Billboard, but #2 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1970. It’s not like they had never heard it.)
My time at KRVR only lasted four months. The original program director who reached out to hire me, Dave Whiskeyman, left before I had started. (That happened at each of my first two jobs, actually.) The program director who replaced him was a guy who was not to be trusted. One night, while in the building alone, I wandered into his office and discovered that he had a warrant out for his arrest in Montana or some place on a deceptive practice charge. My friend Jim Bartlett, with whom I worked at KRVR (and probably the best thing to come out of the gig) has blogged about him before and tells another side of the story much better than I could. (You should be following Jim’s blog anyway, as it is excellent.)
The song I associate most with KRVR actually predates my time there. In the summer of 1989 my friend Rich made a tape for putting on in the car for long trips. (We were not above finding ourselves with nothing to do and driving to places like, well, Davenport.) The tape opened up with a track from Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. His parents (as did all parents, I was sure) had a slew of Mendes LPs and Herb Alpert LPs, and we raided them for cheesy goodness. Yes, we were lounge before lounge was cool. Imagine a couple of teenage dorks driving around with the windows down, blaring “One Note Samba/Spanish Flea,” and you have a pretty good look at what the summer of 1989 was like for us.
One of the first nights I’m at the station, it’s time for the vocal – and the staccato piano of the Samba starts up. I was happy and sad all at once. Happy because I remembered the fun of driving around, and yet sad because I was all alone, in this strange place, not exactly enjoying what should have been prime years of my youth. I was the one who had asked to grow up more quickly than was the norm, and now I had to deal with that.
You can relive a summer cruising with a couple of dorks by clicking here.