By, Bob Shannon
January 13, 2006
MTV, where Les Garland landed in 1981, wasn't radio with pictures, it was television with music. Southern Methodist University, his destination in 1965, wasn't a shabby place to get an education, but Dallas also offered a school of rock, an institute of higher learning called KLIF. For Garland, who was only 18, the choice between the two was no contest. "I wasn't going to Dallas to get into radio," he explains. "I was going to get into college." But, as the saying goes, life is what happens while you're busy making plans.
Jimmy Rabbit, KLIF's night time renegade superstar, hadn't planned to shatter his leg and wasn't happy when he couldn't stand without crutches, get in and out of a chair without help, or run his own board. But for Garland, Rabbit's misfortune was the break he'd been looking for. "I became one of those little radio groupies," he says. Before long, he was an SMU no show, a regular at KLIF helping Rabbit, a student at Elkins Institute (to earn his third class radio telephone license with a broadcast endorsement) and a steadfast proponent of rock and roll, a position he'd first adopted even before his voice changed.
But, as a young teen in Springfield, MO, Garland's real career ambition was something he hasn't talked about much. "Back then," he says, "all I wanted to do was replace Johnny Carson. That was the job I cherished." He wanted to perform. He saw himself acting and, perhaps, doing stand up. He had stars in his eyes. Meanwhile, his ears rang with music. "Southern Missouri, where I grew up, had quite a little music scene and I'd gotten my feet wet hanging out with a band that was known as Granny's Bath Water." Garland chuckles as he tells the story. "Later they changed their name to The Ozark Mountain Daredevils."
By the time he was 13 he'd discovered radio. "I'd skip around the dial at night and pick up WLS, KAAY or WABC, and I could visualize a really cool jock sitting on a stool in a dimly lit room with little spotlights on him, and he'd introduce a band like The Fuzzy Snakes (he chuckles again) and they'd actually come out and perform. Really!"
Garland says he believed in the theatre of the mind that radio delivered, and he started getting the bug. So, by the time he got to Dallas, he had two goals in mind: show business and the music business. "And the magnet that kept sucking me towards the music biz was radio," says Garland.
Have License, Will Travel
With a freshly-printed FCC certificate, Les Garland departed Big D, bound for a little town in Missouri called Aurora. With a population of approximately 5000, Aurora was your typical, normal, run-of-the-mill, all-American, one-horse-town with a radio station, KSWM, where Garland could do everything. He took transmitter readings, read the news, hit the streets and sold, and did air work that included obits, pet patrol and playing the music he so loved. It was the middle sixties -- a simpler time in media that will never exist again -- and Garland had a game plan. Next he returned to his hometown, Springfield, and landed a gig at KICK, the station he'd listened to growing up. But, after a quick spin there, he decided the station didn't rock quite enough and crossed the street to play real night time rock and roll on 5000 watt KWTO.
That's where he was, sitting on a stool in a dimly-lit room, when he got the call that invited him to move up to KELI/Tulsa.
KELI was at 1430 and its only direct Top 40 competition was 970/KAKC, one of the few stations outside the RKO chain that Bill Drake consulted. KAKC was considered by many to be a training camp for aspiring boss jocks with the sights set on moving up to Memphis, San Francisco, or, maybe --- cross your fingers -- the big Kahuna, KHJ/Los Angeles. Across town, at KELI, Garland started plying his trade and stretching his muscles. He did his show, free lance voice work, and even dabbled in TV with a Saturday afternoon show called Dance Party. He was still a performer at heart, but remembers that about this time he began to think about the art of programming (or, as he put it, "learning how to manage the creative process"). He spent hour upon hour trying to absorb KAKC's formatics and he jumped into the music, even more than he had before, and began formulating his ideas on how science and art might work together. He knew that one day he'd become a Program Director.
But first, he had to go to Milwaukee with Mike Joseph.
High Rotations and Lofty Goals
By the time Joseph and Garland connected, Mike Joseph was already a legend based on his work with, among other stations, WABC/New York. Though it was still years before he would introduce his Hot Hits format, Joseph was already working in the laboratory.
The station in Milwaukee was WZUU and it was to be the market's first FM rocker. Garland, who came in as a jock and Asst. PD, says that Joseph ran dry runs of the station for three months. He also reveals, however, that when they finally launched, what they did bore no resemblance to what they'd be practicing. "I knew Mike wanted to build the cume up as fast as we could and I understood, but, my God, we signed on with a playlist of 17, maybe, 19 records. No oldies, no recurrents. I mean, how many times can you play Long Cool Woman in a three hour shift!?!"
To put it bluntly, it wasn't a match made in heaven. "It just wasn't me," says Garland, and thinking back on it today, he even suggests that his hair was too long for the format (you'd have to have been there).
For the first time in his career, Garland sent out airchecks. When a call came in from KYNO/Fresno -- the station where Bill Drake and Gene Chenault had first joined forces to compete against Ron Jacobs and Robert W. Morgan -- Garland was floored. "I was incredibly excited and moved to Fresno to do mid-days. Within a year I was named PD."
Under Garland's leadership, the Drake-consulted station vaulted into double digits and, as a result of this success, Garland was invited (maybe sworn into a very exclusive club is closer) to visit Bill Drake's hideaway in Beverly Hills. "Drake was like Elvis, man," says Garland, "and when he mentored me I hung on to his every word. He was, after all, the most important man in pop radio." Back in Fresno, KYNO experimented with ideas that often ended up on the other Drake stations: KHJ, KFRC, WHBQ, WRKO, et al. It was, to say the least, an eye-opening time for Garland. Within a year, Drake would offer him the programming job at K-100 in Los Angeles. "I thought K-100 sounded better than any other in Southern California", Garland told me, "and I was ready to rock!"
The staff included Robert W. Morgan, The Real Don Steele, Eric Chase, and other LA legends. It was his second programming gig and everything about it suggested that this one was going to be the match made in heaven he missed in Milwaukee. It was LA, and Garland's star was ascending. He settled in at K-100 and rolled up his sleeves. Across the street, KHJ fought back, having never forgiven Drake and his team for leaving. It was the early 70's, and Garland, still in his twenties, was programming a radio station that put everything he did under a microscope.
Eight months later he quit.
NEXT WEEK: Leaving LA, Meeting Drew, Loving San Francisco