Tribute to Tuna
Last week was not a good week for top-40 radio fans. News came out that two of the people who helped shape the format — Charlie Tuna and John Rook — passed away. Tuna is a legend in this town; this week I will focus on him; next week I’ll speak of the many accomplishments of Rook.
Charlie Tuna is a name almost everyone who grew up listening to KHJ (930 AM) — or most recently KRTH (101.1 FM) — knows. Legendary doesn’t quite describe Tuna, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1967 to be among the original KHJ Boss Jocks, first following Robert W. Morgan in the 9 a.m. to 12 noon shift and eventually taking over mornings when Morgan left. Twice. He’s more than legendary … beginning with his first show in 1967 that came on Thanksgiving Day: Tuna on Thanksgiving.
He came by way of KGFW in his hometown of Keraney, Nebraska where he used his given name of Art Ferguson on the air. After that it was Wichita, Kansas (as “Billy O’Day”), Oklahoma City where he took on the name Charlie Tuna as the end result of a station;s inside joke, and then KHJ. On KHJ the original plan was to use his given name; a few days before his first shift management decided to stick with Tuna, which he used ever since.
It is said that Tuna was part of more stations and air-shift times than any other DJ in and around Los Angeles, and that may be right. Besides KHJ where he hosted mornings under different programmers and three different tenures, he was on the original KROQ (then at 1500 AM), the great KKDJ (now 102.7 FM) which Tuna oversaw becoming a simulcast of KIIS (1150 AM and new call letters for 102.7 FM), KTNQ (1020 AM), KHTZ (now KAMP, 97.1 FM), the original KRLA (now KDIS, 1110 AM), KODJ (now KCBS-FM, 93.1), KMPC (now KSPN 710 AM), KABC (790 AM), KIKF (now KEBN 94.3 FM), KLAC (570 AM), KBIG (104.3 FM), and of course KRTH.
He was the announcer on numerous television shows, acted in movies, had syndicated radio programs on stations throughout the United States, was heard on Armed Forces radio, voiced numerous commercials, and until recently was the voice of KDOC Channel 56.
In 1971 just prior to the Sylmar earthquake, he signed on for his morning shift on KHJ, mentioning that he had trouble sleeping and was “feeling a little shaky” due to a recurring dream. As the first song of his shift spun on the record player, Born to Wonder by Rare Earth, the quake hit and the record record started warbling. Eventually the station was knocked off the air.
Through everything and through the years, he was absolutely upbeat with the same pipes he had as a hip young Boss Jock. He sounded as great this year as in 1967, and he never wanted to focus on the past. “I think I have the best job in the world, and I’m having as much fun on the air now as I ever have,” he told me in an interview from his KBIG days.
He passed away in his sleep at what I consider a too-young 71 years old. He had been ill for a few weeks and doctors couldn’t figure out what it was. He leaves behind his wife, two daughters and two sons, who ask that memorial donations be made to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Tuna’s longtime charity.
“What I’ll always remember about Mr. Ferguson is is versatility. He was at 710/KMPC when they were all sports, I remember the late Joe McDonnell greeting Charlie Tuna while McDonnell-Douglas were doing their afternoon show. Tuna was there preparing for the next day’s morning program, Big Joe admired Tuna’s work ethic.
“Whatever format he was doing, Charlie Tuna came prepared. I also heard him on KIK Country (KIKF) as well as doing both Top 40, Adult Contemporary, and Oldies at different L.A. outlets. Best to his family and friends.” — Alan Oda
CHARLIE – A CAREER SAVER!
“It was 1976…about 18 months after leaving my first radio job at KDES-Palm Springs, to join the fading former Orange County AM Giant, KEZY 1190-Anaheim. In March of ’76, the management decided to fire us all…the entire line-up of DJs to create a new image with a new team (didn’t work!).
“I arrived at the station around 3pm before my nightly 7pm show after finishing an appearance that afternoon with another KEZY DJ, Paul Freeman, at an Irvine school to promote our big March of Dimes Walkathon. In my In Box was a memo from management announcing our termination (no warning, no phone call, no meeting).
“I read it in the lobby in disbelief when the receptionist pointed out that I had another message in my box. It was a phone message that Charlie Tuna, then Program Director of KIIS AM & FM had called me to offer me a job! He already knew that I was out of work and had a job for me the next day. That job at KIIS-FM lasted over 7 years, and I ended up being the Program Director there for several years before moving on to Corporate Programming jobs.
“Thank you Charlie!
“I last saw him a few years ago at a live remote he was doing on K-EARTH at the OC FAIR. He sounded just the same as he always did. Was glad to work with him again at KRLA, where I was Program Director and where he did mornings for a few years.” —-Mike Wagner
TO MY FRIEND
“In November of 1967, I was the engineer sitting across from the KHJ Boss Jocks. I played records and commercials. All the DJ had to do was be a great DJ. My first shift of the day was 9AM to 12Noon. My second shift was 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. with The Real Don Steele. But one day during that November, a lanky new Boss Jock was introduced in the 9AM to 12Noon slot. His name was Charlie Tuna. Actually, his real name was Art Ferguson, but the station programmers liked Charlie Tuna better.
“Within a short few weeks, Charlie asked me to bring along my wife, and join him and his wife at their apartment in North Hollywood. We ate pizza and watched Laugh In. That turned into a regular Monday night thing for us all. Charlie would talk about some of the bits he was going to do and I would sometimes add a very small fraction of the humor. The Monday night hook-ups were great because it prepared us both for the shows that would follow.
“Spending three hours a day with any one person draws you very close. It doesn’t take long before you’re sharing great stories. I was already enjoying that closeness with The Real Don Steele. Getting to know Charlie Tuna was equally enjoyable. There are thousands of memories I’ll never forget.
“When Charlie and his wife Sharri moved to Tarzana, it would be where he lived the rest of his life. His legacy as one of the premier Los Angeles air personalities came full circle. His first LA station was KHJ. His last station in LA was K-Earth. Back in 1967, K-Earth was KHJ-FM.” — John Badeaux