Radio Waves: July 9

40th anniversary of the station that should have been

In the life of radio, it wasn’t a big deal. But to fans of top-40 radio and KHJ (930 AM) in particular, June 24, 1981 — a full 40 years ago — is a big day. That was the day of the launch of “the all new K-WEST 106″ as a top-40 station.

No, it was not the first FM top-40 station, not by a long-shot. KIQQ (now KKLQ, 100.3 FM) and KKDJ (now KIIS, 102.7 FM) had been on the air many years prior. What made K-WEST special is that it was the first time that a true “AM on FM” version had been tried in town … high profile, bigger than life top-40 using the same elements that made KHJ so successful, especially in its early years.

Chuck Martin was the man behind the new K-WEST 106; Martin was the brains behind the resurgence of KHJ itself — the last KHJ programmer before the station went country in November, 1980. It was Martin who assembled a staff that included Rick Dees, Bobby Ocean, Pat Garrett, and others on KHJ in a last burst of greatness … and good ratings.

“I was devastated,” Martin told me of the decision of then-owner RKO Radio to take KHJ country. “After all the work we put in to bring KHJ back — and we did — to be told it was going to move to Country was just devastating.” So RKO put him up in a hotel temporarily while helped out at sister station KFRC/San Francisco for a time.

While at KFRC, he got a call from Tim Sullivan, at one time General Manager of KHJ who was just hired to manage K-WEST. What would it take to get Martin to come to K-WEST to  recreate the KHJ magic, he was asked.

Martin says he was a little reluctant. “Honestly, I was not a big fan of Sullivan,” he explained. “But eventually we worked out what I hoped was a solid contract to make sure I had everything in place to make it work.”

Basically it all came down to support, freedom, and money. He wanted enough money to allow him too hire the right DJs, enough money and support to run advertising and promotions, and the freedom to not be bothered by people who meddle more than program.

He had everything else ready to go. Basic music playlists and hourly “clocks” (the order of music and other on-air elements) from KHJ, research he had done with Arbitron (now Nielsen) Ratings showing when the listeners were and what they liked, and a general sense of what needed changing in the seven months since KHJ changed formats.

He did have to assemble a staff, and that had to happen quickly. “Most of the DJs were ready to go and work for me again,” Martin explained. Ocean. Garrett. A new guy trained by Martin to help bring in the Hispanic audience, Benny Martinez. A holdout from the old album rock format K-WEST ran just prior, China Smith who had a perfect voice for the late night shift he had.

“I wanted Rick Dees for mornings,” Martin told me, but the money wasn’t there … in hindsight, perhaps, a red flag. But he heard that (John) London and (Ron) Engelman wanted to leave KRTH (101.1 FM) so he snagged them for the morning shift. In a matter of weeks, the lineup was set.

After that it was engineering. “Everything at K-WEST was old. The station had not been updated in years,” said Martin. So he had to buy new equipment … hire a new engineer … and get it all ready to go – fast.

He had some production work to do, and for that he enlisted the help of master producer Douglas Brown, who was actually still at KHJ but agreed to do some work on the side to help his friend.

Finally, after a few days of stunting under the old format “the station of the 80s is coming …” at 5 PM, June 24, 1981, “KHJ on FM” K-WEST 106 made its debut.

You can hear it for yourself; RadioMaven77 has a full recording of it on MixCloud, and it’s available at It begins with a spot voiced by the amazing Bobby Ocean, followed immediately by a quick introduction by Martin himself and the very first song, “Aint No Stopping  Us Now” by McFadden and Whitehead.

“Ocean and I must have gone through thousands of songs trying to pick that first one,” said Martin. “But we kept coming back to that one. It just fit perfectly.” Over the song intro, Martin exclaimed, “At long last, a place on your dial to make you feel alive. And now is the time … this is definitely the place! So on behalf of the entire staff of new K-WEST family, this is Chuck Martin. Welcome to excitement, welcome to real radio, welcome aboard the starship of the ‘80s … let it roll!”

I was listening. I was in heaven. That night they did short shifts including most of the DJs. London and Engelman would make their debut the following morning. I even called in, and probably got through to Martin himself, to say I loved the new format… but to not play too much disco! Later when I was working the back room at the old Sears Surplus Store in San Pedro, I heard a “jock jingle” — “Bobby Ocean, K-WEST 106!” I was giddy.

Yes, I’m weird.

If you listen to recording of the first night, you’ll notice quite a few things: a varied playlist that can attract listeners from all demographics, no more than two commercials per break (“by design,” says Martin), and elements that help bring listeners in to make it their very own station. The Time Machine allowed oldies that were popular then among listeners to KRLA (now KRDC, 1110 AM). Martin had everything covered. It really was “KHJ on FM.”

Alas, it wasn’t to last. “I thought I had an iron-clad agreement,” Martin told me. “But it wasn’t kept. They didn’t come through with the needed money to support the transition, and even though the ratings jumped, they were afraid of what they were already spending.” After about a year — and right after Martin returned to work from surgery — he got fed up, left and was replaced by Jeff Salgo who launched Magic 106. “I was fed up with management’s negligent abuse of contract, so I gave ultimatum to which they couldn’t possibly live up to.  So we parted ways although not amicably,” Martin said.

I was devastated. The same feeling I had when KHJ went off the air. And it makes you wonder, had management actually supported the format  — remember, this was before the rise of KIIS-FM — would K-WEST still be around? Bobby Ocean noted on a Facebook post that soon after the demise of K-WEST, KIIS-FM itself started using some of the elements that helped make K-WEST and KHJ so special.

For Martin, it was the last straw. K-WEST 106 was the last station he ever programmed. Which is unfortunate — I rank Martin among the best top-40 programmers ever, and the DJ staff among their best. I stand by my opinion that Martin could still take any station with a good signal and good management support and program to win. Yes, even today. 

Perhaps as the giant corporations and Mc-Stations fail, I’ll get my chance to prove it. Here’s hoping.