Solving a Radio-Restaurant Mystery
One of my favorite non-radio ways to waste time, somewhat productively, is to watch videos of “LA In a Minute” on TikTok, in which Evan Lovett gives inside stories and information on attractions in and around Los Angeles. You can access his main page at https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTdgFpy8v/.
But a recent posting combined that with radio, when he told the story of Carney’s restaurant, one of my favorite chili burgers in town and a great place to go with my wife, Jean when we were dating and she lived in Hollywood. Carney’s Hollywood location is on the Sunset Strip.
Called “Five Facts about Carneys,” (https://www.tiktok.com/t/ZTdgF7F2P/) Lovett mentioned — in fact one — that Carneys was launched by John Wolfe Senior, a “marketing genius” who was “the man responsible for KKDJ, adult contemporary radio station changing over to KIIS-FM, yes, that KIIS-FM, 102.7 and its top-40 format forever altering the landscape of Los Angeles radio, and he did all this while founding Carneys.”
That didn’t sound right… I have listened to and followed KIIS-FM for years, and prior to that KKDJ and 1150 KIIS … I had never heard of John Wolfe’s connection. Digging further with a search of his name and KIIS, I found an obituary of Wolfe’s on the LA Times site from April of 1999, when he passed away at the age of 72. In it, there is a statement that Wolfe “helped create and market Los Angeles’ KIIS radio (102.7 FM) in the 1960s.” It later mentioned that he left radio in 1973 to launch the restaurant.
This got me intrigued for a few reasons. First off, KIIS-FM didn’t exist in the 1960s; it launched the same year as Carney’s, in fact, when KIIS (1150 AM) and KKDJ were “married” on the air to form a two band simulcast, KIIS AM and FM.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that KIIS itself didn’t launch even on AM until 1970; prior to that it was KRKD, call letters it had held since 1932. So basically, there was no way that Wolfe could have been part of KIIS-FM, especially its move into top-40, something that didn’t happen until later 1981.
Searching more … nothing … outside of a few mentions that seem to all refer back to that one incorrect LA Times obituary. So what’s the true story? Related: does anyone outside of me care about it? Regardless, who would know the story?
Mike Wagner, who worked at KKDJ and later KIIS AM/FM, came through with some clues, stating “to my knowledge, Wolfe had NOTHING to do with the FM…strictly KiiS 1150 AM.” That matched my thinking: that Wolfe was at 1150 and might have helped launch KiiS … written with lower case “ii” in their marketing at the time; the iiS part of the call letters approximating the look of the frequency of 115, shorthand for 1150.
LARadio.com’s Don Barrett helped fill in some other details, using a memory from Chuck Blore, the legendary programmer who brought polished top-40 to Los Angeles via the launch of “Color Radio” KFWB in January of 1958. Interesting, though perhaps not surprisingly, Blore’s memory was also regarding Carneys. Answering the inquiry “When you have a special friend visit you, is there a favorite Southland restaurant you want to expose them to?” Blore wrote,
“Yes. Carney’s. Did you know that a radio sales guy started Carney’s? He was probably the best I ever knew. His name was John Wolfe. He was by far the Number One salesperson at KFWB when I was there and then went on to become the Number One sales person at KPOL. (Remember KPOL?) It was John who talked me into going back into radio and together we worked at KIIS/AM. Then one day he walked in and said, “I’m leaving radio.”
“’My God, John,’ said I, ‘what are you gonna do?’ ‘I’m gonna start a hot dog stand.’ ‘John! You’ve got two growing boys, and two wives to support. A hot dog stand?’ ‘Yeah,’ said John, ‘I thought about that, so I want you to do a commercial for me.’ And I did. And just today I saw a billboard for Carney’s using a line I wrote for John almost 30 years ago – ‘The best thing I ever tasted in my whole mouth.’ John died about seven years ago and today his two boys are engineering the Carney’s trains, one each. “
That memory was written in 2002; Blore himself passed away just last year — July 15, 2021 — at the age of 92.
So while the original information is incorrect regarding being part of KIIS-FM, it is true that a big-time radio guy did indeed leave a successful career to launch one of LA’s most iconic burger restaurants. And that’s kind of cool.
As explained at the Carney’s website (carneytrain.com), “In a time when hamburger establishments were popping up all over the place, John chose to build a restaurant out of an old Pacific Railroad passenger train. Being a former radio executive, he understood the importance of lasting impressions and being different. Not only was John good at publicity but he could also cook amazing burgers and hot dogs.”
And for the chili burger purists, Lovett does another TikTok on Original Tommy’s.
More on KHJ …
“Thank you, Richard, for reminding me how privileged & blessed I was/am to have participated in those glorious, fun-filled, nervous, energized, & ‘over-the-top’ busy days. And the opportunity of working with some of the most talented radio people who ever ‘graced the airwaves’.
“And it didn’t stop there – the entire team on & off air, administrative, engineering, clerical-support, sales, etc. all contributed their best efforts to make ’93/KHJ/Boss Radio’ the incredible and never duplicated success that it became. Being part of that is one of the great joys of my life! Thank you for bringing those memories forefront for me today.” — Betty Breneman
As mentioned in the story last week, Breneman was the music director of KHJ at the launch of Boss Radio in 1965, and was definitely one of the reasons for its success.
And KFI …
Barry Mishkind has an excellent online article giving a wonderful history of KFI as they celebrate 100 years on the air. Read it at https://www.thebdr.net/earle-c-anthony-drives-kfi-to-fame. An excellent read!