As a kid, I heard a lot of popular music over a cheap transistor radio shoved under my pillow at night so my parents didn’t know I was staying up late listening. Everything was muffled and I often misheard the lyrics, which was frustrating and often embarrassing when I talked about the latest tunes with my pals at school. But at the distance of decades, I remember it as impossibly cool and almost beyond imagination for today’s wannabe hipster kids with instantaneous access to bottomless music libraries and studio-perfect headphones.
Part of the allure was the music, for sure, but there were also disk jockeys back in those dark ages, who were real people with real personalities and quirks and tastes in music. They had cigarette-and-whiskey deep voices, encyclopedic knowledge of music, a virtually endless string of friends they’d mention, and seemingly knew all the places to hang out and dig the scene. I imagined how amazing the radio booth must be, how sophisticated the off-air conversations. People of a certain age will doubtless remember their names: Al ‘Jazzbo’ Collins, Don Sherwood, ‘Emperor’ Gene Nelson, Jim Lange, Terry McGovern.
Once I started working in college radio and had a few internships in real radio stations, I realized the reality was nowhere near as good as my boyhood imaginings. Also, radio was then in a period of radical change. Disk jockeys weren’t thumbing through libraries of vinyl to select just the right tune for the moment and vibe but playing songs on pre-recorded cartridges, repetitively calendared and timed out to the second. Many DJs were adopting loud and wild on-air personalities designed to attract attention and rabid young followers. These days, with the widespread advent of digital technology, most stations are programmed remotely by the computer banks of national syndicates; there’s not a soul left in the studio, just the whir and hum of machines that have the consumer data necessary to maximize audience and profit in real time.
In its day, KGO was among the coolest places around, hosting shows remotely from San Francisco’s hippest nightspots, interviewing the city’s hipoisie and airing locally produced content. Farewell, KGO and all the radio stations that represent a now-departed era of human cool.