It’s wistfully fun to take an occasional stroll down memory lane, and I’ve had my share of those trips over the years. But as a person gets older, that lane widens into a highway, eventually stretching out toward an indiscernible horizon that gets fuzzier as time goes by.
WAY down my personal highway, at 415 Bush Street in San Francisco, there’s a radio station called KFRC, and sitting in a studio inside that station is a man they called “The Doctor,” although he wasn’t a real doctor at all. A doctor of mirth, maybe, but they called him ‘The Doctor’ because his on-air alias was “Doctor Don Rose.”
Donald Duane Rosenberg, the guy with a Jewish name who wasn’t actually Jewish (seemed to be a theme in his life) was born in North Platte, Nebraska in 1934. ‘The Doctor’ made his way into a real radio gig in 1949 at a tiny station in Beatrice, Nebraska called KWBE when he was only 15 years old.
It wasn’t until 1973 that he made the real big time, hiring on as the on-air morning drive host for 610 KFRC, an AM powerhouse station in a ‘large market’ that played “THE BEST MUSIC!” and he remained in that gig until the station sold and changed format in 1986, an impressive run in radio during those days.
KFRC wasn’t a position on the dial. It was a place in the hearts of the many professionals who worked there to build and continue a legacy unmatched in radio. It was also a place in the hearts of the listeners who made it important in their lives. 610 means nothing. “KFRC San Francisco with the Best Music!” will live forever in that magical place we all go when we think about the good things of the past.Gerry Cagle, former KFRC Program Director
Despite such a long stretch in a lucrative gig, where it’s reported that Dr. Don raked in over $300,000 a year (quite a bit for an on-air host back then), he’d honed his act at minor league stations in Nebraska, Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa before moving into the bigger time in Atlanta and Philadelphia.
He’d been fired from several of those stations after only a few weeks which was not uncommon in those days because management hinged everything on ratings, which equaled $$$ in advertising sales. That was the good ol’ bottom line; if ‘the market’ didn’t take to you real soon – aka the people in the market – you were out.
I met the good doctor when I was 14 years old. Not literally – I mean I found him on the air – not soon after he arrived to spin his first record at KFRC. AM radio was still a big deal in those days, although FM stations had been around since the FCC here in the USA allocated frequency ‘bands’ for them in 1945. FM radio caught on and garnered more and more ‘market share,’ but it was a slow crawl, taking about three decades.
We didn’t live in San Francisco in those days; I was an only kid who lived with my parents way up in the hills east of the city, 40 miles on the other side of the state capitol, Sacramento. We’d moved there the previous year when my dad retired to his dream, a 40-acre ‘ranch’ that wasn’t really a ranch at all (Dr. Don would have had a chuckle over that).
It was a forested area right over the hill from a gold rush town along Highway 50 called Placerville. We were about 130 miles from that radio studio on Bush Street in San Francisco, which would be an easy two hour drive if you drove really fast, but given the hills and winding roads, a person would (and still should) allow about three and half hours to get down there.
The advantage to FM radio was the far superior sound quality and the ability to deliver music in stereo, while AM radio was simply, well… there. But AM signals could get into a lot of nooks and crannies, and get farther flung out into the universe than FM.
I don’t want to bore anyone to tears with science geek stuff like ‘tropospheric and sporadic E propagation‘ so I won’t (you’re welcome), but it’s the reason we country bumpkins could hear the good doctor way up there above Placerville, while FM stations in the much closer city of Sacramento had a difficult time crawling up the highway and getting through all those rocks and pine trees.
Our ‘ranch’ that wasn’t really a ranch was so far off the highway way up there, that it took a half-hour for mom or dad to drive me to the bus stop, where I’d then catch the school bus for a riveting hour and a half bus ride just to get to my high school. They took turns but not really on any kind of schedule; they’d just argue about it and then one of them would end up taking me.
To this day, I can’t express how encouraging it was to me as a kid – a soon-to-be young man – to have the prize of driving me to the bus stop in the morning go to the loser of the argument.
Early one morning of my freshman year in high-school, I boarded that school bus for the arduous trip down the hills and that’s when I met “The Doctor.” I’ll never forget our bus driver who had that route, Jennifer, because among other things she was the one who introduced me to him.
She was so cool, we didn’t have to call her ‘Mrs. Lenhart,’ she said ‘Jennifer’ was okay, but never call her Jenny. She’d also have the bus radio tuned to 610 KFRC out of San Francisco every morning, because…
Remember, always stay at least five car lengths behind the vehicle you’re driving.Dr. Don Rose, 610 KFRC
The good doctor rode to school with me over the next four years, so that’s a lot of time to spend together. Even after I got my driver’s license during my junior year, I continued to have him on the car radio in the mornings although my commute was cut down to slightly over an hour since I didn’t have to stop every 10 minutes and pick up other kids on the way.
Also, I was only 16-17 years old, so there were days I made it in well under an hour. Don’t tell mom and dad if you ever see them in heaven, they’d probably still chew me out. “You drive way too fast, young man, you’re going to kill someone!”
In June of 1977, I graduated high school and spent less time with the doctor, since I didn’t have to get up before nine in the morning after that. I always had it in the back of my head somewhere that I eventually wanted to do what he did… make people laugh, inform them of a few things, and best of all get paid for it.
That whimsical memory highway is always full of ‘what ifs,’ in the form of little turn-offs along the way. In this chapter of my story I have a ‘what if’ that turns off right around late 1977, where I go down to Sacramento and get a job at a radio station, doing anything. I could have even interned for a station for no pay, while working a job somewhere to pay rent, bills, and buy gas. But to be honest, I didn’t know I could do that.
As a fun little glimpse into the zaniness of Dr. Don, he always called our state capitol ‘Sacra-tomato’ in his weather updates. It was rare to hear him reference Sacramento by its proper name.
I was fairly directionless in those days, and never made it down to ‘Sacra-tomato’ to try anything to further myself in life; I just ended up joining the US Navy instead, for several reasons…
A. There was a guy in an office over in Placerville who wore a spiffy naval uniform, and he came to our high school during senior year to give us a talk. He said they’d pay us to do things as long as we did what they told us to do. He also said you could travel the world and they’d pay for it, and they’d throw some college into the deal and they’d pay for that too. I didn’t hear the word ‘intern’ anywhere in there, and the thought of all that free stuff and travel looked pretty good.
B. My best run-around pal from high school at that time was a goofball named Sterling, who had a cool, silvery name. He got bit by the Navy bug first, after the Placerville guy came to talk to us, so he talked me into joining up with him.
For weeks after that, it was all Sterling could talk about, much to the delight of Sterling’s dad, Bud, who was a widower and was really anxious to get his now-grown, dope-smoking laze-about teenaged son out of his home and into something that would whip him into shape. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard; Bud didn’t care, he just wanted someone to take Sterling off his hands.
So we both signed up, on the same day, side by side, with grandiose plans to go to basic training in San Diego together, and then afterward try to get into the same ‘A-school’ (Navy training) and eventually the same ship, sailing to the same ports, where we’d be best buds drinking exotic beer in faraway countries, and we’d marry some beautiful island girls and start our respective families, and stay pals forever and ever!
But Sterling never made it past the testing stage. He bombed so bad, it was a wonder he’d gotten a high school diploma in the first place, and I passed all of the testing and was locked-in to the deal, so I had to go off without him.
Sadly, I never saw Sterling again, and even sadder, I never heard Dr. Don’s KFRC show again, but his voice and corny jokes reside in my psyche to this day. I didn’t realize until years later how much of an influence his schtick had on me during those impressionable years, because I really didn’t get to nurture it much during my 4-year navy hitch.
I found out early on that they take things pretty seriously in the military. Goofballs who cut-up on the job and pull silly antics like Dr. Don did, but while steering a military ship in heavy seas as that ship escorted an aircraft carrier would get harshly reprimanded. Go figure!
The USS Fanning, where I spent 3.5 years of my life cleaning, painting, and saluting, instead of interning at a ‘Sacra-tomato’ radio station.
Remember that college deal I mentioned earlier? I didn’t go to an actual college after my navy hitch, but at the ripe ol’ age of 22 I found that I could use those funds for trade school, and “Columbia School Of Broadcasting” was not only a trade school that qualified, but was also a colossal waste of time. So I signed up.
It wasn’t really a huge waste, it’s just that I didn’t get a real radio job until four years later, in 1986. At “Columbia…” I would do fake radio in a fake studio and make a tape of it for real radio professionals to critique. These were actual people like Dr. Don who had real radio shows around the country and you’d send them a tape of your ‘show’ on something called a “cassette tape.” And then — and I’m not making this up — they’d send the same tape back to you but they would record their verbal notes on the other side of it.
A photo of a ‘cassette tape,’ for my younger readers/Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com
I remember one guy with a terrific voice whose name was Ken Noble, and he hosted an afternoon drive slot somewhere other than where I was, which was still San Diego. He was always very nice to me, and was the first pro to tell me I should never poke fun at a commercial sponsor who was paying for my show.
I taped him back (when you recorded a new fake ‘show’ you could put notes at the beginning for the instructor) and told him how Dr. Don in San Francisco would always make fun of sponsors! So why couldn’t I do it too?
I received my tape back from him a few weeks later (God, I love video chat now that it’s 2020!) and he said he knew who Dr. Don was, because every deejay and radio host in the country knew who he was, and pointed out that Don did it in such a way that people would beat a path to the door of that sponsor, and throw money at them once they got there. He said the way I did it would make people want to boycott the sponsor and possibly throw molotov cocktails through their showroom windows.
I really liked Ken Noble, I should look him up.
I loved little league baseball. When I was ten years old my dad gave me a bat… but it flew away.Dr. Don Rose, 610 KFRC
Okay I just looked up Ken noble but couldn’t find much, just a mention in 2012 from a co-deejay in Chicago who said Ken was ‘great to work with.’ (God, I’m really disappointed in Google, here in 2020).
I finally got hired at a Los Angeles station in 1986 as a weekend board operator, which could also be spelled ‘bored operator,’ because I didn’t get to do anything like what Dr. Don did, I just played other people’s stuff and slid knobs up and down during talk shows.
In 1987, I landed a gig at a Sacramento station doing the same thing, but hey, I got to meet Rush Limbaugh. And we’ll just leave it at that.
By the time I was hosting an overnight show in the Fresno, California area in 1989, the wacky top-40 morning drive deejay style Dr. Don had perfected was gone, and FM stations were all giving airtime to the kings of FM morning drive in cities all over the nation, with the ‘Morning Zoo’ format. My interest in radio was waning anyway as I saw it slip away and morph into something else.
The only really great thing I got out of my stint with that Fresno station, aside from some good friends who I’m in touch with to this day, is that I met/dated/fell-in-love with the love of my life and proposed to her on-air during that overnight show, at 11:05 pm on the nose. I would have made it eleven straight-up but I had to wait until after the five minute news break at the top of the hour.
I’d told her to be sure and listen to my show that night, so she called in and accepted my proposal in front of a live radio audience of maybe 400 people at most. It was a really small-market station, but I’m pretty sure this was the only radio contest ever held where the deejay won the prize. We’re still together to this day, and celebrated our 30th anniversary on June 2nd of 2020.
The prompt for this jog down the memory highway and subsequent blog post came from a YouTube video I found of my old pal, who I never had the pleasure of meeting, at work in the studio on Bush Street. It was taped right at the time I was in his listening audience, and even though I later became familiar with the operations of a broadcast studio, I had never actually witnessed the king on his throne until a few days ago.
This video was done as a project for San Jose State University in 1978 by Mike Brinks and Bob Reynolds. Because of my personal connection and how much the good doctor influenced my silly sense of humor, seeing this brought tears to my eyes, so thank you Bob for posting this!
A few technical notes on the above video: Since this was taped over 40 years ago, it’s a glimpse into a different era. Turntables are used to spin vinyl without a compact disc in sight because they wouldn’t be invented for another two years.
Dr. Don’s engineer/producer is the guy running the board in the studio facing him, Steve Rude. I had that job at several of the stations named above but he’s much faster than I ever was. I can honestly say from having done something similar, he’s absolutely one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Today, all of those tapes, turntables, and scintillating sound effects would be on a laptop or desktop monitor in front of the air-talent and producer, easily played with a click, plus a lot of that can now be automated.
Since one thing leads to another on today’s internet, I also found some ‘airchecks’ of Dr. Don posted at The Bay Area Radio Museum. An aircheck back in the day was a collection on tape of just the on-air talent with the commercials, news, and music all cut out. Deejays used them to get a new job somewhere else, and their bosses used them to critique their on-air performance. I’d get called into the office and scolded a lot.
“Well Dave, at 23:50 in, you said the station manager wears ladies underwear, and that’s not really something we’d like to hear from you considering this is a news station and we just came out of a story about a three-alarm fire downtown.”
I don’t have permission to re-post the airchecks here, so I will just send anyone interested to the site and you can click the little buttons and play them yourself. People who know me personally will likely be astounded to observe how much of an influence Dr. Don Rose had on me in my youth. “Hey, you joke all the time like that!… Hey, you bark like a dog!… Hey, you sing certain words instead of just saying them!.. Hey, you laugh when you’re talking about something serious!”
NOTE: All of the above is true. Dr. Don had an ongoing bit with his dog, ‘Roscoe,’ who was always present in the studio with him. Roscoe was actually a recorded sound effect on tape (he interacts with the invisible Roscoe in the video above), whereas I have actually perfected the sound of a dog barking. I’m quite good at it and have fooled many an actual dog, but I’ve never landed gainful employment with that skill and it got me in trouble in the navy and on that boring news station all the time.
Not only did Dr. Don refrain from ever correctly pronouncing the name of Sacramento (Sacra-tomato!) but he never just SAID the name of the bay area city of San Rafael, he always sang it during his weather/temp checks. “San Raaaa- FELLLLL!!!!” Yeah, I do that too, and for years I didn’t really know why.
“Honeeee, let’s go out to DINUUUUURRRR…!!!”
If you follow through to the Bay Area Radio Museum to hear these airchecks, through my link you’re going to land right on Dr. Don’s tribute page. If you play the ones from 1977 that I circled below, you’re going to be hearing him as he was heard on-air but scrunched down to a half-hour each because all the commercials and music are taken out.
It’s really kind of an audio time capsule too, because you’ll hear a lot of promotions for a big new movie coming out called “Star Wars” (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) and references to culture, media, bands, and politics of the time. Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ had just dropped, and Stevie Nicks singing ‘Dreams’ comes up several times, along with ‘Rhiannon.’ No wonder I’ve always been so fond of that band, they played those songs to death on every top 40 station in the nation.
Since those three airchecks were recorded in ’77, there’s every chance I heard them live but there’s just no way I’d remember from that long ago. I’m lucky I remember what radio was.
Thanks to Sam Gold for posting them to The Bay Area Radio Museum. <– CLICK THAT or the screen cap below to open it up.
In closing, I’d like to offer apologies and all due respect and admiration to the other great air-talent from KFRC back in the day, such as Bobby Ocean, Rick Shaw, Dave Sholin, Harry Nelson, Terry Nelson, Don Sainte-John, ‘Marvelous’ Mark McKay, John Mack Flanagan and the ‘the rhyming jock,’ Bill Lee.
You were all amazing but the late, great Dr. Don Rose hung out with me on the way to school every day, and he’s likely the reason I even got through it at all.