One of Radio’s Best and Brightest Visionary Reflects on More Than Four Decades of Good Times in Broadcasting
t could have been a tough crowd at the local radio industry’s Achievement in Radio awards earlier this month.
Lunch had already been cleared, and there was an urgency in the air. Time to return to work.
But there was still the lifetime achievement presentation to a man who had been an on-air personality, sales executive and station manager in the market. A San Diego legend, many said.
As usual, Jim Price connected with his listeners.
“I really hope you can say that the times I spent with Price were some of the best times because they were for me.” His voice had trembled for a moment.
Later that week, Price sat in the backyard of his Tierrasanta home and told the story of his career. It spanned more than 40 years and dozens of stations in the Midwest, Denver, and California, mostly in San Diego.
The local stations include KDEO-AM, KSDO-AM and FM, KGB-AM and FM, KFSD-FM, and KYXY-FM. He redesigned the programming for most of them.
His r & #233;sum & #233; shows a pattern that Price tells with humor: He would be hired at a declining station, change its programming, boost ratings and profits, then the station would be sold and its format changed.
“I stayed in (radio) because I loved the business,” he says. “I loved the people.
“Radio, over the years, for me, attracted the best and the brightest people and the most creative. It was my love to work with those kinds of people, and that’s what made it exciting for me.”
Price was in his element during brainstorming sessions, says friend and former KGB co-worker Bob Iafrate.
Price also did consulting work for stations and helped found Airwatch Traffic, now called Airwatch America.
Iafrate says Price’s strength is his instinct.
“He’s got such tremendous vision, as far as knowing where things are going he’s just a worldly thinker,” says Iafrate, director of sales for the FM stations that Clear Channel Communications owns in San Diego.
To hear Price tell it, radio feels like home.
“I have a theory,” he says. “I think that everybody is born with a talent and the vast majority of people never even find out what their talent is.”
He continued, “And then there is a little layer of people who find out what their talent is, but they never do anything with it.
“And then, there is a very thin veneer of people who find out what their talent is and press it , and they are generally the most successful people at what they do.”
When asked about his gift, Price smiles.
“I figured out that I have only one talent, and that’s getting people to do things they didn’t think they could do.”
Others say there’s more. Mark Larson, president of the San Diego Radio Broadcasters Association, says Price is a “one-stop shop.”
“He understands sales, he understands promotion, he understands community service. Increasingly, that’s a rarity,” Larson says. “Jim was all those things, in addition to being a mentor and a part-time cheerleader and everything else that he needed to be to create excitement.”
Cliff Albert, program director for AM talk stations KSDO and KOGO, says Price took a personal approach. “He listens to people he cares about people.”
Albert recalled when a salesperson at KSDO had a vision problem, and Price personally drove him on sales calls.
Price’s enthusiasm for the radio business never wavered from his roots as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, Albert says.
He’s right. Price still remembers the first time he heard rock ‘n’ roll. It came in the mid-’50s, a couple years after he had left college to work for a radio company. He was on the air in Ottumwa, Iowa.
Price had been doing his show on one side of the studio and auditioning music on the other side. As he played one record, the hair on the back of his neck stood up.
“I had never heard that much energy in any song I had played,” he recalls. It was Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train.”
After a stint at Denver’s first rock ‘n’ roll station, Price headed to San Francisco, where his company launched another rock station. Hosting the morning show, Price gained the fame of being the station’s “first voice” ever. Through his work, Price met Presley and other performers, and ran his own dance events.
After working as a program director in Fresno and hosting one of the first TV “Bandstand” shows, he came to San Diego’s KDEO.
It was 1965, and after a change in ownership and programming, Price went from program director to salesman. He was then hired as local sales manager at KSDO and was named station manager within the year. After a year as president of a Bakersfield station, Price returned to San Diego, heading KGB.
On the AM side, he established KPOP’s big band format. Under his leadership, KGB-FM had some nationally recognized promotional programs, including its Chicken mascot.
Price left KGB because of a disagreement with its owners and managed classical station KFSD for six months. Then, as the president and a board member for KYXY, he installed the station’s “romantic” format.
In 1991, Price retired, returning to the industry as a consultant until October 1998. He spent the next 12 months caring for his wife, Brande. She died of breast cancer last fall.
“I must say, that was the hardest job I ever had,” he says quietly. He’s still adjusting.
Price isn’t sure about what’s next for him. “Nothing’s clicked yet,” he says. But Price has faith in what’s meant to be.
He’s always followed his instinct, as with station promotions, Price says. “I have put my neck on the line so many times that it’s been stretched a lot,” he says, laughing.
“When you get into doing promotions, you try to think it out, think it through. If you decide it’s got a shot, you’ve got to suck in your gut and say, ‘OK, let’s see where this takes us.’ ”
Sometimes inspirations took the station onto figurative roller coasters.
One was the KGB Skyshow, a large-scale fireworks show set to music that the station first produced in 1975. That first year, the single Skyshow was launched from two locations , Mission Bay and Chollas Park , to seem bigger. Surging far beyond KGB’s expectations, 300,000 people attended it.
After that, the Skyshow was held at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, a more controlled venue.
Price talked about how to build a following that compels hundreds of thousands of people to attend an event, or even listen to a station.
Keeping promises is important, he says. “If you say ‘This is going to be a rock ‘n’ roll station that plays more music than anybody else,’ you’d better deliver.”
Since Price first entered radio, ownership rules have changed, and conglomerates now often own multiple stations in a market.
It’s good for the industry, Price says. Radio can now demand a bigger share of the advertising dollar, he says.
Still, he laments the way that so much programming is attached to sales. It was something that he had to resist when he ran stations, Price says.
“I still believe that there should be something that a radio station does that’s just theirs,” he says. “Fine, sponsor everything else, but keep something where the station can have its identity.”
Price knows about creating something that endures, says KSDO’s Albert.
“It’s going to be a long time, a very long time before any individual has the kind of impact that Jim Price has had on the radio business in San Diego.”