When Bad Things Happen To Good Radio People:
Bay Area Radio Digest, Summer 1992 Edition
It happens to welders, auto workers, janitors, computer assemblers, secretaries and clerks.
It even happens to guys on the radio.
It happens, from time to time.
A friendly voice you’ve grown accustomed to at a certain place and a certain time on your radio suddenly isn’t there.
The nature of the business is such that, for whatever reason — bad ratings, lower ad revenues, change of owners or a change in direction — people in radio lose their jobs in the blink of an eye. Being unemployed in 1992 is not a rare thing.
It happens to people in every line of work, in every part of the country. Businesses fail, or money gets tight, and more and more workers are out of work.
But what happens when it happens to you?
John Mack Flanagan, who first gained popularity in the Bay Area in the 1970s while working at talent-rich KFRC in its “Big 610” heyday, had never been out of a job, and admits there were times when he had several offers waiting in the wings.
But in January, following the sale of KSFO and KYA-FM to First Broadcasting, Flanagan became Just Another Number, one of the growing legion of the unemployed.
The stations were not unprofitable. Business was not in decline. The new owners simply decided to take the stations in a different direction. It’s something that happens in radio on an almost weekly basis, and it often seems like the one thing that never changes in broadcasting is that things always change.
Flanagan, who had just completed a “dream year” with broadcasts from Memphis (where he did his show live from Elvis’ Graceland estate, as well as the legendary Sun Studios and Beale Street), Disneyland, Disney World and SeaWorld, and hosted James Brown and Wolfman Jack on his program, suddenly found himself among 36 KSFO/KYA-FM staffers let go after the sale became final.
Most perplexing to Flanagan was that things seemed to be running perfectly at the stations and, initially, no indications were given that wholesale changes would be made.
“Nobody knew anything, to the end,” Flanagan said. “We were number one and we were profitable, and the whole explanation from Day One was, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ That’s what came out first.”
That all changed on January 27 of this year, when Flanagan and the others had their jobs terminated. For the first time in his career, Flanagan was forced to file for unemployment compensation.
“I’ve been in radio since August 15 of 1964, and I never filed for unemployment before, and I have never been without a job before,” Flanagan said. “I’ve always had people calling me (with job offers), I’ve always had people lined up, saying ‘I’ve got to have you.’ ”
“My wife (Joann) went with me, and I stepped up to file,” Flanagan recalled. “The guy was kind of up there like a judge, on a pedestal. He said, ‘I’m going to need to see a pay stub.’ I laid my pay stub down and he looked at me and said ‘That’s the third one of these I’ve seen today. What are you, like Macy’s?’ It was just a pop-off; Macy’s had just filed for Chapter 11.”
“My wife stepped up and said, ‘Hey, Macy’s filed Chapter 11 because they were losing money. My husband’s company made money.’ And this guy took a step back and went, ‘Okay…’ ”
“It was a bit of an experience, because I was at Elvis’ house in Memphis and at Sun Studios with Carl Perkins and The Jordanaires (Elvis’ backup group), and I come home from Graceland and Sun Studios and Beale Street to $230 a week on unemployment.”
Flanagan’s experience brought a very important message home to himself.
“I had never been through anything like it,” Flanagan noted. “I have to feel like a person who went through the Oakland fire, and lived. I have a love for this business, and for the people in this business, that will never be snuffed out.”
“I’ve always been in this business because I love the music and the people. It’s kind of glamorous, if you want it to be that, but man, do I have a love and an appreciation for the people in radio, and in particular now. I see these people in a whole different light now. There are some good people (in radio), there are some bad people. But they’re all special people; every one of them are special. And I think maybe it took an experience like this to kind of give me a jolt.”
Because of the twists and turns that occur in radio, changes were being made at KFRC-FM (99.7) in the weeks that followed the reorganization at KSFO and KYA-FM, and a spot opened up in the programming department. KFRC filled the spot with Bob Hamilton, KSFO/KYA-FM’s former program director, who was also among those cut loose in January.
Hamilton, who is also consulting KFRC-FM’s sister station, Magic 61, began putting his stamp on KFRC-FM by bringing in the tried-and-true Flanagan to work the weeknight shift (6 to 10 p.m.). The station’s audience reacted swiftly to the return of an old friend in a familiar place with a continuous swarm of phone calls, something which the personable Flanagan has never been shy about inviting or responding to.
“This is my policy on radio: If I don’t answer the phone by the third ring,” Flanagan said, “I either can’t talk (because of being live on the air) or I’m out of the room. I answer my phones personally. Always have. Even when I have a board operator (assisting in the studio), I take care of the phones myself.”
With his feelings for both radio and its life source — listeners — reaffirmed following his experience of earlier this year, Flanagan offers a simple philosophy on his career.
“It’s onward and upward,” said Flanagan. “The first thing I said to Bob Hamilton about coming here was that I want to remain fresh. I’ve never wanted to be a relic. I never want to hear, ‘Oh god, he was great in the ‘Seventies,’ or ‘He was great in ’64 in Lubbock, Texas.’ I’ve never wanted that. I’ve always wanted people right now to go, ‘Wow! It’s him!’ ”
— Reported by David Ferrell Jackson
John Mack Flanagan is the author of “Tight & Bright: A Disk Jockey · Vietnam Memoir,” available on Amazon.com. John also hosts “The Church of the Hollywood B Cowboy,” a podcast honoring the great “B Movie” cowboys and cowgirls of the 1930s and ’40s.
John Mack Flanagan On The Air
John Mack Flanagan on KFRC, February 1, 1978