This is the first in a series of stories on Spokane’s top morning radio teams.
Jim Arnold and C. Foster Kane, a k a the Radio Men, are in the studios of KKZX-FM, doing what they do every morning: making each other laugh.
They look like they are talking to themselves, since they are in two separate booths separated by a plate-glass window. In fact, they are talking to 11,200 people on average (far more during peak times). This just happens to be the biggest morning radio audience in Spokane, thus the biggest radio audience in Spokane, period.
On this particular morning, Kane is reading a news story about two people who capsized a canoe on Lake Coeur d’Alene. His version begins the same way the story has already been told on TV and in the newspaper. But then it takes a typically surreal Radio Men twist:
C. Foster Kane: Anyway, they scream for help, but who else should be on the shore, having a smoke, except that Chesapeake Bay retriever, we’ll call him Chazzbo. He sees the people out there and he says, “Well, I’m a retriever, there are people drowning in the water, I’ve been trained for this. Will I jump out there and retrieve them and save their lives? Well, no. I don’t know who they are, they could attack me when I get there, they could take my smoke. I just started this cigarette, and I’ll be damned if I’m putting it down now, and on top of that, the water is extremely cold.”
(Kane then explains that the dog started to bark, which alerted its owner, who called rescuers, who saved the canoeists.)
Jim Arnold: What a story about Chazzbo the Retriever!
C. Foster Kane: Chazzbo was given a snifter of brandy and a couple of cigars, and his spit will be bronzed and put on a mantel somewhere in Idaho.
There you have it, one more riff in the long-running verbal jazz show known as the Radio Men Morning Broadcast.
If you don’t get it, that’s OK.
“This is an acquired taste,” admits Kane. “You have to listen awhile to get it. And you know, for the first year, nobody did get it.”
That first year, 1992, the ratings were low. The station, which specializes in classic rock (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Doors), did zero promotion.
But people slowly began to get it. They told their friends. Ratings began to build, and build, and build.
In the most recent Arbitron ratings, their show is No. 1 among morning shows by a landslide. And they have dragged this entire station steadily up, from an overall rank of around seventh when they first teamed up five years ago to being the No. 1 station in Spokane in the most recent Arbitron ratings.
Most gratifying of all, they did it by refusing to run around in their underwear, get their heads shaved, or do any of the DJ stunts that dominate the morning airwaves.
“We did all of that stuff 10 years ago,” said Arnold, 42, who was one of the original Breakfast Boys on KZZU-FM in the ‘80s. “You know, go to the Coliseum and play hockey in your tennis shoes.
“Well, maybe it was slightly entertaining then, but I’m thinking, after 10 years of it, being drug in the dirt every year, people got a little tired of it.”
“I’m 44 years old,” said Kane. “I don’t want to do that. I don’t have to do that anymore.
“I’m not going to humiliate myself by going out in my underwear and taking a shot on goal.”
They have no guests. They take no calls from listeners. They don’t pander to their listeners with call-in topics, such as, “Tell us the weirdest place you’ve ever had sex.”
They do no remote broadcasts, no outside appearances, no promotional stunts.
“This is the kind of show that we would listen to,” said Kane.
Kane said his idea of radio is to “paint pictures in people’s brains and let them fill it in.” They just talk, two or three times an hour, but what entertaining talk.
These segments are nominally news breaks, but they can go off on wild tangents, a la Chazzbo the Retriever.
Kane describes their style as “kind of a Paul Harvey on acid kind of thing.”
“I idolize Paul Harvey,” said Kane. “I love the way he does his deal, because he’s so strange, and he’s been so successful.”
So their goal is to give the station, at 98.9 on the dial, a distinctive style that carries on even after their show is over.
“There’s no personality to 90 percent of the radio stations you listen to anymore,” said Kane. “If you make a radio station with personality, you could play polkas.”
Boy, do they have personality, sometimes more than their advertisers would prefer. Kane recently broke in at the end of a particularly obnoxious ad and said to the screaming announcer, “Yeah, and I’d like to slap you one upside the head.”
Advertisers have been known to pull their ads off the air in a snit. Usually, however, the Radio Men get away with it because they also make merciless fun of themselves.
After babbling pointlessly for a few sentences recently, Kane intoned, “Here we are, ladies and gentlemen, stringing together lots of words, but not necessarily in any order.”
The newscast and the rest of the between-song conversation is quirky but not necessarily political or partisan in any recognizable way. They just try to say what everyone else is thinking. Call them the Radio Everymen.
These everymen have worked just about everywhere. Between them, they have almost 50 years of radio experience.
Both have worked in far larger markets - Los Angeles, Seattle, Kansas City, San Diego - yet they have learned through hard experience that a bigger market does not necessarily mean a better life.
“There’s a special allure that comes with the idea of going to a large market,” said Arnold. “But once you get to a certain point in your life, you know there’s more to life than having a big fat paycheck or having certain call letters after your name: ‘Jim Arnold from KABC in New York.’ It sounds pretty neat until you’re there doing it.”
Having survived, or not survived, those radio wars, both Arnold and Kane are perfectly delighted to be in the nation’s 92nd largest radio market. They have recently resisted overtures from Houston and San Francisco because they’d rather stay here and do the kind of show they want.
Both have a long history in Spokane, especially Arnold.
Arnold is a Spokane native and a 1971 graduate of Central Valley High School. His family is in construction, and he always figured he’d be a carpenter.
But he liked music, and somehow he ended up in radio broadcasting school. Before long, he was an icon at the old KREM-FM, Spokane’s legendary progressive rock station.
After a brief foray to Seattle, Arnold came back to Spokane in 1983 to become one of the original Breakfast Boys on KZZU-FM. The station and the show soared in popularity.
Program Director John Langan, a friend of Arnold’s from Seattle, arrived in 1986, and under his watch KZZU-FM achieved an unheard-of ratings share of 20, which is approximately twice what any station pulls today.
In 1988 Arnold was hired away by KGB, a huge San Diego rock station. But in 1990 he and his wife and daughter (now 19) came back to Spokane.
“Southern California wasn’t the place for us,” said Arnold.
Arnold arrived at KKZX-FM in 1990, and about a year later he called his friend Langan, who had moved to Alaska, and asked him to come back to Spokane as his morning-show partner.
And now, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story:
C. Foster Kane is, in reality, that very same John Langan. On arrival in Spokane, Langan gave himself a new on-air name, a nod to “Citizen Kane.”
Langan, or Kane, is a Santa Monica, Calif., native who was on his way to an astronomy degree at UCLA before he was afflicted with radio fever.
He dropped out in 1970 and took a job as a country-western DJ in Winslow, Ariz. It was, he said, the first of “4,000 radio jobs, it seems.”
He eventually found himself at KISW-FM in Seattle, where he was part of the hugely successful Langan & West morning show in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The duo was lured away from Seattle in 1983 by KMET, one of L.A.’s top rock stations.
It was Kane’s crowning moment, or so he thought.
“The goal of my career was to work in L.A.,” said Kane.
Now, Kane sums up the L.A. experience in one word: “awful.” The duo was fired after four months, just as they were catching on.
Kane went back to Seattle and then on to that successful stint as the KZZU-FM program director. He quit after a year because he was “burnt.”
Then it was on to Kansas City, where he did mornings from 1988 to 1991. The format changed, and he was out of a job again - the life of a radio DJ.
“I was so sick of it,” he said. “You go somewhere, you get fired, they change format, you’re out of work, and the next thing you know you’re reading Radio and Records magazine and hunting for a gig,” he said.
“I didn’t want to be program director, I didn’t want to do anything.”
So Kane retreated to a lake outside of Anchorage, where he tried to run his own radio production company.
“Came to find out,” said Kane, “that there’s really not a lot of money to be made in the production business in Alaska.”
Just about then, Arnold called Kane and asked him to come to Spokane and become a Radio Man. So they hooked up together and proceeded to invent a morning show that wouldn’t insult the intelligence of either the listeners or the DJs.
“I’d like to think that we are not a couple of stooges who talk like a couple of dopes,” said Kane, who still includes astronomy as one of his interests. “I consider us relatively intelligent anyway.”
But they can also get goofy, as when they go off on one of their tirades against their dictatorial station manager, Toby Hitler.
What most people don’t know is that Kane is Toby Hitler. Kane has been program director for four years and general manager since January.
“I also clean up after the station cat,” said Kane. “I’m doing the management thing not totally voluntarily, but apparently I do it OK and it works all right.”
He tries to keep his sanity by backpacking, biking and going to his 14-year-old son John’s baseball games. Arnold keeps his sanity by spending time with his family, watching auto racing and working on classic cars.
Kane admits that he is a “control maniac,” which is one reason he tends to burn out in his jobs. He starts work at 4 a.m. every day, writing material for his broadcast.
When the morning show is over at 9 a.m., his day as a manager is just beginning.
“But the most fun part of my job is working with Jim,” said Kane. “That’s when I get to do what I really enjoy, which is creating a little room that people can come into.
“We get stupid and tell them stuff, and they can join in. And we all go away feeling all right.”
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