Kirk Wilde inset photo. KPUG studios, 1949-1999, located on Sunset Dr.
I spent nearly 30 years in radio. My first career was working as a disc jockey, newscaster, program director, operations manager, general manager and a radio station owner. Friends and acquaintances have asked me what factors influenced my decision to enter broadcasting. The personal story told here answers that question.
In 1966, Bellingham was a small town with a population of about 27,000. One of my favorite pastimes, being a 14 year old, was biking or walking downtown. Usually, I tied my travels into buying a 19 cent burger and fries at The Shack--an early drive-in, across the street from Bellingham High School, on Cornwall Avenue.
The Shack, 1960s, photo credit to Sue Hilton
Downtown Bellingham was the hub of the county’s business district; this was 22 years before Bellis Fair Mall was built. Cornwall Avenue, then and now, runs through the center of downtown and it is still one of the most popular streets for retailers. Back then, four anchor stores––J.J. Newberry, J.C. Penney, F.W. Woolworth and the 88 Cent Store—were all situated near one another on Cornwall. During the annual Blossom Time Festival, now known as Ski to Sea, that part of Cornwall would be closed and the carnival would set up rides.
Carnival rides on Cornwall Ave, 1964 photo
One afternoon in February 1966, I was walking downtown on Cornwall. Music was coming from a loudspeaker on the sidewalk outside Newberry's. The local rock 'n' roll radio station was broadcasting live: a fundraiser for the March of Dimes. I looked in the storefront window and discovered KPUG "live guy" Kirk Wilde behind the microphone.
Kirk Wilde, KPUG promotional photo, 1966
In my youth, I seldom listened to the radio or music--but watching Wilde work that day piqued my interest. In junior high school, I was doing well in speech classes and my older Canadian cousin was a successful announcer at a Calgary radio station. After observing Wilde for a half hour, I went home and tuned my radio to KPUG. From that day forward, Kirk's show became my afternoon entertainment. Once, on a weekend, I walked out Sunset Drive to the KPUG studio. Wilde and another deejay, Gary Shannon, were friendly and they explained to this 14 year old kid how he might prepare to someday obtain a radio job. Obviously, Kirk Wilde was a major influence in my decision to enter broadcasting--which took place four years later when I was 18.
Happening upon that downtown remote was a fortuitous moment for me, although it was probably predictable since KPUG did more live broadcasts than the other local stations. In those days, KPUG would transport turntables and a microphone to a retail store and a disc jockey (almost all jocks were male back then) would broadcast his show live from that location.
1960s "remote" at Newberry's. KPUG's Dick Stark at the mic
Kirk Wilde was a great example of what "top 40 radio" could be. He was one of the most popular and memorable air personalities ever to work in Bellingham. Kirk was high energy, with a fast paced delivery--everything happened with rapid-fire precision. He was funny sometimes, but humor was not his primary focus. Wilde’s occasional on-the-air sidekick was a recording named Julius Funkley. Mainly Julius would belt out, in a high pitched screech, "That's RIGHT." But once, during a student body election at Bellingham High School, Kirk promoted Julius as a write-in candidate for president. The fictional character won, but somehow he was never inducted. In previous blogs, over many years, I have shared a few of my memories of listening to Kirk Wilde.
Kirk Wilde, 1973, at KDKO, Denver/Littleton, CO
In Bellingham, Wilde's radio show on KPUG was a big deal. We had one rock station in town and, in 1966, AM radio was king. A 50 year old radio survey confirms the audience dominance that Wilde commanded in the local ratings. This was in spite of clear signals that reached the market from other rock stations in Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. During his show, the share of the audience (red circle) was double or better that of all of the competition (percentages displayed in the two right side columns).
Barr survey, 1966. Today a dominant station is lucky to achieve even a 7% share
Wilde's interest in radio developed in the early 1960s, when he was a student at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. His professional career began at stations in Oregon and Washington. Kirk arrived at KPUG in 1964, but left that same year to work radio jobs in Klamath Falls and Corvallis. Wilde came back to Bellingham, as KPUG’s afternoon deejay and music director, in 1965. In the capacity of music director, Wilde recognized the talent of The Unusuals--a popular Pacific Northwest band. Babe It's Me, their 1966 single, spent several weeks at #1 on the KPUG chart. Kathi McDonald, the group's gutsy female vocalist, became a world-renowned blues and rock singer.
After exiting KPUG for the final time in 1966, Kirk was hired by other prominent stations including Everett's KRKO, Seattle's KOL, KSND and KING. His career was mainly spent working top 40 rock formats, but Wilde is very proud of smoothly transitioning into R&B music--he was readily accepted by the predominantly African-American listening audience at KDKO in Denver.
Caricature of Kirk Wilde. KDKO, Denver promotional survey
Kirk Wilde left radio in 1975, choosing instead to work as a school bus driver. The change in direction provided job security and benefits that were rarely offered at radio stations of that era. Today he is retired and still living in Denver. Kirk keeps up with musical innovations and shares with friends, who belong to an Email group, his knowledge and reviews of both current and older music.
At the present time, any of Wilde's original airchecks are unavailable. Therefore, to commemorate the impact he had on my career decision, I have created a custom video montage. It features the top hits from late February 1966--when I first heard Kirk Wilde on the radio.
The mid-sixties were interesting times; the British Invasion was upon us and the Beatles, the Stones, Vietnam, Haight-Ashbury hippies, flower power, and psychedelics pervaded popular culture. The hit music of that era was difficult to classify, ranging from teen-oriented pop to soul, country, a patriotic ballad and even mariachi brass.
KPUG survey, 1960s flower power art theme
Everyone is pressed for time these days, so two short video montages are included here. The first 5 minute quickie counts down the Top 20 hits at KPUG the first time I ever heard Kirk Wilde on the radio. The lower video is shorter still: In 3 minutes it counts down the Top 10 hits only. If you were around in 1966, either one of these videos will be a blast from the past. And, if you're too young to remember the 1960s, you will see and hear some important cultural context. The videos feature photos of Kirk Wilde, the KPUG studio and a KPUG jingle that was aired in 1966.
Montage: Top 20 Hits in Five Minutes
Montage: Top 10 Hits in Three Minutes
Salute to '60s DJ Kirk Wilde: 10 KPUG Oldies In Three Minutes from Steven L. Smith on Vimeo.
Steven L. Smith
If you enjoy nostalgia and music of yesteryear, click on Elvis' gold record to visit This Day In History. To explore The Stories Behind The Music blog posts click on the electric guitar.