The Don Berns Interview

The excerpts contained below were taken from "The Program Directors Director's Handbook" by Bob Paiva (c) 1983, Tab Books. Used with permission.

Q: You're one of the top personality jocks in the country, and you've worked some of the top "personality" stations in the country. Tell us about some of these stations. What I'd like to know in particular is how the stations "personality" differed.

A: I consider the top "personality" stations I've worked for to be (WKBW) Buffalo, KLIF (Dallas), KFMB (San Diego) and now WTAE (Pittsburgh). I'm not going to go back before WKBW because we'd be getting into 1960s radio, which is a totally different bag.

Of all the stations I've mentioned, WKBW (1970-75) was probably the best in terms of personalities because of the completely difficult styles of the people who were on the station, as well as the expert guidance of the man I still consider to be the most innovative and creative I have ever worked for - Jeff Kaye. When you consider that 'KB had such diverse personalities as Dan Neaverth (homespun/warm/funny/Buffalo-born and bred); Sandy Beach (not a jock; an entertainer who is most likely the funniest, quickest person I have ever worked with on the air), Jack Armstrong (the fastest mouth in the world; not all of his bits worked, but they went by so fast you never noticed ... and you loved him or you hated him, but you were aware of him), and me (at the time an emerging personality; I was rough to be sure, but had things to say, bits to do, and the freedom to do them). It's no wonder that the station was a winner, although we never did beat WBEN, the old-line MOR that totally dominated the market.

'KB had a magic and a charm. Jeff guided the station in the direction of "unpredictable unpredictability." Just about anything could happen on the air on the air (and off) and normally did. Good contests, not just the call-in-and-win variety, the annual Halloween (included Jeff's own version of War of the Worlds), the seven-hour annual broadcast for the Salvation Army's 700 fund (yours truly outdoors) in a Santa Claus outfit in the middle of December) and the most sensational production I've ever heard. During the Bills football telecasts, Jeff was able to make a dull football club sound exciting with his productiob of the games. A big plus was our involvement in the local music scene. It made us unique. Each summer we would stage outdoor free "Music to the People" concerts featuring local bands and perhaps a national headliner or two. The concerts drew thousands of people.

I could go on and on about Jeff Kaye's 'KB but I think you get the idea. Not only was it an exciting station to work at but it was exciting to listen to. The station had a personality of its own, and within that personality each jock had a separate identity that fit within that personality each jock had a separate identity fit within the overall framework of this non-formatted, high-visible radio stations.

Q: Who, in your opinion were, or are, some of the great radio personalities. Did any of them influence you?

A: I was influenced by a lot of great radio personalities. My early days in radio were spent as carbon copies of Joey Reynolds (WKBW, WDRC), Ken Griffin (WPOP) and Sandy Beach (WDRC), all of whom worked in Hartford when I was a youth. I didn't know was radio was but I knew those people could make me laugh. These guys are the Holy Trinity in my opinion though there are others I consider great. From the old WDRC-WTOP days I would put Ron Landry at the top. My friends and I used to discuss the silly bits he did when I was in junior high school. In the late '60s, I started listening critically and got off on Dale Dorman, J.J. Jefffries and Chuck Knapp at WRKO (Boston) and Claven and Finch and Dan Ingram (WABC) in New York.

When I moved to Buffalo, I had a chance to listen to and respect Jack Armstrong, Dan Neaverth, Pat Reilly (a man of 1,000 good voices, wasted all nights on 'KB because of company politics and Casey Piertrowski. In Toronto, CHUM had a great lineup in the 'early '70s that included Terry Steele and Scott Carpenter. They were two of the best format jocks I've ever heard. Jungle Jay Nelson was there and was one of the funniest. John Rode should be included here too, because although he wasn't funny he was one of the most intelligent and interesting radio personalities I've ever heard. I'd be remiss if I didn't enter the name of Dick Smythe here in another area of radio personality. Dick was CHUM's news director and perhaps the best newsman I've ever heard. His 7:10 and 8:10 commentaries were works of art and his newscasts interesting. He had one of the best writing styles in the business. David Marsden (then at CHUM-FM and later at CFNY-FM Toronto) was a personality who stands out as elevating AOR personality to a height I've yet to hear anybody else reach. His nightly "let's-reach-in-the-paper-bag-and-see-what-we-have" feature was a classic.

I can't think of anybody in Dallas who influenced me although Ron Chapman of KVIL is the essence of what the hometown-oriented jock should be. In San Diego, I respected Hudson and Bauer and Clark Anthony at KFMB, although I would not say they influenced me. During that time, KGB-FM had an all-night jock named Adrian Bolt whose laid-back style and music mixes gave that AOR outlet some class. I've already mentioned Bobby Rich and his contribution. In Los Angeles, I was impressed by Lohman and Barclay and Gary Owens (KMPC). Gary influenced my current style greatly.

I'm sorry that I've found people like the Real Don Steele and Larry Lujack disappointing. I've not found them to be vital creative personalities - yet they have a reputation for being so.

Alison Steele, WNEW-FM's "Nightbird", has impressed me. I think she'e one of the best AOR jocks and certainly the best female on the air. Dick Summers (WBZ-Boston and WNEW-FM), read his own poetry on the air and was a unique personality.

Last, but not least, there was Jerry Hubeny (a.k.a. Stevens) and WICE Providence, Rhode Island, who got me into the business. He was only a part-timer since gotten out of the business but he proved that you don't have to have a great voice to have a good show. He was one of the most natural, friendly-sounding jocks I've ever heard and his friendship and sound advice will always stay with me.

Q: The word personality has been kicked around quite a bit. I've heard stations described as personality which were, to my ear, mechanical, formula formats. Define personality as you see it.

A: As I see it, a "personality" is someone who has something to say. It doesn't matter if the person is funny, as long as something halfway intelligent is said. If the jock rambles, it's the job of a good PD to steer him in the right direction. The mechanical radio of the past has produced a scarcity of personality jocks.

A lot of PDs are blowing smoke when they describe their stations as "personality" when all they have their jocks doing are mechanical presentations with an occasional "Shotgun Sam Boogie" thrown in. These stations aren't personality; they are gross distortions of what the concept of radio as a communications as a medium should be about. The kids coming along had only these time/temperature jocks to emulate. The idea of personality evolved into is what personality isn't. Good A/C stations turned that around. People starting in the business today have real personalities to listen to.

One of the sad things about radio is that the training ground for young jocks could be college radio but they are no longer teaching the important things. On my last visit to WBRU (Providence-Brown College), I talked to a girl whose life's desire is to be an AOR jock. She had no concept of any other kind of radio. She didn't know anything about demographics. She didn't know personalities from other stations, nor did she know anything about any format than AOR. Whatever happened to those long nights in the dorm, or the college radio station, tuning in New York to hear what Cousin Brucie was doing on WABC, or trying to catch the first few minutes of Klaven and Finch before sunrise pattern change? All those kids know is who's on WBCN (Boston) or WNEW-FM (New York). The basics have been lost and it's a disappointment.