The Importance of Being Buddy

A Conversation With Country Radio’s
Popular "Baron Of The Morning"

By Jason J. Jackson
From The Bay Area Radio Digest, Fall 1990:

TO GET TO BUDDY BARON, you have to start with John Mullino. You may try his public relations director, his friends, family or co-workers, but you get nowhere until you talk to John Mullino.

Mullino has known Buddy Baron since he was in high school. They have travelled cross-country together for more than twenty years, from Jacksonville and Miami as teenagers to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Tampa, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, Houston and now San Francisco. They like the same things — everything from Diet Coke for breakfast to occasional trips to Las Vegas.

John Mullino knew Buddy Baron when he wasn't the popular host of KSAN-FM 94.9's morning show (5:30-10 a.m. weekdays). He knew Buddy Baron when he wasn't known nation-wide for the one-liners he tosses off at will and which are repeated from coast to coast in newspapers, as well as on radio and television. He knew Buddy Baron when he was struggling through part-time jobs, trying to make it in the business.

He even remembers the time Buddy changed his name to J.B. Baron during a previous stay in the Bay Area, at then-Top 40 powerhouse KFRC more than a decade ago. Since 1989, Mullino and his jocular alter-ego with the malleable voice, Buddy Baron, have held court at KSAN, this in addition to a growing list of sidebar work, including hosting concerts and writing for a national comedy service geared specifically for country music radio stations.

Buddy Baron, born John Mullino, sat down with us for this interview from KSAN's recently-opened broadcast center in San Francisco.

THE BARD: How did you receive your "radio education?"

BUDDY BARON: It was a strange deal. When I was fourteen years old, I got bitten by the bug, as they say. I started hanging around radio stations, purely on my own, no money involved or anything. I would go get coffee for the guys and pull records and answer the phones, just to hang around. It was very unofficial. I didn't have any regularly-scheduled anything.

THE BARD: How did you become Buddy Baron?

BUDDY: I was doing my "radio groupie" stuff in Jacksonville, and at one of the radio stations, WPDQ — I don't think it's on the air any more — I ran into another kid from my high school named Bob Dillehay, who's now chief engineer at two TV stations down there. While I aspired to the on-the-air stuff, he was an engineering groupie. He would sit back there with Ernie Harrelson, the chief engineer, learning how to solder things.

Bobby had built a pirate radio station in the breakfast nook of his aunt's house in Jacksonville, and he invited me over one day. It was not far from school, so I came after school and went in there and, sure enough, the guy had bought an old, beat-up control board from some small station and put new tubes in it and put in a couple of turntables and a small microphone and a transmitter that I think got out to the end of the yard or something. We, along with two or three other kids at Lee High School there in Jacksonville that all had the same kind of interest in radio, created a staff.

We started playing rock and roll records and doing radio. This was 1964, '65, something like that. We all picked up air names. Bob Dillehay became "Bob Brower" and I became "Buddy Baron." Don't ask me how. That was back in the days of the old spy movies. Bond was really big, and they had a TV series called "The Baron," who was like James Bond. He had a sports car that blew smoke out the tail end, and he was like an antique dealer/secret agent or whatever, so I picked it from there. That's where the name came from, and I started doing it when I was fifteen or sixteen years old at Bobby's little pirate radio station in the back of his house.

THE BARD: What was your first formal job in radio?

BUDDY: (Laughs.) You mean when I got money for it?

THE BARD: Right. Where they actually decided to pay you.

BUDDY: My first paying job was two bucks an hour. It was 1968 in Jacksonville at WNBR, another station which is now gone. It was in the old George Washington Hotel, which is now a parking garage. That station is off the air, too, like a lot of AM stations are these days. It was what they called a middle-of-the-road station back in those days. Sinatra, Lainie Kazan, that kind of thing. You know, all the big names.

That's what I got at 'NBR: two bucks an hour, weekends. I think seven to midnight, Saturdays and Sundays, and I pulled music for the all-night show. The transmitter was out in a swamp somewhere, and the night guy had to do his show from the transmitter (location) because they didn't want to pay for the phone lines. (Laughs.) When you run a radio station like that, you had to pay the phone company like it was a long-distance call for every hour you used the phone lines out to the transmitter. So to save money, they decided after dark that they didn't want to spend the money for phone lines, so they made the night guy do his show from the swamp. I mean, it was literally an alligator- and mosquito-infested swamp out at the transmitter site, a little concrete building, and he did his night show from there.

I had to go through the record library every day and pull all of his music and commercials and leave it for him. He came downtown every day, picked all this stuff up in a box — I had a box for him with all the logs and things for him — and he drove out to the transmitter, and then the next night he came in and exchanged the old box for a new one. (Laughs.) Oh, it was a bad place, but I was just a kid.

THE BARD: What was your first big break that led you toward morning radio?

BUDDY: Oh, God, let's see. I was in the Navy Reserve and got activated during the Viet Nam war and was sent up to a naval air station in Atlanta. Atlanta is about 300 miles inland; strange place for a naval air station. What it basically was was a reserve training base. It was where all the Delta and Eastern pilots who flew the airliners during the week came up and trained on the weekend.

We had some little, obsolete A-4 fighters and so on, and my Navy job was to fix the electronics and stuff on the planes. I was activated for three years, and so on the weekends I went out and got jobs at little stations around Atlanta. The Atlanta market was a lot more fertile than Jacksonville. The big, killer radio station in Atlanta in those days, around '70 and '71, was WQXI. On FM, it's still one of the more substantial stations in Atlanta, but in those days the AM was the big rock and roll station, and it was number one. When they hired weekend people, it was five bucks an hour, so it was a big deal. But 'most everybody that went to 'QXI, because it was (part of) a national chain which had stations in New York and Denver and L.A. and Cincinnati and so on, got picked up and moved around the chain, so they got to move on nationally and get some pretty decent exposure.

I knew getting on there would be a plum and, finally, after two and a half years of trying, I got in there, again doing the weekend show. I worked there through the Summer of '72 and by the end of the summer they had moved me to nights, eight to midnight, at WSAI in Cincinnati. That's how I got my first fulltime job. It timed out pretty well. Somebody was watching over me. I got discharged from the Navy about the same week I got the job in Cincinnati, so — boom! — I was able to slide right into it.

THE BARD: We've noticed from your biography that you've worked in a lot of different markets. Have you ever had a tough time adjusting to a certain area? Have listeners ever not reacted to you the way you had hoped?

BUDDY: Oh, most of them haven't. That's why I've moved to so many different places. (Laughs.) Yeah, Every town is very different. When I was starting in the business, coming up, conformity was what everybody wanted. I started out in the days of what they called the "Drake Format."

Everything was heavily scripted, heavily formatted. You'd play the hits, you did everything with high energy, and there was very little of yourself in what you did. And, of course, you always get your next job based upon the performance of your last job, when you send a tape out to the next radio station, and what they heard was me doing these great liner card readings. (Effecting the standard Drake "Boss Jock" voice:) "More music this hour! WQXI!" It takes a long, long, long time to develop the humor and to stop being afraid to be yourself, because you end up putting on the "big boy" voice and you put on this kind of "disk jockey" demeanor.

It took a long time to break out of that, to get "older," really. You have to have some life experience outside of radio so that you can bring them back into radio and relate to people on that level. That's why I think I went through so many jobs, because I was always looking for something better, and the problem was that I wasn't developing fast enough. I was doing better on liner cards rather than developing a real personality. It's taken a bit long just to get to this level. I've done morning shows before, but basically I've never had this level of success before.

To answer your question about how many times I've moved around, I think it was that: I was always looking for something a little better. You know, things change. The difficulty of being a jock is when you're very generic and all you can read is liner cards, then you're very replaceable. There are ten thousand people out there who can do exactly the same thing.

THE BARD: With all of the different formats you've worked in, have you ever had a hard time getting into a certain format?

BUDDY: I thought I was going to have a much more difficult time getting into country, because I was never a country music listener except very occasionally before I came to this job. I was raised on rock and roll, and pretty much all of our audience was, too. They're a bunch of people in their thirties and a little bit older, who grew up on rock and roll and are now getting into country because that's where a lot of the old rockers have gone.

There's a tremendous negative stereotype that has developed from the old days when all country music was (sings, twangy:) "Ma died and fell in front of a train and drank coffee and got hit and divorced" and all that kind of nonsense. These days it's very hip, very, very well-produced. It's got a lot of the rawness that old rock and roll used to have. I was surprised. I started getting into it and I found I really enjoyed it. And what I really enjoyed the most about country music, and what I continue to enjoy every day, is the accessibility and the pure, human "niceness," the genuine friendliness, of the performers. The people are phenomenal.

You stand in line for sixteen weeks to get Rolling Stones tickets or to see Madonna's tour, and you can't even get her on the phone — even if you're the concert promoter, you can't get her on the phone — but with country stars, and I mean the top names, the ones who make millions of dollars, Randy Travis and The Judds and so on, they'll go to Fan Fair in Nashville and stand in the sun for six or eight hours at a stretch signing autographs for "little people" from all over the country who drove there in their motor homes to see the stars.

As far as adapting to different formats, I guess the three primary formats I've done have been rock, adult contemporary, or what they call "soft rock," and country. Of the three, yeah, as far as enjoying the lifestyle of it, I'm the most surprised and the most delighted by country.

THE BARD: You mentioned that you've worked in rock, including right here at KFRC in 1979 when it was still a Top 40 station. After that, you left the Bay Area for ten years. What changes have you noticed between now and then?

BUDDY: When I was here, KFRC was the big gun. Doctor Don Rose was the big morning guy, AM (radio) was still big. This was one of the last markets in the country where AM lost its dominance, and I'm not even sure it's completely lost its dominance here.

KFRC was one of the last big AM rock stations to flourish and still do well all the way through the 'Seventies. Even Back East by the early 'Seventies, FM pretty much dominated, but it (AM) was still big here. It was kind of fun to be on the last of the big West Coast rockers in its final years. But it was obvious, I think, even while I was there that RKO (KFRC's owners at the time) was having some problems, and it was obvious that things were beginning to change. It's kind of funny, you come back here and some things haven't changed at all. KNBR is still running the Giants' games and a lot of the people are still the same.

I guess on the FM is where all of the activity has occurred. KSAN was still an album-rock station when I was here the first time. It switched to the country thing at about the time I left, and it's flourished as a country station while album-rock radio has almost completely gone by the wayside. There's a little bit of it at "Live 105," but it used to be the dominant thing. It was so much a part of this area in the 'Sixties, and it was still very big even when I was here in the late 'Seventies, but I think album rock is just having a tough time finding a consistently large audience. It has an audience, but it's not the massive audience it used to be.

THE BARD: We pick up a lot of different magazines, and it seems like every other week you open one up and here's a quote from Buddy Baron —

BUDDY: Yeah, well…

THE BARD: And then we go out and get the Chronicle, and we read "Top Of The Sixth," and there's another quote from Buddy Baron, and then we go to Herb Caen, and there you are again —

BUDDY: Well, jeez…

THE BARD: So tell us, how do you get into all of these things?

BUDDY: Okay, I pay these men millions of dollars. (Laughs.) This was a thing taught to me when I was in Cincinnati back a few years ago by a guy named Andy Fuhrman, who works at WLW there.

Basically, he's their P.R. guy, and whenever he hears a funny quote or something interesting, he types it up and sends it to all the sports papers. He kind of gave me the idea that, well, you do funny stuff on your show all the time, so why not take some of the best bits, crank out a little press release and send it out on a regular basis? Well, I did.

I started off with just sports stuff and I got into The Sporting News and Sports Illustrated with the very first thing I sent. Then I expanded it to more general topics and started putting it out to a larger mailing list. I cranked up a mailing list of fifty names or so and I started sending things out monthly, and then it got up to weekly, because I found the more you send it out, the more frequently you get mentioned. Now, my mailing list is like a hundred and something names and we do it every Thursday, just sending out things we do on the air. That's how it's done.

People always say, "I've been in town for twenty years, and I've never gotten in Herb Caen." Well … I can't say for sure that everybody can get in Herb Caen, and Herb would probably kill me if I started saying you could. But I've noticed that when you're dealing with the local press, funny is the number one point. Number two point: local. Herb loves to talk about the city, stuff that's going on in the city itself, and if you do a joke which relates to the kind of thing he normally talks about in his column, there's a better likelihood that he'd be interested in mentioning it.

It's good for the radio station. In fact, it's done me more of a service at the radio station than it has any place else because our general manager (Bruce Blevins) is a Herb Caen nut and he reads Herb religiously every morning, and when he sees the KSAN call letters in there, he just loses his mind. He loves it.

THE BARD: Tell us a little bit about your life off the air.

BUDDY: I have no life off the air. I'm put in the can for the rest of the day. (Laughs.) Well, I love jokes, and I buy every book I can find about comedy writing, and I saw one that was written by Steve Allen, who's been a favorite of mine for so long, and he's talking about joke construction. I'm always looking for ways to improve jokes, if I can.

He had an article in there about how to sell jokes to comedians, famous, big-name comedians. So I'm thumbing through this book, and at the end Steve Allen has put the management addresses of a half-dozen or so comedians: Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, three or four others. I packaged up a few of my joke sheets like I've been sending out to the press, and I sent them out to every name on the list. I just mailed it and forgot it.

About a month later, I'm upstairs and Pat (Mrs. Baron) says, "telephone," and I pick up the phone and it's Phyllis Diller. Ohhh! She says, (mimicking Diller's voice:) "Yes, I love your material. I'm going to buy four things off there, five bucks a pop." I was just excited to hear from her, you know. I could care less about the money.

I started doing a custom sheet for her every week. She's recommended me to Fred de Cordova (producer of The Tonight Show) and she considers me her head writer. I write more stuff for her than anyone else. That's a big boost for me, a big confidence builder more than anything else. And we've upped the money quite a bit over the five bucks a joke.

The other thing that has happened was a total surprise. It is a big, big deal for me. This is a weird thing: I've been in this business for over twenty years, and I came to KSAN and it's like everything that I've ever wanted to have happen has happened in the first year. After all of these years of nothing … I don't mean to sound bitter. It's not like I never had a good time before, because I have. But since I got here, it seems like everything I touch turns to gold.

I got here in February 1989, and that Fall I got a call one day from an outfit called the Premiere Radio Network in Hollywood. They said they were putting together a demo tape to send out to radio stations. They do a rock and roll comedy service, The Premiere Comedy Service, and it's used on Rick Dees' morning show in L.A. It's on all over the country, it's on two-thousand stations. It's one of the most expensive and it's one of the most prestigious of the comedy services. They have their own big, elaborate studios right in Hollywood, and they have people like Ronnie Schell, they have Jeff Altman, this is their talent pool. They hire professional comedians from TV to play these characters and do phone bits with disc jockeys and song parodies and fake commercials.

They called me up and they said, "We're starting up a country comedy service," and I thought they were trying to sell it to me. I said, Well, what do you have? And they said, "We want to fly you into Los Angeles to play the disc jockey part, like you do on your show, and just do a demo tape of all of our stuff." I'd never been flown anywhere for something like that. I'd been flown in for job interviews, but never just for the day to go to Hollywood and hang around.

They had the limo and the whole thing just to go their studio and sit around for an hour and have lunch and fake a morning show and do their thing. I thought, "Wow, what fun! Hell yeah, I'll do it. Sure. Are you kidding? I'd love a day in Hollywood!" So, sure enough, about a week later, I got on the plane, popped down there after my show and they picked me up at the airport. We went and had lunch and we went in the studio and it took twenty minutes. And then they sat me down and said, "We're doing country comedy. The stuff you did is for our brand-new country comedy network, and we're looking for ideas, we're looking for stuff we can do for country stations."

Now this has been a personal project of mine for several years. I've been doing what they call "southern comedy" while I was working down in Alabama and those places, and even in Cincinnati I was doing different phone characters. People are so dull in Cincinnati, you can't get them to call you on the phone, so you have to create your own phone characters and call yourself, basically. You do the whole thing on tape, write a script and do both voices.

I created this guy, Billy Ray Pruitt. He was kind of a lunk-head car mechanic and he'd call me up (effecting a dorky twang:) "Hey Buddy, we on the air?" That kind of stuff. "Hey Buddy, I got a new shotgun!" (Gunshot sound effect.) "Hey, here's my dog, Fiddle" (Dog barking sound effect.) That kind of thing. Anyway, they said they were looking for things like this that would appeal to country listeners. They were trying to sell it down south and in Texas and places like that. And I said, I can do better than that. Let me send you some tapes of what I did in Alabama and Cincinnati and Texas, and I sent them a demonstration tape of all these voices that I was doing, and they signed me to a five-year contract.

Now that's what I do every two weeks. I sit down and I crank out fifteen bits and Federal Express them down to them and they send them out to two-hundred stations around the country.

THE BARD: All that just out of the blue?

BUDDY: To this day, I'm afraid to ask them where they got my name. I think one of the fellows who works in the Malrite chain (owners of KSAN) is one of their consultants and that might be how it got worked around, but it literally came out of the blue. They just called me and said, "Can you do this?" Ron Chapman at KVIL (Dallas, where Baron worked prior to KSAN) has a great saying: "There's no such thing as luck. Luck is really preparation meeting opportunity."

I had all of this stuff sitting in my closet at home, all these old tapes, and they were asking for exactly what I had on tape. It was just one of those lucky, coincidental things.

THE BARD: Describe the relationship between you and your listeners.

BUDDY: It's perversely sexual. No, it's a funny thing. What I enjoy most about the show — and I've got to mention it — is the team that I work with: Betsy O'Connor is our news director and she does the morning news, and she's become a genuine personality on her own. Then there's Mark Nieto, he's from Traffic Central and does the traffic in the morning, and he's just a loony-tunes guy.

They're both a lot of fun to work with. They contribute a tremendous amount, and it's easy to do stuff when you have Betsy and Mark to bounce off of, because they just respond (snaps his finger), just boom-boom-boom, or they top you. But the most fun is when the listeners top you. It's hard to do, your ego gets in the way, but I'm starting to learn how to step back a little bit and let other people take the stage. You have to kind of direct them and so on, but what they say is immensely funnier, especially when it's some true-to-life experience.

You can't write that kind of thing. You can't buy that anywhere from a joke service. That's what has become one of the most satisfying and one of the most fun things, and I'm going to do as much of that as we can get away with doing. The listeners will just provide you with endless material, and they love hearing themselves on the air and they love being a part of it. It's nothing new. It's not a new concept. But it's fun when you can make people think of something that they can share with other folks that is enjoyable or amusing or that people can especially relate to.

As far as the impression we're trying to give with the show … gosh, I want it to feel like … everybody's got that place at work, usually it's the coffee room or the xerox room, where everybody stands around over the water cooler or the pop machine, and there's always one guy who is up on everything. Reads all the rumors, kind of like Cliff Claven on "Cheers," who's into everything. There's one in every crowd. I guess I want to be that guy, the big mouth know-it-all who starts everything, gets all the s--- going, stirs it up.

That's how I want the thing to sound on the radio, like it's the coffee room at work. I don't want it to sound too slick or too show-bizzy, because it's country music and people just don't go for that. I hear some jocks and I don't care for this kind of omnipotent arrogance that I get from them. I want to sound real friendly and, basically, real accessible. You have that same primary appeal of the music, and I feel that should be the primary appeal of the personality that surrounds it. That's basically what we're trying to do, and so far I think we're doing real well with it.

THE BARD: Is there anything left for you that you feel you really need to accomplish? I don't want to phrase the question as, "Could you retire tomorrow and be happy?" but is there anything out there that you —

BUDDY: Could I retire tomorrow and be happy? No. Probably not. We used to talk behind Ron Chapman's back in Dallas. We knew he'd probably bagged about two or three million bucks over the years, and all of us on salary are going, "Why the hell does he knock himself out? Why does he get up at four o'clock in the morning and do this nonsense?" He's got plenty of money, he's married, he's got a house and all this stuff. He's obviously loaded, lots of dough, so why does he bother with it?

Because if he didn't bother with it, he'd just be another geek on the freeway. He wouldn't be "Ron Chapman" any more. He'd just be the old rich guy. And that's an important thing. Ego plays an enormous part in it. A lot of people get into it because they want to be more, feel a little more significant. And there's an awful lot of joy from just the doing of it.

My parents never, ever — not for one day in fifty years — liked what they did for work. They were so bitter about it, and they transferred that bitterness so that I decided, forget this. I mean, you have to spend most of your life working, so I'm going to find something I like to do and I want to get up and do. That was my intent; I've succeeded in that regard.

As far as what I would want to do, down the road, it's been suggested to me that I could probably write, do a lot more writing. There's a lot of money in TV comedy and that kind of thing, and I've already got a couple of inroads in that area. I think the surface has just been scratched in terms of radio, like syndication, and I'm wondering what a person can do with national exposure, like Larry King.

We run on our AM station (KNEW) an all-night country show for truckers, a satellite thing that comes out of Chicago. I've seen more of that stuff being done around the country, where satellites are feeding smaller markets and medium markets that can't afford the big-priced talent. We have a big advantage: we're a major station on the West Coast, we present some big concerts and so forth, and we have a lot of clout that a smaller station wouldn't have. You wonder what would happen if you had that kind of clout, but you could feed it to the smaller stations. There's a lot of things in those areas I'd be interested in trying, and a lot of money to be made, and some national notoriety to be enjoyed as well.

I'm still basically the new guy here. It takes a while for any "new" person to get comfortable with the place, and for the audience to get comfortable with the new person. Everybody said — bar none — the same thing: everybody couldn't stand me when I first got there. It was a change. Now they seem to be getting more comfortable with me, a lot more comfortable, which is really great.

Where I am right now is exactly where I'm supposed to be. I'm right on schedule, I think. So … does that answer your question? (Laughs.)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Buddy Baron may currently be heard doing his morning program in the Bay Area on KYCY (Young Country 93.3 FM).

Copyright © 1990 by Radio Digest Publications. May not be reproduced in any manner without the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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