Let's say, if only for the sake of illustrating a point, that you are a writer, and that you've decided to write the story of a fellow who is living The American Dream.
You choose the elements that make this fellow perfect for the role: you give him appealing looks, a definite charm, so people are drawn to him just because ... well, just because they like him.
In your story, you give him certain story-book touches. You make him a big star, first as a radio personality in a big city. Then, after he's "discovered" by a man from a TV network, he is whisked away to Hollywood and becomes an even bigger star as the host of a fabulously popular game show watched by millions upon millions of viewers every day of the week.
What other touches can you come up with? How about... hey, what the heck — let's write it so he gets to marry Miss America. After all, it's just a story, right?
But do you think anybody would buy your story?
What if you told them that it isn't fiction, that it's the true story of Jim Lange, host of the morning show on San Francisco's Magic 61 (KFRC 610 AM, 5:30-10 a.m. weekdays)?
Lange, whose triumphant broadcasting career is punctuated by fifteen years as host of TV's "The Dating Game," was born in St. Paul, Minn., and began in radio as a schoolboy announcer on a local station. He later attended the University of Minnesota (on a scholarship awarded to golf caddies) and spent three years in the U.S. Marine Corps, during which time he worked with Armed Forces radio and television in Hawaii.
After leaving the service in late 1957, he returned to Minnesota, decided he didn't like the snow, and quickly migrated to San Francisco. He landed a job at KGO Radio in January 1958, working the all-night shift, and then moved over to top-rated KSFO in January 1960 to become part of the all-star team (including Don Sherwood, Jack Carney, Del Courtney, Dan Sorkin and Al "Jazzbeaux" Collins) at the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Radio Station."
Hired for the afternoon show, Lange slipped into Sherwood's morning spot on occasion, when the self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Disc Jockey" was under the weather, under the table, or simply decided to retire for a stretch. Lange held on with KSFO through 1983 when it was sold by owner Gene Autry, who asked Lange to move to Los Angeles and work at another of his stations, KMPC.
The L.A. grind finally wore on Lange and his wife, television personality and former Miss America Nancy Fleming, and they returned to the Bay Area in 1990, with Lange signing on to host the midday program at Magic 61. After an ownership change at the station in 1991, Lange ascended to the morning spot once again, bringing with him a devoted listenership and a healthy boost in ratings.
Jim Lange spoke with us recently from Magic 61's studios in San Francisco.
BAY AREA RADIO DIGEST: What was the spark that got you interested in radio in the first place?
JIM LANGE: I won a contest actually, when I was about 15 years old. A friend and I were walking by a radio station — I didn't know it was a radio station; it was just a high-rise building — and there was a line out front and we asked what was going on. They said they were auditioning for a teenage radio show.
They wanted a boy and a girl. They wanted the boy to do sports and the girl to do the dances and stuff that was going on in the Twin Cities — very sexist — and play music once a week. It was sponsored by a local department store. My friend dared me to get in line, so I did.
Needless to say, I made the finals.
I hadn't been interested at all, but they said "Hey, you sound good, you have a good voice," so I did it. I was a junior in high school at the time and I did it all the way until I went to college. I found out that you can make a fair amount of money without any heavy lifting, so I stayed in it.
BARD: So that was when you decided to make radio your career.
LANGE: I really did. The actual moment I decided came about because one of the prizes for winning the contest was a trip to Chicago to watch 'big time' radio and TV the network stuff.
We were watching these live television shows; it was the "Bell Telephone Hour" or something, and the announcer was up there dressed in a tuxedo and all he said was, "This is the NBC Television Network," and I asked the page how much the announcer made, and he said about $150. I said, well, that's what I want to do. I always wanted to say (in deep voice) "This is the NBC Television Network." (Laughs.)
BARD: Who would you say inspired you most to work in radio?
LANGE: There's a broadcaster back in Minneapolis, a fellow named Steve Cannon, who I used to listen to when I was thinking about becoming a DJ. My interest in radio was strictly announcing and sports, and I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I listened to him and another fellow named Jack Thayer, who went on to become a big owner and programmer in New York.
I'd listen to them, and I later became close friends with Steve Cannon, and he was inspirational in getting me to come out to San Francisco. He's still working at WCCO (Minneapolis), one of the major radio stations in the Midwest. Other than that, there was Dave Garroway. I loved to listen to Dave's show and his relaxed style. They were probably the most inspirational. Maybe even Arthur Godfrey, with his personal attitude toward radio and his listeners.
BARD: What are some of your earliest memories of radio?
LANGE: Early radio was not a heck of a lot different from radio today, except there were less stations and less variety. There was still fierce competition — people trying different things, trying to forge an identity in a market.
It was a lot easier in those days. San Francisco had basically nine radio stations before FM. FM was just starting to come in during the late Fifties, so it was much easier. People talk about the huge ratings that they had then — well, they weren't shared by eighty other radio stations. But again, they were a lot less into the "formula" that we have now: this strict, almost computerized programming that we see in most radio stations, where the personality is eliminated and only the morning show gets the chance to do anything.
A morning show is supposed to be as wild and, in a lot of cases, as "off-color" as possible, to capture the attention of that great 18-to-35 year-old crowd. Back then, Don Sherwood was about as controversial as you could get, and he would be considered mild by today's standards, when you think of Howard Stern or even Mark & Brian and some of those people in L.A., or the guys around here.
He was funny without being obscene. Everything he did was done with a chuckle or whatever. You knew the meaning. It was sort of like what they've done to the movies now — you don't have to be that explicit. You could fade away and you knew what he was talking about.
That was different. And, of course, the music was different. There was only one kind of music at that time, until rock 'n' roll came along in the Fifties, which gave rise to KOBY, which I think was the first rock station in the Bay Area, and KYA and its competitors. And then alternative rock came in with KSAN and Tom Donahue and that crowd.
It branched out, and now we've got oldies stations, "new" oldies, and we've got "golden" oldies; they're breaking everything down until there is just a hair's difference in what you're broadcasting. That's the major difference.
BARD: In spite of all the years you've worked in radio, you'll probably always best be remembered as the host of "The Dating Game." What are some of your fondest memories of that?
LANGE: The best memories are working with the wonderful people who were on the show. Over the years we had, I guess, almost every celebrity who was single, from Michael Jackson to Burt Reynolds to Tom Selleck. They all came through the show, even Groucho Marx. So I got to meet all those people — I think that was a great thrill, and also the fact that I got to see nine beautiful women everyday. (Laughs.)
BARD: That's not bad.
LANGE: That was kind of fun. And, of course, it sent all my kids to college. And the fact is that the thing is kind of legendary now. I mean, you know you're legendary when you've been satirized by Saturday Night Live and Johnny Carson.
BARD: And Howard Stern, too.
LANGE: Yeah, and Howard Stem. I visited Howard and we had a little fun on his show not too long ago.
BARD: You did not meet your wife on "The Dating Game," though.
LANGE: No, no, heavens no. Not at all. I met my wife doing a show in San Francisco called "AM San Francisco." Actually, I met her while I was working for KSFO — she came through as Miss America in 1961, I interviewed her and she disappeared from my life, I never saw her again until 1974 or 1975 when we met again on "AM San Francisco."
BARD: What brought you back to Magic 61 and San Francisco?
LANGE: What brought me back actually was a job offer. I was trying for six years. (Laughs.) There was just nothing opening up in the Bay Area. Plus they kept renewing my contract down in L.A.
It finally worked out where something opened up at Magic 61. All my kids are up here, and all of Nancy's kids are up here, and it was just really painful to live down there, for that particular reason. So when the job opened up, we just jumped at it and came up here instantly.
BARD: What are some of your thoughts about the station?
LANGE: Magic 61? I love it. I absolutely love it. They've made some changes and they're in the process of making some more now. They're fine-tuning the music, expanding it. I think they were a little narrow in their selection earlier on. The listeners are responding well, the ratings are good. We've got a great group of people here. I've never been happier at a radio station actually.
BARD: So, do you think you'll be doing this for quite a while?
LANGE: Well, I hope to be doing it until they carry me out of here. (Laughs.) I figure I've got five to ten good years left.
BARD: One final question — if you had to choose one medium to work in, would you choose radio or TV?
LANGE: Oh, that's easy. I've been asked this before. It will always be radio. Radio is the theater of the mind. You're on your own. You don't have to worry about lighting directors and cameramen or script writers and all that. Good radio is still the most fun. It always will be. Plus, you don't have to wear makeup and you don't have to shave. (Laughs.)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Jim Lange was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in 2006, with the first class to be honored.