A Tale Of Two Stations:
KVON and KVYN, Napa, California

From The Bay Area Radio Digest, Fall 1992
By David Ferrell Jackson

Tom Young points to the collection of square, black-and-white photos on the wall. In the photos, there is a small, plain, white-washed building. Beside the small building are a few dark, heavy-looking cars with large, rounded fenders. A few men are working in the field near the building.

In the photos, it is 1948. The men in the photos are building a radio station.

The radio station in the field, with nothing around it for miles except for more fields, will be called KVON. Tom Young will buy KVON in 1970, twenty-two years after its birth. In 1992, twenty-two years after he purchased it, the station — still housed in the same, albeit much-renovated, small building — no longer stands alone in a field.

Instead, Tom Young's station is surrounded by a tract of friendly, comfortable homes; perfect neighbors for a friendly, comfortable radio station. At the time he bought KVON in 1970, a friend in the radio industry told Tom Young that there wasn't much of anything in Napa, except perhaps the State Hospital and the nearby Veterans Home. Times, to put it in simple terms, have changed. Napa has grown up around KVON.

In 1975, KVON, which broadcasts at 1440 AM, begat its sister station, KVYN, which broadcasts at 99.3 FM. Together, the stations provide the Napa Valley and its outlying environs with a broad palette of entertainment: KVON with news, talk and information, KVYN with adult rock music.

This is the tale of the two stations.

If you were sent out on a scavenger hunt with the mission to bring back two morning men — one for an adult rock station and another for a news/talk station — and you brought back Mikel Herrington and Barry Martin, nothing that anyone else might bring back would come close.

Barry Martin is, for want of a better (or less used) term, thirty-something, blond, stylishly bespectacled, an obviously frequent visitor to the local fitness club that Tom Young owns along with his radio stations. He is the embodiment of the American Heartland, a devoted dad right down to coaching his son's T-ball team, and a pushover at honoring requests from local organizations to emcee their fund-raising events.

Mikel Herrington ain't Barry Martin.

If all you know about Mikel Herrington is that he took the moniker of his on-air persona — “Oil Can Harry” — from the villain on the old Mighty Mouse cartoon show, you don't know a lot about Mikel Herrington.

Behind the devilish eyes of the rakish Herrington is a man who has worked in Bay Area radio since the 'Sixties. He was Captain Mikey at San Jose's KLIV back then. Remember Norman, the big-snooted little surfer guy on KLIV's old logo? Herrington came up with that.

He was also there at the forefront of Progressive Rock radio in the early 'Seventies at KOME and L.A.'s KMET. He later converted Oakland's KNEW into a country station, and launched the nation's first all-sports station, WIP in Philadelphia. Mikel Herrington is an absolute legend in big-league radio.

So what's he doing in Napa?

While still in Philadelphia — and after he and his wife had already decided to return to the Bay Area — Herrington interviewed for the program director's job at KNBR.

“I talked to them about that job,” he recalls. “I was coming out here to do it, and then I didn't get it. After two or three interviews, and flying out here and all that stuff ... well, that happens. We were going ‘home,' going back, and it didn't happen. It was like, What do they mean, no? I want to live in California. Don't they understand that?”

Tired of playing the Ratings Game, he renewed his acquaintance with Tom Young and came to KVYN.

Herrington's impact and imprint on KVYN, which trumpets itself as “The Great Vine,” is powerful. The music is interesting without being off-the-wall: a skillful blend of mainstream contemporary artists and classic pop and rock hits (a quick sampling: how about Joni Mitchell's “Big Yellow Taxi” and Eric Clapton's “Tears In Heaven” followed by Richard Marx' “Angelia.”).

The format is not Album-Oriented Rock (AOR), and it's not Adult Contemporary (AC). Herrington calls it “NCR.”

NCR?

“National Cash Register,” Herrington says, by way of making things clear. “If we can make money with it, we'll go for it. But if it doesn't make money, you throw it out.”

“It's adult rock,” he continues. “I've been wanting to do it for a long time. I was seeing all this research work done on adults who were 35 to 49, who liked Classic Rock but didn't want to hear any more real hard stuff, and still liked new music. I noticed on their preference lists that they liked a lot of stuff that was Adult Contemporary. They liked stuff that was ‘Album.' They liked stuff that was ‘Top 40.' They didn't fit as clearly into the delineated groupings as radio or trade magazines wanted them to. They cross those lines.”

So what is Herrington's master plan to reach these listeners?

“People usually have three favorite radio stations,” he says, “and they're usually not the same type. I saw that, and I just think you can put together music that appeals to these people, music that's familiar, and new music that's something they would like, something with a freshness to it.”

Finding a balance between “too hard” and “too soft” — without being too “in between” — is the toughest challenge.

“Buzz saws, taking people up to the ceiling and leaving them there, is not the way to win adult friends” Herrington says. “Come down, back off, and if you're going to play something sort of hard, make it something they really know. I thought I would do that. I started off with about 650 songs (on the station's playlist) and I've built it up now to 1,850 songs — far more than anybody else is playing — because I want those peripheries expanded. This (KVYN) is a good place to do it at.”

“I'm not playing as hard an edge (to the music),” he adds. “I started out without an edge. It just wasn't enough. You need some kind of energy there. You need some sort of spark. You just can't be apologetic or chickens--- or 'semi' or 'almost' rock all the time. People have grown up with it (rock music) now for thirty years. They're not afraid of it.”

The subject of a job opportunity for a program director at a large (but ratings-weak) San Francisco FM station comes up. Herrington shakes his head at the prospect.

“People here would like me to apply for it, and hopefully get it,” he says, “and then we'd all go to San Francisco and make some money. My attitude is, you know where I am ... If you're interested in what I'm doing, here I am.”

But would a station controlled by a huge corporation and watched over by cost-conscious accountants allow him the freedom he has at KVYN? “I don't know,” says Herrington. “I have no idea.”

Would he try to get away with it anyway?

“Mm-hmm,” Herrington nods without hesitation. “If I went there I would, because it's better than what they're doing now. What they're doing is not working. But we're happy here. It's a nice place. You get the chance to get out and meet your listeners, and I haven't done that — I've never worked in a market this small. This is a new experience. I've heard the words 'We can't afford that' a lot more often than I'd like to hear them, but I knew there would be a big change, and that's one of the changes I've had to go along with.”

Time goes by. Herrington looks at his watch. In moments, he will move into the glass-walled KVON studio, just past the receptionist's desk, and make the transformation from laid-back FM personality to moderator of a talk-show on the AM side.

Gary Dias is Herrington's sidekick, the manic half of the KVYN morning team. Right now, Gary Dias wants a hamburger. A greasy hamburger. With fries and ketchup and salt and a pineapple shake to go with it. Now.

Earlier this morning he did a feature called “The :50 File” with a bit on the death of the founder of the Bob's Big Boy restaurant chain. The subject of hamburgers naturally arose and now, an hour later, Gary has that In-N-Out Urge, prowling the station's corridors in a futile search for fried ground beef.

As Dias prowls about in his black Converse sneakers, Barry Martin — with his perfect, unaffected Midwestern voice and a face that television reporters might pay to have — settles down for a quiet moment after five hours on the air.

Originally from Joplin, Mo., Martin was a theater major in college and began working in radio part-time while in school. Within a year and a half, he was “pretty much programming the station without knowing it.” Martin and his wife, also a theater major, moved to Minneapolis to further their theater pursuits, but he was drawn back into radio.

The Martins later moved to Quad Cities, Iowa, where Barry helped build a new station there from the ground up, right down to putting up the transmitter tower in the middle of a corn field. After a few years in Iowa, the couple chose to move on and came to California, where Barry joined KVON as afternoon talk show host and program director.

When George Carl, KVON's morning host for more than two decades, retired from full-time broadcasting two years ago (he's still the Sales Manager for the stations), Martin moved into that position.

As with Herrington on the FM side, Martin must strike a balance between the resources he has available and serving KVON's listeners in the best way possible.

“The challenge is keeping people's attention, keeping them with you when they have so many other choices,” says Martin. “The only way we can compete with that is by being your next-door neighbor as compared to a celebrity who lives in a near-by town. You may have a special feeling toward that celebrity, like, ‘Wow, I sure would like to be their friend,' but you probably can't come in at the end of their shift and stop them in the lobby and talk to them.”

“You won't see them out at the supermarket opening, the car dealership,” Martin notes. “I did the opening ceremonies for the Little League on Saturday. That's just part of small-town radio. You're part of the community. You don't have the dark glasses and the Armani suit façade. You're not a celebrity in a small town; you're just part of the community.”

Martin has built KVON's programming upon a framework of local news and features, with network offerings — including Mutual's Larry King and Talknet's Bruce Williams — providing the station with legitimate, big-name talent to fill in the gaps.

KVON's local feel is never more apparent than on weekends, with live phone-in programs on subjects ranging from gardening to household repairs, featuring guest “experts” from the Napa Valley, as well as a Kid's Talk program, and a Spanish-language program (“La Voz Del Valle,” hosted by the father-and-son team of Roberto Rojas senior and junior) which the station has carried for three decades.

“The old saying that ‘You can't be everything to everybody' is true,” Martin says, “unless you're in the situation we're in. When you're handed the whole market and there's no competition, you can try to be everything to everybody. We run the symphony on Sunday. We run the church services. We can run the special-interest programs on the weekends that most stations wouldn't think about because they don't bring in the big numbers.”

The “guest expert” angle can work both ways, Martin explained. The experts not only draw listeners to the station, but also increase the recognition level of their businesses and themselves.

“Our ‘how-to' guy on the home improvement program is known all over town,” notes Martin. “I find that radio lends a legitimacy to these people. [Listeners feel that] they must be the most knowledgeable people in this field in town, because they're on the radio every week.”

Martin maintains a high standard for KVON's programming throughout its broadcast schedule. Napa may not be as large, diverse or cosmopolitan as San Francisco, but the station never aims for the lowest common denominator.

“Philosophically, the words I always preach are: inform, educate and entertain, though not always in that order,” he says. “I've been known, personally, to book on talk shows topics that you might only hear on Public Radio stations. That's good and bad, depending on who you talk to, except the listeners really enjoy that. They're looking for that more from commercial radio. They aren't afraid of something that's heavy or serious, and it can all be interesting if interviewers do their prep work.”

“We hit local material very heavily,” Martin continues, “but we have to use regional and national guests to fill in talk shows because there really isn't enough happening that you can lay your hands on here. In news, though, local is the key.”

Because KVON is the only “home-grown” news station in the Napa Valley, it is naturally the primary source of information for local residents.

“If they want to know whether the river is rising, nobody can tell them that except us,” Martin says. “If they want to know how the Napa High basketball team did last night, we're going to have it, guaranteed, the next morning. Nobody else will have that on the radio, anywhere. The newspaper doesn't come out here until the afternoon, so if the City Council decides on Tuesday night to ration water, we're going to have it on the air twelve hours before many people see their paper when they get home at the end of the day. It's old news to them if they listen to KVON.”

While bigger fish in bigger ponds — such as KGO, KCBS and KNBR — may command greater interest and greater revenues, Martin is justifiably proud of the niche that he and KVON have carved out in their community.

“We're it,” he states plainly. “We're kind of the giant of broadcasting for Napa Valley, the ‘only.' That's an enviable position. Being first is so important; we're first and we're ‘only,' so we're doubly important.”

Copyright © 1992 by Radio Digest Publications. May not be reprinted or reproduced in any manner without the expressed permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


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