The BARD Interview: Terry McGovern
Bay Area Radio Digest December 1990
The first thing you notice is there are no elves.
Where are the elves? You’ve heard them; you know they exist. Now where are they?
Terry McGovern, bearded and fortyish, asks for silence and gets it. He adjusts his headphones and leans into the microphone. His voice, as it does quite often, changes, now climbing up into a range more akin to Billy Barty than the one his listeners recognize. And, suddenly, the elves arrive.
On this Friday morning in late December, Terry McGovern will be both elf and Andy Rooney, as well as Elvis and Woody Allen. He will play host to the inimitable, real-life Quentin Kopp, an ally in his quest to help push a bill through the California legislature to have bitter flavoring added to household chemicals in order to make them less attractive to curious children; he’ll display his concern for his fellow human beings even further by phoning frostbitten Fargo, North Dakota, to see if there is anything we can send (warm clothes, warm thoughts) to help them through the winter.
He is in nearly constant motion, both mentally and physically, tossing off anecdotes and just plain funny lines at visitors and station staff members, ordering breakfast, rounding up partners for lunch, answering phone calls from reverent fans, finding time to make sure that each new visitor to the studio does not leave before having at least one moment to admire his latest photographs of his wife, Molly, and their two sons, Brendan (age four-and-a-half) and Anthony (two years younger). Pop’s pride in his family, quite evidently, is boundless.
He commands silence again, and once again he receives it. Coming out of the song, he intones “K-101” and the time, and then a button is pushed and the Billy Barty-at-double-speed elves jump out from the loudspeaker. McGovern, with no script, carries on a minute-long conversation with them, or rather with himself as them, and then he sends them on their way. The studio visitors erupt with laughter. The man is a master.
Following his four-hour Friday program, McGovern sat with us in the K-101 lobby for this conversation, framed by large picture windows looking out onto San Francisco’s Financial District and the base of the Transamerica Pyramid.
BARD: What is your “first memory” of radio? Was there anything that occurred when you were a kid that left an imprint?
McGOVERN: Sure. My dad was in radio. I’m a radio brat. My father, like a lot of fathers of my vintage, was in college when World War II broke out and he left it to go into the service. He was in for five years, so that whole part of his life was wiped out. When he got out of the Army, he went to Tulsa University on the G.I. Bill. He had already worked in radio as a young man, so when he got to Tulsa he worked at the college radio station and then started working professionally. I’m already, by then, six or seven years old and very impressionable, and you want to be like your dad, so that’s how I initially got interested in it.
Television came to Oklahoma very late, so radio really lasted a bit longer in places like that than it did in other places. I was betwixt and between radio and television. I’m sort of in the cusp. There were still great radio shows on that I vaguely remember: “Fibber McGee and Molly” was still on, and “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx. I have vague recollections of that.
What I really remembered about radio more than anything else, and what made me want to do morning shows, was a guy named Rege Cordic. He was the morning man in Pittsburgh, and this was during the era where every market had one major megastar, before they called people megastar. In Pittsburgh it was Rege Cordic; in New York, it was (Gene) Klavan and (Dee) Finch, later Gene Rayburn and Finch.
In San Francisco, of course, it was Don Sherwood; in L.A., later on, it was Bob Crane. So I grew up listening to a guy who had a great command of radio as theater, creating the illusion that there’s something going on that isn’t, in a way that you can only do on radio. You can’t do it any other way, because the people build the sets, and design it and light it. And you just sort of flesh it out for them.
BARD: So as a radio brat, you moved from town to town when you were young.
McGOVERN: We moved from radio station to radio station. We were nomadic, like a lot of people were after World War II. There were people hurtling around this country in their station wagons, looking for the answer or whatever. After the war there was a lot of domestic upheaval and we were a part of that. We moved to Oklahoma so that my father could go to college, and we spent some time out here in California where I was born, and then back to Pittsburgh where everybody (in the family is) from. We finally settled into Pittsburgh for most of my life until I moved back here.
BARD: Our next question was “What made you decide to go into radio?” but we’d guess that was pretty much ingrained when you were young.
McGOVERN: I had no choice. I always wanted to do it. The first time you see somebody do something and you say “I can do that” or “I would like to see if I can do that,” that’s what it was for me with radio. I said this looks like something that would be a lot of fun.
BARD: You went through college and trained, or was it something that you just moved right into?
McGOVERN: Actually, neither. I was lucky. When I was sixteen, I sent a tape out, and I still have it. I just found it recently. There was a publication then called Cashbox. Cashbox was a big industry magazine, one of the bibles, and the guy’s name was Gil Fagan. I’ll never forget him. I sent him a tape; why I’m not sure. I think because he worked on a radio station on weekends. He was just a part-timer, but to me he was a major star. I sent him this tape and a letter. The tape … it’s the worst thing you ever heard — a sixteen year old trying to sound like he’s forty. And he sent me the sweetest letter back, and he said, “I encourage you to continue to find work in a small market because I think you’ve got potential.” Sometimes things like that can really turn you around.
So I did. I went to a little station outside of Pittsburgh, in New Kensington, Pa., the aluminum capitol of America. To this day, they have one of the best radio stations I’ve ever heard in my life. This is early sixties now. Middle-of-the-road, jazz-oriented; stuff that was just poppin’ then: Lou Rawls was just coming out. Sinatra was in his prime. It was a very exciting time. I was just getting out of high school. The bossa nova thing had just started with Jobim and Getz and all that, so there’s a very rich musical theme to draw from.
What made it so great was that — and this is all connected here, and it’s amazing how this happens — but the program director of that station, this little Podunk station, was the brother of the guy who ran KSFO and who was really Don Sherwood’s wet nurse. Not only did I make a great friend and teacher in Phil Brooks (nee Phil Newman, brother of KSFO’s Al Newman), who was fabulous. He eventually became the best man at my wedding and one of my best friends in the world.
BARD: What was your first big break in the business?
McGOVERN: During the time I was there, I got a phenomenal break. I mean just phenomenal. I had just turned twenty years old and I was in a musical review; it was around Christmastime, and these guys came to see me from KDKA (Pittsburgh, Pa.). Big station, the original. You could read Pravda on there and you’d be heard in four states and get a fifty share.
They were looking for a team to replace Rege Cordic. They came and they saw me and thought I was very funny in this revue, and they teamed me with this guy who would ultimately be half of the team. They were sure of him, but they needed a partner.
So here I am, twenty years old, auditioning for the biggest plum job, and thank God I didn’t get it. I mean, I wasn’t even close. But the program director liked me enough that he said, “How’d you like to work the all-night shift?” I was in cardiac arrest for a month. Even after I started, I used to hyperventilate. I was terrified.
I’d get on the air and talk to people in Georgia. One time, Lou Christie, who had a couple of hit records back in the Sixties, called. His real name was Luigi Sacco. He grew up two parishes over from me, he was like five years older than me, but he knew I was a South Sider. He called me up and he said, “Hey man, I can hear you out here in Hollywood.” I said bull—. He said, “No, I’m in Hollywood. Listen.” He held the phone up and there was that eighth of a second delay as the signal bounced off the ionosphere. That’s pretty scary.
BARD: Where did you go from KDKA?
McGOVERN: I went into the service. Active duty for six months. During that time, I knew I didn’t want to spend too much more time in Pittsburgh, so I used to call out here all the time to the Fairmont Hotel, to Al Newman, “You gotta hire me, you gotta hire me.” I’d call from the rifle range, bombs are going off. It was 1967. I got out of the Army and got back to work, and I get a phone call almost instantly from a guy at a station in Cleveland He said. “I’m going to L.A. and I want you to be my afternoon guy.” They flew me out and I checked out the station. I didn’t like it. It was KLAC. Six months later it went country and western. I was very lucky.
On the way back to Pittsburgh, I took the ticket and came up here and they (KSFO) saw me, had dinner with me. I get back to Pittsburgh and the guy calls me that weekend and says, “We’ve got a tragic situation here.” Dan Sorkin, who to me was one of the greats, had a terrible accident. He lost his leg in a motorcycle accident. And Carter B. Smith had decided to become a stockbroker. They said come out here and do nine to noon. Well, I was here in a trice.
Four months after that, Don Sherwood quit. Because I was the least likely to succeed, cannon fodder, they gave me the morning show.
BARD: The guy after Don Sherwood. That would be this guy right here. (McGovern is handed a copy of the KSFO newspaper ad from July 1969, shown at right.)
McGOVERN: Whoa! (He laughs.) Oh my God. How could a guy have that much hair and then lose that much hair? Do you believe this? Isn’t that wild? My God. That was all mine. And then about two years later it (his hair) was down to here (he gestures below his shoulder). These were great microphones. God, that’s a terrific mike.
BARD: That was not just a prop mike?
McGOVERN: No, this is the actual mike. This is a production studio, but the actual booth was a room not much bigger than this couch. If you interviewed people, it was really close quarters. This was in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel. You went in the Tonga Room entrance. It was real tough to get used to, you could say. All you had were two buttons, talk-back and microphone, and a volume control for your earphones. That was very typical, especially if you didn’t work the prime shows.
I’d say to an engineer, “Okay, coming out of this record I’m going to talk, do a time check, cue you for a jingle, come back, do a tease, then we’ll go to Sinatra.” And he’s going (nod, nod). Then the record would be over, and you’d come in and say, “Fifteen minutes after seven, KSFO,” and you’d look up, and the guy is getting up and leaving, and another guy is coming in and sitting down, and this guy just walks out. And you know he hasn’t said two words to this guy. And this guy is sitting there going (shrug). That’s why the engineers were really done away with. (Taking a look at the ad again.) This is when I first started. I didn’t know I worked Saturdays. I have no recollection of that. We were living right down here on Battery Street. They had put us up in a temporary apartment. Isn’t that wild?
BARD: Aside from the wandering engineers, what other enduring memories do you have of KSFO?
McGOVERN: It was great; it was a great radio station. It was time well spent. I’ve been very, very lucky. I’ve worked at radio stations where the people are just outstanding. I worked at KDKA with all these old guys who used to work on the (NBC) Red and Blue networks. John Reed King, names that would mean nothing to you, but they were (affecting a basso voice)Old Network Guys. They all talked like (real deep) this.
BARD: You’ve worked at three of the greatest radio stations in the Bay Area, starting with KSFO. Then you moved over to KSAN, which has gone down in history as one of the great eclectic stations ever. Can you compare the two experiences?
McGOVERN: KSFO was a more structured situation. Interestingly enough, here I was, a kid, it’s 1969 and I’m twenty-three years old there, but I was playing music to people ten or fifteen years older than me. I went to KSAN after Sherwood came back and fired everybody but me and (Gene) Nelson. He fired everybody else outright. He kept me and Nelson, and then he tortured us, you know, played with our wings, tried to pull them off, putting the needle through the thorax. Finally I just said I can’t do this anymore.
I had an offer from KSAN to work for about half of what I was making at KSFO. I had a real love affair going with KSAN by then. The whole idea of FM radio, and being self-indulgent and being able to take various drugs and work on the radio. (He laughs.) I’m joking. That was not really what appealed to me. It just seemed like a great way to make a living, though with a somewhat substantially smaller salary than I was making.
In any event, I accepted the job at KSAN. My wife and I flew down to Mexico and met with (KSAN’s guiding light) Tom Donahue, who was as big as this couch, and lolled around in the pool with him and finally said I would take the job. We came back. I went on the air, and we had … more than a tacit agreement. Tommy came right out and said. “Every morning at ten o’clock I want you to come in here, do whatever you want, but you have to sit with Bonnie Simmons for an hour and let her play rock’n’roll for you because you don’t know it.” No argument. I know what I know; I know the Stones, I know Little Feat. I know what I like, but I don’t know Bachman-Turner Overdrive and all that other sh—.
I would be in class for an hour after I got off the air. That lasted for about three months. Then one morning he called me up and he said — and he was up all night, but he’d try to make you think he just got up — (affecting a low, throaty voice) “Terry, this is Tom. Listen, man, I’m tired of that f—ing Spam,” from Monty Python. And I don’t know why I did it, I guess because I figured I had nothing to lose, but I said. “Hey, you take care of the music, I’ll take care of the comedy.”
He roared, then he hung up the phone. I didn’t know if I was fired or what. He came in later and he said (again low, throaty) “I like that.” Anything that meant that he could abdicate responsibility was fine with Tom, so he let it go.
That first (ratings) book, I still have a little rose pressed from the bouquet he sent me, and a note: “I wonder how Sherwood feels about this.” And Raechel (Donahue’s widow) and I — he had put his wife on after me — we had really just kicked ass that book. I don’t know, we came in second overall in the mornings or something, below KGO, really killed them. That was the best time of my life in radio. When you’re given the opportunity to invent things, what could be more fun when you get paid for it, and that’s really what we were doing.
We were experimenting with the wake-up call, we were experimenting before The Gong Show with people performing. I guess we invented the “Zoo” (format), although that was never the intention to do that.
Our Friday mornings here (at K-101) are starting to get a little bit like that. I like it when people come in and they respond and they’re plugged into the show, and they have listened to the show on some kind of basis, and they have fun. I can still remember the first time I went to a radio station as a teenager: it was a Top 40 station (KQV) in Pittsburgh, Pa.; it was on the corner of “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” — that’s how they always advertised it. There was a little guy in the window, probably terrified out of his wits. This guy was nineteen years old and his name was Byron Zint —
BARD: Where is he now?
McGOVERN: I don’t know, but this guy was two or three years older than me and I looked at him and I said, “This can be done.”
I liked the excitement of what we did at KSAN, the freedom that we took, the indulgence that we indulged in, and eleven years go by and I come back and it’s like Rip van Winkle. Suddenly, things are so structured, the music is totally, completely, irrevocably out of my hands. There is nothing I can do about it. I don’t even know what’s coming up next most of the time. All I’ll know is what I’m going to do, and I’ll say to Joe (his production engineer) as we’re coming out, “What’s my talk-down? There’s nothing I can do about it.
BARD: What about the music?
McGOVERN: I like a lot of the music on K-101. No matter where you go, you can’t say you like all the music. The thing that was great about KSAN, that made it different, was that the music was virtually bigger than everybody. No matter how big your ego was or how many rating points you got, it wasn’t about you. It might be, secondarily, but it really was the music. Everybody who worked there loved the music.
BARD: What happened to bring your time at KSAN to an end?
McGOVERN: The very thing that I’m talking to you about. It was self-indulgent. It didn’t see the writing on the wall. Bad management. Jerry Graham, who was our general manager — and Jerry’s a wonderful guy and a terrific personality on the air — but he liked to shoot the hoops. He thought it was going to run on automatic. Tom was dead, long live Tom, and this tradition will go on forever.
Well, KMEL came in and just kicked our butts, man, just kicked our asses. And nobody thought it could happen, but it did.
BARD: Where did you go from there?
McGOVERN: Oh, I left I left in 1977, before any of that happened. I turned in my earphones, although I continued to do Friday mornings for two years after that. I commuted up here. I had the Pacific Stereo account and that was paying all my bills in L.A.
I had moved to L.A. to become an actor, and for two years I shuttled up here every single week and I did the Friday morning show, which was very weird. It was like “The Best Of” — all the good stuff. By 1980, Pacific Stereo and I had parted company and KSAN went country and western.
BARD: Prior to that, you played one of the most memorable scenes (as the young teacher, Mr. Wolfe, opposite a very young Richard Dreyfuss) in one of the most memorable motion pictures of all time, American Graffiti.
McGOVERN: Wasn’t that a neat film? My scenes are still in there, my two little scenes, because they are pivotal. You kind of don’t know what’s happening unless you see that scene.
McGOVERN: I did more than dabble. I really did make my living there for almost twelve years. I did commercials, tons of commercials, first of all, then I kind of evolved out of that, got older, wasn’t the right type. I did sitcoms, playing the guest jerk, and then I started getting back into doing voice work very heavily during the last few years. That’s when I started doing cartoon work. I’m still on Launch Pad on Duck Tales, part of whatever the story is. (It’s) a very good part, because I still do the show, from up here. They just phone-patch my voice in.
BARD: And the “Evening At The Improv” series?
McGOVERN: That’s an interesting story. I did do a year of that. It was 1982. I never talk about this because it didn’t seem real to me. I did a year at KRLA in Los Angeles. It was an abysmal time for me. It just didn’t work. I was playing oldies on basically a Spanish station, a large Spanish audience. It was weird. I don’t even count that. But I did have a job, and I was working on “Evening At The Improv” at the same time, and I did thirteen shows and then they came to us and said. “We want you to write your own stuff, too.” It was really cheesy. So I quit.
But that was just one show. God, I did tons of stuff. I had six pilots in eleven years, which is pretty damned good. One of them lasted twenty-three weeks; that was the Flip Wilson-Gladys Knight show, “Charlie & Company” on CBS. Then about a year before I made the move I started to really get some signals: the writers’ strike was looming, it was absolutely definite.
I was trying to become a writer. I had a partner and a little office in Hollywood. But things were just grinding to a halt. This happens to an actor, this happens to freelancers. You’re working and then all of a sudden it goes rrrrrrr… unless you’re phenomenally successful and you get on a big roll, like John Goodman (“Roseanne,” “Always”). God bless him. He’s so great. I’ve been aware of him for ten years. Now he’s catching on. It’s a law now: you have to have John Goodman in your movie. It’s the old Wilford Brimley law: “Wilford must be in this movie! Tell us why Wilford Brimley is not in your movie. Give us reasons.”
BARD: What specifically happened to bring you back to the Bay Area and K-101?
McGOVERN: I was working on “My Sister Sam” in December of ’87, my second son had been born, and now I was getting really antsy. I got a call from here (K-101) asking would I want afternoons. I said no. I don’t do afternoons. I have no interest in being in radio after ten o’clock in the morning. What’s the point?
Two months later they called. Don Rose had had his angina attack and they really needed somebody. They said come up here and fill in for us. I said no, I won’t fill in, but I will audition for a week. I came up, auditioned for a week, and halfway through they gave me a contract. My wife bought a house and we moved. I moved in ten days, she moved in about thirty-five.
BARD: Any regrets so far?
McGOVERN: I’ve not regretted it. Sometimes I’ll look at television and see a buddy do something and I’ll get a little twinge of jealousy. I mean, I’m pleased for that person, but I’ll think, “Hey, that’s a part I could have done.” Then you step back and realize that that scene he was in is probably going to be it for the show, or maybe just two scenes.
It’s very difficult, unless you get a lead part, to step out and be anything. In the twelve years I was in L.A., I did a lot of television shows, a lot of them. I did some movies. But I never got to act. You never get to act. It’s so cut and dried, what you have to do. It’s almost like cartoon work, except you are the cartoon.
I had a couple of exceptions. The “Cagney & Lacey” shows were good, and on some of the hour-long shows you get to do a little bit, like on “Scarecrow & Mrs. King.” I don’t feel like I left my great, burgeoning acting career in the dust. I hope to do some up here, if it’s at all possible.
BARD: What is the life of a morning man like from your perspective?
McGOVERN: I would give this advice to anyone, even today when it’s as hectic and competitive as it is. I think for the number of people who are looking for jobs, there are never enough jobs to go around, especially for a cushy job like this. And it is. I mean, this isn’t work. I bitch and moan about it, and complain about how difficult it is to get up at three-thirty in the morning and have to say good night to my kids early and all that, but it’s a pretty good way to make a living.
BARD: You’ve recently become involved in trying to have legislation passed in both Washington and Sacramento to have bittering agents added to household products to make them less attractive to children who may accidentally get into them and drink them. What made you aware of this?
McGOVERN: A woman named Lynn Tylczak. She’s a woman from Oregon, a housewife and a consumer advocate, on her own, and she made me aware of it through an article I read. My producer found it, I called her up, and we started it going. The mail response has been great.
You know, back in the old days at KSAN, my major point was to be crazy and to be totally irresponsible, and to not have any interest in what was going on in the news. That was de rigueur. But this is a very big thing. It’s A.B. 2048 and it’s a bill to add an aversion or bittering agent called denatonium benzoate to household chemicals. And it’s running into trouble, if you can believe such a thing.
BARD: You are a father as well, and we noticed that you don’t contain your pride for your two sons.
McGOVERN: God, I love them so much. It’s been long and hard … they’re both adopted, which is something I’m real proud of. I always tell that because I think it’s important that you take pride in your kids, but I also think it’s important to take pride in how you came to get them, whether they’re yours biologically or not. Adoption is a fantastic thing. More people should do it.
BARD: Let’s talk about the way you work: you’re standing up the entire time, and you’re always in motion.
McGOVERN: I started that at KDKA, then at KSFO you were squeezed into this little chair. It was terrible. I hated working there, physically. When I went to KSAN, even though it was a sit-down console, I was able to raise the mike up, and everybody thought I was nuts. First of all, everyone thought I was a coke fiend. Everybody thought I was coked.
In fact, the same thing happened when I went to L.A. and I worked at The Comedy Store. I used to have guys follow me into the bathroom — “What are you doing?” “I’m going to the bathroom, man, get out of here.” I never got involved in any of that stuff, yet everyone assumed that because I worked standing up.
I work standing up for two reasons. If you’re up early in the morning, whether you’re rested or not, chances are you’re going to stay awake longer and be more energetic if you’re standing. The second reason is breathing. It’s really important to how you breathe. When you’re sitting like that, you’re constantly bent in half. It (standing up) is a much more productive way to work, because it gives you so much more energy.
BARD: One last question: could you imagine yourself doing anything else in your life beside this?
McGOVERN: My God. I don’t know. I’ve come full circle now. That has an ominous sound to it; I hate that. It’s like, ooh, are you finished? Well, no, I’m not finished. I want to do some TV here locally, try to find an angle, a handle, to do something different. I’d love to be on the news, doing something off the wall, but that’s going to take some real creative pitching.
I think my mission in life is to be fluff, I guess. My mission in life is not to be heavy about things, but to still try to communicate to people and touch them. If I can do this successfully here, then this is certainly the best way to do it. But I think there are also other things you can do, too. I don’t want to do just one thing for too long. It makes you crazy. You’ve got to spice it up a little bit.
Reported by David Ferrell Jackson
If you tuned in this morning to have Jim Lange wake you up, you’ll find KSFO afternoon star Terry McGovern sitting in, with Chet Casselman delivering the news.
IN STEREO! Terry broadcasts live from Alcatraz on KYA Oldies 93. Includes news with Dave Henderson.
Terry sings two songs that have become novelty favorites on programs such as The Dr. Demento Show. Originally released on Baseball Records (#BR1011).
Rege Cordic photo courtesy of Cordic-and-Co.com. A special note of thanks to Greg Ek-Collins and his brother, the late Ric Collins, custodian of this great website, which is dedicated to one of America’s most legendary radio personalities of all time.