KWUN Radio, Concord
Oakland Tribune Profile
Sunday, August 15, 1982
Richard Helzberg (above) may not look like it, but he owns a radio empire, and that building back of him, the one with the cars parked in front of it, that’s a radio empire.
By Rick Malaspina
Tribune TV/Radio Columnist
“THE NAVY OWNS that land over there, but we know they’re not storing any nuclear weapons. The three-headed cows aren’t sick.”
It’s a warm summer morning in Concord and Richard Helzberg, who looks like a thin Elliot Gould, is talking outside the radio station he bought for an even $1 million. All 500 watts of it.
“We don’t talk power here,” Helzberg says. He’s wearing scuffed brown loafers, faded jeans, a gold, bracelet-style wristwatch and a baseball jersey with a Snoopy “Cool Guy” logo. “We talk the effect we’re having on the community.”
Helzberg’s jet black Alfa Romeo sports car is parked nearby, a gleaming monument to the kooky incongruity of this whole scene.
The station Helzberg bought as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream is KWUN (1480 AM). You can hear it in most of Contra Costa County and in some other parts of the Bay Area. It’s housed in a lonely flat-top stucco building hidden in a sort of gulley between that grazing land on Concord Naval Weapons Station property and the Concord Pavilion.
Helzberg is a lawyer by education, but he’s a lawyer who has never practiced. Instead, in 10 years since leaving law school, Helzberg has bounced around what he grinningly calls “a real spotty career” as a talent agent, TV technician and producer, a film company production manager and an independent film producer.
Running a radio station, though, is something Helzberg said he has yearned for since boyhood in Kansas when his father passed up a chance to buy a small station for $18,000.
Helzberg turns wistful at the memory: “I was 12 and I begged my father to buy it. I was in love with radio. I used to hang out at stations.”
His father, however, was in the retail jewelry business — “dealing with a tangible — and had no time, money or faith for something as risky as radio.” It took another 29 years, and 2½ of shopping around, before Helzberg finally got his station.
He took over KWUN nine months ago. He has 18 employees, including partners Greg and Toni Everett, each with a 10 percent piece of the action.
They call the one-station broadcast empire Burgundy Broadcasting Corp. “It’s Richard’s favorite color and favorite wine,” Greg says.
“I wanted to call it HBO, for Helzberg Broadcasting Organization, but it didn’t sound right,” Helzberg says.
Besides, Home Box Office, the nation’s largest pay-TV concern, already owns that monogram. So as long as he was borrowing initials, Helzberg went for a biggie — BBC.
After taking stock of what he’d bought, Helzberg toyed with the notion of applying for a call letter change to KWRP, for that fictitious and farcical station in the TV series “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
“This place was Murphy’s Law incarnate,” Helzberg remembers, reciting a litany of troubles that just now is beginning to subside.
To begin with, the sale almost fell through. That got patched up, but then the building needed remodeling.
Carpets had to be yanked, walls repaired and painted, equipment replaced, a newsroom built — and old-timers unable or unwilling to fit into Helzberg’s plans let go.
“That was very painful — the people thing,” he says.
But temperance prevailed and the original call letters remained intact.
Going with KWRP “would have been a joke,” Helzberg explains, “and I don’t want to be a sustaining joke — even if we could’ve gotten Loni Anderson up here for a couple of days.”
Previous owners used the name K-15 because of the station’s frequency. They also kept the station a “day timer,” shutting down at sunset, despite FCC approval dating back two years to go around the clock, and played only oldies rock ‘n’ roll with a heavy dose of religious programming on weekends.
“If it were a person,” Greg says, “this station would have been in the emergency room with no detectable heartbeat or brain wave.”
But that was then.
“Now the brain is functioning normally, there’s a pulse rate and the patient is almost ready to leave the hospital.”
KWUN actually posted a profit in June. Not a huge one, but enough to stay in business and prove that Helzberg & Co. must be doing something right.
One plus, probably, is the music. Designed by Greg, a 25-year radio veteran, KWUN’s sound is a blend of roughly 50 percent 1960s rock ‘n’ roll rounded out by more recent and current hits and even older rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s a flexible format, bolstered by two 24-hour request lines, and several different playlists used at disc jockeys’ discretion – which sets KWUN apart from a lot of much bigger, better known San Francisco stations.
Many of them play pre-packaged music from syndication companies or adhere to repetitive and predictable music menus of their own making.
By contrast, Greg determines KWUN’s music by consulting national surveys, relying on instinct and checking sales at local record stores of songs, albums and groups.
To the music and DJ patter, KWUN adds such extras as contests, temperature readings from such exotic locales as Clyde and Pacheco, commute traffic reports, city and. county news from its own two reporters, promos for local civic events, and stray animal reports straight from the county animal shelter.
Of course, there’s also the lifeblood of broadcasting — ads. Big-name national advertisers have yet to discover KWUN. But Helzberg says his people are working on that and points proudly to satisfied hometown advertisers ranging from dress shops to service stations.
“We found out two things when we took over,” Helzberg says. “People either didn’t like this station or didn’t know it existed. That’s our biggest problem, and we’re turning it around.”
Even finding and persuading people to work at KWUN was an obstacle at first. Says Helzberg: “We looked locally, but the problem was that nobody would look at us.” For some professionals willing to take a chance, he reached as far as St. Joseph, Mo., to a station where Greg had worked.
Helzberg gives a deadpan look. “We called them in the middle of winter and asked them to come to Concord. They were probably thinking they’d get Malibu.”
So what did they get? Three-headed cows.
Copyright © 1982 by Tribune Publishing. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission.
ADDENDA: Greg Everett worked as general manager at KWUN until November 1984. He later managed KKIQ in Livermore/Pleasanton before moving to Hawaii to manage the Visionary Related Entertainment group of stations. He died from a heart attack on March 6, 2008, in Maui. On March 1, 1986, Richard Helzberg sold KWUN to the Concord Area Broadcasting Corporation (co-owners Chester Coleman and Joe Buerry) for $714,000. The 500-watt station lost its lease on its Myrtle & Holly studio-transmitter site in Concord in early 1996, and the building and antenna towers were demolished shortly thereafter. The station, later known as KABN, had its license canceled and deleted by the FCC in 2005. — DFJ