Every decade has at least one defining moment, an event so momentous it is forever etched in our memory. The decade of the 1960's was certainly no exception. In a recent survey, a majority of baby boomers named the assassination of President John F. Kenney and the Beatles as the decade's most definitive events. The memory of those milestones is etched in my mind as well and I remember exactly where I was when they happened, at 940 Des Moines, KIOA.
November 22, 1963, was an overcast and chilly Friday in Des Moines. I had left for work early to record several weekend commercials and stopped for lunch at Harry DeCarlo's Restaurant, just down the street from KIOA's Broadcasting House. I hadn't even had a chance to order before Harry shouted out from the kitchen, "Kennedy's been shot." After the initial shock, I knew I had to get to the station, fast. The scene at the studio at 803 Keo Way could only be described as controlled chaos. News Director Bob Betts was frantically doing news updates, literally reading each word as it was typed out on the United Press International teletype. Commercials were put on hold, what little music that was played was toned down and Ronn Pepper, who was on the air, was sprinting between the control room and the newsroom. I started working the phone and began dialing local political leaders to get their reaction on tape. One by one, the rest of the news staff rushed in, including morning newsman Bob Burlingame, the dean of Iowa news broadcasters, along with reporters Bob Kane and Johnny Catron. Watching Bob Betts and Bob Burlingame huddled around the old RCA microphone, I could only imagine listeners similarly huddled around radios stunned at the news they were hearing.
That old RCA 44BX microphone, dating back to the 1930's had been salvaged from the fire that destroyed the KIOA studios a year earlier. It had been witness to many a news event, but few as memorable as the tragedy of that gray November day.
At 1:37 pm, the teletype's warning bell rang 10 times to signify a flash, a story of paramount importance. Those clattering keys hammered out the news we were all dreading, "Flash President Dead." Moments later, more details that I can see as vividly in my mind now as my eyes could then:
(DALLAS)-PRESIDENT KENNEDY IS DEAD.
HE WAS SHOT TO DEATH BY AN ASSASSIN IN THE STREETS OF DALLAS. HE WAS 45.
Instinctively we all knew what had to be done next. Out of respect, the top 40 records were put aside and in their place, the few instrumental and inspirational records we found in the music library. We knew we would need more than just a few albums so it was quick dash down the street to Marshall's Music Room for an armload of new instrumental albums.
After an afternoon of nearly continuous news coverage, it became clear that even though KIOA had larger news staff than most top 40 stations its size, more resources were needed to continue to cover this ever changing and expanding series of events. KIOA took news seriously since it was a key to attracting adult listeners and it was vital that we provided the best coverage possible of this national tragedy. As an independent station, KIOA was not affiliated with a network that could assist in covering such a complex story. The seemingly impossible challenge was to find a network to augment the coverage of our news staff. General Manager Ric Marcellain met the challenge by convincing WHO and NBC to provide the station with network service for as long as events warranted. KIOA carried NBC's coverage as it continued for the capture of suspect Lee Harvey Oswald, his subsequent fatal shooting by Jack Ruby and on through Monday, November 25th for the National Day of Mourning and state funeral. It was only 72 hours, but at the time it seemed to last a lifetime. Untold millions of us will never forget that time or where we were at that fateful moment in time.
Before the Beatles successfully mounted an invasion of the U.S., they made several forays, but were repulsed by the onslaught of roars from cars and the surf. The full-scale invasion finally came on December 26th, 1964, when Capitol Records released "I Want to Hold Your Hand," backed with "I Saw Her Standing There." But before that, the Beatles established a beach head on U.S. soil nearly a month before, not in the strongly fortified surf of the nation's coastland, but far inland at a city called Des Moines.
The Friday after Thanksgiving in 1963 was a week to the day after the presidential assassination. Programming was back to normal at Broadcasting House and I was holding forth on the 6:00 to 9:00 pm shift behind the huge storefront plate glass studios at 803 Keo Way. An urgent rap on the window interrupted me and I looked up to see a young man trying to get my attention while holding up a copy of a Beatles LP from England. He was persistent so I finally had to let him in out of the cold. He eagerly told me he was a Drake University student back from a trip to England and we just had to play the Beatles. As music director, I was certainly aware of the Beatles. Matter of fact, we had even tried playing "She Loves You" back in September when it was released by Swan Records, but it met with resounding silence, plus a teen record panel that met weekly at the station gave it a thumbs down. Many in the record industry thought English records were a hard sell in the U.S. and that's why the Beatles wouldn't be as successful here. I didn't buy the argument because late that summer KIOA had a top 10 local hit of "Lucky Lips" by England's Cliff Richard.
The Drake student kept insisting that we listen to his album because it was better than previous Beatles recordings. He said "I Saw Her Standing There" was the cut that was now very popular in England. As he rattled on, something told me maybe he was right. Maybe because of the events of the past week people might be looking for something other than car tunes and surfing music. I relented, slapped the Parlophone labeled "Please Please Me" LP on a turntable and played a game of rate the record by asking listeners to call and let the phone ring once if they liked it. Instantly, all the lines lighted up and stayed that way until well after the song ended. With that, Beatlemania was not only born in Iowa, but throughout the Midwest. Even though it was a premature birth, it was definitely very much alive, kicking and screaming. After making a tape dub of the album, the Drake student left, grinning ear to ear because he had made another Beatles convert.
Requests continued for the Beatles, leaving no choice but to add "I Saw Her Standing There" to the playlist the next day. Although it was the most requested record, it never made the survey until it was released in the U.S. after Christmas. KIOA's 9 plus 40 survey was based on local and area record sales and no sales meant no chart position, but the requests just kept on coming in. Several days later, our England connection turned up with the new Beatles single recently released in the UK. The title was "I Want to Hold Your Hand" backed with "This Boy." Sales in England were phenomenal and as soon as we put it on the air we could see why.
Being the Beatles station before Beatles records were available in the U.S. was not without problems. For one thing, record shop owners weren't too happy with us. Listeners, too, became frustrated at not being able to buy Beatles records. As time went along, other stations all across the country jumped on the Beatles bandwagon. Capitol Records, which held the rights to the Beatles records in the U.S., ultimately was forced to move up the release date for the first U.S. single from January 13th, 1964, to December 26th, 1963. Immediately, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" backed with "I Saw Her Standing There" hit number one in record sales in Des Moines and made it to number one on the KIOA survey. The rest, as they say, is history.
The second big Beatles event for KIOA was covering the Fab Four's first U.S. concert tour in August of 1964. A former KIOA program director, Art Sullivan, was programming a daytime station in a Denver suburb and came up with a clever plan to capitalize on the Beatles concert in Denver on August 26th. Art's station, KDAB, or KDABeatles as they called it, was in a David and Goliath fight with powerhouse KIMN, the official Beatles station. But Art thought he could seal KIMN's thunder with a little help from his friends, a bunch of us disk-jockeys from across the country. In return for helping him, we would be given press credentials and allowed to interview the Beatles for our stations. KIOA's management thought this was a great idea, so great that they wanted me to do cover it for two other stations in the company. After promising to get interviews for Albuquerque and Wichita, as well as Des Moines, I was off on a flight to Denver. In Denver the night before the big event, Art outlined his plan to all four of us. It was simply to cover the Beatles like a blanket from the moment of their arrival at Stapleton International Airport to the beginning of their concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater. To accomplish this, we all used two-way radios for live reports on KDABeatles.
The Beatles charter flight from Los Angeles arrived shortly before noon on August 26th and our live reports began just as soon as we spotted the plane on final approach. The next challenge was to cover the motorcade from the airport to the Brown Palace Hotel in Downtown Denver. By using side streets and leapfrogging with four cars, we were able to say ahead of the motorcade and provide continuous coverage. With thousands of Beatles fans lining Colfax Avenue, we had no shortage of interview material. Those crowds along the street were nothing compared to the huge throng of fans waiting at the Brown Palace on 17th Street. Getting the Beatles into the hotel and into Suite 840 was no small feat for Denver's finest. We just sort of followed the entourage on into the hotel and had just enough time to ask them a couple of questions before we were shooed away.
Our real opportunity to interview the Beatles was before the concert at Red Rocks Amphitheater located in the foothills of the Rockies about 20 miles west of Denver. We were given free rein backstage. My impression of the interviews at the press conference was who's really interviewing whom. All four were fascinated to be in the Old West and asked as many questions of us as we did of them. Most impressive was the fact that they didn't have the big egos and prima donna attitudes of many rock stars. They really seemed to be awestruck by their sudden celebrity. The most talkative were Paul and Ringo. Paul was very congenial and an easy conversationalist. Ringo was just a little more outspoken and brash. John and George were both more reserved and deliberate in their responses. Overseeing it all was their manager, Brian Epstein, who made it known the Beatles would not be doing any endorsements, period. John was especially fascinated with American Indians and started asking me questions about them. What happened next was really something I think the devil made me do. After telling him about Indians and the Kiowa Tribe, I asked him if he wanted to say "Hi" to everybody in Kiowa Country. Of course he did and immediately responded with "Hi everybody in Kiowa Country!" There it was on tape, the phonetic pronunciation of KIOA and John Lennon said it. I thought I was really clever until I overheard Steve Brown ask George to say hello to his wife and he responded with, "Hello, wife." Steve was national program director for Don Burden's Star Stations, one of which was WIFE in Indianapolis.
Taken at the Red Rocks Concert
The Beatles went on stage at 9:30 pm with "Twist and Shout" following opening acts by Bill Black's Combo, Jackie DeShannon and the Righteous Brothers with the Essex. We stayed backstage with the Beatles until they hit the stage and then we tried to find seats in the amphitheater, but it was standing room only. This was unexpected because the promoter, Vern Byars, said ticket sales were 7,000, 2,000 short of a sell out. After the concert, a Denver Police officer estimated the crowd at 10,000 and said he was sure many hiked the backcountry to sneak into the open air facility. There was concern the high altitude coupled with the Beatles energetic performance might make them short of breath. Oxygen bottles were placed on each side of the stage, but I don't think they were ever needed. It was a different story, though, for many fans. A number fainted and smelling salts and oxygen had to be used by first aid crews to bring them around. Judging from the crowd's reaction, there was no doubt they felt they got their money's worth. After all, the tickets were sold at an unheard high price of $6.60.
Spring 1964 aircheck of Stu Adams on KIOA
DesMoinesBroadcasting.com home page