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December 8th

An ex-DJ reflects on 25 years without John Lennon



Back in the 1970s, the dream of most disc jockeys like myself was to gain control of a commercial FM station and program whatever we wanted. Of course, it rarely happened. It was the kind of thing was so rare as to be almost nonexistent.

Jeff Riedel and I were a couple of San Luis Obispo rock jocks and we'd heard rumors about a new station about to go on the air in Fresno. We didn't relish the idea of leaving the coast but we intended to land the job if we could. The owner was working furiously against an FCC deadline to get his station on the air or lose his license and, in spite of the fact there were many other better-qualified candidates, our timing was good and Wally Heusser gave us the gig. Two days later, Jeff and I, fresh out of Cal Poly and with no real knowledge of what we'd be attempting to do, loaded our combined assets into a U-Haul and headed for the valley.

On the evening of Dec. 8, 1979, Wally fired up the transmitter. I slipped on the headphones and said the first words on the virgin signal, "Welcome to KKDJ. They called it rock and they said it wouldn't last ... ." Then I started the first record, The Beatles' I Want To Hold Your Hand. KKDJ's debut was greeted with a confident yawn by the media execs who ruled the number one station in town, Y94. They had the ad budget and the wherewithal to stage huge promotional events, and when Iran took 52 American Embassy staffers captive in Tehran, Y-94 responded with what we considered to be the world's worst idea for a radio promotion, a "Bomb Iran Rally" at Radcliffe Stadium.

Wally, Jeff and I were raised on the anti-war rock of the '60s. To our way of thinking, fanning the flames of war for the sake of ratings seemed tacky and shameless and we felt compelled to react. On the day of the rally, we rented a hot air balloon. We put Wally in the basket along with a giant stereo system and - fingers crossed - we launched it in the general direction of Radcliffe Stadium where several thousand Y94 listeners had been worked into a pro-war frenzy. Ai r horns were blaring, cops were pacing and no one was sure what would happen next. Then, traversing the sky directly over the 50-yard line came the KKDJ balloon blasting the loudest version of "Give Peace A Chance" since John Lennon sang it in Central Park. The rally fell silent and some began to applaud, causing consternation among the Y94 staff, a feeling further aggravated when our flyover garnered most of the press.

Events like this made KKDJ more than a rock station. It was a cause, and as we approached our one-year anniversary we decided to throw a thank you party for the public. On the evening of Dec. 8, 1980, w e threw open the doors to the studios and by dusk, they were abuzz with boisterous fans. I replicated my Beatles sign-on of exactly one year before, and then turned the board back over to Jeff. By 8 p.m., the party spilled out into the parking lot. People were dancing and singing but amidst the din, I thought I'd heard the sound all radio people were attuned to in those days, the dreaded 10 bells from the Associated Press. I pushed through the revelers in the lobby and got to the teletype in time to see the first bulletins crossing the wire, then dashed to Studio B where I signaled to Jeff to open my mike. He yelled for quiet and hit the red buttons. "Lets go to the KKDJ newsroom now where Dean Opperman is standing by ... ."

"We've just received word from the Associated Press that John Lennon was shot and killed tonight outside his New York City apartment ... ."

I read on, mostly oblivious to what I was saying, while in my headphones I could hear the gasps as the news moved though the crowd in the lobby. Somehow, Jeff managed to find and cue "Imagine" in time to roll it as I finished reading that first dispatch and with the start of that record, our party transformed into a wake.

Within the hour, hundreds more arrived toting flowers, candles, and Beatles paraphernalia, and over the course of that long night and the next several days of solid Beatles programming, we shared a dark camaraderie. Assassination, something our generation had become sickly familiar with, was again upon us. This time it had struck one uniquely our own.

Whenever I replay that night in my mind, trying to understand the events that overtook me that night, I recall the weeping faces pressed against the studio glass as I struggled to adlib a tribute to Lennon on live TV; I recall trying to schedule DJs, too prostrate with grief to do their own shows; and I recall the numbness I felt in the center of that vortex. KKDJ had become a Mecca for mourners but for me, there would be no time to grieve, particularly in the days that followed, when KKDJ was named the No. 1 station in town.

While I recognized Lennon's contribution to our success, I wouldn't feel the full impact of his life until years later when confronted with another surreal event that defied common sense, the American invasion of Iraq. I watched in disgust as the major media in this country refused to cover the largest protests in human history, or find, apparently, a single prominent figure to speak out against the war. Even rock radio, that bastion of anti-war consciousness, was mute. For a long while I blamed my colleagues in the media for abdicating their responsibilities but I've since come to see that part of the problem lie in the fact that there weren't any popular heroes to speak on our behalf.

John Lennon left many legacies, not the least of which was his brave and outspoken pacifism. Had he lived, he surely would have been one of the first to speak out against this war. Would it have made a difference? I like to think so.


Carpinteria resident Dean Opperman can be reached through Managing Editor King Harris at [email protected].

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