Final Sign Off

Jon Duane Hellhake

4/26/45 - 4/11/14

 

 

 

 

Jon Duane Hellhake

April 26, 1945-April 11, 2014

By Art Gregory

 

The purpose of this tribute is to not only honor Jon, but to accurately document his broadcasting career. We also want to celebrate his life; because Jon was not just a great broadcaster, he was also great person.

I never really worked with Jon at the same radio station, but I certainly remember listening to him on KGEM, KATN, KBRJ, KAIN, and of course on KIDO and KFXD, at both 580 and 630 on the dial. I also remember playing his voice on “Mike’s Americana” commercials on KYME in 1975, and then working with his Agency on a “Bronco Hut” advertising campaign when I was a staff announcer at KIDO in 1976. Working with Jon was always fun, because as an air personality, he encouraged you to “just be yourself.” Then when I became sales manager at KUUZ-FM in 1977, Jon Duane Advertising was one of my biggest and best accounts. Jon used to “hold court” at Dino’s Restaurant & Lounge every night after work, and if you stopped by, Jon was always there with a big smile on his face and would buy you drinks on his “trade” account! We’d tell jokes, talk for hours about the media and advertising business, and then have another drink. The Agency was always buying, both drinks and air-schedules, and Jon treated me, and everyone else in the business like gold. In turn, we always worked hard for him and his clients, and looked the other way if he happened to be a month or two late with a payment. I looked up to Jon, and as a young radio sales person, learned a lot from him. So thank you Jon for being my teacher, and for teaching so many others, so much, over the past 40 years.

I had the pleasure of doing two in-person interviews with Jon at his home. The first interview was on June 30, 2013, and the final interview on January 30, 2014. Both conversations were very open, and I learned a lot about Jon’s extraordinary life, which he says, began in room 221 at St. Luke’s Hospital at 6:21 on April 26, 1945. In fact, Jon would have been 69 years old in just 15 days, and passed away at age 68. 

Jon grew up on the West side of Boise and attended Franklin Elementary school, West Jr. High, and Borah High School and says he was a member of the first class to attend all 3 years of high school at Borah. He was an athlete, and excelled at tennis, but he also grew up listening to radio. While still in high school, Jon would pick up his best friend (and tennis partner), Mike Fease, in his 1956 Chevrolet and drive him to school.  They had a 45 minute lunch hour, releasing just in time to hear Paul Harvey on 1140 KGEM-AM. Jon and Mike would drive to Jon’s house and sit in the car listening to the radio until Paul’s show was over. Mike packed his own lunch and Jon would fix himself something to eat, and they had just enough time to eat and get back to school before the bell rang. As it turns out, Mike Fease (who I know from our joint membership in the Boise Southwest Rotary Club) and Jon were best friends until the day Jon passed away, and in fact, I spoke with Mike on Wednesday April 9th about Jon’s condition, which had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Jon left us just two days later on April 11th.

While attending high school Jon, Jon worked for KTVB Channel 7 as a cameraman up at the old Crestline Drive studios. He remembers running camera for “The Big News” with Keith Patterson (who at the time was also the owner of KYME-AM), and for Romper Room. Mike Fease says it was during this period that Jon also worked for KGEM running the “KGEM Search Light” where he was paid a flat fee to drive the truck to a downtown Boise movie premiere at the Rialto Theatre, or to some other location, start it up, and then operate the search light for hours, before driving the truck back to the station. Jon says he was paid $10.00 a night for the task, and the money was not very good for the amount of hours you had to spend. Jon says station engineer Milt Daniel taught him how to run the search light which involved getting two carbon rods to arc and start up the light. It was powered by a 6 cylinder engine on the back of a 5-ton truck. The light was so bright Jon says you had to turn your head away from it, and it was incredibly hot! The picture below shows the KGEM search light in a 1950s or early 1960s parade at 11th and Main Streets in downtown Boise.

 

After graduating from Borah High School in 1963, Jon attended Idaho State University for one semester in the fall of 63’ where he was on the tennis team. He also took a speech class, and after speaking on “the benefits of wearing a polyester sports coat,” his instructor Chick Bilyeu, was impressed by Jon’s voice and delivery. Bilyeu encouraged Jon to put the campus low-power radio station back on the air, which Jon did. He thinks the call letters were KISU and it was a 10 watt FM station. Even though Jon says the station had “no listeners,” this experience gave him his first real “on the air” job in radio.

Jon returned to Boise in late 1963 and went to work taking stream measurements for the U.S. Geological Survey for at least one semester and during the summer. Sometime in 1964 or early 1965, he decided to get his First Class Radio Telephone Operator’s License from the William B. Ogden “Radio Operational Engineering School.” Starting in the 1930s, and continuing into the 1940, 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, the FCC required an operator with a First Class License to be on duty at all times at any radio station using a directional antenna, or with a power of 10,000 watts or more.

Based on when Jon says he started at KGEM, and date the school relocated to Huntington Beach, it appears Jon attended classes in 1965 at the Burbank campus, and then finished up in 1966 at Huntington Beach. The reason why it took so long was because Jon and his fellow students failed part of the FCC exam! As experienced broadcasters may recall, the FCC First Class License required students to pass elements 1, 2, 3, and 4. Elements 1 and 2 were easy, and were all that was required for a 3rd Class License, which is what I had. Third Class License holders also needed to pass Element 9, which was called the “Broadcast Endorsement.” However, unbeknownst to Bill Ogden, the FCC changed some of the test questions on element 3, and since Ogden had his students memorizing the answers to the old questions, all of them flunked Element 3 of the test! It took a several months for Ogden to revise his materials, so the students were all sent home. They then had to return to the new Huntington Beach Campus and be taught the answers to the revised test questions.  Once they had completed their studies, they re-took the Element 3 portion of the test, and this time, all of them passed. Jon says between the two sets of classes, it took about 7 months to get his license, so to celebrate, he and his fellow students bought a gallon of Gallo Red Wine and drank it all in downtown Los Angeles!

Upon returning to Boise, Jon was hired by KGEM Program Director Dennis Ackerman.  Dennis, who has since passed away, was the older brother of Chris Ackerman, who is better known as “Chris Adams.” Chris recently retired from Peak Broadcasting as their senior Production Director. We’re not sure if Jon was hired in late 1965, or early 1966, but Jon says his first shift was playing country music in the afternoon right before Marty Martin’s 1:00-4:30 pm time slot. KGEM moved away from “block” programming and started playing all country music (24 hours a day) on January 1, 1966. Jon says KGEM was all-Country when he got there, so we think he must have started there in early 1966. Marty Martin left KGEM to become Sales Manager and Assistant Program Director at KATN in June of 1966, and Jon took over his afternoon time slot. So, Jon was already working at KGEM when this change took place.

Jon says Bob Wiesenberger was KGEM’s General Manager and ruled the station with an iron hand. Jon remembers that Bob would call weekly programming meetings, and that you did not mess with Bob. Jon learned that lesson first-hand when he heard from a listener that the Boise Zoo did not have an elephant, and the only problem was a lack of hay to feed it. So Jon started a movement to get the Zoo an elephant, and soon had received listener commitments for hundreds of dollars in cash and massive amounts of hay. Soon, the Mayor of Boise got wind of the campaign and called Bob Wiesenberger. It seems the Boise City Zoo didn’t WANT an elephant and had no space or facilities to house one.  Bob knew nothing of the campaign and was boiling mad. Jon was called in to Bob’s office and told to immediately stop the campaign, not to talk about it on the air, and to appear before the Boise City Council and apologize for his actions! Jon did everything Bob asked, and as soon as he did, he was fired that Friday by Bob! Jon says he got hired back the following Monday, but was told to “check with Bob first” before he ever tried anything like that again.

Jon quit KGEM about 4 years later after Dennis Ackerman left and Bob made morning man Steve Nelson Program Director. Jon wanted the job. So, in early 1970, he went to work for KGEM’s competitor, KATN and KBBK-FM. We think this was shortly after Bob Salter returned to the station after a year in Salt Lake City, working for KSXX-AM. Jon says he first worked for Ralph Frazer, but then worked for Burt Oliphant, Rex Jensen, and Jack Jensen who bought the station and changed its call letters to KBRJ (to stand for Burt, Rex, and Jack).  Jon was named KBRJ’s Program Director and hired Arlis Tranmer (aka “Straight Arrow”) to do weekends. After listening to his first weekend show, Jon thought Arlis was so funny he invited him over to his house and immediately hired him as co-host for KBRJ’s morning show. Jon and Arlis did a very creative two-man show in the mid 1970s, and while Jon was a great air talent himself, he had a knack for picking air personalities. Jon says he knew that Arlis was a funnier than he was, so, he put Arlis on his show. Jon’s philosophy was to surround himself with talented people, and in the process, he was always successful.

In 1975, Jon left KBRJ and started Jon Duane Advertising. He opened a small office in a strip mall at the corner of Overland and Curtis. “Straight Arrow” left KBRJ too, but first worked for KIDO as their morning announcer until June of 1976. Jon had built a small recording studio using KBOI-FM’s old RCA control board and some reel to reel recorders, and in the summer of 1976, Arlis left KIDO and came to work for Jon full time.  Tom Donahoe, who was working in sales at KFXD, also left to work with Jon. Because of Tom’s influence, the new agency picked up Team Electronics where they did the legendary “Jell-O Jump” with KFXD. For a time, they also had Firebird Raceway, The Carpet Barn, Zamzows, Taco Time, and Mike’s Americana. Jon says the Agency was doing great, client-wise, but had cash problems due to some of the clients not paying them! Within 3 or 4 years, the losses were more than they could sustain, and Jon’s agency closed up shop in late 1977, or early 1978.

After the agency, Jon and Straight Arrow both found a home at KAIN-AM with Jack Bolton. It was January of 1978, and Jack had just purchased the station from Brent Larson. Fred Lillge left KUUZ that same month, and I became the Manager of the FM station, while Jack moved KAIN-AM to another building in Nampa. He switched the format from “Beautiful Music” to full-service middle-of-the-road, and Jon became KAIN’s Program Director, hiring Arlis to do mornings. Marty Holtman has just left KSPD, and soon signed on to do Mid-Days. And since KIDO had just lost NBC to KBOI, the CBS Network affiliation was open, and KAIN picked it up. Everyone who worked for Jack Bolton at KAIN loved working there, and says it was among the very best places they ever worked. But despite having wonderful air-talent, KAIN’s weak 1,000 daytime watt signal on 1340 Kc (with only 250 watts at night) failed to generate any real significant audience ratings. And with the increasingly competitive Boise radio market, and KAIN generating only modest ad revenues, something had to give. So Jon and Straight Arrow resigned, and Jack sold the station to Marc Hayes, the owner of KAYT in Rupert. Hayes took over in the summer of 1981, changing the call letters to KXTC. Jack Bolton then moved to KCID-AM in Caldwell as Station Manager, working for owners Dale Peterson and Duane Wolfe.

In the early 1980s, Jon moved to Denver, with his air-checks and his First Class FCC License in hand and started looking for work.  The Lakewood, Colorado apartment complex he lived in was right across the street from KLAK, 1600 AM. So Jon applied for work there, knowing he could “walk to work.” KLAK loved Jon’s voice and immediately hired him as an air-personality.  Jon says that lasted a few years, and after they heard him reading a newscast, Jon was hired to be the newsman and morning co-host on their full power FM, KPPL-FM (K-People). Then, in 1984, Malrite, the new owners of the station changed KPPL’s call letters to KRXY-FM (“Y-108”) and Jon became the co-host of “the Morning Zoo” working with Chuck Buell, who was known for his work on WLS and for doing voice-overs on some late 60s and early 70s Coca Cola ads.

Perhaps the biggest station Jon was ever on was KHOW-AM. The “Hal and Charlie” Morning show was #1 in the late 70s and early 80s, and Jon was the morning news anchor on Denver’s most listened to morning show. He was making great money and it looked like things were going to continue, so of course, Jon decided it was time he bought a beautiful new home in Aurora. About 6 months after he did that, KHOW got sold and the new owners let Jon and about 6 other people go. Jon moved to Phoenix, and for a time worked for radio station there, but his daughters Joy and Tonya both say it was only for a few months, and Jon did not like his job, or Phoenix, so he returned home to Boise.  Once in Boise Jon says he started a franchise buisness called “Ask a Lawyer.” Jon says they ran television ads asking people to contact them if they needed a lawyer. Then, they’d refer the caller to one of the lawyers who’d pay Jon’s company for the referral. Jon says the “P-I” or personal injury lawyers were the first to sign on and pay for the service, and that the business was moderately successful. However after a few years, he said he shut it down to concentrate on his main interest – radio!

In the spring on 1990 there was a major shake-up with two Boise FM stations. Country station KIZN dropped their popular country format and changed call letters to KZMG (to stand for “Magic 93.1”) on April 26, 1990. Two weeks, on May 14, 1990, later, KIYS (“Kiss”) at 92.3 switched call letters to KIZN and assumed the former station’s identity!  New Program Director “Bill Bailey” (aka David Faught) knew he needed the best morning team he could get to compete with KQFC, who was on their way to becoming Boise’s most successful country station ever. So, he hired Straight Arrow (Arlis Tranmer) and newsman Jon Duane to anchor the show, with the support of “Mobile-MO” Arlis’s wife in the “Brave-Mobile” who did traffic, and KBOI-AM’s current morning co-host, Chris Walton who did sports.  They called the new show “The Kizzen Morning Show,” and after listing to hours of KIZN air-check tapes which Jon has donated to the Foundation, it was a very entertaining show!

In fact KIZN did a remarkable job of taking on the “giant” KQFC, and in the spring 1990 rating book, raised the stations 12+ ratings from a 2.8 (as “Kiss”) to a 4.3 after just a few weeks on the air. Meantime, in that same book, KQFC moved from 6.1 to a 9.4 share. Then, in the fall 1990 ratings (Boise’s first Fall book ever), KIZN moved up to a 5.0 while KQFC moved to a 12.0 and #2 in the market.  But it wasn’t enough, and KIZN was soon sold the following July with the new owners taking over on “9-11” of 1991. KQFC peaked with a massive 17.2 share in the Spring 1992 rating book!

Fortunately for Jon, KIDO had new Manager named Dick Lumenello, who was perhaps Boise’s most experienced manager ever. Dick came from a bigger market, Akron, Ohio, and knew talent when he heard it. He soon hired Jon to replace one half of their current morning team of Bob Peters and Ernie Allen. Dick’s other major move was to clean up KOOL-104 by hiring “Big Jack” Armstrong as Program Director. Then, after a few months, Ernie left KIDO, and Jon was soon doing the morning show solo, along with newsman Gene Hayes, who Jon says was probably the best radio news reporter in Boise. However, Jon says that Hayes was not a “personality,” and that he and Gene lacked “chemistry.” So, Jon started bringing in different people to “bounce things off of” while he was on the air. Jon says he was almost “pulling people in who were walking down the hall” and putting them on the air. Anyone who got fired from another station was invited to be on the show too, and Jon says he was not afraid to say the other station’s call letters on the air! One of the talented people who’d recently left their high profile air-slot was K-I06’s morning co-host, news gal Chris Kelly. After appearing with Jon for several weeks in 1992, Chris was invited to join the show as Jon’s permanent co-host.

Jon told me his 15 years he spent working at KIDO were the best years of his life, and that his happiness was only matched by the time he has spent with his new wife Kathy Shevchenko. In the June 30 interview, Jon said “I was happy in those days. Happy in my marriage, you know, I had no issues. But then marriage fell apart, and that really didn’t change things with the job, it was still good. I was happy with Chris Kelly, we laughed a lot. We laughed at everything. That reminds me of the girl I’m going to marry…we laugh a lot, at everything there is. She (Kathy) could do a morning show! It would be Hellhake and Shevchenko!”

Jon told me the under General Manager Dick Lumenello, things were great at KIDO and even got better as the years went on. He and Chris were both making good salaries, got paid extra for appearing as the talent at remote broadcasts, doing “live reads,” and voicing commercials for clients such as Pastry Perfection, Sterling Landscape and Nursery, and others. Jon also got along well with the staff and played golf with clients, Sales Manager John Sheftic, and others on the staff. When KIDO had Rush Limbaugh they had the “1-2 punch” of Jon & Chris in the morning and Rush in Mid-Days from 10:00-1:00. For several ratings books in the mid 1990s, KIDO was the #1 rated radio station 12+, and of course ruled both the coveted 25-54 and 35-64 ratings, as well as morning drive. All of that translated into big revenue for the station’s owners Sundance Broadcasting, who by and large, left Manager Dick Lumenello alone. Dick told me at Jon’s Funeral on April 16th that being independently owned and not being under the control of “corporate radio” was what allowed him to accomplish all he did at KIDO.

But it was not to last. Radio consolidation was about to happen. In 1996, KBOI-AM, KQFC, and 96.9 KLCI-FM, owned by Charles H. Wilson, acquired 92.3 KIZN-FM, and 93.1 KZMG, and now owed 4 FMs and the only 50,000 watt AM in the market. The other Boise stations either had to buy more stations to be able to compete with KBOI, or had to sell out. Sundance sold KIDO, KLTB, and KARO to Colfax, who took control on September 12, 1996. Then, in a span of 5 months, KIDO and its sister stations were sold to two more owners, each bigger than the last one! Chancellor Broadcasting took control on January 31, 1997 but then sold the stations to Jacor on April 17th. Jacor wanted to acquire two more FMs, but the independent owner of KCIX-FM and KXLT-FM, Kip Guth, would not sell to a large radio corporation. So, on April 25, 1997, Jacor, through dummy corporation, bought Mix-106 and Lite-108, and then on May 14th, sold the two stations to Jacor. In order to have two full power AMs, Jacor purchased 580 AM (which was at that time was KFXD). Jacor took control of KFXD-AM on January 5, 1998 and changed the station’s “hot talk” format to classic country.  It appears that on February 2, 1998 they may have changed the call letters to “K-Buck” or KBKK, but then changed back to KFXD on February 28, 1998. To our knowledge, they never used the KBKK call letters on the air. Then, on August 12, 2002, 630-AM KIDO and 580-AM KFXD swapped frequencies. It sounds like something out of a soap opera, but it all really happened.

KIDO, KLTB-FM, and 103.3 KARO-FM were then joined by KCIX-FM, KXLT-FM, and 580-AM, and in October of 1998, Jacor merged with Clear Channel, who owed the 6 stations until early 2007. Jon and Chris got along great with Dick Lumenello, but when Dick retired in the mid 2000’s, new Manager Terry Tario and Operations Director Jeff Cochran were exercising a lot more control over programming, partially, because that’s how Clear Channel wanted them to run things. It all came to a head in early April of 2006 when the proposed changes to their show “AM Idaho” proved to be unacceptable to Jon and Chris, and they quit and gave two weeks notice.  Clear Channel let them go immediately and sent them home the following Monday morning. In an Idaho Statesman article a few days later, Jon said he particularly did not like the use of pre-recorded material, heavy editing, and a more rigid format saying “I can’t do a program where you have to record everything and chop, chop, chop, to get it on the air. It’s smoke and mirrors. It isn’t the way programming should work.” But KIDO Program Director Dave Burnett, who after weathering many changes himself and is still at the station, said “Things change. It’s part of the wonderful world of radio.”

Jon and Chris remained off the air for over a year, waiting for the right deal to come along. That finally happened when Clear Channel decided to get out of all markets over “#100.” Boise had just moved up in size to market #100 and was right “on-the-border-line” when it came to being retained by Clear Channel. But Clear Channel stuck with their plan to sell Boise, and a bidding war, of sorts, took place.  Citadel’s Western Regional Manager Todd Lawley had just left Citadel in late 2006 to form Peak Broadcasting, buying KMJ-AM in Fresno and 6 others Fresno stations for $90 from CBS. Prior to that, Citadel’s Boise Manager, Kevin Godwin, had been promoted to Regional Manager and had moved to Colorado Springs, making Mike Owens the Market Manager of the 6 Boise Citadel stations, and Mike Sutton Director of Sales. When Clear Channel announced they were selling the Boise stations in late 2006, then Market Manager Terry Tario and three other key employees put together a deal to buy the Boise stations for $23 million. Terry told me that the financing was in place, and they were set to buy the 6 stations, but that Peak offered $25 Million. Thus, Clear Channel had two million reasons for choosing Peak, and they were all dollars. In retrospect, Terry is glad the deal didn’t go though, because in the end, the $115 Million Peak paid for Fresno and Boise, combined with a downturn in the economy in 2008, proved to be too much debt for them to service. In January of 2012, Peak filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection but emerged a few months later with new financing in place. As we reported in Issue #31 of “As the Turntable Turns” Peak was then acquired by Townsquare Media on November 14, 2013.

 

However, when Peak Broadcasting first acquired KIDO-AM and KFXD-AM in the spring of 2007, they were looking for ways to make both 580 and 60 viable radio stations. Kevin Godwin knew how good Jon and Chris were, as they had beaten KBOI in the ratings when they were on KIDO, so he hired them to do a new type of show on 630 KFXD, which Peak had recently changed from Classic Country format to an all “Talk” format. Jon told me the negotiations with Peak went well, and at his request, he and Chris Kelly were both paid the same identical salary. In the June 30th interview, Jon told me “I don’t believe in calling someone second banana – by my way of thinking, everybody on the show is top banana.” A deal was struck and Jon and Chris signed on with Peak for a new show on “AM-63, KFXD - Boise’s ONLY All-Talk Radio Station,” KFXD. Jim Kimball produced the new show, with Jon and Chris essentially doing their same show, but with more emphasis on the “talk” portion, and less emphasis on news and information. Peak really wanted to bring new listeners over to 630 AM, so they put Jon and Chris on KFXD from 6:00-10:00 AM, competing against their old station. Jon thinks that since listeners were used to hearing him and Chris on KIDO for 14 years, the confusion with them being on “KFXD” was a factor in their lack of ratings. Plus, KIDO’s frequency swap from 630 to 580 in 2002 may have confused listeners even more. As a result “KIDO” may have received credit for Jon and Chris’s listenership. Regardless of the reasons, Jon and Chris’s contract with KFXD was not renewed, and in 2008 they left the airwaves for good, at least as a team. For a time, Chris did a show on her own on KBXL 94.1 “The Voice,” and Jon continued to voice spots for Sterling Landscape right up until the end.  Jon told me on June 30th, that there may be “one more show” left in him, but with sadly, with his health, it was not to be.

During the first interview I did with Jon, Chris Kelly was actually over at the house, but wanted me to interview Jon. We sat outside by his pond and talked for an hour or so, and then went inside and finished the interview. “Roo” his faithful dog (who also passed away several weeks before John did) was by his side for much of the interview, and Jon was in great spirits. Regarding his air-style and voice, Jon said that some people compared his style to that of Paul Harvey, and others said he sounded like actor Sean Connery, but Jon maintained his style was “his own.” Jon said people could still pick out his voice at the grocery store years after he had left the airwaves.

The second interview on January 30th was brief, but during that interview, I asked Jon if he had a philosophy of communication he wanted to share. He did, and it is 3 simple steps any good speech writer already knows. In this case Jon said a broadcasting station should do the following:

  1.  Tell the audience what you are going to do.
  2.  Do it.
  3.  And then tell what you just did.

Jon said KTVB Channel 7 is masterful at doing this, and cited the St. Jude’s “Dream Home” as an example. Jon pointed out that Channel 7 told you they were going to give away the home, and that you needed to buy a ticket. Next, they broadcast the drawing live and actually gave away the home. And finally, Channel 7 ran promos telling you “what they just did.”

In conclusion, I have known Jon since 1975, and I wish to thank him for 39 years of friendship. Attending the funeral on April 16th was inspiring, and based on the hundreds of people who attended, Jon was loved by many people. His daughter Joy did a wonderful eulogy that brought tears to everyone’s eyes, and it was apparent that Jon’s family loved HIM as much as he loved them. Jon donated three leather brief cases full of audio cassette tapes, mostly from him time in Denver. Yet there are some tapes and other recordings from his days at KIZN, and KIDO, and we hope to make them available for anyone who wishes to hear them. To that end, we hope to hold a Foundation Luncheon in the near future to play some excerpts of these tapes, and to give members and guests the chance to tell their “Jon Duane Stories” which we will record and keep as part of our permanent history files.

Thank you Kathy, Joy, and Tonya, and thank you Chris Kelly for all you have done for Jon over the years. As we have said before, Jon may be gone from this world, but our role at the History of Idaho Broadcasting Foundation is to make sure he is NEVER forgotten.

Sincerely, Art Gregory

 

Jim Kimbal, Jon Duane, and Chris Kelly -  2007