Rockin’ the airwaves

by Jonathan Farrell

With the emergence of Sirius satellite radio, music channels on cable television

and personalized radio via Internet streaming, the days of traditional radio

broadcasting are just about over. At least that is how Richmond District resident

and former San Francisco radio personality Tommy Saunders sees it.

Saunders is a familiar voice that filled the airwaves of local Bay Area radio stations,

including KYA, KSFX, KSFO and KOIT, for 43 years. He served as a radio

announcer, talk show host and rock D.J. “My best memories are of the 1960s

and the radio scene as it was then. Some really good times, never to return, and of

course a lot of it had to do with being young and foolish, as they say,” he said.

Saunders arrived in San Francisco in 1962, having just turned 21 years old,

from Buffalo New York. It was the most exciting time in his career.

“When I was offered a job here at KYA, I couldn’t refuse. I jumped at the

chance. And then once here I found it impossible to leave,” he said. “It’s still beautiful

around the Bay Area, despite the many changes. “Really, when you think about it, radio

jobs are like most other jobs, the same formats no matter where you live. It’s the

place that makes a difference. I was always mindful of that. Why live in Peoria

when you can live here?”

Saunders also noted how insecure and unstable the radio business is today.

“Over time, as a station is sold or traded, and it happens a

lot, a new boss arrives with many of his old buddies from

out of town who he thinks he can trust and who hopefully will ask

for less money, so the boss can get rid of the high-paid talent. I

shouldn’t complain because that’s how I got here myself,

along with many others. That happens all the time, unless the

station has a talent so popular they can’t afford to lose him or

her, like a Don Sherwood, who was San Francisco’s only irreplaceable

D.J. And even Sherwood had his problems, some of his own making.

Sherwood was said to have told one of the new D.J.s at KSFO

who asked him for tips; “I got some advice for you, kid. Heard

your show (pause) … rent, don’t buy!” “Sounds nasty, but it was actually

good advice,” Saunders said.

Today, Saunders, 75, is happily retired with his long-time

companion, Vivian, and is glad to be out of the business.

And while many may see the digital revolution as positive for

audio media, Saunders is not so sure.

“Lots of us old-timers miss the companionship of real radio

personalities, who are almost totally absent now, and the little

mom-and-pop stations that weren’t afraid to take chances in

their programming, versus the syndicated corporate-owned stations

we have here in San Francisco now that live by focus

groups and what other stations do, rather than realize they’re

supposed to serve our community, not ignore it. They’re dull and

repetitive, almost unlistenable,” he said. “Today, I listen only to five

stations, all FM and four of them are noncommercial, KQED,

KALW, KPFA, KDFC, also KCBS-FM, but the latter only

for weather, Saunders said.

The former radio personality also feels bad for the victims of

the digital age, like AM radio stations. “AM radio, sadly, is almost

dead and in its grave, as you can tell by its lack of listenership. I

regret that,” he said. Saunders feels fortunate and

blessed to have been on the air when it was fun and radio was at

its peak, and he hopes he brought some happiness to Bay

Area listeners who listened to him over the airwaves for more

than four decades.

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