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.