If you remember listening to Russ James on local radio, chances are you’re older than me. Before Bill Benica, Captain Buffoon, Peterson (Pause) and the News, Danny Clarkson, or Mac the Scotch Hillbilly, there was the lanky Texas native with the velvet voice who was morning radio in this town for eleven years.
Those were the halcyon days to be in the business. Before computers, voice tracking and corporate dictums, radio was seat-of-the-pants and local. Anything could happen. And it often did. Russ was at the center of the action at KVEC during the 1950s, “All part of the journey,” is how he describes it today.
Russ just turned 82. Health is good. The velvet voice as strong as ever. For those of us working in radio today, it’s pretty interesting to hear the challenges these local broadcasting pioneers faced.
Back in 1952, as a new graduate of the Don Martin School of Broadcasting in Los Angeles, Russ had lined up a grand total of two job interviews. One in El Centro; the other in San Luis Obispo.
He wisely came up here first, hoping to be hired by Fred Muff and Les Hacker as their new morning announcer at KVEC radio. Russ made his way through the one-stoplight town to the Higuera Street office of Valley Electric Company (the V-E-C of KVEC) and interviewed with the station owners.
Russ remembers being nervous. Someone gave him some ad copy to read and he flubbed it a bit, but settled down and nailed it the second time. He got the job, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. weekday mornings, spinning records and getting people out of bed.
At the time, there was only one other local station on the dial, KMNS (Music, News, Sports), which is now KYNS 1340. Russ had no prior broadcasting experience other than being a radio operator during the war. But his wife, Toni, thought he would be a natural on radio, so Russ went to broadcasting school and honed his craft.
It worked. Russ signed on with KVEC in 1952 and stayed until 1963, the only commercial radio job he ever really held. The station broadcasted daily from 6 a.m. to midnight, a mixture of local music programs and national news.
Russ figured things out pretty quickly. To get listeners going in the morning, he played John Phillip Sousa marching band music at 7:30 daily, urging his listeners to stand up and march around the kitchen table.
He also kept long-playing instrumental records handy in case there was trouble out at the KVEC tower overlooking Hwy 1 and Highland Drive. “I figured out it would take me exactly 26 minutes to drive from the station to the tower, fix the problem, and get back,” Russ recalls. “That’s how much music I had to play to cover.”
Even back then, radio paid little, so Russ would stick around KVEC until noon and then go off to work a second job. He wanted Toni to be able to stay home with the children.
Russ was also the first ever radio talk show host in the county. Around 1956, Les Hacker decided to try the talk format and created a morning call-in program, “Party Line,” from 10:05 to 10:59. Russ wasn’t sure how the audience response would be, but the show was a hit from the beginning.
“We talked about local issues and had our regulars, just like you do now,” Russ says. “One of my favorites was ‘Phone Booth Betty’ because she was always calling in from the phone booth near her mobile home.”
There are no tapes of his old shows still around, except for one. When his third daughter was born, Russ was allowed to take his microphone into the hospital delivery room, capturing everything on tape, including his small disappointment that they now had a third daughter (a son, Larry, eventually came next).
Russ stayed with KVEC until 1963 when he finally signed off to take a job with a small local cable company. Eventually he went on to serve as the voice of the California Mid-State Fair for many years and recently was inducted into the Fair Hall of Fame.
It all worked out for the young man from Texas. He never wanted to leave the Central Coast once he moved here and can’t imagine what life would have been like in El Centro. “My daughters would never have forgiven me,” he says, laughing. “They all met their husbands up here.”
SLO City News (June 2008)