“You can con God and get away with it, Granny said, if you do so with charm and wit. If you live your life with imagination and verve, God will play along just to see what outrageously entertaining thing you'll do next.” Dean Koontz
THE DAY WE PITCHED THE LOAN SHARK
I only worked at the radio station in Las Vegas for a few weeks; that was enough.
It was owned by a guy I now loosely call a mentor of sorts, although he never intended that to be the case. From him, I learned as much about what not to do as to how to create deals and function in the mostly unknown and weird universe of independent radio stations.
There are still a few individually owned radio stations here and there in the US. Most stations though, are now part of mega-media companies that satellite feed music formats or political vitriol to their huge station roster. When the great extinction event occurred of small stations being swallowed by media megalodons, it was in reality the demise of broadcast carney folks. Instead of running “Jo-Jo, The Dog-Faced Boy” stands on a carnival midway, these radio barkers ran little radio stations throughout the county. They cheerfully hawked everything from religion to used cars. Occasionally, if they could get it, they were paid money for advertising. Other times, usually neglecting to inform the IRS, they “traded” advertising time for everything imaginable, from limos to lawn chairs. To own a radio station before the IRS crackdown and the great sell-off, was to never pay cash for anything. You just “traded” advertising on your radio station, commercial time which you probably couldn’t sell anyway, for whatever you wanted. You could trade for literally anything. Want a 5-star excursion to Fiji? Make a phone call or two. You got your exotic vacation and the travel company got advertising, tax free on all sides. Perfect.
Frank was an old-time radio carney guy, and I worked with him off and on until I became too uneasy to continue. From humble beginnings and ownership of teeny radio stations in such metro areas as rural Louisiana, Frank had risen to become “The King Of (broadcast advertising) Trade.” The IRS eventually put a stop to it all, but until they did, Frank became a legend of sorts. He “traded” unsold radio commercial time on an ever-higher scale for everything from an elephant parade for his daughter’s birthday, to a cruise ship.
In his orbit were an astonishing cast of characters, such as Buzz, the guy who arrived at prison in a limousine to serve his time for tax evasion. This, granted, was a tad unusual. It was made truly notable due to his having acquired the limo through air time commercial “trades,” the same activity that had landed him in jail in the first place. He also brought with him a few thousand dollars’ worth of handmade suits, prison garb being so drab. While he was not allowed to wear them, I later heard he was allowed to hang up the suits in his cell, I guess in memory of better times. Buzz got out of jail early for good behavior, after nailing a job as assistant to the warden. The warden’s son was subsequently and quickly accepted to one of the leading East Coast universities, after having been previously and repeatedly turned down.
Frank was famous for his off-beat sense of humor. When an actual station owner/manager, he came up with shows such as “Music By Dead People” with songs prefaced with lurid details of the artist’s demise. That one made him both famous and hated. When listener fury peaked, he created a call-in talk show called “Ask The Owner.” He would sit at an open microphone and goad music-fan callers into screaming, “how could you do such a thing?” His response was
always “because I’m the owner” which invariably provoked more screaming. He would record the most hostile responses and preface each show with snippets. “Ask The Owner” became so popular that advertisers actually starting paying cash for commercials.
When I met Frank, he was rapidly approaching his high-water mark. He invited me to a huge party. Trade food, trade booze, trade music. All festivities were taking place in a 20th story, California beach penthouse, for which, I later discovered, he had traded a multi-year lease. He invited other radio luminaries to attend with the proviso that to get in, the attendee had to present at least one trade-deal advertising contract of $10,000.00 or more made with a company that went bankrupt before they paid off. The place was packed.
Attending the party was an owner of a radio station in Los Angeles. The station was later sold for millions of dollars, but at the time was floundering. This situation was due, Frank thought, to a stupid choice of the music being broadcast. Frank introduced me and then put his arm around the shoulders of the beleaguered station owner. We were standing by the penthouse window. It was a hell of a view. Santa Monica’s twinkling lights were stretching to the horizon.
“See that?” asked Frank. “There’s millions of people out there, all covered by the signal of your radio station.”
When the station owner nodded hopefully, Frank added, “and not one of them is listening to you.”
Always on the lookout for a bargain, shortly thereafter Frank bought a “pot-boiler” radio station in Las Vegas. “Pot-boiler” stations were so called because they had very weak broadcast signals, which did not cover much area. In this case, the station’s signal was just strong enough to blanket Las Vegas, which was fine with Frank as there was nothing else beyond that unless you wanted to add to your lizard collection. Worse yet, the station was a “Day-Timer,” which meant its already weak signal had to be cut back even further at night. When acquired by Frank, the station was broadcasting religious programs, the earnest sermons of which were interrupted every few moments with pleas for donations. The station had been losing money for years.
Frank bagged the preachers and started playing country western music. The station was still hemorrhaging money when he called me up.
With no introduction at all, he started right in. “I have an idea.” His last idea had involved hiring an L.A. lawyer called “Mad Dog” to lock up a passenger jet at the Los Angeles Airport. “They owed me,” he said at the time, seemingly unconcerned that it was my account and the howling from stranded passengers made the national news.
“We’ll make the station trade-only, no cash for advertising. Then we’ll sell the trade stuff we get for cash,” he said into the stark silence from my end. “It’s never been done before. You can help me; we’ll live like kings.”
He eventually sweetened the deal with a bit of what he called “walking around money,” an unheard-of commission schedule and airline tickets.
When I walked into the Las Vegas station there were three or four other folks in the densely smoke-filled “sales room.” They were a random bunch, each clearly enticed by the “live like kings” inducement. The two most colorful of the crew were a retired, buxom lady dancer who spent her off hours with a former mayor of Las Vegas, who sported a spectacular much-broken nose. The other was a guy with unruly hair who kept a .38 in his briefcase. I later asked him, “why the gun?” He replied that he needed protection when he went on random sales calls. As he never left the office, but arrived daily with bone-crushing hangovers, I concluded the protection required had more to do with off-hours activity than work.
At first all went well. Taking trade for advertising was an easy sell and we truly lived like we were rich. No money, but the finest of accommodations, food, drink, shows, and various goods. These were all swag from trade deals. Sadly, after a short period of time, it became clear that making mortgage or car payments with swag was a nonstarter.
Frank called me into his office. “We need money,” he said without preamble. “You and I are going to sell a cash advertising contract to Jim’s Bail Bonds.”
I was new to Las Vegas, but even I knew that Big Jim, owner of Jim’s Bail Bonds, was a notorious and huge loan shark, definitely not a man to be trifled with. Jim’s Bail Bonds was fronted by Big Jim and his son Little Jim, reputed to be mean as a rattlesnake.
“I’ve even created a sample commercial for them,” continued Frank happily. He pressed the playback button on his portable tape recorder and 60 seconds of stentorian, disk jockey sound poured forth. It sounded pretty good, actually, a straight-forward, music-backed exhortation for listeners to call Jim’s Bail Bonds if they ran afoul of the law.
Thus reassured and being promised the account would be mine when sold, we made the run to Jim’s. “We have an appointment,” said Frank. Big Jim was reputedly quite slippery about having face-to-face meetings. I never thought to ask exactly how it was we had an actual appointment, when it was said that even paper-carrying law enforcement officials found it to be a problem.
When we were ushered into the conference room, it was obviously Big Jim seated at the head of the table. To his right was a younger guy, a truly tasteless dresser with slicked back, razor cut hair. Little Jim I assumed.
Little Jim opened the conversation. “I think this is a total waste of time and we don’t need to buy anything.”
“I have a sample commercial,” Frank responded unfazed.
“We don’t need to hear any Goddamned…” Big Jim held up his hand.
“Play it,” he commanded and Frank pushed the button.
Instead of the sweet timber of the disc jockey’s rendition, Frank’s voice, backed by organ music in a minor key, boomed forth.
“Hit your mom with an ax? If you have money in the bank, here at Jim’s Bail Bonds, we don’t care.”
By now, Little Jim was on his feet. “Shot your wife and buried her in the desert? If you have equity in real estate, here at Jim’s Bail Bonds, we don’t care.”
Little Jim’s eyes were bulging. I had never seen anyone’s eyes actually bulge. He pointed at us. “…You, you….” Then he stopped and looked over at his dad who was emitting strangling noises.
Big Jim was laughing so hard, I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Tears were streaming down his face. It took him a minute to catch his breath. He looked at Frank.
“That took some balls, you dumb bastard,” he said. “That was great, great. I’ll give you your deal on one condition.”
I waited for the shoe to drop as Frank pushed over a whopper of a contract. One year on the air, all cash.
“What’s the condition?” asked Frank fumbling with his pen.
“You give me a copy of that commercial, and it better be the only copy. And you never run anything on the air without my approval.”
“You got it,” Frank responded and the deal was done. Little Jim never said a word, but if looks could kill, Frank and I would have walked out with a case of Ebola.
I always thought Big Jim wanted that commercial to bury it. Frank told me years later that in fact Big Jim played it at parties for a long time, right up until he went to jail.
Copywright Wayne D. McFarland 2019, All rights reserved