SOUTH JORDAN — At noon on Friday, March 1, Danny Kramer disappeared.
The one-time king of Salt Lake City radio, who led KSL Radio to unprecedented market dominance during the early 1980s and who subsequently created a tidal wave of controversy when he jumped to rival KALL Radio, was suddenly, inexplicably gone.
“We thought you died,” people tell him these days when they bump into him, still very much alive, in the store or at a restaurant.
And in a way, Kramer did die. Several times, in fact. In the rough and tumble of the radio business, where today’s ratings hit is tomorrow’s format change, Kramer has died several deaths only to be resurrected by new opportunities to reinvent himself — most recently as the owner/programmer/technician/headline talent of an Internet radio station (www.retromediaallstars.com) that features his music, his way.
“This is beyond exciting for me,” Kramer says over a cup of coffee in his comfortable South Jordan home that doubles as his studio and operating base, complete with computers, monitors, modems and an affectionate Yorkie named Sonny-Dog.
But it wasn’t so exciting on March 1, when KKDS management called him and other station employees in for a 10 a.m. meeting to announce that the station was changing its format at noon that day and many of them — including Kramer — would be out of a job.
“Talk about scrambling,” Kramer says, shaking his head at the memory. “Just like that, they pull the plug and there’s all these people who are suddenly unemployed. We didn’t have time to warn our listeners or our advertisers or anything. We were just … gone.”
Which, in the minds of many listeners, is the same as being dead.
“When you’re in the media, you like to think that your listeners or your viewers or readers really care about you and that they will come looking for you when you are gone,” he says in that calm, comfortable, friendly tone that has been his trademark since he got his first job in radio in 1962.
“And they do,” he continues. “They’ll look around a little. But if they can’t find you easily, they’ll find something else and move on with their lives.”
Which is precisely what Kramer has been doing throughout his five decades-plus in radio: finding something else and moving on.
His career started while he was still in high school in Savannah, Ga., where he joined the high school radio club because he thought it would help him get over his fear of public speaking. When the local radio station was looking for a part-time weekend announcer, he got the job because “I was the only one who could read a script without stumbling.”
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says. “I had no concept of how radio even worked.”
But it didn’t take long for him to get “the bug,” as he called it — especially when it became clear that girls thought being on the radio was pretty cool.
“They would say, ‘So you’re kind of like Wolfman Jack?’ ” he recalls as he walks Sonny-Dog outside so he can do the things dogs need to do outside. “Even though Wolfman Jack was this huge national disc jockey and I was just working the weekends in a little Savannah radio station, I would say, ‘Yeah, I’m kind of like that.’ ”
Despite his youth and inexperience in the industry, young Kramer could see that there was a problem with his radio station’s programming.
“It was a music station, but the music was a real mish-mash — some jazz, some big band, some gospel and almost none of the modern music that was so popular with kids back in those days at the beginning of the rock-and-roll era,” he says. “So I went to the station manager and said, ‘If you let me do some music like Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers and Carl Perkins, I’ll get you a bigger audience.’ And he said, ‘If you can find some sponsors to back that kind of programming, I’ll give you just enough rope to hang yourself.’ ”
Without any experience or mentoring, Kramer taught himself how to program, sell advertising and host a radio show featuring the music that he loved. And others loved it, too. His show “took off like a rocket,” he says, and the station owner told his other disc jockeys to copy what Kramer was doing. The station catapulted to the top of the Savannah radio market.
“I thought it was funny that he told everyone else to copy me, because I was just copying what Wolfman Jack and others were doing, only on a smaller stage,” Kramer says. “But it worked.”
So well, in fact, that when Kramer left Savannah to attend the University of Georgia, the station owner offered him 10 percent of the radio station if he would come back after graduation to pick up where he left off.
“I thought that either I had discovered a gold mine, or maybe I was really on to something,” he said.
After graduating from college in 1967, he returned to Savannah long enough to fulfill his commitment to the station manager before a Vietnam-era stint in the U.S. Naval Reserve took him to Alaska, then to San Francisco. It was in San Francisco that he met his first wife, Sheri, who hailed from Salt Lake City. And it was after getting married in Salt Lake City that Danny Kramer found himself auditioning for another weekend radio gig — this time at 50,000-watt, clear channel KSL.
“I thought it would be a good weekend job to have while I went to graduate school at the U.,” Kramer says.
It turned out to be much more than that, thanks to what Kramer called “serendipitous timing.”
KSL was wallowing in the bottom third of the local radio ratings at the time, and after his experience in Savannah, Kramer was pretty sure he knew why.
“It was a big, beautiful station with this huge, booming signal and lots of talented people,” Kramer recalled. “But the music they were playing wasn’t attracting much of an audience. So Tom Bock, Bob Lee and I talked management into letting us play music that was a little more contemporary, and we started injecting some humor and conversation into the mix.”
Before long the weekend ratings were climbing dramatically, and by 1973 station managers decided to bring Kramer's weekend programming philosophy to the weekday.
“It was so different from what they were doing before,” Kramer says. “Our music was more contemporary, and we had a lot of news and information and sports and jokes.”
Once again, his bosses gave Kramer enough rope so that he could hang himself. “They told me, ‘You’re either going to soar, or you’re going to go down in flames,’ ” he says.
Within two years KSL Radio was No. 1 in the ratings, with unprecedented numbers for the LDS Church-owned radio station. At the same time, KSL Television News was dominating local Utah news with a veteran team of anchors that included newsman Dick Nourse, weatherman Bob Welti and sports anchor Paul James, and the cross pollination between KSL Radio and KSL TV News was rewarding to both.
“Those years were like heaven on earth,” Kramer says now. “I loved going to work every day. I loved the remote broadcasts. I loved having Welti and James come on and toss jokes around with me. I loved doing live broadcasts at the Freedom Festival. I just loved everything about it.”
And the market clearly loved Kramer. As the top-rated radio host in Salt Lake, his services were much in demand — both in Utah and in larger markets. Calls from Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco came in, inquiring about his availability. He told them that he was flattered, but not interested.
“I wanted to stay in Salt Lake,” he said. “I loved the lifestyle. I loved the people. It was big enough that I could make enough money to take care of my family, but small enough that we could live a good, clean life.”
So he stayed put and reveled in the glory days at KSL until a bad business decision changed everything. He invested his entire savings plus a $100,000 line of credit in a small radio station in Idaho, and lost it all. Suddenly everything he was making was going to pay off the loan, and he had no savings upon which to fall back.
“I was making a good salary at KSL,” he says, “but I was struggling to make ends meet.”
In the summer of 1985, legendary KALL Radio General Manager Bennie L. Williams made Kramer the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse.
“He invited me to dinner at the Ambassador Club,” Kramer recalls. “He said, ‘We can’t beat you, so we want to buy you.’ He got out a pad of paper and a pen and handed them to me and said, ‘Make a list of what it would take to steal you from KSL.’
“Well, things were pretty tough for me financially right then, so I figured I had nothing to lose,” he continued. “I came up with a list of 10 things, including a five-year guaranteed contract, a $225,000 signing bonus to clear up my debt, a car and some other stuff that I can’t remember. I was almost embarrassed when I handed the list back to Bennie.”
But Williams didn’t flinch. “Not only will we give you all of that,” he told Kramer, “but we will also pay for an attorney to help you get rid of your Idaho problem, and a financial planner to help you figure out how to deal with your money so you don’t have to pay as much in taxes.”
Kramer was stunned.
“I didn’t know what to say,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘What do I do now? I love KSL. I love the people I work with. But how do I turn down this offer?’ ”
He didn’t. Nor did anyone at KSL expect him to. Although KSL made a counter-offer, they couldn’t come close to the perks Williams — known around local broadcasting circles as “the King of Deals” — offered.
“Even my friends at KSL were saying I would be an idiot not to take the offer,” Kramer says. “So I took it.”
The Danny Kramer era at KALL Radio began on Jan. 1, 1986. To make a big splash, Williams came up with the idea of a race around the world, with Kramer and Tom Barberi, KALL’s resident star, traveling in opposite directions and listeners speculating on which one would get back to Salt Lake City first.
“Tom ate something he shouldn’t have eaten and he got sick and had to come home a little early, so technically he won the race,” Kramer says. “But still, when I came into the airport about nine hours after he did, there were about 1,500 KALL listeners waiting for me — and I hadn’t said a word on the station yet!”
Kramer said his five years at KALL were good, but by the time his contract was up it was clear that things were going to change. Williams had retired, and the station was moving in a different direction — a direction in which Kramer didn’t want to go. So he left KALL and ventured out into the Utah radio world with a name, a set of skills, a work ethic and a desire to do his kind of programming.
The past 20-something years have been a series of “find something else and move on” adventures for Kramer, with enough station call letters in the mix to populate a pot of alphabet soup: KJZZ, KOVO, KTKK, KKDS, KQOL, KDYL, to name a few. For most of that time he has been an on-air personality who not only created his own programming but also sold the advertising needed to support his show and pay him a little something. Through it all he has maintained his positive, upbeat attitude, even when he finds himself as a radio host without a radio station, as he did in March.
“I just always believe that things have a way of working out for the best,” he says. “You just keep trying and working and eventually you stumble on something that takes you where you need to be.”
In the case of retromediaallstars.com, it takes Kramer to the Internet, where for the first time in his professional life he will have complete control over his product. He programs the music, which he calls “the greatest hits of all time,” with music of the '50s, '60s and '70s laced with adult standards from other eras and musical theater classics. He also controls advertising sales and decides who else will share his bandwidth with him.
“I play five or six songs, then one commercial — not a bunch of commercials, just one,” he says, adding that in the evenings it is more like one commercial for every half hour of music. “I may do a little talk here and there, throw in a little news and information, maybe joke around a little. But this isn’t about me. The star of this is the music. I fully realize that. People will be coming to me for the music.”
And if enough people come — he's working with a group of business students from BYU who are using social media in an effort to boost his listenership to about 10,000 — he can make enough money through online advertising to keep his music on the air and some food in Sonny-Dog's bowl.
It’s a new world for Kramer, filled with websites, software, mobile device applications and other technology that was foreign to him before March 1. But just as he has done so many times before, he is learning what he has to do to be successful at something else.
And he is moving on.