Don Burden – Radio Stardom, Stormy End

The Don W. Burden/Star Stations story is a mix of good and bad. On one hand, Burden’ s disregard for rules and practices intended to promote broadcasting professionalism. On the other, there were dozens of quality on-air talents who actually made Star Stations successful, overshadowing Burden’s activities which led to license revocations for three AMs and two FMs in 1976. The list of notable former Star Stations broadcasters includes a number of Pacific Northwest personalities (listed below) whose work time with the Burden organization covered from a few months to several years.
KOIL KISN WIFE
Through most of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, pop rockers KOIL Omaha, KISN Portland and WIFE Indianapolis were among the country’s more successful when much of the industry sought the kind of monetary rewards trail-blazed by Chuck Blore and Gordon McLendon. Some Burden stations out-ran McLendon’s same-market outlets by charting listener shares that were nearly historic. From their initial Burden startups, KOIL (‘53), KISN (’59) and WIFE (’63) showed immediate earmarks of becoming radio gold mines – quick, exciting and spontaneous. Burden consistently branded their formats, leading to one of the classic corporate radio success stories of the era.

KOIL 5:03 composite

1962 – a big year for KOIL, first featuring noontime host Sandy Jackson with an interesting jingle intro to Barbara George’s big hit. Then a heavy-hitting intro for Frank Allen bannerline news, the twistin’ gentlemen jock lineup and finally the rapid-fire talents of Don Steele before he moved on to Portland and later the real California bigtime. 1968 news audio of Tom Kaye, afternoon drive-time of Gary Roberts and then Roger W. Morgan and air traffic watcher Scotty Wright. Then it’s ‘71 and Omaha radio icon Charlie Stone doing his morning wake-up show, followed by a ’73 clip of Frank Parker and a ‘74 intro to Bob Dean. KOIL (with a 51-year Omaha history) was Star’s flagship station where Burden’s 23-year run provided a key bridge for a number of talents who found bigger stardom elsewhere (See list below).

KISN 5:01 composite

1959 – KISN’s first year, with morning guy Hal Raymond and a promo for mid-day jock Wally Thornton. A ’62 sample from Tom Murphy (already 3 years at KISN), including a plug for the POA show and a very typical early ‘60s Lucky Tiger Butch Hair Wax spot by Mike Phillips. ’64 Just weeks before heading to KEWB, Real Don Steele plays his Emporer role plus a Scotty Wright report from the air. Veteran news ace Bill Howlett intros Bill Western in ’67, with quick shots from Mike O’ Brien, Don Kennedy and Pat Pattee. From ’68 news guy Frank Lindsey intros Roger W. Morgan, and Scotty Wright again. Whitey Coker doing news ’70, Tom Michaels music and Sam Lee news from Nov. ‘71, then a couple of ’72 shots, first from Bob Noonan then newsman Lincoln Smith, and finally J. Michael McKay from early ’73 and Steve Glass from Dec. ‘74 KISN (17-year Burden run) rocketed to Portland’s top spot in about a year, a slot it held for about a decade. Wouldn’t a head-to-head with Seattle’s KJR have been fun?

WIFE 5:05 composite

1964 – Paul Oscar Anderson morning show and Bud Goodyear news. ’66 good guys promo, Lee Perkins contest award and a boost for Bridal Fair (which spread to KISN and KOIL, too.) ’68 Jay Reynolds and Tom Connor news, Roger W. Morgan followed by Sy Jenkins news. ’70 with Reb Porter and interesting promo for bachelor/bachelorettes. ‘71 starting with a big voice promo from Lyle Dean (former WIFE and KOIL newsman), Bill Bennett news and a Bob Hamilton sample. Then a ’73 blitz featuring Scott Wheeler, Buddy Scott and Jim Wood. And finally from Oct.’76 — just weeks after Burden lost his stations – the new WIFE with Jackson Armstrong and a quick shot from Northwest great Robin Mitchell. Robin was WIFE’s short-term PD through the ownership transition before returning to the Northwest at Seattle’s KYYX. WIFE (13 years under Burden) was an AM powerhouse modeled from sister station successes. Even after Burden lost to the FCC, it was years (and the rise of FM rock) before Lucky 1310 was gone from Indy’s airwaves.

Burden - KOIL building

For Burden, born with a lot of P.T. Barnum in his blood, it seemed easy. His stations glittered with award-laden on-air contests, nonstop DJ events and heavy multi-media promotions. He spent big bucks for top jingle packages, good on-air jocks (who were publicly visible in “window on the world” broadcast booths at all three stations) and competitive local news operations. His on-air people were mobile within the KOIL-KISN-WIFE family. Either by choice (or Burden’s wishes), many of the jocks cycled/recycled through two or more. Burden also loved house-naming jocks in all three markets. There were several Roger W. Morgans and two or three airborne traffic reporters named Scotty Wright. The following composite has four clips — three containing the same RWM intro jingles for three different jocks in all three cities. The first two aired at WIFE and KOIL just 12 days apart (’68). The last two clips were on the air just two months apart at KISN (’67), which during its 17-year run had four different Morgans. (The fourth voice is that of Gary Gears, who became a national voice talent after radio stints in several big midwest and eastern markets, including Toronto).

RWMs 1:21

KISN billboards

People admired Burden’s wheeler-dealer radio savvy and his bottom-line results. Like many radio owner-operators, he was intense, aggressive and demanding. But his personal style brought negative reactions. Former staffers described his micro-management bent which extended from program directors and sales managers to building janitors and front desk receptionists. The net result: he had as many enemies as friends – detractors who called him an abusive, domineering bully who was explosive, stubborn and pushy to the end. That may partly explain his problems with the FCC which, in those days, had regulatory powers to keep maverick broadcasters in line.

FCC violation and compliance

KISN had a long-running battle over its legal ID, which repeatedly highlighted Oregon but downplayed Vancouver. Burden wanted to tie the station to big-city/bigger-money Portland, which explains the famous West Burnside and 10th Avenue DJ-in-the-window. KISN’s city of license was Vancouver. But the FCC didn’t accept the KISN Korner as anything more than a remote broadcast location. Burden tried to get the agency off his back by airing more DJ board shifts from the station transmitter studio in North Portland. The combination of the legal ID issue and the KISN Korner matter resulted in several FCC fines through the early ‘60s. Burden pushed back, year after year, barely sustaining KISN’s life on the air.

Roger W with Burden

Burden also let his politics show, which likely was his undoing. At least twice he got in hot water with the FCC’s Equal Time provision. In 1964 he pressed WIFE’s on-air staff to boost the U.S. Senate reelection of Indiana’s Vance Hartke, and again in ’66 when he reportedly told the KISN staff to increase its coverage of Gov. Mark Hatfield’s campaign bid for U.S. Senate. The FCC later cited Burden for 1) illegal cash contributions to Hatfield’s campaign and 2) “lost” documentation from WIFE’s station files related to gifts and favors Burden allegedly received from Senator Hartke’s staff.

Burden and Hatfield

By the late ‘60s, at WIFE and KISN, there were allegations – some substantiated – of fraudulent on-air contests and double billing of advertising accounts. Burden complained of FCC harassment and had a volley of attorneys working his endless defense. It’s reported that while under Star ownership (’63 to ’76), WIFE AM was never granted a license renewal, only interim extensions. Typical of the mystique of radio, the three stations’ faithful listeners had no idea the behind-the-scenes FCC issues were leading to a fateful showdown.

Perkins Bobby Simon Tom Murphy

Perhaps the most vocal of Star Stations’ disgruntled employees was Paul Oscar Anderson (Paul E. Brown), who jocked under the moniker POA. He rotated from KISN, KOIL and WIFE between ’62 and ’66 (and at KOL Seattle in ’67 and ’68). It’ s been widely reported – and at times disputed – that POA played a key role in Burden’s downfall.

POA survey

In a civil court action in the fall of ’66, POA said he’d been fired from KISN for refusing to play promos spiking special coverage of the Hatfield campaign. This was one of the more pronounced complaints added to the FCC’s bulging Star Stations case file. That led to the FCC’s first real reluctance to extend all three station’s operating authorities in 1970. Ultimately, according to the records, the FCC counted more than 30 violations against Burden and his Star operations. (It’s unknown if the FCC weighed POA’s complaint against his KISN firing for violating a Burden non-compete contract.) Star Stations licenses were again before the FCC in 1973. Two of them – for KOIL and KISN – were approved. But within months Burden lost “the whole package” when he appealed FCC’s denial of WIFE’ s application. That appeal resulted in interim operations, placing continued pressure on all three to clean up their act. Three years later — the FCC death knell.

FCC gavel

The agency denied licenses for KOIL AM/FM, WIFE AM/FM and KISN AM (Burden had previously been refused a license for a Portland-area FM). Burden sought a reversal through the federal courts, which later upheld the agency’s decision. In May of ’76 the Supreme Court refused to hear Burden’s final appeal, forcing shutdowns at midnight on Sept. 2.

Final sign-off KOIL, KISN :55

off the air

The Don Burden five-station radio empire was dead. FCC’s own attorneys couldn’t recall another case in which the agency stripped a broadcaster of a string of stations in one action. Burden lost nearly $20 million (he was barred from selling the stations), and called the FCC action overly severe and unjust. In Indianapolis he leased the remaining transmitter and studio equipment to new licensee Indianapolis Broadcasters, which continued WIFE-AM almost unnoticed. The new WIFE stayed Top 40 into late ’79, before shifting to AOR and news-talk in the ‘80s. KOIL signed back on in Dec. of ‘76 with a new license awarded to an Omaha business group which continued for many years as a solid market competitor through several format changes. KISN got kicked to the curb hardest of all. The famous calls and 910-AM dial spot went to other licensees, leaving most of KISN’s devoted listeners believing the station really did die. Burden, who’d gone from fame and notoriety to near obscurity, attempted to rebound with a brief radio ownership in California. He died of cancer in 1985, leaving a remarkable success story still talked about in broadcasting circles.
________________ A DeHart observation: Aside from Burden’s political mistakes, he certainly did a lot of things right. Star Stations’ pop radio footprint was legendary. The conservative nature of the FCC in the ‘60s and ‘70s saw Burden’s flamboyant but annoying maverick style as a target not to be ignored. But Burden had his defenders among the many Star Stations jocks who’d experienced numerous other rock radio rodeos. They argued he didn’t do anything with his radio empire that many others had not tried. Style over substance sometimes turns the day, in spite of the bottom line successes.
_________________ In preparing this posting I contacted Robin Mitchell (at KGEZ, Kalispell, MT), for fact verification. He was among the last at WIFE to see the Burden adventure end in ’76. Robin sounds great and says he’s still enjoying himself — now in his 52nd year in radio. He shared some legendary stories, turning an intended short phone conversation into a delightful trip down radio memory lane.
OTHER references: Craig Adams (KISN AM 91-wonderful Tribute Page, PDX Radio Guide, DJMasterControl, Stumptownblogger); Good Guy Radio; KOIL Radio History; Indiana Radio Archives; Broadcasting Magazine.

–Ron DeHart