By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — If a host’s classiness, intensity, unwavering determination, expertise, will-to-win and downright decency could be factored into a weekend program’s ratings, Bob Kingsley’s four-hour, “Country Top 40” would have easily reflected its title with 40-shares.
Even without such unrealistic weighting, the Southern California native and CMA’s multiple-time “National Broadcast Personality of the Year” consistently posted some of country radio’s most bloated weekend numbers.
In an environment where personal relationships rule, the affable Kingsley flourished with Texas-sized grace.
Sadly, Bob Kingsley today (10/17) lost his battle against bladder cancer, succumbing at the age of 80.
Several years ago, he sat down for a personality profile with me during my then-tenure as Inside Radio’s special features editor.
In memoriam, the following is an updated/edited recap of that feature piece.
As 2005 wound down, so also did Bob Kingsley’s 22-year relationship with “American Country Countdown” distributor ABC Radio.
Silky smooth Kingsley refused to miss a single beat and debuted what was, in essence the same show he’d been doing – only with a different name. With over 300 affiliates, it signed-on January 1, 2006.
Things in 2005 seemed comparable to other times when Kingsley’s ABC contract was about to expire. “Our numerous negotiations always went down to the last minute,” he calmly remarked to me in our interview. “All of a sudden in November, [ABC senior vice president of programming] John McConnell came out to see me. In all my naivety, I thought he was going to make the deal. It wasn’t the case and he basically fired me.”
In a ten-minute span – the approximate length of time it took for Kingsley to escort his ex-boss to the front door and then collect his thoughts – the highly-personable country radio icon decided his countdown would continue via his KCCS Productions.
Everything remained exactly the way it was before McConnell’s visit; the only difference was ABC was out of the picture. “I’m making it sound very simple but that’s exactly correct,” Kingsley confirmed. “We made a very nice deal with Jones Media Group to handle the sales along with my wife, Nan.”
It was then a matter of hitting the phones to talk with all the affiliates.
Note this now eerily timely quote from that conversation: “Until the day I die,” an emphatic Kingsley stated to me, “I’ll be grateful to everyone who stayed with us. I was astounded at how many did. We’re on more than 310 stations and added Los Angeles and Chicago.”
The only thing Kingsley wanted to do as a youngster growing up in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley (Van Nuys to be specific) was to race cars. “I can tell you about going over Malibu Canyon in my old 1944 hot rod,” he fondly recalled with that ever-present smile in his rich voice. “That’s what I had in mind.”
Pre-dating what became its longtime all-news format, Los Angeles’ KFWB (now Lotus Communication-owned regional Mexican La Mera Mera) was a major Southland music station.
Under the direction of renowned programmer Chuck Blore, “Color Radio” was introduced in 1958; “Channel 98” (AM 980) was Kingsley’s station of choice. “I loved it,” the former supermarket box-boy declared. “Al Jarvis and Joe Yocam did a three-hour, KFWB countdown. It was one of the most wonderful things and I’d give anything to hear tapes of them again. They’d visit about the records and talk a bit about the artists. I had favorite songs and wondered if they went up [the chart]. I had to hear the week’s ‘Top Ten.’ As I hear myself say that, it sounds a shade hokey but it’s the honest truth and is something that stayed with me.”
Something else remained with a then seven-year-old Kingsley for what surely must have seemed like an eternity. “I had polio and was in bed for a year,” he lamented. “I listened to a little Philco radio. Daytime programs never [interested me] but morning and evening shows were special. That’s when shows like `The Shadow’ came on. It was complete escapism and entertainment. I didn’t realize the imprint it was making, but it obviously stayed with me. I wonder how I ever got into this business – it had to have come from that.”
Practice paid off
Some 11 years later, a barely-18-year-old Kingsley decided it was time to leave Van Nuys, so he joined the Air Force and was sent to Iceland where he worked in the motor pool. “I was fearless and had this reputation for being able to get to the flight line faster than anyone else from the warehouse,” he proudly declared. “I never thought about the consequences if anything should happen.”
As Kingsley was getting coffee one day in the mess hall, a sergeant told him Armed Forces Radio Station TFK was looking for an announcer. “He thought I should go try it and I raced over there,” Kingsley divulged. “They gave me some AP copy and I was just awful. But I got a call several days later and was in Special Services. I was so bad I lasted about two weeks. They put me on Armed Forces Television and I gave the ID once every half hour.”
Someone exercising inordinately good judgment though returned Kingsley to radio, where he would go into a studio and practice all night. “Those were the days when I needed just two or three hours of sleep. I did a little audition and they put me back on the air working all night, which was just perfect.”
Block programming was the order of the day then. One particular 15-minute segment was devoted to country music and that’s where Kingsley discovered artists like Marty Robbins. “I learned about people I knew as rockers [such as] Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and – a little later – Charlie Rich. Their roots were country music and that’s when I began to pay attention.”
First things first
Upon leaving the Air Force, Kingsley felt he’d need to obtain a first-class FCC license before he could pursue a radio career and be able to “pay the gas bill” so he went to Bill Ogden’s Radio Operational Engineering School in Los Angeles. After passing the test for his first-class ticket, Kingsley got as far as Oxnard-Ventura (California).
Someone else voiced them, but Kingsley put countdown shows on stations he programmed.
When he was at Los Angeles’ KGBS in 1961 – 1969, he had “big-time” Los Angeles producer Joe Allison do the countdown. “That was the direction I was going in, although I didn’t know it at the time.”
In the early-1970s, Kingsley formed a relationship with peerless programmer/consultant Bill Drake and became responsible for programming/voicing Drake-Chenault’s “Great American Country,” a 24/7 format which aired on about 100 stations.
Making the “Rounds”
During that same time, he was heard 11:00 pm – 4:00 am on Los Angeles’ KFI, the then-morning drive home of hugely popular Al Lohman & Roger Barkley.
Somewhat similar to what Kingsley encountered in the Air Force, KFI aired block programming; his country show followed a 7:00 pm – 11:00 pm jazz program. “When the station was sold, I was called in and told they’d no longer be doing a country block and my services were no longer needed.”
So he quickly began assembling an audition tape when he received a call from Tom Rounds. In October 1973, the Watermark honcho, along with legendary “AT 40” front-man Casey Kasem, put together a Don Bowman-hosted country companion of “American Top 40” and needed someone to produce the country version. “Tom ran into a friend one night and asked if he knew anyone who was familiar with country music,” Kingsley explained. “The person suggested me.”
In true Hollywood fashion, Rounds and Kingsley “did lunch.” In April 1974, Kingsley began producing “American Country Countdown” and proclaimed, “Watermark was something to behold in those days. It was sensational and one of the most vibrant places I’d ever been. Even at 2:00 am, people were there coming up with ideas. There was exceptional talent like Casey and Robert W. Morgan. In addition, [former KHJ, Los Angeles program director] Ron Jacobs gave excitement to the overall aura. I was around many creative radio people; had ideas for other shows; and wasn’t really thinking about being on the air anymore.”
That scenario would change, however, as it had become obvious “ACC” wasn’t picking up any top 100 market affiliates and the host had other interests. “Don was on the road opening for Willie Nelson & Waylon Jennings,” Kingsley pointed out.
Snowbound Bowman called from Maine at noontime one day to say he wouldn’t be able to make it to Los Angeles to record the show, so producer Kingsley put on the headsets and substituted for him. “It was the first time I was on the air in a while and first time I ever did anything like that,” he elaborated of the experience exactly 45 years ago (October 1974). “This was all scripted – everything else I did was ad-lib.”
Several weeks later, Kingsley was again pressed into emergency on-air duty and enjoyed the experience. “I thought to myself this was pretty neat. [Bowman’s unavailability] looked like it was going to be a continual problem so Tom asked me flat out if I’d like to voice the show and I said ‘sure.’ I didn’t make the decision – Tom Rounds did.”
With new responsibilities hosting a nationally-syndicated countdown program, Kingsley desperately tried to recall exactly what childhood idols Jarvis & Yocam did when they were behind the microphone in comparable situations. Knowing the show wasn’t about them, Kingsley maintained the music was the key. “I’m not sure why it’s this way, but the vast majority of stations play the countdown on Sunday. If you tell people about the music you’ve been playing all week, it just seems to work. People love it. Feedback from the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan hasn’t changed: They love hearing about these artists.”
There’s no doubt whatsoever in Kingsley’s mind why the Alphabet Network acquired Watermark in 1983. “ABC didn’t buy it for me or anyone else other than Casey [Kasem]. I think ABC was about to dump the country countdown but tried it on the network and it took off. I’ve always been grateful for that, but it became a different ballgame after 1983 when the corporate structure kicked in. That time at Watermark [1974 – 1983] was certainly one of the most exciting periods in radio for me. There was such a cooperative effort between everybody.”
Whether it was Kingsley; his “ACC” successor Kix Brooks; Westwood One’s outstanding longtime star Lon Helton; Bobby Bones; or comedian Jeff Foxworthy, there has never been a paucity of national country countdown hosts.
It goes without saying that they all wanted to win, but Kingsley emphasized, “Lon and I have remained very good friends over the years. I also have great regard for Jeff Foxworthy and think he’s probably the leading comedian associated with country music. I’d still go to a [Brooks & Dunn show] and I’m sure we’d visit with each other. I haven’t seen [Kix Brooks] since the deal happened, however, he called to say ABC wanted to go in a different direction and they were talking to him. Apparently, they talked to him for a while; I obviously didn’t know about that.”
Each of the aforementioned has a different approach to the reverse order routine. “I don’t tell jokes and I’m not a funny guy – I happen to love radio and country music. I’m very grateful every week that I can go in and do it. I don’t know if there’s one too many countdowns, but there seems to be room for all of us.”
Los Angeles-based until 1995, horse aficionado Kingsley made a deal to set in motion KCCS Productions and relocated to Dallas. “I remember going to a Dallas station and the morning guy said I was someone who worked four hours a week.”
Although it’s completely unnecessary, there’s sufficient proof to debunk that silly misconception.
Chart numbers for “Country Top 40,” which fittingly enough were distributed internationally by Tom Rounds’ Radio Express, were received/reviewed each Monday and the show was recorded the following day.
It was then mixed on Wednesday; duplicated Thursday from KCCS’ facilities; and Kingsley was part of a Friday writer’s meeting. “I was driving back and forth to Dallas almost every day for the first four years we were here,” he remarked. “We finally built a studio in Weatherford. Four of our staff members still live In Los Angeles; five are in Weatherford; and a person who does many of our interviews is in Nashville. The director born to do this [Matt Wilson] is in my ear every Tuesday from Los Angeles. He’s just wonderful and also worked with Casey and Ryan [Seacrest].”
If there were any slowdown in Kingsley’s distinguished countdown career, it turned around January 1, 2006 and the host seemed completely energized. “Research is keener and our writing is a bit sharper,” he contended in that conversation we had a number of years ago. “We’re very happy with the way things turned out and wonder why we didn’t think about this before. To be uninvolved with any type of corporate structure that can get in the way isn’t an issue at the moment. We were doing everything we were doing before – we just have a new sales partner. There’s a great rapport with everyone I’m involved with and [with whom] I work on the show. Everyone is working harder, digging deeper, and we’re turning out the best radio we’ve ever done.”
Via Cumulus Media’s Westwood One, Kingsley hosted an eponymous “Country Top 40” and a two-minute “Bob Kingsley with Today’s Hit Makers.” Four years ago, Westwood One began distributing classic “American Country Countdown” shows, calling them “American Country Countdown Rewind With Bob Kingsley.”
What the 1998 Country Music DJ Hall of Fame inductee and November 2016 National Radio Hall of Famer sought to do long term was to continue his countdown show involvement and remain a vital contributor – and he most definitely was. “I want to do that until the day comes when it’s over and they put me down. I can’t imagine not doing something that is somehow involved with radio. It’s just in my soul.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor of TALKERS magazine. He can be emailed at Kinosian@Talkers.com.