Memories of My Career in Motorsports – Part VII
How I became a radio star – of very low wattage.
One of the ideas that Jim Boltz and I shared early on was for Cycle Barn to have its own radio talk show. Of course neither one of us knew anything about the radio business, but why let a lack of information get in the way of enthusiasm? We did know that “traditional” radio, TV, and print advertising was ludicrously expensive and almost entirely a waste of time, effort and money.
Motorcycles are, in this country, pretty much a leisure pursuit or a version of a toy. I say “toy” with respect, as many of us treasure the toys in our lives and the time (all too little of it), that we can devote to them. Because motorcycles have a hard time competing with cars on both practicality and cost bases, the percentage of Americans who own and ride motorcycles usually hovers around 3%. In boom times it might approach 5%. At any time, the mathematics of purchasing motorsports ads in mass-market media is hopeless, unless you’re an OEM or a national level marketer or your goal is to boost the ego of the owners of the business. Nothing wrong with that, of course.
But what if you had a motorsports talk show for motorcycle and car enthusiasts where guests would meet with the host and costs would be borne by motorcycle and specialty car manufacturers and after-market folks who would treasure a specialized audience? As a multi-line dealer, Cycle Barn should be able to purchase the time for such a show and run ads from different manufacturers to help defray the costs. Most manufacturers have “co-op” plans where the OEM will foot 50% or more (or less) of the cost of an ad. Since Cycle Barn was purchasing the time, Cycle Barn would not have to pay itself for the other 50%, and if you got enough ads from others the show should break even, or run a profit. And then maybe national syndication… We tended to think like that a lot.
I had no doubts that I could do this. For reasons unknown, I’ve never been intimidated by having a microphone in my face. In fact it relaxes me. I’d announced hundreds of school sports and other events for 30 years, and never said anything I regretted. I’d said lots of things other people wished had not been said, but that’s not the same thing.
Work began on how this could be done and what it would cost. One day Boltz called me to tell me that Chip Hanauer, the legendary unlimited hydroplane driver, had been working on pretty much the same concept, and that we’d be meeting with him the next morning. Wow! Chip Hanauer! I’ve never been into hero worship of sports or any other kind of celebrities, but – Chip Hanauer!
We met in Jim’s office and Chip Hanauer proved to be a very well spoken and exceedingly polite person. I could not help but notice his perfectly manicured fingernails. I’d rarely been around someone that precise in his appearance.
Of course Chip had a lot of experience with sports radio shows, as he’d appeared at one time or another on virtually all of them. He had very definite ideas on how such shows should be put together, and specific details that would create success or failure. He believed in these details so strongly that he no longer agreed to appear on shows that did not have the ingredients he knew had to be present, because he felt it was a waste of his time.
He was carrying on at great length about these factors when his true intent became clear. Extremely polite, the point he was trying to make was that the host of the show had to be a big name star, not an eager amateur. By that, of course, he meant me, but did not even come close to saying such a thing. I almost laughed out loud when I realized what his point was and what a lengthy oratorical journey he was on to avoid offense. It was really impressive. Finally Boltz interjected with, “If I’m paying for the show, then David is the host. Period.”
The reason that Chip could not do the show himself is that he has a rare condition that requires periodic injections of Botox into his vocal chords – ouch! – and the result is that he cannot count on his ability to speak on a consistent basis. I note that he now has a web site with essays and video clips called “Chip – the Boat Guy”, so he’s figured out how to work around that, and good for him.
Armed with good information from Chip, we booked a slot on an AM station in Bellevue – KKNW 1150. They were trying something new they called “alternative talk” radio. No politics, no right wing clowns screaming at callers, no hectoring – just talk shows to specific audiences. The Cycle Barn tech crew and graphics people came up with a web site and a poster and business cards for “The Motorsports Show – with Dave Preston.” Of course, this had no affect on the size of my ego at all!
When I learned that the radio business term for people who were on the air was “the talent,” I laughed very hard for a long time. How wonderful! Here I am – “the talent.” I would introduce myself that way when I got home and Susan would laugh as well.
The show aired for the first time on Wednesday, September 13th. Yes, two days after the terrorist attack on the TwinTowers in New York. I walked into the actual production studio for the first time to meet Eric, who would be the show’s producer, and stare out a large window from a hill in Factoria across the blue sky and airspace of Seattle that was – empty. Not a plane was to be seen, as everything that could be in the air was still locked down. It was both eerie and somber. We’d discussed not doing the show so soon after the attack, but on the other hand people had been in terror across the country for two solid days, and maybe something else to think and talk about would be a good thing. So we went ahead.
The theme music came from a group I’d run across at a national Norton convention in Utah the previous summer. I asked their permission to use part of one of their songs as a lead-in, which was fine with them. I introduced the show and what we meant to accomplish, and segued into some sincere words about our country’s loss. First caller! My HOG Chapter was having their monthly dinner meeting, and were kind enough to call in with a massed-voices cheery and loud “Hi Dave!” This was just after my somber speech, which of course they’d not heard. That was a little awkward, but we recovered and were off and running, or at least talking.
The show ran for almost three years, and although it never made any significant money, it also did not lose money. What Boltz and I had not figured on was that other motorcycle dealers and car people and so forth were very happy to provide me with guests, but not so eager to purchase ads – even though they were ludicrously inexpensive. I did cherish the ads were did sell. Sponsors included Café Veloce, Ride West BMW, for whom I would work later, and Moto International.
In fact, some of my favorite memories involve the sponsors. Liz Calouri provided two Café Veloce gift certificates each week that I used for prizes for callers, and I’ve been taking groups to her place for monthly dinners for the past dozen years and more. I always enjoyed having Dave Richardson of Moto International and Keith Thye on the show as guests. My absolute favorite memory is a year when Susan and I flew off to Kauai for a vacation. Dave Richardson and Keith Thye were guest co-hosts in my absence, and I called in from a sailboat dock in Hawaii to be a guest on my own show!
The ads themselves were also fun. I wrote all of the Cycle Barn ads, and some of the others, and usually recorded them. My producer called me “One Take” because I could usually nail an ad on the first try. In one case, the station lost an ad produced for Moto International, and so I re-did it literally while the intro music for the show was playing. The last-second version was preferred and it was used from then on. Some of the ads for Ride West BMW used the voices of Dave Richardson from Moto International and David Preston from Cycle Barn as “customers.” It was all good fun, and a small enough production that nobody would object.
Which of course was the problem. AM stations do not pull a large audience, and advertisers like a large audience. A large audience would allow you to charge more for the ads. In our case, I was lining up the guests, creating the commercials, and wrangling with the OEMs over co-op claims, often unsuccessfully. It seemed like they found new ways to deny legitimate co-op expenses every month. And, of course, I had my real job to do.
The true value of the show went far beyond money. Over three years I gained contacts and relationships with dozens of well known people from the world of motorcycles, cars, racing hydroplanes, custom cars, it just went on and on. Those contacts were helpful for years afterwards, and I had a chance to learn so much from these pros when they were on the air.
Larry Huffman is the famous announcer who had a great deal to do with the explosion of motocross racing in this country in the 1970s. At the time of my show he was working for Advanstar on the Seattle Motorcycle Show. What a pro! He’d been working downtown all day setting up for the show, walked into the studio 5 minutes before air time and was on the gas. He was a deep well of information, as well as humor, and a consummate professional.
I also enjoyed doing shows with Keith Code. I don’t recall how I learned this, but Keith Code and I married to our respective wives just a few days apart in 1972 – and are still married to them. Each year on the Wednesday closest to February 14th Keith and his wife would call in from California and join Susan and me, in the studio, for a show about motorcycles and marriage relationships.
I met famous racers like Dominic Dobson (Indy 500, 24 Hours of Lemans, and more), Mike Sullivan (NW motorcycle road racing legend, and one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet), Bill Werner, the long-time manager of the Harley-Davidson flat track race team and his protege Jennifer Snyder, and so many others.
Ironically, I never actually listened to the show while it was on air. I was checking the time until the next commercial break, or listening to the direction my guest was going and selecting my next question. A recording of the show would be enjoyed later, and sometimes I’d laugh out loud at something I had not actually been aware of saying at the time. Weird.
After three years Cycle Barn was about to open the new and humongous dealership site, and I was now creating 3 different newsletters that were delivered to 250 employees at 5 different sites, as well as attending two manager meetings a week, a couple of group rides, and two or three club dinners a month. In addition there were the hundreds of e-mails and other tasks that made up my day. Enough was enough, so we chose to shut the show down.
I’d love to do a radio show again, but it’s kind of like racing at the upper levels – you need to bring the sponsors and their money with you from the beginning.
Next chapter – Announcing National Events, Riding Adventures and Errors.
Copyright 2013 David Preston