RUSH: Last Saturday there was a party out in Sacramento, California, and I was not able to go. Had I gone, I would have been the star of the show. Uh… the second star of the show. But I couldn’t make it for a host of reasons. It was the 80th birthday party for a man who’s been very important to me, particularly in my professional career. Stan Atkinson, who, when I arrived in Sacramento in 1994, was the 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. anchor for KCRA TV-3 Eyeball News. It was the NBC affiliate, and I’m not kidding, they had 50 shares. The other two stations could have signed off when Atkinson was on and it wouldn’t have made any difference. I mean, it was just… never seen anything like it.
When I got to town the man who took me to Sacramento from Kansas City was a man named Norman Woodruff. He lived in San Francisco, he was a broadcast consultant. He was not conservative, but he didn’t care. His job was to consult for winning radio stations, and he recognized in Kansas City that if somebody turned me loose, I might amount to something. I’ll never forget, he called me, I’d been fired in Kansas City, he called me — this is in 1984. I’d been on the beach for two weeks, and I’ve got nothing. I’m thinking of getting out of radio.
I had just gotten back into radio having been with the baseball team for five years. I got back in, lasted a year, and got canned again. So I’m thinking, “Gee, what am I gonna do now?” I get this phone call from Woodruff, “How would you like to move to California and become a star?”
“Oh. Wow. Where in California?”
“Ah, ah, ah, ah. I am not going to tell you where until you tell me yes.”
I said, “Well, that kind of tells me it’s someplace not on the main path.” If it was LA or San Francisco, he would have said, “How would you like to move to Los Angeles, or San Francisco, and become a star?” But he said California. I had no choice. I had no options. So I said, “Okay, Norman.” I liked Norman. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it. Now, where is it?”
And my heart literally sank. Now, you gotta understand, it’s nothing against Sacramento. In our business the ladder of success takes you to larger markets with each job. And the larger market you’re in theoretically, the better chance — none of this applies anymore. But back in the eighties and all the decades prior, this is how you advance in this business. Now those rules no longer apply. I mean, you don’t even have to have any experience to be hired in the number one market now. But Sacramento was a bit of a letdown because it was just a small market compared to Kansas City. It didn’t have a baseball team. The Kansas City basketball team was gonna move there.
I had no choice. I went out and I went through the interview process and drove up to Lake Tahoe and they showed me a great time, and it turned out to be a lovely, lovely place. And, as you know, I mean, I lived there for three and a half, four years, and it was probably the first time in my entire professional life that I had experienced any success at all. Everywhere I had been, I had failed. But the failures all mattered. They all led to something better. And I never lost my confidence or the vision that I had that I was gonna succeed, even though, like everybody, I was told by the experts I didn’t have what it took, that I should go into sales or some such thing.
So, anyway, I get out there, and start surveying the market to try to learn about it, and it’s two weeks before the 1984 presidential election. I’m listening to all the radio stations, and there’s not one political show on the air. There’s news, but there isn’t an opinion political show. They’re talking about carrot cake recipes for the holidays and this kind of stuff. Sewage problems and how we’re gonna pay for it. That kind of stuff was on the radio. I said, “Well, there’s a gold mine of opportunity here.” I was replacing Morton Downey Jr. who had been fired for telling an ethnic joke for which he refused to apologize, an ethnic joke about a member of the town council, city council.
And they said to me, “We will back you no matter what, as long as you believe it. If you’re going to go on the radio and just say outrageous things that you don’t believe just to rile people up, you will not last, not only here, but in this business. If you really believe it, you can make a case for it, go for it.” So it’s what happened.
Norman took me under his wing upon my arrival. And every night he took me to the restaurant that Stan Atkinson dined in ’cause he wanted me to see how a star comported himself. He wanted me to see how a star was reacted to by people. Norman’s word for “star,” what he meant by that, successful media person, and Atkinson ate at a different place every night. The giant question of the day was where would Stan Atkinson be seen for dinner tonight after the five o’clock news and before the eleven o’clock news? And Norman had worked out Atkinson’s routine. He knew before Atkinson knew where he was gonna go.
So, for example, we would go to Alhambra Fuel and Transportation, no longer there, and we would sit off the main entrance so we could watch what happened without really being seen or noticed. Atkinson would walk in, and Woodruff would say, “Now, I want you to pay careful attention to what this man does, how he comports himself, watch what happens.” I’m going along with this because I’m halfway laughing at it under my breath. But I watched, and Atkinson walked in and stopped at every table, knew everybody, everybody knew him. He had a personal comment for everybody. The word “aloof” did not apply. There was no “I’m here, look at me.” There was no demanding the best table. But it was clearly a show.
Stan was putting on a show by virtue of his arrival. I mean, he literally owned the town. And I guess I was there for six months or a year before I actually met him. I met him at the Alhambra Feed and Fuel Health Club. I’d been roped into doing commercials for a health club, which meant I had to go in there and pretend to work out. That’s right. I forget the name of this health club but it was right near the Alhambra Feed and Fuel Restaurant.
So I had to go in there and, you know, avail myself of the amenities of the health club. I’m in the men’s locker room and I’m getting dressed, getting ready to leave, and Atkinson comes out of the shower stark, raving nude. I looked at him (above the waist only), and I said, “You’re Stan Atkinson,” and he knew who I was. He knew who I was and he let me know that… (interruption) I was not nude. What, are you crazy? I was not nude.
But he knew who I was, and he then started complimenting me. You have to understand, folks, this was huge to me. I mean, in terms of broadcasting career, the characteristics of success and all, that was huge for him to know who I was and to be a fan and so forth. We struck up a great, great friendship at that point and being under his wing was, I think, a very important and relevant aspect of my overall success in Sacramento.
This was so meaningful to me ’cause it was the first time. This is 1984, and I had started in this business in 1966. So it’s almost 18 years of doing this before I knew what success felt like. And it was out there. I had so many friends out there, and I had actually planted roots in the community for the first time anywhere outside of where I grew up. I mean, I even testified before the city council on whether or not it made sense for the Kansas City Kings to relocate there!
Because I had worked for the Kansas City Royals, so the town council of Sacramento thought I knew something about professional sports, which I did. Which I did. It was just a great experience. Anyway, Stan’s 80th birthday was recently. They had a big bash for him on Saturday. And, by the way, he doesn’t look a day over 60, if even that. And so I just wanted to wish him happy birthday here and say thanks again for everything he did for me and express my regrets that I couldn’t be there.
Because you know, folks, all this stuff happening around us that occupies our minds, when you strip all that away — when you think about the things in your life, the nostalgic things that make you happy or you have fond memories of — it’s always about the relationships you have with people you love. It’s not the things you acquire or the places that you’ve been necessarily. It’s really about people that you’ve known and who you’ve had great relationships with that have meant the most to you.
Stan’s one of those people for me.
So it’s a little drawn-out but I just want to say, “Happy birthday. Happy 80th, Stan. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.”