At some point in our lives, most of us have taken on a project for the sheer love of doing it, regardless of any financial consequence. Such was the case with radio veteran Bill Shakespeare and the resurrection of the original San Francisco KFRC(AM) mobile studio, a fully equipped 1975 GMC Coach nicknamed The Sturgeon.
“KFRC inspired me to get into radio,” said Shakespeare, who began working there in late 1985 and eventually became the mobile studio coordinator.
“KFRC was owned by RKO, and it was a time when all those big AM flamethrowers were trying to figure out how to remain competitive with FM. The program director at the time, Gerry Cagle, said that The Sturgeon helped keep KFRC viable in the top 40 format, due to its visibility and presence at events all over northern California.”
When the station finally switched to a big band format in August 1986, Shakespeare left to pursue a new radio opportunity, but he never forgot about the vehicle that had carried air personalities like Bobby Ocean, Bill Lee, Harry Nelson and Dr. Don Rose, morning man at KFRC from 1973 to 1986.
Shakespeare remained in radio in other markets until 2015 before taking a break after 30 years.
“Radio has changed quite a bit,” he said. “It’s computerized, homogenized and the creativity is gone, unfortunately. I hate saying that, and I keep giving it a chance. But I’m not 20 anymore, and I don’t plan on moving my family around in a U-Haul at this point in my life.”
THE STURGEON RESURFACES
Many years after leaving KFRC, Shakespeare became curious about what had happened to the mobile studio. He discovered that KFRC had been sold to Family Radio, and the mobile studio was a part of that sale. Not long after that, Family Radio sold the station to KUSP(FM) in Santa Cruz, Calif.
On a whim, Shakespeare called the new general manager, who said that he had the mobile studio. The next summer, after a family weekend trip to the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk, Shakespeare decided to stop at the station on the way out of town. And there it was at last: The Sturgeon.
“It was parked under a couple of trees, and it didn’t look very good,” he said. “There was no logo on it, and the window frames had been painted white. I went into the station and asked the GM if I could take a look inside. Permission was granted, and when I opened the door the smell of mold was overwhelming. I saw that the interior was all original, but some of the rack equipment had been removed. Wires were hanging out everywhere and duct tape was stuck all over the place. The old board was still there, a Pacific Recorders BMX-14, and an additional mixer had been added to the back counter for jazz concerts.
“Sad to say, this once proud vehicle was dying a slow death, rotting away in a back parking lot. I went back into the station and asked the GM if he was interested in selling it. He turned me down.”
In 2014, two-and-a-half years later, Shakespeare decided to call the station again. Luckily, his timing was better. The new GM was open to selling the vehicle. A deal was struck, and the mobile studio was nominally fixed up to the point where it could make the trip from Santa Cruz back to Shakespeare’s home in Reno, Nev., under its own power.
Shakespeare got on a plane to San Jose, Calif., and took a shuttle to Santa Cruz.
“I remember giving the GM a cashier check, and that was great,” said Shakespeare. “But the damp, musty mold smell was still apparent on that rainy January day, and DAMP-X packages were in every corner to absorb the moisture. The drive back was scary at times. There was lots of wind that day. It took me about eight hours to get home because there was snow in the mountains, but I made it!”
But what do you do with a 33-year-old station promotional vehicle?
“The word was that RKO had spent around $250,000 purchasing and outfitting it,” said Shakespeare. “Back in Reno, my sons and I cleaned off the rack on top because there was black residue and leaves all over it.
“The Sturgeon was filthy inside. We had to figure out what to do with the countless cut or unhooked wires, and then we had to figure out how to get the console working. Many of the interior lights were missing, but I wanted to keep the original style, which featured track lights in black and white cylindrical fixtures. I had to buy some specialized four-track adapters from a guy in Chicago.
“The good news was that one of the original engineers who used to be responsible for the vehicle, ‘Captain’ Kent Hedberg, was in the process of moving just five minutes away from me in Reno, and he became a great help. He had some of the old equipment, promotional items and memorabilia in his garage, and he even had the original wooden nameplate,” Shakespeare said.
BACK TO SHIPSHAPE
“The Sturgeon” name is credited to KFRC personalities Bill Lee and Harry Nelson, who came up with it after watching an old movie that featured a ship with lots of windows called — you guessed it — “The Sturgeon,” according to Shakespeare.
“Not only did Hedberg have that old sign, but also many KFRC carts including all those morning show drops from Dr. Don Rose. Today The Sturgeon has both cart machines and a computer to playback un-scoped KFRC airchecks from the early ’80s. It was a slow process of reconstruction and restoration to bring The Sturgeon back to life in an authentic way.”
From the time he acquired the mobile studio, Shakespeare has invested more than $10,000 on restoration, and now he displays the OB vehicle at several venues, including the second biggest classic car shows in the US, Hot August Nights in Reno.
“I promoted this event on Facebook, and a lot of people showed up,” said Shakespeare. “A woman came up to me when we were blasting a KFRC aircheck from 1982 on our speakers. She thought we were on the air, and she began to cry because she grew up in San Francisco, listening to 610 KFRC.
“That radio station impacted a lot of lives. It was really cutting-edge for the time, and the station was responsible for inspiring so many people I know who got into the radio business. I couldn’t bear to see The Sturgeon chopped up or scrapped, but that’s what someone had been planning to do with it before I rescued and saved it.”
Oldies fans will be glad to learn that the KFRC call letters survive on FM in San Francisco, and the station is streamed at kfrcfm.radio.net.
While someone else now owns those call letters, Bill Shakespeare owns The Sturgeon, and he’s not giving it up. But as he told Radio World, “I didn’t save it for myself, I saved it for everyone to see, remember and enjoy.”
Donations and help can be offered by visiting www.facebook.com/KFRCMobileSturgeon.
Ken Deutsch is a former radio personality who plied his trade in Toledo, Ohio and Ann Arbor, Michigan until he realized that perhaps he ought to find another line of work.