Thursday, December 15, 2011

Don Burden

There are movers and shakers you never hear about. They are the men behind the curtain, the holders of the strings, the property and the purses. the mars family for example is notoriously camera shy, and press-phobic, but run the largest confectionery company in the world. But radioland has it's own for sure. Today lets talk about Don Burden. I don't know Don personally, but the history of things gives me the impression that Burden was bad news. But it is those inflexible, unreasonable people who can truly excel. Consider Steve Jobs. He was truly spectacularly successful, but he was also an unrepentant asshole. So in the same light, consider the saga of Don Burden.

KOIL-AM first signed on in 1925 at 278 meters as a 1,000 watt daytimer out of Council Bluffs, Iowa. This is right across the river from Omaha so it blanketed that metro. They survived 28 years not unscathed, but at least undiminished before Don Burden came in from KWIK-AM in Pocatello, Idaho. In about 1950 Central States Broadcasting had to unload 1290 KOIL-AM to the Union Holding Company because the FCC was on a tear, actually  enforcing ownership limits. (for once)  But  Union Holding Co. was based in Lincoln, NE and had some trouble selling enough ads to keep things running properly. Don Burden bought the station for $185k with just $5k down. He was 25 years old and probably more ambitious than is probably safe.

Burden promoted the station big time, and now with local ownership resumed selling airtime with zeal. He poached several of the popular staffers from KOWH-AM across the street. In fairness, they were in the middle of a Top-40 ratings war, and KOIL won. He bought up other stations including KISN-AM in Portland and WIFE-AM  in Indianapolis. In 1959, he entered the FM band with 96.1 KOIL-FM. It began as a KOIL-AM simulcast, but in 1966 went to Beautiful Music.

But all along that successful path, Burden was making enemies, because he was an abusive prick. You can read some stories here. He grabbed DJs by the ear, and called them "fucking gypsies" and other even more choice  obscenities. He could be set off into a profane tirade by a misplaced stack of tapes, or open beverage containers. He got results, but when you get them that way.. there is no one to defend you when you go down... and some of them are just waiting to get their revenge.

The mid 1960s he began manipulating their news coverage of certain political races including an Oregon gubernatorial race in 1966, an Indiana U.S. Senate race in 1964, and a number of other political campaigns. Fox News does this every day now, but back in the sixties this was illegal.[It still probably should be.] The FCC investigated ethics complaints against him. the charges in the end were just a laundry list of every nasty thing he'd ever done, the rigged contests, double billing, illegal gifts, and those political missteps. He was probably guilty of most of it. They shut down his entire radio chain in September 1976: KISN, KOIL, WIFE and KEFM (formerly KOIL-FM). They spared nothing. Many have said that it was the harshest punishment the FCC ever dished out. More here.

In 1976 KOIL returned to the air under new ownership. Burden managed not to be convicted of any criminal wrong-doing, but lost between $15 and $20 million dollars of radio properties. In 1978, he bought another station, 97.7 KPEN-FM, in Los Altos California. He had been defacto running that station since 1963 but he didn't own it so they couldn't take it away. He sold it off in 1983. He died in 1985 at the age of 56.