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In the 1960s and '70s in Salt Lake City, teens turned to AM stations such as KMOR, KNAK and KCPX to hear hits by the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones.
Disc jockeys such as Lynn Lehmann, Wooly Waldron, Skinny Johnny Mitchell, Sleepy Gene Davis, Ray Graham, Chad O. Stevens, Big Daddy Hesterman, Michael G. Kavanagh, Johnny Rider and Jordon Mitchell became local celebrities.
They introduced big concerts, such as the Beach Boys at Lagoon or Glen Campbell opening at the old Salt Palace. In the song "Salt Lake City," one of the Beach Boys — probably Dennis Wilson — shouted out "KNAK" in the background after the lyric, "The No. 1 radio station makes the town really swing."
Barry Mishkind, writing on his blog "The Eclectic Engineer," praised the stations for knowing what their listeners wanted.
"By the mid '60s, 1280 KNAK had become the dominant rock station in town," wrote Mishkind, of Tucson, Ariz. "Morning jock Lynn Lehmann and night jock Skinny Johnny Mitchell gave the station a very distinctive sound, and program director Gary 'Wooly' Waldron had his finger squarely on the pulse of the Salt Lake audience."
"The golden age of AM radio coincided with the golden age of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, who helped make AM what it was," Lehmann said. "It was a symbiotic relationship."
But eventually, music stations drifted to the FM dial, where songs could be played in stereo. Though some local radio personalities are on the air today, most stations were gobbled up by corporate owners and many formats use Top 40 songs loaded on computers, for playlists homogenized nationally with little local input.
AM radio became synonymous with talk radio as national personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Jim Rome found their audiences there.
The station numbers of KNAK and KCPX of the 1960s — 1280 and 1320 — are now sports-talk channels. KNAK is now a station based out of Delta, while KCPX are the call letters for a Moab-based station.
Rise of KNAK • Lehmann, fondly remembered for his humorous Lehmann Lemon Awards, today writes books and teaches a class on the history of rock 'n' roll in Utah for the University of Utah's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. He worked as a television producer for Dick Clark in California after he was fired from KCPX on Dec. 5, 1980, the weekend John Lennon was shot and killed in New York City.
Lehmann began his career spinning records as a 17-year-old at KMOR in Murray in 1966.
That year, he met Bill Hesterman through Graham. Waldron and Mitchell were in the KNAK lineup. Davis, now a Democratic state senator from Salt Lake City, did the night show.
The station was at 1042 S. 700 West and had a big window in front. "Kids would pull into the parking lot and watch us," Lehmann recalled.
The station was owned by Howard Johnson — not the Howard Johnson of motel and ice cream fame. Johnson owned a Thunderbird, which Lehmann said Johnson's daughter Shirley took joy rides in. According to the disc jockey, that was the inspiration for the Beach Boys' hit "Fun, Fun, Fun."
"The year 1967 was a seminal year. It was the summer of love. By 1969, it probably had reached another peak that extended until the early 1970s," Lehmann said. KNAK "had the biggest ratings, and we owned the market."
Jumping ship • But at that point, KNAK's equipment wasn't working well and Lehmann asked Will Wright, who was the manager of KCPX, if he could be that station's morning show host. He got the job but had to wait until his KNAK contract was up; Waldron and Mitchell had already moved to the rival station.
According to Waldron, KCPX — an asset of Columbia Pictures — was the only station that was not locally owned.
"It was a dream job at a dream time," said Waldron, who still does some weekend work for KRSP FM. "We had free health care. We worked for a gigantic company with tens of thousands of employees. Corporate only came to town twice a year to get our budget approved. They sent us money and left us alone to do as we wished."
Waldron remembers staging a bathtub race on the Great Salt Lake, where he and Lehmann competed in one of KCPX's biggest promotions. Lehmann won.
"We had wireless telephones, which we had to sign up to get a week in advance, that were gigantic, so we could go on the air live. It garnered a lot of attention. People talked about it for years."
But probably no promotion was remembered as much as the Lehmann Lemon Awards. Lehmann took nominations and usually announced the award, which came in the form of a plaque with a lemon on it, at the end of the week.
Loving Lemons • Lehmann remembers a couple of favorite Lemons.
He gave a Lemon to The Salt Lake Tribune for a headline about Democratic Utah Gov. Scott Matheson, who kept vetoing Republican-sponsored legislation. The headline read, "Governor's Pen Is Busy." As Lehmann remembers it, there wasn't much of a space between the words "pen" and "is."
Another Lemon involved a young teacher who, while skiing with a friend at Alta, needed a restroom. There wasn't one at the top of the lift, so she found a clump of trees and dropped her drawers.
Then she began flying down the hill on her skis.
The same day, Lehmann recalled, "There was a guy at a clinic at Alta being treated for a broken leg."
The teacher, who also had ended up in the clinic after losing control, asked the skier what had happened.
He said he was laughing so hard at a woman who came down the hill with her pants down that he skied into a tree.
"I gave the award to the woman," Lehmann said.
After Lehmann, Mitchell and Waldron left KNAK for KCPX, the station stayed with a Top 40 format for a few years. Then KNAK went away. KCPX became Stereo X on an FM sister station. The AM station became nothing more than a fond memory for the teens of the '60s and '70s.
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