Posted on January 23rd, 2015
Don Campbell knows a thing or two about adversity.
He got cancer and spent the better part of a year in hospitals.
He almost died, and the treatments left him blind in one eye.
He’s 70, unemployed and has medical bills that rival the national debts of some countries.
“Sometimes I wake up and think maybe I died when I was in the hospital and that my life now is actually hell,” he said.
But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, for much of his life, Campbell was living his dream. He had a job he loved. He was a local celebrity. A pioneer in the early days of rock and roll radio, he brought new sounds to eager listeners when radio was a big part of young people’s lives. Campbell was a cornerstone of the era, and people like that shouldn’t be forgotten when life wears them down.
He grew up in Nampa with radio – and then Nampa station KFXD – in his blood.
“I was fascinated with that place ever since I was a little kid,” he said. “It was such a big deal. It had offices in Boise, studios in Nampa and Caldwell and a transmitter in Meridian. To me, it was the ultimate.”
But it had a problem. At a time when groups from Paul Revere and the Raiders to the Beatles dominated the charts, KFXD didn’t play rock and roll. Campbell, who went to work there as news director in the mid-1960s and later worked as a deejay, ad salesman and general manager, changed that.
“His role at KFXD and in local radio history is huge,” Idaho History of Broadcasting Foundation President Art Gregory said. “Don was a groundbreaking figure. He was the first person at that station to realize that rock and roll was big, that it was going to get bigger and that the station needed to start playing it. He made it happen, and that made KFXD a powerhouse. It became unstoppable.”
“When I went to work there,” Campbell said, “they were playing old people’s music. I thought that was ridiculous. And so did all the kids in the valley.”
One of those kids was Tom Scott, now a television sports personality and the owner of an ad agency but then a student at Boise High School.
“I wrote anonymous letters telling KFXD what it should play,” he said. “… They tracked me down and asked me my thoughts.”
That led to an internship at the station and eventually to a job as a midnight deejay, launching a career that made Scott a household word. It was Campbell who started it all, he said, “by getting me my first job, on the midnight show. I owe Don a lot.”
By then Campbell had transformed the station. He started by playing rock and roll for a few hours a day. It was so popular that gradually it took over the station’s entire schedule – 24 hours a day.
A big part of his success was something called the Red Steer Rocket Request Line. If you were a teenager who lived in southwest Idaho then, you remember it. Campbell didn’t invent it, but after another station dropped it and another KFXD deejay aired it for a short time, Campbell took over and made it a staple of teenagers’ lives.
“It was hellaciously popular,” Gregory said. “Every kid in the valley listened to it. … There were people who met their spouses through the show and are still together.”
The show used a simple but successful formula. Teenagers decided what songs would be on the radio by turning in request slips at Red Steer drive-in restaurants.
“There would be a girl who liked a boy and would put in a request for him,” Gregory said. “Or vice versa. Or sometimes people would use it to get even, by doing something like making a request from a family for a boy who broke their window and claimed he didn’t. The song would be ‘Liar Liar’ (a ’60s hit by the Castaways).”
For its deejay, the show was a lot of work:
“I’d go by every drive-in and get the request forms. I’d spread them out on the floor and put the records on top of them. Then I’d queue up a record, read the requests and play the record. It got to where there were so many requests that I’d have to split them up and play the record again later.”
Just getting records could be a problem.
“The record companies ignored Boise. I spent a lot of time on the phone trying to get them to send me new releases.”
He still laughs about a former sheriff who tried to stop him from playing songs about drugs.
“He thought Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ was a drug song. He thought ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ was a drug song. But he missed all the songs that actually were drug songs.”
As the request line’s popularity grew, Campbell became more than an ad salesman and deejay. He booked local bands and organized battles of the bands. He booked name acts like Chicago and the Doobie Brothers.
And, in a way, he became a friend to every teenager in the valley.
“I discovered that if you talked like a friend, like you were just having a conversation with a bunch of kids, it clicked. I wasn’t a stranger on the radio. I was a friend on the radio.”
KFXD became so popular he couldn’t imagine it ever changing. Until it did.
“It was sold in (1983),” he said. “They said I could stay, but everything was going to be run out of Green Bay, Wisc. It would all be structured and computerized. So I quit.”
He found other work, but radio remained the love of his life.
“It was so personal then,” he said. “Kids, not computers, decided the music we played. Radio was a big part of kids’ lives, and kids were a big part of radio. It was hard work, but I didn’t mind that. I loved it so much I could have worked 24 hours a day and never gotten tired.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on www.woodwardblog.come the following Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.