Pot It Up!
Radio lost a great talent this week. I lost a friend.
In an industry where engineers are nameless, faceless souls who, for the most part, never “got it,” Phil Lerza was a superstar. Programmers who couldn’t tell you who their own engineer was knew all about Phil. Lerza was the superstar who perfected the KFRC sound. And what a sound. Envied by programmers across the country, many tried, but none succeeded in duplicating the sound of the Big 610. In short, Phil Lerza “Got it.”
Unless you worked at KFRC, you have no idea how perfect the radio station was. The industry measured how many hours stations were off the air during any given year. KFRC measure that time in seconds. Quite simply, KFRC was never off the air. Duplicate control rooms, backup music carts, generators, compressors and all sorts of whistles and bells were just a part of the process. In the cocoon of the control room, you were wrapped in perfection. It just didn’t get any better.
And the one person who made the Starship run was Phil Lerza. No need to ask for Warp Speed, we were already there…and light years faster. Every person on the staff loved Phil Lerza. For what he did…and for who he was.
I always told Lerza he was God’s Chief Engineer…that if God had a radio station, Phil would be His engineer. I guess I was right. The Big Station in the sky needed tweaking and God called Lerza on the hotline. He’ll have it perfect for our arrival. And when we get there, he’ll give us that wry smile and say, “Bud, what took you so long? I’ve been waiting for you. Sit down and pot it up.”
We all have specific memories of Phil and I invite all of you to share your comments. All of his friends will see them and I’ll send them along to his family. Some of mine begin the tale…
I had problems with every engineer I worked with. None understood Top 40. All wanted a smooth sound…a straight line with no peaks. I wanted it to thump. In my first meeting with Phil, I told him I wanted the compression to hit me like a wave right in the chest. I explained by pounding on my chest. Instead of looking at me like I had three heads, Phil nodded and said, “I got it.” And he did. The compression increased within minutes.
Several weeks after my initial meeting, I called him into my office and said, “I want more compression.” Phil nodded quickly and said, “I’ll do it, but you won’t like it.” I tried not to show my aggravation. “Do it please,” I snapped. He nodded again and looked at me with those wide, inquisitive eyes. “OK.” The next day, I met with him again. With much chagrin, I asked that he back off on the compression. Without a hint of “I told you so,” he nodded and said, “OK.” I love the guy. After that, we had a continuing contest. Phil would tweak the sound without telling me. I would always know. I would come into his office and say, “You changed the settings, didn’t you?” He was always amazed that I knew. What he didn’t know was that he had a tell. His eyes always gave him away.
For years, I had wanted to create a mobile studio. I never understood why radio was confined to a control room. It would be so much better to meet our listeners without sacrificing our own environment. I had talked with engineers at other stations before and was rebuffed out of hand. “Can’t be done,” was the answer. Oh, call-ins could happen or occasional remote broadcasts where the jock would speak into a mic, but nothing that showed the excitement of the whole show. I brought up it up to Phil. “Great idea,” he said. “Let me think about it.” I figured this was a stall tactic. Three days later he was back. “I think we need to buy a Winnebago, tear it down and rebuild it to our specs. And I figured out a way we could do this moving, if you want. I’ll fly a plane over the mobile studio and rebroadcast the signal back to the station.” Say what? Who had a mobile studio at the time? Who had an engineer who wanted to do mobile broadcasting while moving? Who had an engineer with a pilot’s license who flew the plane that rebroadcast the signal? The KFRC Mobile Studio, nicknamed The Sturgeon, became history and legend.
I loved Phil for many reasons, but chief among those was his honesty. Two stories underline that. One of many consultants came through KFRC. I had a party at my house and the latest consultant was there. Phil asked, “Who’s the stiff?” I told him it was another consultant trying to impress us. I said, “He’s a good guy.” Phil looked at me and shook his head. “No he isn’t.” As usual, Phil was right.
In my first department head meeting, we gathered around the conference room table. Phil and I were on one side alone. GM Pat Norman said he wanted to focus our discussion that day on P&L. Phil leaned in close to me and said, “Let me make this easy for you. Those guys over there,” pointing to the two Sales Managers, “they’re P. You and I are L.”
And who could forget those wonderful remote broadcasts from Lake Tahoe? And the dinners we had at Beni Hana where we got the private room by ordering for an empty chair. We told the waiters it was our alcoholic colleague who was in the bathroom. Phil loved that. And when I dine at Beni Hana’s this weekend, there will be an empty chair for my friend Phil.
What are your memories?