Pot It UP!

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?

13 thoughts on “Pot It UP!”

  1. That was a lovely remembrance of Phil. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told friends and strangers over the many years since I left KFRC about Phil, the Chief Engineer who could flush his toilet from his car. I was in Atlanta over the weekend, and I mentioned it even that recently.

    I’m sad to hear of his passing. My condolences to his family and his many friends.

  2. One Sunday afternoon and evening my family was over at The Lerza Foster City Compound for dinner and generally spirited goofing off. After dinner and cordials, Phil was showing me his garage studio complete with every RKO-built piece of equipment including better-than-2012 processing. I was having fun doing X-Rated intros on songs when Phil said, “you know I can break into programming on 610 from here and we could go live for a break with a song?!” Of course i said, “Get the F*+K outta here!” Needless to say I banged out Tommy Tutone and it was ON! That’s the night we invented ROFL.

  3. No station during Phil’s time, AM or FM, had the depth or “wall of sound” that KFRC produced. It added to the overall feeling of a true powerhouse station, whereby you did not dare tune away from 610, for fear you might miss something. During my nearly 30 years as a reporter at KXTV-10 in Sacramento, I had the opportunity to do several news stories at KFRC, at the Bush Street studio (and later Washington St), in Dr. Don’s home, and at the Mobil Sturgeon in Stockton. Each time Phil was there to make sure the audio feed we had directly into our camera reflected the high quality of KFRC’s signal. And, he, as well as George Zema, were NICE about it. RIP, Phil.

  4. Thanks Gerry for a great piece on Phil. I still get goosebumps recalling the first time I did a newscast on KFRC. Just as you said, even the news booth was like a capsule ready to blast off. Putting on the headphones and waiting for Chuck Browning to play the sounder. But it was the moment I spoke those call letters that I felt the power of Lerza’s magic. Nirvana. He was the first person to greet me on the way out, pat me in the back and say nice job and ask if there was anyrhing I needed. When we moved out of 415 Bush, I once dropped by the new space to view the wiring project and it was like observing great artists creating a masterpiece. Lerza and his team were steps ahead of the pack. As Bobby Ocean would say, “What a guy!”

  5. Thanks for the great stories, Gerry. I got to do Saturday mornings in the waning days of the Big 610. Talking up the intros to songs thru that processing was a sensual experience. Also, when I first came to the station, I had some difficulties with the engineers union, but Phil had my back and sorted it out. The KFRC prod studio
    was the only studio I ever worked in that had a giant EMT plate reverb in the basement of the building, another Phil brainchild. Phil may be gone from us, but his legacy will live on.

  6. Nicely written Gerry – you did a great job of capturing Phil. Especially the “P” and “L” distinction.

    It is little known (especially by the PDs) that Phil and the engineers maintained a “Bull S### Board” – essentially a patch panel that allowed them to create exactly the processing each program director requested, yet incorporating an easy way to bypass it as moods and/or employment status of said programmer changed. This was totally in keeping with the responsiveness you received.

    Phil was always game for making the product work for everyone. I had a deal with the engineers that they could experiment in the control room while I was on as long as they gave me the first 15 minutes of the show to get established. As you can imagine, I saw a lot of Phil. What a mensch.

    We have all lost a great friend and a wonderful man with this tragic passing.

    Thanks for the smile at a time of bottomless grief. BTP

  7. Phil found the fun in technology, what a great thing to bring to a radio station.

    He was so generous with his time and would teach you anything he knew, and with that nutty sense of humor and great grin. Many people are stingy with their wisdom. Not Phil.

    And, oh, those amazing things he built! From the remote cart start in the KFRC bathroom…to The Sturgeon & The Cessna…to going live from the deck of the U.S.S. Coral Sea…to that big plate reverb in the basement Scotty mentioned…to resurrecting the crazy Cart-O-Matic machine that Ocean had!

    Bond had Q, we had Phil. We win.

  8. Wow – how totally cool to read all these comments, and Gerry, your piece was right on the money…you are correct: you ‘did’ hafta work at KFRC, to understand the ‘magic’ that was (not only the entire station) but the audio chain.

    I recall my first ‘official’ show, doing 5p to 9p…I’d been in, doing a few hours, overnite, prior to this, so I wouldn’t come on, totally cold…but I tell ya, I STILL remember the rush, doing my first set, that first nite – whoo hoo! audio that made your heart swell, your mind try to register the shock, of, ‘I’ve NEVER heard audio THIS GOOD’!!!! just saying the calls, and hearing that compression just about suck your face off, was outstanding…and Phil was…the guy. Totally! THE GUY!

    I hadn’t been on, but 10-15 minutes, and was hyperventilating, sweating, chilling all at the same time, when he walked in, and introduced himself, and asked if everything was ok….
    CAN YOU IMAGINE??????!!!! A S I F !!!!!
    I told him, mister, you got this thing rockin’ on Mars, its so hot! and I went on and on to him , about this being the best audio EVER, in the universe…he just stood there, grinning bigtime, loving my loving it….after my devoted compliments, he asked if I needed anything…at this, I knew I had truly reached radio heaven – an engineer, asking ME, if I needed anything???? holy smoke…I told him, yes, I really would like a skimmer…he said, oh, yeah, that’s being repaired, it’ll be back tomorrow nite…And it was.
    He also told me to let him know, if I wanted to tweak the mike EQ; we each had different EQ’s for our headphones, when i was there, in ’84-’85…mine was perfectly fine, I thought…but just to have him have something to do, I asked for a tweak, after a few days…it was great, to have him adjust the high end, and the lows, just so I could ‘hear’ it !!!! 🙂

    Anyway…my short time at the Northern California Blowtorch, was superior in all ways…but I must say, the audio, probably ‘made it’…because no station I ever worked at before or since, has ever come close…to the sound that Phil was responsible for.

    what a dear man, ultra talented, and super nice to boot. Godspeed, Phil, your expertise and kindness, will always be remembered.

    aka The Slim One

  9. This is a great post. I’ve had the pleasure of working for Phil for the last 5 years at cbs. I can’t put a number on the things I learned from Phil, but there are a few things he taught me very early that proved early on that I was working for and learning from THE BEST engineer in radio… #1 – Do it right the first time, EVERYtime. I can’t remember ever seeing Phil make a mistake- it just didn’t happen. #2 – “Aaaaaaaaabsolutely!!”. He made it clear that it was our job to make happen what people requested. With requests from 4+ stations in the building, I can count on one hand the number of times Phil said “We just can’t”. #3 – You can be the best engineer in the world, but it means nothing if you don’t have the personality, honesty and heart that Phil did. I think the most important thing I learned from Phil was nothing he ever said, but everything he did. Never said no to helping someone, always said no to being repaid for it in any way. I’ve held many jobs but Phil’s the only person that’s ever taken me out to lunch at his favorite Chinese restaurant after interviewing me (which was the first time we ever met by the way). #4 – Laugh, make jokes, meet people and love every minute of it. Another thing Phil never said, but people that have known Phil will know that whether it was just a listener off the street or the most popular artist on the radio at the time, Phil had no problem marching right up to the person standing there, sticking out his hand and saying “Hi! I’m Phil Lerza!” and waiting for them to shake it and introduce themselves.

    If I can share a couple funny memories… When I started working in Radio was when Phil hired me. I was excited, it was a great job, I dressed for the occasion because I walked around and saw sales people in suits all day, shirt and tie, etc. I always wore a nice collared shirt, my nice boots, etc. That was a while ago. Friday before the sercive I truly had a difficult moment thinking “would Phil want me to wear this long sleeve, tie and slacks, or a short sleeve plaid shirt tucked into my blue jeans, and that made me laugh. I saw Phil dressed more than this only once, the day he was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame.

    Another great memory is when he finally got a hold of the Comrex Access system as a backup for me (I’m the remote broadcast engineer for the stations). He invited me over to his house to learn it with him and to test it out, since he already had the other end hooked up in master control at the station to the KFRC feed. First, I showed up on my motorcycle, which he HAD to sit on and rev the engine. He immediately started in on a conversation about what it would take for him to get a license and in my mind I was thinking “isn’t Phil in his 60’s?” …he didn’t care, he loved it and without a doubt was still youthful enough to get one without a doubt, although he didn’t – probably a good idea. Moving on, we moved to the comrex, and Phil opened the case and had a checklist of equipment ready to go as well as any cables and parts we could possibly ever need to get on the air with it – he didn’t take chances with that, there was ALWAYS a way to get on the air. He showed me the system all the way through to the wireless capability. He of course wanted to test it out so he put the headphones on, threw the wireless hotspot in his pocket and walked out of his garage into the street. He just stood there and stared at me still in his garage, hands cupped over his ears with no expression on his face listening closely to the feed (famous Phil). After a minute of that, he turned to his left and just started walking down the street. I just sat in his garage and waited until he returned. A few minutes later he walked back in and just said “WOOOOOWWW! That’s cool!!!” – he had walked all the way down the street and back, without really caring that I was still back at his house sitting in his garage. He rambled on and on about how cool it was that he could take this little box, walk down the street and be fully on the air doing a remote. It was then that I realized how amazing this must have been for him, seeing that the last time someone could really do that involved a Winebego studio and Phil circling around in an airplane above, and now he had all of that in one hand, AND how amazing of an engineer he was knowing that he actually did that. He LOVED the technology and I since have developed my own appreciation for it, though I know I’ll never love it as much as Phil. And if you were wondering, that blue 6RU road case with the repeater that he stuck in the Cessna is still in the engineering cage at the station. Every time I walk in there it reminded me that I truly was working with the best there was.

    I apologize for rambling here, but this past week has been difficult, as Phil has had an enormous impact on my life, becoming a teacher and mentor for me the last 5 years, not just a boss, and it helps to share stories. I wish I knew Phil longer than 5 years like most of you, but I think what I will enjoy most about the situation is that any memory of Phil can turn tears into laughter, and that part of Phil is what’s helped get me through the week…


  10. I was about 19 when I found myself as interim Chief Engineer at 106 KMEL (Rockin the Bay). One day the transmitter crashed, needing major repairs, and it was Phil Lerza, then at KFRC, who came to San Bruno Mountain, where I was living 24/7 in the transmitter shack, and quite literally held my hand until the station was back on the air. I’ll always be grateful for his professionalism and his kindness to a kid who was in way over his head. Praying for peace for him and his family.

  11. Hi Gerry.

    It was shocked and horrified when the news of Phil reached me. Have been in a disbelief-induced stupor ever since.

    Phil was so approachable, and always the first to offer his help. Unlike most “help”, Phil didn’t just offer to help, he’d actually show up and do it!

    You would think that Phil should be so secretive about his personal inventions, like the “KFRC sound”. Not so. In 2000, I sent Phil an email out of the blue, mentioning that I wanted to emulate the sound on one of my AM’s that was switching from a pseudo top 40 to a “Power Oldies” format. I honestly never expected Phil to respond to the email. The very next morning, there was an email from Phil in my inbox with somewhat detailed information about what he did to achieve the sound on KFRC!

    Later on, I exchanged more email, and had face to face conversations with Phil about all sorts of geeky engineer stuff. He wasn’t like most engineers today where they think they know it all and put up walls to protect their ruse. Phil really did know what he was talking about, and didn’t have any kind of walls up around him. You could ask him anything and he would give you the right answer, and not try to make you feel dumb or dazzle you with a superiority complex. You so rarely see that these days.

    I miss Phil. I miss his meekness and his vast knowledge. I miss his grace under pressure, and I will miss the opportunity to have had more interaction with him about geeky engineering things, and especially reminiscing about when radio used to love us back!

    Ask anyone that listened to KSTN during the “Power Oldies” era, it sounded just like KFRC. So help me, JUST like KFRC.

    God Bless Phil Lerza.

  12. Phil struck me from the moment I met him that this was the way human beings were supposed to be. Completely positive, humble, masterful and passionate. I was in awe from the time I first heard the audio in my headphones on both 610 and 99.7. Growing up listening to 610 in Sacramento and then getting to actually be on that station was the thrill of my life.

    One of my best Phil memories was when I was on the air one evening and Phil was working under the other side of the console, where the guest mics are. I played some obscure Sly song that had not been on the station in years (but was back thanks to Brian White’s musical guts) and Phil jerked his head out from the inner workings of the cabinets, banged his head on the underside of the counter, sheepishly rubbed his now aching head and smiled that Phil smile and said “Geez…I haven’t heard that song on the air in Years! COOL!!! And he started boppin for a bit before ducking back to work. Totally, completely fully in love with life and his living. He was so passionate about everything having to do with the station. I wish we could all be Phil for just an hour. It would be a trip. Thanks Phil for touching so many of us.

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