A few weeks ago, I was speaking to a friend who I wanted to interview for my column. However, stating that he did not feel comfortable talking about himself since he is a very private person, he and another gentleman both suggested that I interview Don Barrett because he is a very interesting person…and they were right.
Don grew up on the beach in Santa Monica, an only child who befriended his imaginary friends on the radio. He surfed in Malibu but really preferred surfing on the radio. His defining moment when his love affair with radio began was his discovery of doo-wop songs. It was the 50s, and the industry was struggling with whether the Pop favorites of Rick Nelson and Pat Boone would give way to the rock ‘n roll sensation of Elvis, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry.
After graduating from Chapman University in Orange County, he made the journey to be a rock ‘n roll disc jockey. On March 10, 1965, Don left Santa Monica and headed North: Oxnard, Ventura, and Santa Barbara only to hear, “sorry, we’re looking for someone with experience.” At 1 pm he pulled into the parking lot at KNEZ in Lompoc and said to Cal Cannon, the owner and general manager of KNEZ, “I want to be a rock ‘n roll DJ.” Cal said, “I just fired the program director an hour ago and have no one to go on the air at 3,” and he raised his arm and said, “I’m ready.” He was on the air that afternoon and began a journey that took him to Kansas City, San Francisco, Dallas, and Detroit.
In 1967, Don responded to a trade publication ad placed by Gordon McLendon, the Father of Top 40 radio, who was looking for “The Magnificent Seven,” seven young men to learn under his personal tutelage prior to being dispatched to his seven FM radio stations. After a strange battery of tests and examinations, four months later, he was on his way to Dallas at Lake Cielo, Gordon’s 500-acre ranch. There was a party going on and, after dropping his bags in Chill Wills’ bunkhouse, his home for the next month, he headed to the action. There was a best-selling author, an astronaut, a movie star, and a couple of Dallas Cowboys. He spent five years with Gordon traveling to FCC hearings and moved up the ladder as program director at KABL-San Francisco, National Program Director, salesperson for XTRA/KOST, and eventually general manager at WWWW (W4) and WDRQ in Detroit, all before turning 30.
When K-100 was sold in 1974, the first phase of his radio career ended, so he joined the motion picture business, working as a marketing executive at Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, and MGM/UA. He said that the parallels of the movie business and radio business are unique. You are selling an intangible which you cannot touch or feel or squeeze. He was part of the marketing efforts on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Out of Africa, E.T., Rocky movies, Thelma & Louise, Back to the Future, and James Bond films.
On a flight from LAX to Berlin on his way to Cannes, while sitting in first class, Don saw a gentleman who continued to request cocktails from take-off until the steward had to stop serving him. The gentleman continued to ring the call button until he lunged at the steward and knocked them both to the ground, where they wrestled. Another steward summoned the pilot, who quickly came down to see what the commotion was all about. With no fanfare, no lights, no audience, the man in the front seat got up and separated the two men. It was Michael Jackson and, as soon as they realized that the King of Pop was acting as peacemaker, they stopped like school kids busted by the principal or their own moms. Who knew Michael Jackson would be a peacemaker at 30,000 feet on what could have erupted into an ugly confrontation?
Following a series of management changes at MGM/UA, he entered his second phase of his radio love affair. After tracking down the original seven swingin’ gentlemen at KFWB/Color Radio Channel 98, he was encouraged to write a book. The Los Angeles Radio People was published in 1994, and it chronicled where the DJs came from, where and when they were on the air, and where and when they went. It was a big enough hit to spawn a larger, more complete book that not only updated the DJs but also added news and sportspeople, talk show hosts, program directors, and general managers. It ended up being 400 pages profiling over 3,000 personalities, and boasted 500 photos.
Within days of the book being published, several popular personalities died, which make his book seem outdated. The Wild Wild Web to the rescue and LARadio.com was born. Almost immediately, DJs and other radio people, past and present, gravitated to the site. He was euphoric when 100 visitors each day read the current news and, before long, he passed 1,000 visitors a day…and then 15,000 visitors each day. Obviously, the site is much more than “stuff” on radio people, and radio fans made the site a daily visit.
Don was a single father to a son who now works in Naples. A second marriage produced two more children. His daughter delivered her first child, his first grandchild, just before the pandemic, and he is looking forward to a visit in the near future. His other son was volunteering in Zambia for the Peace Corps but was evacuated and brought home 13 months ago.
Ten years ago, all of Don’s children were grown and out of the house…and he had been single for a number of years. He was 70 and figured that he was at the end of his romantic days. He went surfing on a couple of internet dating sites and met and fell in love with a widow from Santa Barbara. They were married on the beach at Summerland. He sold his home in Valencia and moved in with his new wife, Cherie. Since she cared for her MS husband for 36 of their 38 years of marriage, she was never able to travel, so they have traveled all over the world, making up for lost time.
During their first years of marriage, they traveled along the coast for weekend adventures. One such trip was to Sycamore Springs. They thought Avila Beach was beautiful…a secret slice of paradise with its own microclimate. They had dinner at the Old Custom House, and Cherie asked, “Can we live here?” They found a townhouse in Pelican Point within the San Luis Bay Estates as “their” house. They love their neighbors, taking their golf cart down to the beach frequently, and enjoy people-watching during the Friday Farmer’s Market. It only took three Spaghetti Dinners/Bingo Nights for Cherie to win one of the Bingo games at the Avila Beach Community Center. Cherie was very active in hospice work until the pandemic, but she plans to return when it is safe for volunteers. Don has been involved with men starting a new life in a 12-step program at the Center. He is also a voting member of the Motion Picture Academy, and at the end of each year, they watch dozens of movies nominated for Academy Award Oscars.
Don believes that every day is like starting a new life: whatever you did yesterday doesn’t count; it’s the future that counts! I guess that is why Don is contemplating his fifth career at this time.