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What winners of those KSON, KCBQ, KGB give-aways got

Even the story's author got his present job in a contest

We had to spin little numbered wheels (dials) to make someone else’s phone ring. Timing the dial to a specific time frame — say, enough time for nine other callers to get through, so you could win at number ten — required pacing your spins to a specific cadence, counting the clicks, and then being ready to re-dial the microsecond that the busy signal screamed Loser! in your ear.
We had to spin little numbered wheels (dials) to make someone else’s phone ring. Timing the dial to a specific time frame — say, enough time for nine other callers to get through, so you could win at number ten — required pacing your spins to a specific cadence, counting the clicks, and then being ready to re-dial the microsecond that the busy signal screamed Loser! in your ear.

It feels good to be a winner. Who doesn’t love being the best — or at least the first, or the luckiest? People congratulate you, make you feel special and singled out. And you get free stuff. Oh sure, some folks will say the rewards you most appreciate are the ones you’ve earned: the returns that required the most effort, or the greatest sacrifice. But, really, what’s better than simply getting something for nothing?

The first contest I remember winning was when I was 11, around 1971, when I scored a 45 RPM record of Melanie’s “Brand New Key” by being the correct number caller to a local radio station. I don’t recall if my voice went out live on the air, but I do remember the narcotic thrill of victory, which was still a lingering buzz when the record arrived a week or so later. It didn’t even matter that it was cracked and had to be Scotch-taped on the B-side to be playable, almost surely screwing up my Sears phonograph needle. The record still provided tangible, audible evidence that lil’ ol’ JAS was, for once, a gen-you-wine winner.

I’d had my first taste and wanted more. Eventually, I figured out some of the tricks and timing to the old dial-tone method. Back in the Stones’ age, we had to spin little numbered wheels (dials) to make someone else’s phone ring. Timing the dial to a specific time frame — say, enough time for nine other callers to get through, so you could win at number ten — required pacing your spins to a specific cadence, counting the clicks, and then being ready to re-dial the microsecond that the busy signal screamed Loser! in your ear. The touch-tone phones of the later ‘70s moved pushbutton phone-play into videogame territory, all beeps and flying fingers, punctuated by frequent bursts of percussive cursing.

The next thing I won on the radio was a Funkadelic album that never would have turned up at my neighborhood record store. Then a few years later, it was tickets to see Wishbone Ash, a general admission show where we sat right up front. My girl even won a pair of radio station tix to see the Rolling Stones in the early ‘80s. I think she was running the booth at a self-serve gas station at the time, and called on the station phone. Neither of us were big Stones fans, but we were excited to go because we figured it might be their last tour. (We couldn’t have been more wrong; good thing no prizes depended on that guess.) The seats were probably the worst I’ve ever had at an arena event — most radio station tickets turned out to be the least sell-able nosebleed or obstructed-view seats in the house.

Back in the day, frequent radio winners were quasi-career contestants, working their speed dial, borrowing IDs from friends to get around repeat-winner rules, and spinning through all the local stations in search of pop-up prize van promotions with the dogged determination of a bloodhound on meth. “I have been winning on local radio stations in San Diego since I was 18,” local Procoat Painting owner Michael Mayhue told me. “I am 54 now and still win frequently, enough to get several [IRS form] 1099s each year. So many prizes throughout the years!”

DJs dubbed these frequent winners “contest pigs,” and their ever-evolving set of prohibitive rules attempted – but failed – to give more casual contestants a fair shot. Contest pigs were like ticket scalpers in a way, seizing on a little slice of pop culture profiteering that squeezed out the majority of everyday competitors. Returning winners were even reselling their booty via local classifieds, and then the internet. After all, a person can use only so many nosebleed concert seats, Van Halen vanity mirrors, Scorpions sun-hats, Homegrown albums, and KGB Chicken keychains.

Richard Fox won a call-in contest for a Wayne’s World videotape. That made him eligible for a grand prize trip to New York City to see a taping of Saturday Night Live - which he also won.

It’s easy for radio promotions to backfire. KSON once mailed out hundreds of thousands of scratch-off cards, with the offer of a cash prize to whoever found the station’s call letters on the card. Because they weren’t specific about where the call letters could be found (they never said “beneath the scratch-off material”), KSON faced thousands of angry listeners demanding their cash. That promotion won the station Billboard magazine’s award for Turkey Promotion of the Year.

During the 1970s energy crisis, KSON gave away a tank of gas every hour for five weeks. In 1979 alone, the station reportedly spent over $20,000 on contest promotions. These included contests such as Be A Millionaire For A Day (free interest on $1 million dollars for one day, which was around $300), and America's Finest Contest, where listeners solved San Diego-centric clues to score TVs, kitchen appliances, and high end bicycles. KSON listeners were also winning an ounce of silver each day, with each winner eligible for a weekly ounce of gold award.

For a while, radio prizes were going over the top. In the early ‘70s, KCBQ AM's imaginative Last Contest series, dreamed up by program director Jack McCoy, offered hourly “secret phone numbers” which listeners could call to score prizes. These were promised to include helicopter rides, a yacht, new cars, and a Catalina Island mansion with a moat. Reportedly, after 13 Last Contest days, when the final secret phone number was given out, a large portion of San Diego’s phone network went down from the overwhelming call-in response.

Most radio giveaways involved far more mundane promo items, but the prizewinners still fondly recall their lucky day, even decades later. “I won a crocheted bikini [around] 1970 from KCBQ,” remembers ocean conservationist and marine life enthusiast Deb Bruels, who found her prize a perfect match for her proclivity for being around water. “I have no photos, sadly. It was white.”

Really, just about any win feels like a good win. “KCBQ used to have a contest called Name It and Claim It,” says David A. Lucas, a former administrator for the San Diego Unified School District. “As a child, I got a few 45s that way.”

“I won a Superscope Radio from KCBQ in 1977, basically an early boombox...It was my pride and joy for quite a long time, at least until I got a proper stereo setup. I absolutely loved that radio, and it was a beast by 1977 standards.” —Janet Wells

Acupuncturist Janet Wells, who operates Greater Harmony Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine, mentions being 12 when “I won a Superscope Radio from KCBQ in 1977, basically an early boombox.” The prize was the delayed result of entering a raffle at a walk-a-thon weeks before.

“I got to school one morning, and a good friend of mine told me she had been listening to KCBQ that morning and my name had been called as the winner of a Superscope radio. As a born cynic, I was skeptical, but she had no reason to lie. When I got home, I told my mother, who also did not believe it. But I was convincing enough to get her to call the radio station, at which time they confirmed that yes, I had indeed won the radio. That night, my mom, dad and I went to KCBQ to pick up the Superscope. I was in no way familiar with what a Superscope radio was, and I was expecting a little transistor number similar to what I already had, but hey, it was free! My dad and I ran into the station and were given a huge box, which shocked us both. Inside was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen or owned up to that point. It was my pride and joy for quite a long time, at least until I got a proper stereo setup. I absolutely loved that radio, and it was a beast by 1977 standards, with a radio and cassette tape deck built in. I kept that radio for probably 20 years, at which point I think I gave it to charity. I wish I still had it, in retrospect. And I’ve never won another thing in a raffle.”

“Johnny Downs had a contest to name a rabbit at the Children’s Zoo in San Diego, I won with the name Sissy. My prize was a Dragnet police car.” —Vernon Westenberger

Retired engineer Nick Boscia, who lived in Spring Valley and attended Grossmont College, recalls, “I had an official KCBQ streak team T-shirt, and won tickets to concerts by having an ‘I Q IN MY CAR’ bumper sticker back in the day.” Other local radio stations also saturated the streets with bumper sticker promotions. In the late ‘70s, one Volkswagen owner on Abbott Street in OB earned neighborhood notoriety by completely covering their car in stickers representing every radio station in Southern California likely to offer a prize to drivers. The car was so decrepit that the stickers were deemed to be about the only thing keeping it in one piece.

Local legend has it that, during the ‘70s peak of contest one-upmanship, KCBQ program director Buzz Bennett used an impromptu competition to turn technical difficulties into an almost impossible triumph. One afternoon, when the station was having difficulty staying on the air — it kept blanking out for minutes at a time — Bennett had the DJ announce that every time the station returned to the air after a blackout glitch, the first caller would win a hundred bucks. The result was thousands of people all over San Diego, intently listening to completely dead air in place of KCBQ, just waiting for sound to come out of the radio again so they could call in and win. Utilizing little more than the station’s pocket change to convince a whole city to listen to nothing is quite a programming feat.

“I was actually paid to be a seat filler for America’s Funniest Videos. They have talent contests between scene setups. I decided to sing Elvis’s version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ They gave me a Macarena Singing Gorilla as the running prize.” —Will Clausen

Meanwhile, KGB FM was sticking with the free concert tickets and albums template, although the success of their AM rival’s Last Contest soon upped the ante. KGB prizes were upgraded to vacation trips, high-end electronics provided by sponsoring local merchants, and oddball one-offs like a dune buggy, a rebuilt school bus outfitted as a “Concert Camper,” and even a complete collection of Silver Surfer comic books (probably now worth far more than either motor vehicle).

“I won Florence Henderson’s red bra from KGB when they were doing the bit ‘Cups for Komen’s,’” recalls Temecula guitarist Larry Thompson. In the late '70s, the station's AM incarnation was also giving away things like hundred dollar bills every three hours to call-in winners, as well as phoning registered listeners at home to offer $1300 for answering with the correct catchphrase. The KGB van hit the road in 1979 on Fridays to set up at gas stations and pay for properly bumper-stickered listeners to fill up their gas tanks.

“I won tickets to Bachman Turner Overdrive, $100, and a couple other things from the San Diego Chicken with KGB,” says Andy Tillinghast, who lived in San Diego from 1969 through 1980 and became a first-time winner at age 25, circa that early 1976 BTO show. “No strategy, just luck. A bunch of us were unemployed, so whenever the radio said the Chicken was somewhere, we’d all head down to find him. I took a friend to see BTO, ‘cause it was a pair of tickets. A while later, he won a pair to see Pink Floyd! Got the tickets from the Chicken in a parking lot, but can’t recall where, maybe at the beach somewhere. I remember BTO being so loud, it hurt my ears. Never was much of a fan. Later, I won the $100 from KGB on a call-in; they’d take a certain caller to win and I lucked out. If I recall, the Chicken was at the studio when I went to pick up the check. Couldn’t give me cash, and I ended up having to pay tax on it.”

“My mom won many radio contests,” says Fallbrook country music fan Julia Ward Weldy. “One year, it was a trip to Alaska the week of Christmas. We went to the North Pole on the brand new Alaska Airlines. My sister won a fancy electronic piano, which was fitting, because she was a professional pianist.”

“I won a 7 Up cooler from Clark Anthony on KFMB,” recalls Carol Qualin. “It was a Name That Tune question, a few notes of ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding. Seventh caller!” KFMB's late '70s China Trip contest required listeners to piece together three "secret sounds" and call in with their answer to win free dinners and tickets to concerts and sporting events. The grand prize winner got a trip for two to China.

Other KFMB promotions included a late '70s Fame Game, where 7-Eleven carried entry forms that could be mailed in so that random names could be chosen to sing on the air as part of an ad agency-created jingle. If you heard your name being sung, you called in and won a prize, with all winners eligible for a grand prize. The 1979 winner, retired naval officer Ben Solano of El Cajon, won the cash interest on $1 million dollars (for one day), his name on a bunch of local buses and flown on a banner from a plane, and a supermarket shopping spree than ran just over a minute and netted him $686 worth of meat.

The most successful radio promotions tended to be the ones that tied into music that station was championing, since putting a band in constant rotation was a good way for the station to score top-shelf prize opportunities. “I won a backstage party with Queen and Thin Lizzy from KPRI; they threw in a free ticket,” remembers musician Douglas Henry.

Video:

Michael Keaton Monologue: Interrogation - Saturday Night Live

Richard Fox of Tabs Etc., Inc. was 23 years old in 1992 when he was listening to Jeff and Jer on the radio and won a call-in contest for a Wayne’s World videotape. That made him eligible for a grand prize trip to New York City to see a taping of Saturday Night Live. “I was even more lucky to be the winner Monday morning when the [program character] Trailer Park Lady called my house. What’s funny is that my mom answered the phone, but couldn’t understand her, so she hung up on her.” After a few more explanatory phone calls, Fox’s November 13, 1992 SNL trip was booked for him and his dad. “Our seats were not the best, but just to be there was an experience I’ll never forget. Michael Keaton was the host and Morrissey was the band. My dad and I really enjoyed Michael, but Morrissey, not so much.” Fox still owns the original Wayne’s World VHS prize.

Not all local radio hosts were on board with the constant giveaways. “I always considered a contest to be an annoyance that interfered with my performance,” longtime KGB DJ Jim McInnes tells me. “The ones I did enjoy were the handful that offered trips to Europe. Trips that included ME! Those trips took me to Ireland, England, Denmark, and Russia.”

Paid vacations were nearly a staple on local radio in the late '70s. KOGO AM handed out trips to London, Florida, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and the contest-closing Holiday Special, an all-expense-paid trip to any U.S. city. KCBQ gave away an all-expense-paid trip for two to Rome in 1979, while KFSD gave away a weekend in San Francisco (sponsored by Western Airlines) the same year. KIFM gave away trips, but not too far away - winning Room at the Top contestants won top-floor room accommodations at the Islandia Hotel. Winners of KJOY FM's 1979 Bingo Game earned $5000 cash and a round-trip ticket for two to any city in the world. Runners-ups won trips to Hawaii and a Caribbean cruise.

“I won a press pass for the Rolling Stones, November 1, 1964. It was a radio contest from KDEO, an AM station. I was one of about eight to ten people who all met at a gate in a chain link fence at Lindbergh Field and watched [the band’s] plane taxi in.” —Jan Tonnesen

Aside from the standard event ticket giveaways that proliferated hourly on local radio, some concert prizes were truly one-of-a-kind. “I won a press pass for the Rolling Stones, November 1, 1964,” recalls singer-guitarist Jan Tonnesen, who was 14 at the time. The future vet of local bands such as the Contrasts, Avengers, and the Troy Dante Inferno says his previous experience as a contest winner was limited to everyday awards such as accordion lessons. “It was a radio contest from KDEO, an AM station. A ‘Be the third caller and win’ sort of thing. I picked it up from the station. I was one of about eight to ten people who all met at a gate in a chain link fence at Lindbergh Field and watched [the band’s] plane taxi in. We saw them get off the plane from about 100 yards away. They waved at us, got into a car, and drove away. That was it.”

Daniel Longueuiel was an artist and photographer whose 1960s gigs included creating logos like “The Now Sound” designs for local top 40 rock station KDEO that appeared on bus stop benches and billboards all over town.

Harpo singer-guitarist Mark Delguidice, who moved to San Diego in 1999, remembers, “I once won tickets on the radio for Disney on Ice. I called in an answer, which was, ‘Who was the last of the Seven Dwarves,’ which I now do not recall. I dialed the number myself and, as Mom approached, she heard me on the radio. I was excited to win, yet bummed, ‘cause I had to take my little sisters. At 11 years old. So embarrassing. I also took two friends, and Mom of course. I had a crush on Snow White. [We had] up-front box seats, and she came by as they announced me as the contest winner and waved and blew me a kiss! It was super fun, I became a celebrity at school for a week or two.”

Local television mined demographic gold with contest giveaways that were especially effective with kids who were already devoted to programs like The Johnny Downs Show, which ran from 1953 through 1968 on Channel 10 (known as KFSD, and later KOGO). “Johnny Downs had a contest to name a rabbit at the Children’s Zoo in San Diego,” shares Vernon Westenberger, who grew up in Skyline Hills. “I won with the name Sissy. My prize was a Dragnet police car. It was pretty big back in the early ‘60s. I no longer have the car. I did visit the rabbit at the zoo.”

This prize ended up on Ebay

Debbie Meyers Kimbrell, a former teacher for the Fontana Unified School District, remembers. “I won a Loonatoonarooni, a plastic musical toy, from Johnny Downs when he picked my name and called me up on the telephone during his show. I believe it was about 1969 to 1970, so I was 10 or 11. I sent my name in for a contest for the treasure box. You picked the number for a small door. He opened the door of that number. If you didn’t win the treasure, which I didn’t, you got a single prize. I was excited to be picked, but disappointed to not win the big prize. I remember my neighbor saw it on TV, but I don’t remember my school classmates talking about it. I probably told them.”

Kimbrell says she no longer has the toy, which she describes as “a plastic whistle type musical instrument with buttons like, say, a clarinet would have. It was multicolored plastic as well. I tried to look it up and found nothing. I remember it as a childhood memory, so it certainly made an impression on me. I do remember it as quite an adrenaline rush to get that phone call from the guy on the TV. I also remember not getting to watch this as it was unfolding, because our only phone was attached to the wall in the kitchen, and our only TV was in the family room.”

The titular leader of the Will Clausen Band recalls a TV score from around 20 years ago. “I was actually paid to be a seat filler for America’s Funniest Videos. They have talent contests between scene setups. I decided to sing Elvis’s version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ They gave me a ‘Macarena’ Singing Gorilla as the running prize. Later in the show, the audience voted on the talent competition for the final hundred-dollar prize, and I was the winner. Yes, I still have the gorilla in storage. But I spent the hundred bucks.”

Shambles and Manual Scan guitarist Kevin J. Ring recalls, “I won a flight to Las Vegas via the Fox 5 Morning News. It was on a new airline flying out of Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. I still have the certificate, because the airline stopped operating before I had a chance to redeem it. The photo I took of my name on the TV showing that I won comes up in my Facebook memories every year, to mock me.”

“I won an all-expenses paid trip to L.A. for the world premiere of Iron Man 3. One of the smaller prizes offered was an Iron Man poster. The poster is why I entered, I wanted one for my son. They were giving away so many posters that I figured I had a great chance to win one for him.” —Eddie Parker

Even cable providers hopped onto the contest bandwagon. “I won an all-expenses paid trip to LA for the world premiere of Iron Man 3,” recalls comic book collector Eddie Parker. “Also got to meet some of the cast. Was a pretty elitist event. This poor Ohio-born longhair hanging amongst the rich was a very weird experience. Not my cup of tea. However, it was a once in a lifetime trip.”

Parker says he wasn’t even trying for the film premiere. “One of the smaller prizes offered was an Iron Man poster. The poster is why I entered, I wanted one for my son. They were giving away so many posters that I figured I had a great chance to win one for him. I entered on a Sunday night. The next day, there was an e-mail from some verification group telling me I had won…I proceeded to contact the verification group, only to find out I had not won a poster. In fact, I had won a trip to the IM3 premiere in Hollywood.” He says that his wife at first insisted the contest was some kind of scam. “It wasn’t until all the forms I had to sign started coming in,” that she started to think it might be real, “but ultimately it was our plane tickets that provided her the proof she needed.”

The motion picture debuted April 24, 2013, at Hollywood’s famed Chinese Theater. “Before the premiere, we got to walk the red carpet and watch all the stars arrive. After the movie, we were able to meet Don Cheadle and William Sadler. Cheadle gave an autograph. Sadly, Sadler would not. We were also treated to a big dinner for all the winners of the trip, as we were not the only ones.” It was a dizzying experience. “We flew round trip. Stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel right across from the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. All expenses paid, plus $500 spending cash.” The Parkers also received IM3 branded 3D glasses, an Iron Man T-shirt, various Verizon branded items (pen, note pad, water bottles, snacks), and a massive Marvel Blu-ray set. “It comes in a replica briefcase with all the phase one movies and a bunch of collectibles, including the Tesseract. Not bad, considering I only ever intended to try for a poster, which I never got.”

Local print media noticed the public enthusiasm for free stuff. For decades, the Reader’s in-house puzzle contests offered prizes like Reader-branded hats and T-shirts that are still almost as omnipresent around town as worn-out concert tees and John Deere caps. And I probably owe my nearly three-decade career at the Reader to a contest entry. I spotted a mid-’90s ad in the paper offering a $500 prize for the best local music story. When I submitted a detailed account of all the methods I used to sneak into dozens of local concerts, the paper not only gave me the cash prize and a feature slot, but I got an invitation to contribute to the weekly Blurt column that evolved into a full-time job. The gig eventually supplanted my own comic book publishing business as my main source of income.

I actually threw a few weird contests of my own while serving as managing editor of Hillcrest’s Revolutionary Comics. Around 1993, we did a title called Starjam that chronicled the history of the Beverly Hills 90210 TV show and presented illustrated bios of the stars. I ran a contest inviting readers (most of them in grade school or middle school) to write an essay about why they loved the Fox network show, and the winner would get the original artwork to one of our 90210 comic stories. Several of us took turns reading the submissions, and I remember calling the winner’s home to talk to her parents rather than contacting her directly. They seemed thrilled and proud of their daughter’s win, but claimed they had known nothing of her entry and asked to be the ones to tell her that she won.

Oddly, I don’t think any of us ever talked to the actual winner, who had written that she was in 8th grade. As we were packing the artwork to ship, somebody floated the idea that maybe it was the adults we spoke to who actually entered the contest. I kind of suspected that myself, right up until around three years ago, when a woman contacted me via Facebook to say she was the one who’d won the contest, that she was indeed a student at the time, and that she still had the artwork, 25 years later!

Even lame prizes can prove memorable. Local music fan Eric R. recalls, “I won a copy of Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell on 91X because I correctly answered a trivia question: what band was he briefly in prior to Generation X? Chelsea. But I never bothered picking it up, because I didn’t like Billy Idol.”

Eric also once won a phone-in contest for an all-expenses paid three-day Las Vegas weekend put on by one of the big beer companies. “We were flown to Vegas, put up in Mandalay Bay, and got to see a surprise concert at the House of Blues. The first band to take the stage was Tenacious D, who I didn’t give a shit about. But, hey, there was free food and booze, so I wasn’t complaining. The main act was the recently reformed Stone Temple Pilots, who my girlfriend [and future wife] loved and I hated. It was right after [now-deceased singer] Scott Weiland got clean. When we woke up the next day, the news was reporting that, following the show, Weiland was busted for heroin.”

Musician Nero Savage recalls, “I won a 10CC album from one of the rock stations around 1977. I just saw that album at my local used record shop, and almost bought it, just for nostalgic reasons. But it kind of sucked, so I bought something excellent instead. I think The Partridge Family.”

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We had to spin little numbered wheels (dials) to make someone else’s phone ring. Timing the dial to a specific time frame — say, enough time for nine other callers to get through, so you could win at number ten — required pacing your spins to a specific cadence, counting the clicks, and then being ready to re-dial the microsecond that the busy signal screamed Loser! in your ear.
We had to spin little numbered wheels (dials) to make someone else’s phone ring. Timing the dial to a specific time frame — say, enough time for nine other callers to get through, so you could win at number ten — required pacing your spins to a specific cadence, counting the clicks, and then being ready to re-dial the microsecond that the busy signal screamed Loser! in your ear.

It feels good to be a winner. Who doesn’t love being the best — or at least the first, or the luckiest? People congratulate you, make you feel special and singled out. And you get free stuff. Oh sure, some folks will say the rewards you most appreciate are the ones you’ve earned: the returns that required the most effort, or the greatest sacrifice. But, really, what’s better than simply getting something for nothing?

The first contest I remember winning was when I was 11, around 1971, when I scored a 45 RPM record of Melanie’s “Brand New Key” by being the correct number caller to a local radio station. I don’t recall if my voice went out live on the air, but I do remember the narcotic thrill of victory, which was still a lingering buzz when the record arrived a week or so later. It didn’t even matter that it was cracked and had to be Scotch-taped on the B-side to be playable, almost surely screwing up my Sears phonograph needle. The record still provided tangible, audible evidence that lil’ ol’ JAS was, for once, a gen-you-wine winner.

I’d had my first taste and wanted more. Eventually, I figured out some of the tricks and timing to the old dial-tone method. Back in the Stones’ age, we had to spin little numbered wheels (dials) to make someone else’s phone ring. Timing the dial to a specific time frame — say, enough time for nine other callers to get through, so you could win at number ten — required pacing your spins to a specific cadence, counting the clicks, and then being ready to re-dial the microsecond that the busy signal screamed Loser! in your ear. The touch-tone phones of the later ‘70s moved pushbutton phone-play into videogame territory, all beeps and flying fingers, punctuated by frequent bursts of percussive cursing.

The next thing I won on the radio was a Funkadelic album that never would have turned up at my neighborhood record store. Then a few years later, it was tickets to see Wishbone Ash, a general admission show where we sat right up front. My girl even won a pair of radio station tix to see the Rolling Stones in the early ‘80s. I think she was running the booth at a self-serve gas station at the time, and called on the station phone. Neither of us were big Stones fans, but we were excited to go because we figured it might be their last tour. (We couldn’t have been more wrong; good thing no prizes depended on that guess.) The seats were probably the worst I’ve ever had at an arena event — most radio station tickets turned out to be the least sell-able nosebleed or obstructed-view seats in the house.

Back in the day, frequent radio winners were quasi-career contestants, working their speed dial, borrowing IDs from friends to get around repeat-winner rules, and spinning through all the local stations in search of pop-up prize van promotions with the dogged determination of a bloodhound on meth. “I have been winning on local radio stations in San Diego since I was 18,” local Procoat Painting owner Michael Mayhue told me. “I am 54 now and still win frequently, enough to get several [IRS form] 1099s each year. So many prizes throughout the years!”

DJs dubbed these frequent winners “contest pigs,” and their ever-evolving set of prohibitive rules attempted – but failed – to give more casual contestants a fair shot. Contest pigs were like ticket scalpers in a way, seizing on a little slice of pop culture profiteering that squeezed out the majority of everyday competitors. Returning winners were even reselling their booty via local classifieds, and then the internet. After all, a person can use only so many nosebleed concert seats, Van Halen vanity mirrors, Scorpions sun-hats, Homegrown albums, and KGB Chicken keychains.

Richard Fox won a call-in contest for a Wayne’s World videotape. That made him eligible for a grand prize trip to New York City to see a taping of Saturday Night Live - which he also won.

It’s easy for radio promotions to backfire. KSON once mailed out hundreds of thousands of scratch-off cards, with the offer of a cash prize to whoever found the station’s call letters on the card. Because they weren’t specific about where the call letters could be found (they never said “beneath the scratch-off material”), KSON faced thousands of angry listeners demanding their cash. That promotion won the station Billboard magazine’s award for Turkey Promotion of the Year.

During the 1970s energy crisis, KSON gave away a tank of gas every hour for five weeks. In 1979 alone, the station reportedly spent over $20,000 on contest promotions. These included contests such as Be A Millionaire For A Day (free interest on $1 million dollars for one day, which was around $300), and America's Finest Contest, where listeners solved San Diego-centric clues to score TVs, kitchen appliances, and high end bicycles. KSON listeners were also winning an ounce of silver each day, with each winner eligible for a weekly ounce of gold award.

For a while, radio prizes were going over the top. In the early ‘70s, KCBQ AM's imaginative Last Contest series, dreamed up by program director Jack McCoy, offered hourly “secret phone numbers” which listeners could call to score prizes. These were promised to include helicopter rides, a yacht, new cars, and a Catalina Island mansion with a moat. Reportedly, after 13 Last Contest days, when the final secret phone number was given out, a large portion of San Diego’s phone network went down from the overwhelming call-in response.

Most radio giveaways involved far more mundane promo items, but the prizewinners still fondly recall their lucky day, even decades later. “I won a crocheted bikini [around] 1970 from KCBQ,” remembers ocean conservationist and marine life enthusiast Deb Bruels, who found her prize a perfect match for her proclivity for being around water. “I have no photos, sadly. It was white.”

Really, just about any win feels like a good win. “KCBQ used to have a contest called Name It and Claim It,” says David A. Lucas, a former administrator for the San Diego Unified School District. “As a child, I got a few 45s that way.”

“I won a Superscope Radio from KCBQ in 1977, basically an early boombox...It was my pride and joy for quite a long time, at least until I got a proper stereo setup. I absolutely loved that radio, and it was a beast by 1977 standards.” —Janet Wells

Acupuncturist Janet Wells, who operates Greater Harmony Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine, mentions being 12 when “I won a Superscope Radio from KCBQ in 1977, basically an early boombox.” The prize was the delayed result of entering a raffle at a walk-a-thon weeks before.

“I got to school one morning, and a good friend of mine told me she had been listening to KCBQ that morning and my name had been called as the winner of a Superscope radio. As a born cynic, I was skeptical, but she had no reason to lie. When I got home, I told my mother, who also did not believe it. But I was convincing enough to get her to call the radio station, at which time they confirmed that yes, I had indeed won the radio. That night, my mom, dad and I went to KCBQ to pick up the Superscope. I was in no way familiar with what a Superscope radio was, and I was expecting a little transistor number similar to what I already had, but hey, it was free! My dad and I ran into the station and were given a huge box, which shocked us both. Inside was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen or owned up to that point. It was my pride and joy for quite a long time, at least until I got a proper stereo setup. I absolutely loved that radio, and it was a beast by 1977 standards, with a radio and cassette tape deck built in. I kept that radio for probably 20 years, at which point I think I gave it to charity. I wish I still had it, in retrospect. And I’ve never won another thing in a raffle.”

“Johnny Downs had a contest to name a rabbit at the Children’s Zoo in San Diego, I won with the name Sissy. My prize was a Dragnet police car.” —Vernon Westenberger

Retired engineer Nick Boscia, who lived in Spring Valley and attended Grossmont College, recalls, “I had an official KCBQ streak team T-shirt, and won tickets to concerts by having an ‘I Q IN MY CAR’ bumper sticker back in the day.” Other local radio stations also saturated the streets with bumper sticker promotions. In the late ‘70s, one Volkswagen owner on Abbott Street in OB earned neighborhood notoriety by completely covering their car in stickers representing every radio station in Southern California likely to offer a prize to drivers. The car was so decrepit that the stickers were deemed to be about the only thing keeping it in one piece.

Local legend has it that, during the ‘70s peak of contest one-upmanship, KCBQ program director Buzz Bennett used an impromptu competition to turn technical difficulties into an almost impossible triumph. One afternoon, when the station was having difficulty staying on the air — it kept blanking out for minutes at a time — Bennett had the DJ announce that every time the station returned to the air after a blackout glitch, the first caller would win a hundred bucks. The result was thousands of people all over San Diego, intently listening to completely dead air in place of KCBQ, just waiting for sound to come out of the radio again so they could call in and win. Utilizing little more than the station’s pocket change to convince a whole city to listen to nothing is quite a programming feat.

“I was actually paid to be a seat filler for America’s Funniest Videos. They have talent contests between scene setups. I decided to sing Elvis’s version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ They gave me a Macarena Singing Gorilla as the running prize.” —Will Clausen

Meanwhile, KGB FM was sticking with the free concert tickets and albums template, although the success of their AM rival’s Last Contest soon upped the ante. KGB prizes were upgraded to vacation trips, high-end electronics provided by sponsoring local merchants, and oddball one-offs like a dune buggy, a rebuilt school bus outfitted as a “Concert Camper,” and even a complete collection of Silver Surfer comic books (probably now worth far more than either motor vehicle).

“I won Florence Henderson’s red bra from KGB when they were doing the bit ‘Cups for Komen’s,’” recalls Temecula guitarist Larry Thompson. In the late '70s, the station's AM incarnation was also giving away things like hundred dollar bills every three hours to call-in winners, as well as phoning registered listeners at home to offer $1300 for answering with the correct catchphrase. The KGB van hit the road in 1979 on Fridays to set up at gas stations and pay for properly bumper-stickered listeners to fill up their gas tanks.

“I won tickets to Bachman Turner Overdrive, $100, and a couple other things from the San Diego Chicken with KGB,” says Andy Tillinghast, who lived in San Diego from 1969 through 1980 and became a first-time winner at age 25, circa that early 1976 BTO show. “No strategy, just luck. A bunch of us were unemployed, so whenever the radio said the Chicken was somewhere, we’d all head down to find him. I took a friend to see BTO, ‘cause it was a pair of tickets. A while later, he won a pair to see Pink Floyd! Got the tickets from the Chicken in a parking lot, but can’t recall where, maybe at the beach somewhere. I remember BTO being so loud, it hurt my ears. Never was much of a fan. Later, I won the $100 from KGB on a call-in; they’d take a certain caller to win and I lucked out. If I recall, the Chicken was at the studio when I went to pick up the check. Couldn’t give me cash, and I ended up having to pay tax on it.”

“My mom won many radio contests,” says Fallbrook country music fan Julia Ward Weldy. “One year, it was a trip to Alaska the week of Christmas. We went to the North Pole on the brand new Alaska Airlines. My sister won a fancy electronic piano, which was fitting, because she was a professional pianist.”

“I won a 7 Up cooler from Clark Anthony on KFMB,” recalls Carol Qualin. “It was a Name That Tune question, a few notes of ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Redding. Seventh caller!” KFMB's late '70s China Trip contest required listeners to piece together three "secret sounds" and call in with their answer to win free dinners and tickets to concerts and sporting events. The grand prize winner got a trip for two to China.

Other KFMB promotions included a late '70s Fame Game, where 7-Eleven carried entry forms that could be mailed in so that random names could be chosen to sing on the air as part of an ad agency-created jingle. If you heard your name being sung, you called in and won a prize, with all winners eligible for a grand prize. The 1979 winner, retired naval officer Ben Solano of El Cajon, won the cash interest on $1 million dollars (for one day), his name on a bunch of local buses and flown on a banner from a plane, and a supermarket shopping spree than ran just over a minute and netted him $686 worth of meat.

The most successful radio promotions tended to be the ones that tied into music that station was championing, since putting a band in constant rotation was a good way for the station to score top-shelf prize opportunities. “I won a backstage party with Queen and Thin Lizzy from KPRI; they threw in a free ticket,” remembers musician Douglas Henry.

Video:

Michael Keaton Monologue: Interrogation - Saturday Night Live

Richard Fox of Tabs Etc., Inc. was 23 years old in 1992 when he was listening to Jeff and Jer on the radio and won a call-in contest for a Wayne’s World videotape. That made him eligible for a grand prize trip to New York City to see a taping of Saturday Night Live. “I was even more lucky to be the winner Monday morning when the [program character] Trailer Park Lady called my house. What’s funny is that my mom answered the phone, but couldn’t understand her, so she hung up on her.” After a few more explanatory phone calls, Fox’s November 13, 1992 SNL trip was booked for him and his dad. “Our seats were not the best, but just to be there was an experience I’ll never forget. Michael Keaton was the host and Morrissey was the band. My dad and I really enjoyed Michael, but Morrissey, not so much.” Fox still owns the original Wayne’s World VHS prize.

Not all local radio hosts were on board with the constant giveaways. “I always considered a contest to be an annoyance that interfered with my performance,” longtime KGB DJ Jim McInnes tells me. “The ones I did enjoy were the handful that offered trips to Europe. Trips that included ME! Those trips took me to Ireland, England, Denmark, and Russia.”

Paid vacations were nearly a staple on local radio in the late '70s. KOGO AM handed out trips to London, Florida, New Orleans, Puerto Rico, and the contest-closing Holiday Special, an all-expense-paid trip to any U.S. city. KCBQ gave away an all-expense-paid trip for two to Rome in 1979, while KFSD gave away a weekend in San Francisco (sponsored by Western Airlines) the same year. KIFM gave away trips, but not too far away - winning Room at the Top contestants won top-floor room accommodations at the Islandia Hotel. Winners of KJOY FM's 1979 Bingo Game earned $5000 cash and a round-trip ticket for two to any city in the world. Runners-ups won trips to Hawaii and a Caribbean cruise.

“I won a press pass for the Rolling Stones, November 1, 1964. It was a radio contest from KDEO, an AM station. I was one of about eight to ten people who all met at a gate in a chain link fence at Lindbergh Field and watched [the band’s] plane taxi in.” —Jan Tonnesen

Aside from the standard event ticket giveaways that proliferated hourly on local radio, some concert prizes were truly one-of-a-kind. “I won a press pass for the Rolling Stones, November 1, 1964,” recalls singer-guitarist Jan Tonnesen, who was 14 at the time. The future vet of local bands such as the Contrasts, Avengers, and the Troy Dante Inferno says his previous experience as a contest winner was limited to everyday awards such as accordion lessons. “It was a radio contest from KDEO, an AM station. A ‘Be the third caller and win’ sort of thing. I picked it up from the station. I was one of about eight to ten people who all met at a gate in a chain link fence at Lindbergh Field and watched [the band’s] plane taxi in. We saw them get off the plane from about 100 yards away. They waved at us, got into a car, and drove away. That was it.”

Daniel Longueuiel was an artist and photographer whose 1960s gigs included creating logos like “The Now Sound” designs for local top 40 rock station KDEO that appeared on bus stop benches and billboards all over town.

Harpo singer-guitarist Mark Delguidice, who moved to San Diego in 1999, remembers, “I once won tickets on the radio for Disney on Ice. I called in an answer, which was, ‘Who was the last of the Seven Dwarves,’ which I now do not recall. I dialed the number myself and, as Mom approached, she heard me on the radio. I was excited to win, yet bummed, ‘cause I had to take my little sisters. At 11 years old. So embarrassing. I also took two friends, and Mom of course. I had a crush on Snow White. [We had] up-front box seats, and she came by as they announced me as the contest winner and waved and blew me a kiss! It was super fun, I became a celebrity at school for a week or two.”

Local television mined demographic gold with contest giveaways that were especially effective with kids who were already devoted to programs like The Johnny Downs Show, which ran from 1953 through 1968 on Channel 10 (known as KFSD, and later KOGO). “Johnny Downs had a contest to name a rabbit at the Children’s Zoo in San Diego,” shares Vernon Westenberger, who grew up in Skyline Hills. “I won with the name Sissy. My prize was a Dragnet police car. It was pretty big back in the early ‘60s. I no longer have the car. I did visit the rabbit at the zoo.”

This prize ended up on Ebay

Debbie Meyers Kimbrell, a former teacher for the Fontana Unified School District, remembers. “I won a Loonatoonarooni, a plastic musical toy, from Johnny Downs when he picked my name and called me up on the telephone during his show. I believe it was about 1969 to 1970, so I was 10 or 11. I sent my name in for a contest for the treasure box. You picked the number for a small door. He opened the door of that number. If you didn’t win the treasure, which I didn’t, you got a single prize. I was excited to be picked, but disappointed to not win the big prize. I remember my neighbor saw it on TV, but I don’t remember my school classmates talking about it. I probably told them.”

Kimbrell says she no longer has the toy, which she describes as “a plastic whistle type musical instrument with buttons like, say, a clarinet would have. It was multicolored plastic as well. I tried to look it up and found nothing. I remember it as a childhood memory, so it certainly made an impression on me. I do remember it as quite an adrenaline rush to get that phone call from the guy on the TV. I also remember not getting to watch this as it was unfolding, because our only phone was attached to the wall in the kitchen, and our only TV was in the family room.”

The titular leader of the Will Clausen Band recalls a TV score from around 20 years ago. “I was actually paid to be a seat filler for America’s Funniest Videos. They have talent contests between scene setups. I decided to sing Elvis’s version of ‘Blue Suede Shoes.’ They gave me a ‘Macarena’ Singing Gorilla as the running prize. Later in the show, the audience voted on the talent competition for the final hundred-dollar prize, and I was the winner. Yes, I still have the gorilla in storage. But I spent the hundred bucks.”

Shambles and Manual Scan guitarist Kevin J. Ring recalls, “I won a flight to Las Vegas via the Fox 5 Morning News. It was on a new airline flying out of Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. I still have the certificate, because the airline stopped operating before I had a chance to redeem it. The photo I took of my name on the TV showing that I won comes up in my Facebook memories every year, to mock me.”

“I won an all-expenses paid trip to L.A. for the world premiere of Iron Man 3. One of the smaller prizes offered was an Iron Man poster. The poster is why I entered, I wanted one for my son. They were giving away so many posters that I figured I had a great chance to win one for him.” —Eddie Parker

Even cable providers hopped onto the contest bandwagon. “I won an all-expenses paid trip to LA for the world premiere of Iron Man 3,” recalls comic book collector Eddie Parker. “Also got to meet some of the cast. Was a pretty elitist event. This poor Ohio-born longhair hanging amongst the rich was a very weird experience. Not my cup of tea. However, it was a once in a lifetime trip.”

Parker says he wasn’t even trying for the film premiere. “One of the smaller prizes offered was an Iron Man poster. The poster is why I entered, I wanted one for my son. They were giving away so many posters that I figured I had a great chance to win one for him. I entered on a Sunday night. The next day, there was an e-mail from some verification group telling me I had won…I proceeded to contact the verification group, only to find out I had not won a poster. In fact, I had won a trip to the IM3 premiere in Hollywood.” He says that his wife at first insisted the contest was some kind of scam. “It wasn’t until all the forms I had to sign started coming in,” that she started to think it might be real, “but ultimately it was our plane tickets that provided her the proof she needed.”

The motion picture debuted April 24, 2013, at Hollywood’s famed Chinese Theater. “Before the premiere, we got to walk the red carpet and watch all the stars arrive. After the movie, we were able to meet Don Cheadle and William Sadler. Cheadle gave an autograph. Sadly, Sadler would not. We were also treated to a big dinner for all the winners of the trip, as we were not the only ones.” It was a dizzying experience. “We flew round trip. Stayed at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel right across from the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. All expenses paid, plus $500 spending cash.” The Parkers also received IM3 branded 3D glasses, an Iron Man T-shirt, various Verizon branded items (pen, note pad, water bottles, snacks), and a massive Marvel Blu-ray set. “It comes in a replica briefcase with all the phase one movies and a bunch of collectibles, including the Tesseract. Not bad, considering I only ever intended to try for a poster, which I never got.”

Local print media noticed the public enthusiasm for free stuff. For decades, the Reader’s in-house puzzle contests offered prizes like Reader-branded hats and T-shirts that are still almost as omnipresent around town as worn-out concert tees and John Deere caps. And I probably owe my nearly three-decade career at the Reader to a contest entry. I spotted a mid-’90s ad in the paper offering a $500 prize for the best local music story. When I submitted a detailed account of all the methods I used to sneak into dozens of local concerts, the paper not only gave me the cash prize and a feature slot, but I got an invitation to contribute to the weekly Blurt column that evolved into a full-time job. The gig eventually supplanted my own comic book publishing business as my main source of income.

I actually threw a few weird contests of my own while serving as managing editor of Hillcrest’s Revolutionary Comics. Around 1993, we did a title called Starjam that chronicled the history of the Beverly Hills 90210 TV show and presented illustrated bios of the stars. I ran a contest inviting readers (most of them in grade school or middle school) to write an essay about why they loved the Fox network show, and the winner would get the original artwork to one of our 90210 comic stories. Several of us took turns reading the submissions, and I remember calling the winner’s home to talk to her parents rather than contacting her directly. They seemed thrilled and proud of their daughter’s win, but claimed they had known nothing of her entry and asked to be the ones to tell her that she won.

Oddly, I don’t think any of us ever talked to the actual winner, who had written that she was in 8th grade. As we were packing the artwork to ship, somebody floated the idea that maybe it was the adults we spoke to who actually entered the contest. I kind of suspected that myself, right up until around three years ago, when a woman contacted me via Facebook to say she was the one who’d won the contest, that she was indeed a student at the time, and that she still had the artwork, 25 years later!

Even lame prizes can prove memorable. Local music fan Eric R. recalls, “I won a copy of Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell on 91X because I correctly answered a trivia question: what band was he briefly in prior to Generation X? Chelsea. But I never bothered picking it up, because I didn’t like Billy Idol.”

Eric also once won a phone-in contest for an all-expenses paid three-day Las Vegas weekend put on by one of the big beer companies. “We were flown to Vegas, put up in Mandalay Bay, and got to see a surprise concert at the House of Blues. The first band to take the stage was Tenacious D, who I didn’t give a shit about. But, hey, there was free food and booze, so I wasn’t complaining. The main act was the recently reformed Stone Temple Pilots, who my girlfriend [and future wife] loved and I hated. It was right after [now-deceased singer] Scott Weiland got clean. When we woke up the next day, the news was reporting that, following the show, Weiland was busted for heroin.”

Musician Nero Savage recalls, “I won a 10CC album from one of the rock stations around 1977. I just saw that album at my local used record shop, and almost bought it, just for nostalgic reasons. But it kind of sucked, so I bought something excellent instead. I think The Partridge Family.”

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