The Coffee Crew

For more than 40 years, a group of broadcast veterans has met twice a week to discuss the biz

Twice a week for almost a half-century, some of the pioneers who shaped Tucson's broadcast media have met for coffee at a local egg-and-toast eatery. Not only have they watched the media change; in many cases they were the ones responsible for making those changes.

On a recent Friday, six of these decision-makers sat around their customary table. Each of the nearly 20 members of this informal coffee klatch brings roughly a half-century of on-air experience with them. If you poll each one about how much time he has spent behind a microphone, spinning platters, disseminating news, writing ad copy or making the go/no-go decision of early radio and television in this town, you would tally a number close to a collective thousand years of broadcasting experience.

With 56 years of air time on his resume, Larry Schnebly, former program director for KVOA radio (yes, Virginia, there was a KVOA radio frequency that later became known as KCUB), is still active as voice talent and is a frequent volunteer announcer for PBS fund-raisers. Jake Crellin, notably of KVOA TV Channel 4, amassed more than three decades in both radio and TV. George Wallace broke into radio in 1953 and helped build KTKT, the station that ruled the marketplace in the 1960s. Jack Parris has 51 years in the business and is still going strong as general manager of KUAT Communications Group.

Counting past birthdays on this particular day, former disk jockey "Sunny Jim" Arnold, now KOLD TV Channel 13 general manager, was the youngest member of the group, while retiree Jack Jacobson captured senior member honors. Jacobson comes from a vaudeville family; he first hit the microphone "on" button in 1929 when he was 8 years old.

"It was a kiddie show called Uncle Bob and Company. I was the 'and Company.' We ran fast and loose in the early days. Many performers enhanced their own presentations via an ever-present coffee cup that occasionally actually contained coffee," he says.

Never at a loss for words, the group has some observations about the media scene today.

"I'm glad I got out of the business when I did," says Schnebly. "Broadcasting has changed so much and is so ledge-sheet oriented and profit-based, it's taken all the fun out of the genre. People got a lot more enjoyment out of their work with a lot less pressure--and still made some money--in the olden days," he says.

"At one time, most of the people who worked in the industry were able to do all of the jobs that needed to be done," chimes in Crellin. "Now, to a degree, at least when it comes to TV news coverage, I often get the feeling the right hand may not know what the left hand is doing, with uninformed reporters not aware of nuances going on behind the scenes."

Two of the group members who still earn a paycheck from media jobs have a slightly different take. "Radio is in a great deal of flux because of current consolidation efforts," says Parris of PBS. "But TV news in Tucson is very strong for a market of this size, probably as strong as it has ever been."

"Radio is continually having to adapt, and we're seeing it going through another cycle of change right now," Channel 13's Arnold says. "But I think Tucson media is adapting pretty well, keeping up pretty much with the rest of the industry."

Retiree Wallace listens quietly to Parris and Arnold's opinions before noting: "This is still their life. For those of us who once held the reins and have now given them up, we get to watch, listen and react to the changes."

Tucson's electronic media days began in July 1926, when KTUC started radio broadcasts and was joined shortly after by KVOA radio. Both stations were owned by Phoenix-based operations. "Local programs were squeezed around network commitments, and in between, played music from large transcription libraries--big 16-inch disks with many songs, made specifically for radio stations," reports Russ Jackson in Remembering Tucson Radio ... From the Beginning! "After World War II, the FCC received applications for three new 250-watt Tucson stations, and hearings were held to 'determine the fitness of applicants to serve the Tucson public,'" writes Jackson. In the early 50s, KTKT began featuring personalities and music, like a six-hour afternoon program called "Let's Play Records."

"Change was a constant," Jackson notes. "While stations and people came and went in the early days, the local radio listener was always entertained and informed by a dedicated group of people intent on making radio a part of the lives of all--dedication that resulted in a very saleable, publicly respected product."

"In 1963, KGUN's new sales manager (Wallace) got his advertising sales team together and, to build esprit de corps, invited us for coffee at the old Uncle John's Pancake House," remembers Schnebly. "We'd talk about what programs were popular and what clients were buying air time. We've been in the habit of meeting for coffee ever since."

The men tell tall tales and a lot of bad jokes, as well as talk about equipment improvements and the latest Nielsen Media Research results. It's apparent to casual observers that broadcasters like to be heard. They have no problem talking simultaneously with each other, making for a mellifluous blend of voices.

Group historian Schnebly says they've called themselves "The Coffee Crew" and "Knights of the Round Table." "We once appropriated newsman Tom Brokaw's ROMEO acronym (Retired Old Men Eating Out), but the best way to describe this group of broadcast veterans is to compare it with Woody Allen's movie, Broadway Danny Rose, where a bunch of broken-down old comics sit around telling stories on each other and talking about how great things were in the good old days."

Group members usually flip a coin to decide who pays for coffee, but on this particular day, Wallace got the Good Guy Award. He had won a sports-pool wager and offered to share the largesse with his comrades of many years by offering to treat. It's a pattern he introduced more than 40 years ago--and some habits are hard to break.