The Amazing Radio London Adventure
Extracts from the memoirs of Big L's original Programme Director Ben Toney

Ben has very kindly given permission for us to share edited extracts from his autobiography with our site visitors. He tells of his lifelong interest in radio and his important role in the Radio London story. We are privileged to be able to read these recollections, as Ben has written them privately, for his family, and does not intend to publish them elsewhere. They are dedicated to the memory of those members of the Big L community who are sadly, no longer with us, including Ben's wife Ronagh. The memoirs are also dedicated to his granddaughter, Kerensa.

All written material is edited by Radio London from original memoirs copyrighted by Ben Toney and used with his permission. It may not be reproduced without consent.

Part 16: Tragedy and Farce.
Page 1; Page 2

This 16-Part version of 'The Amazing Radio London Adventure' as it appears on the Radio London website, is
© Ben Toney and Mary Payne, 2011.
It may not be reproduced in any form without the authors' permission.

The Making of a Deejay

At the beginning of the Great Depression in America, Thomas Toney and Elizabeth Gill met at Three Leagues, Texas just south of Lamesa. On May 17th 1930, they went across the state line to Lovington, New Mexico and married. Shortly after their marriage, Thomas received his World War 1 bonus and they purchased a farm about 5 miles south of what is now Denver City, Texas. However, Denver City did not exist at that time.

The closest town to the Toneys was Seagraves, about 15 miles away. However, this town had no doctor, so when their son Ben was born on February 14, 1931, Thomas had to make an 18-mile trip to Seminole to fetch Dr. Bradford. Thomas left Elizabeth in the care of her mother, Etta, and her teenage brother, Roland. He bundled up in his warmest clothes and made the trip to Seminole in his Model T Ford truck. At 9:45 that evening, Ben was born cold and hungry, but he was soon fed and warmed in the living room by the heat of a pot-bellied stove.

The winters were always cold up on the Texas plains; however, in the winter of 1933, the Toneys experienced the coldest temperature ever recorded in the state of Texas, 23° below zero at Seminole. The Toneys were prompted to make plans to move east and settled on a farm near Emory, Texas where Elizabeth had grown up.

The Cowans lived on the adjoining farm and Elizabeth very often visited and took three-year-old Ben with her. The Cowans had an old radio, which was likely one of the first ever built. It had a giant, black speaker which was shaped like a morning glory bloom sitting on top of the cabinet. The sound of this quaint monstrosity was something to be desired. Nevertheless, this gadget was totally fascinating to Ben, and every time he was at the Cowans, he had to hear the radio.

Because of my advanced age, I have a hard time relating to myself as a baby or small child, so to this point I have referred to myself in the third person singular. In order that there will be no confusion as to whom I am speaking, I will continue with references to myself in the first person.

As the years went by, I longed to have my own radio, but the depression demanded that our family use what little money we had for life's necessities. As World War II came along in 1939, the depression subsided, and in 1942 we found ourselves in California, assisting in the war effort.

As horrifying as the war was, it made a vast improvement in the economics of the family. One day Dad made a trip into San Diego from Chula Vista where we lived. When he returned, he had a package for me under his arm. As I unwrapped the package, I discovered the radio that I had always wanted. I was eleven years old when I first had my own radio.

Every afternoon after school, I had my ear glued to the radio listening to my favorite radio dramas...Captain Midnight... Jack Armstrong...Terry and the Pirates...The Lone Ranger... Superman. What excitement! Before long I knew all the intros to the shows by heart and could recite them at the drop of a hat. One of my favorites was: "With the speed of light and a cloud of dust and a hearty 'Hi Ho Silver!', the Lone Ranger rides again. This fantasy with radio continued for many years until I joined the U.S. Navy when I was almost 20 years of age. I was a quartermaster, whose job description was keeping the ship's log and doing some navigation chores. I finally became proficient enough to stand navigation watches on my own.

On board the ship there was an announcing system which was used to pipe music and announcements into the mess halls for the entertainment of the crew. However, it had been out of use for some time. Several friends and I decided to reactivate the 'station'. This was my first big opportunity to get behind a mike.

The programming was awful. There were few records to play, since we were sitting off the coast of Korea. Also, the news bulletins were extracted from a month-old Time magazine that had been picked up on our last trip to Japan. Nonetheless, we 'broadcasters' enjoyed ourselves immensely; however, the men in the mess halls were probably driven to distraction by the repetition of "Come Ona My House" and a few other records of that period.

Finally, my four-year hitch in the Navy ended. I was discharged in San Diego, California and rode with a friend up to Los Angeles where I caught a train for Fort Worth. While on the train I ran into a certain Bob Collins who had for years been an announcer for some of the larger stations in LA and had also spent some time in radio on Hawaii. I told Bob about my interest in broadcasting and he gave me a few pointers. "First", said Bob. "You need to get rid of that thick Texas accent." He said that I needed to go to college and get enrolled in a good speech therapy class which would teach me to speak in a general American accent, as used by most deejays.

In January 1955 I was accepted into North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas) at Denton. One of the first courses I took was speech therapy which improved my accent markedly. Before graduating from college, I became president of the Radio Club, and during my last year, I worked part-time for KZEE in Weatherford, Texas. It had been on the air for a period of only two weeks. When Tom Gibson, the owner, opened the station, he brought Bill Gordon over from Dallas to kick things off. Bill was a super deejay, who had been working for KLIF in Dallas; however, the owner, Gordon McClendon had fired him. Gordon could not tolerate deejays who let alcohol get in the way of their job.

Although Tom Gibson knew of Bill's drinking problem, he thought Bill could get him a good audience, which he did. However, within less than a year, Tom's patience wore thin and Bill was gone.

During the time Bill was at KZEE, I and the other junior jocks, picked up many useful tips from the master. Bill was indeed a deejay's deejay. Sometime after Bill departed from KZEE the deejays heard through the grapevine that Bill had taken control of his drinking problem and that he had been rehired by the top station in Cleveland, Ohio for which he had originally worked.

After graduation from college, I worked for a short time at KZEE as a full-time deejay; however, I soon found work in Ft. Worth at KCUL. KCUL was a country and western station with very low ratings and was only noted for two things. First, it was the station that gave Willie Nelson his first job in broadcasting and second, Horace Logan was one of the deejays at the time I was there.

Horace had been the master of ceremonies of the old Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. He had been instrumental in giving Hank Williams, Sr., Elvis Presley, Jim Reeves, Ray Price and many others their first breaks on the Hayride. Horace was a superb announcer, but he was not the type of deejay that the top stations were promoting at the time. Although I stood in awe of his ability, I thought he was sort of a dinosaur who belonged to another era.

I remained at KCUL only a short time, feeling that the programming was not to my taste. However, a few interesting things occurred while I was there. The station had a live show every Saturday night called the Cowtown Hoedown and Horace acted as the MC. Some Saturdays were filled with local, nondescript talent, but on one occasion, Horace brought in his old friend Jim Reeves; on another, he brought in Ray Price. With the Ray Price band was an unknown Roger Miller who played lead guitar. Only a few years later, Roger would erupt into fame with an inane song called "Dang Me".

It was a common practice for the radio station gang and the artist of the week to go to Rosa's Western Club after the Cowtown Hoedown show. Rosa would set up a long table for everyone, along with free set-ups. As a reward for her efforts, the artist of the week would sing a song or two with the band. I asked Roger Miller to come along with us to Rosa's, but Roger reneged, stating that he was not into the drinking scene.

In 1959 Bill Fox, manager of KRBC Radio in Abilene, Texas, offered me a sales job with the station. He said he would hold me in sales until he had a deejay opening. The station played top 40 format and was number one in a three-station market, so the idea of working there was very appealing to me and I accepted the job.

In the late summer of 1959, the West Texas State Fair was held at Abilene. For their main attraction, the Fair Committee selected Bobby Darin. I attended the fair on the opening night and met Bobby. I told him that the station had been playing the hell out of "Mack the Knife", which pleased him very much. Not knowing what to do with himself in such a small town, Bobby asked me to come around the fairground the next day and just hang out.

The Fair Committee had pulled a small mobile home near the stage. This unit was to serve as a dressing room and office for Bobby. So, he and I met there and were having a chat about the music business, when his manager fairly flew through the door yelling, "Bobby, Bobby, Billboard magazine has made 'Mack the Knife' number one!". I witnessed an historic occasion, as Bobby and his manager all but destroyed the small mobile home with their jumping up and down for joy!

Bobby Darin was one of the most sensational acts I have ever seen. From the minute he came onto the stage, he held the audience in the palm of his hand and that is where they stayed until he had sung his very last song. Then, as he left the stage, the crowds were screaming for an encore.

I had only witnessed this kind of audience control once before. I had a college friend, Tommy Mitchell, who was one of the regular acts at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, and one year Tommy was the opening act for Elvis Presley on his summer tour.

Tommy invited me over to Dallas to watch him in action. Tommy and I went into Ernest Tubbs' dressing room to visit Tommy's friend Billy Byrd, who was Ernest's lead guitarist. The three of us were standing on one side of the room and Ernest and a local female artist were standing on the other side. I think her name was Charlene Arthur. Ernest and Charlene were talking about a mutual friend who had died and both were crying their eyes out. Suddenly, a young man stuck his head through the door and said, "Ernest, you're on." Ernest took out his handkerchief, dried his eyes, and went out on the stage. The crowd was extremely noisy, but Ernest was very patient. He scanned the audience with his piercing blue eyes, and by the time he had completed his sweep of the crowd, you could have heard a pin drop. Then after the first notes of "I'm Walkin' the Floor Over You", the crowd came unwound. Ernest, like Bobby Darin was a great showman.

After about a year of waiting for a deejay job to open up, I moved back to Ft. Worth and went to work as an announcer at KJIM, a standard pop station owned by Jimmy Stewart the actor. The job was very slow-paced and not all that attractive to me; however, I was back on the air.

A few months rocked by and I received a call from Bill Fox at KRBC. "Ben, how would you like to come back out here as program director? You could spend three hours a day on the air and use the rest of your day programming. What do you think?" "Sounds good to me", I said. "Let me give KJIM a couple of weeks' notice and I will be back.".

Just as I arrived back in Abilene, the West Texas State Fair opened. The main attraction this year was the Everly Brothers, Don and Phil. I went out to the fair on opening night, caught their act and introduced myself to them.

They, like Bobby Darin, had no pretensions and were very easy to talk with. You would have thought you were talking to your next door neighbor. But, when they got on stage, something magical happened and they sang in unison like no other duet I had ever heard. As time went on, I would be seeing more of the Everlys.

It may seem to the reader that I was impressed with every artist I met; however, that is not the case. There were plenty of artists who were rough around the edges, highly egotistical, and most disagreeable. I just don't like writing about them.

While I was at KRBC, the great newscaster Paul Harvey flew into town. He was there to speak to the graduating class of one of the local colleges. He therefore had to do his daily newscast from the KRBC studios. As program director, it was up to me to provide Paul with an announcer for his nationwide broadcast. One could only hazard a guess as to who that announcer might have been. That's right, it was me!

Paul and I did the broadcast from a very large studio that had been designed for live musical performances. All along the hallway side of the studio was a number of large windows, and standing in the hallway were dozens of people waiting to see Paul Harvey in action. Folks, this was a scary situation with all those people watching me doing my first network broadcast. But Paul reassured me that everything would be all right.

We sat down at a table, each with our own microphone. The time for the broadcast was only one minute away when Paul vaulted from his chair, ran out the door, and proceeded down the hall to the teletype. He ripped off the tape and all but flew back to his chair. I was about to have a heart attack. If he didn't make it back in time, what was I to do? In all this excitement, I had completely forgotten my stage-fright.

At almost the instant Paul bounced into his chair, the red light went on and Paul said in his highly dramatic voice: "Hello, Americans, this is Paul Harvey. Stand by for news." I chimed in with: "Paul Harvey news, brought to you by Banker's Life and Casualty Company – an old time legal reserve stock company in Chicago, Illinois. And now Paul Harvey news." Paul was a consumate actor who played to his live audience in the studio. He was truly a remarkable person. He apparently had a photographic memory as he would scan the page in front of him and look away for a minute or two, while smiling and gesticulating to his fans.

Paul was right. Everything went off without a hitch. I had done my first nationwide broadcast with millions of listeners tuned in from coast to coast. However, this was only the beginning. The best was yet to come.

I had been program director of KRBC for about a year when Bill Fox left to operate his own radio station in Eastland, Texas. I became involved with a political situation inside the station which was not to my liking. So, when Bill left, I left.

I finally ended up at Bryan-College Station, Texas with WTAW Radio. Bill Watkins, the manager, was an old friend of mine whom I had worked with during my first year at KRBC.
My job at WTAW, as was the case with many medium-market stations, entailed a combination air and sales position. I would sign the station on at 05:30, get off the air at 09:00, go have breakfast, put on my sales cap, and sell ads. At lunchtime I usually had a snack and would go home for a short nap before getting back out on the streets.

On November 22, 1963, I had just finished my lunch nap and got in my car and turned on the ignition. My radio, which was always on and which was tied into the ignition switch, came blasting with an announcement that President John F Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. At first I thought it was some kind of sick joke, but as I traveled on toward the station, I realized that it was no joke. For the next few days, everyone at the station pitched in, ripping bulletins off the wire and reading them on the air. This was one of the saddest and most horrifying events that occurred during all my years of broadcasting.

When President Kennedy was shot, Governor John Connally was wounded also. Several months after the shooting, Governor Connally showed up at Texas A&M at College Station for a football game. We wanted an interview with the governor, so I took our best interviewer out to the stadium in the mobile unit and he remained in the unit while I sought out the governor. He was found at a high level in the stadium, and seated with Earl Rudder, President of A&M and he agreed to be interviewed after the game. After it ended, the governor, Earl Rudder, and their entourage began following me to the mobile unit. About half way there, the governor stopped me and asked, "Ben, where the hell are we going? I explained that we were going out on the street to the mobile unit. So, he consented to continue and be interviewed. Governor Connally told our listeners that his wounds were healing well, but that he still had some pain.

The Start of Something Big
Since the inception of radio in Britain, there had been no commercial stations. In March of 1964, this changed with the arrival of Radios Caroline (launched by Ronan O'Rahilly) and Atlanta (launched by Australian Allan Crawford) both on ships anchored off the coast of Essex.

An American named Don Pierson was on vacation in England with his family. He listened to the stations and thought them to be commercial, but found their programming to be very much the same as the BBC. They did not have the drive of the newer top 40 stations in the U.S. Evaluating this, Don surmised that if he put a more powerful station into operation with a top 40 format, he could cash in.

Don was a wheeler-dealer who liked to move things along in an expeditious manner.
He was fairly wealthy, having owned an automobile dealership in Eastland, Texas, and he later became the Chairman of the Board of the Abilene National Bank in Abilene, Texas. Eventually, he owned a Ford dealership in Amarillo.

By August of 1964 Don had set up two companies in the Bahamas, one for the operation of a radio station, a the other for the operation of a ship. He had gained enough backing to buy an old converted U.S. minesweeper and to pay for about half the cost of placing a 50,000 watt transmitter and a stainless steel antenna on board.

In late August, I received a phone call from Don. He had talked to Bill Fox my old boss at KRBC, and Bill had recommended me to go to England and set up this radio station for him. I, as well as most deejays and program directors in America, had heard about Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta and, everyone in the business wanted to get in on the action. The fact that I was being asked to put in a station with five times the power of the existing stations was unbelievable!

I asked Don when he had to have an answer. He said that he would call me back the next day, and that he needed me immediately. I explained the situation to Bill Watkins and told him that I hated to leave him high and dry, but this was hardly an opportunity that I could pass up. Bill agreed and said that he would manage until he could get a replacement, so when Don called back the next day, I told him I was ready to go.

Within a day or so I found myself in Miami staying at the Dupont Plaza Hotel where Don was already in residence. That afternoon, we went out to MacArthur Causeway to have a look at the ship. What a rust bucket! The old ship as the USS. Density had had a sterling war record during World War II, but she had been sold by the government at the end of the war, and finally fell into the hands of a Greek company who renamed her the MV Manoula and used her as a fishing boat.

Don had bought the ship from the Greeks for $85,000 and had put the money into escrow until all the ship's debts had been cleared. The Greeks' misunderstanding of what had happened to their money later caused Don and me a bit of a problem.

The ship, now renamed the MV Galaxy, was registered under a Honduran flag. Above the deck it had a 200 foot antenna that had the capacity of capsizing the ship if it started whipping about in heavy seas. I would learn much more about this later.

Just as Don and I stepped aboard the ship, a very greasy man came up through one of the hatches. Don said, "Ben, I would like for you to meet my partner Tom Danaher". Tom wiped his hands as best he could and extended a still grimy right hand, which I shook.

Tom was a mild, soft-spoken person who was very thoughtful in his business pursuits. Don Pierson was the exact opposite. Don was a high roller who displaced anyone or anything that got in his way. Tom and Don were like fire and water, and it was hard to imagine them as business partners.

Don had sold Tom on the idea of starting up the station as a "poor boy" project. They would each invest a certain amount of capital and move things along at a slow pace and retain a high degree of ownership. Unfortunately for Tom, Don had a penchant for doing things in a big way and ultimately sold off large blocks of stock, which in the end caused both Tom and Don to lose control of the company.

(Left) Tom, some forty years later! Photo: Chris Payne

There was definitely two mind sets in Miami. Don and I were living in the Dupont Plaza, one of Miami's finest hotels, while Tom and the station engineers, Bill Carr and Art Nobo, were living in a very ordinary, little hotel in Miami Beach. Tom was still trying to keep the costs down, while Don was throwing caution to the wind and living high on the stockholder's money.

Before my position as station manager could be confirmed, I had to appear before a stockholders' meeting which was held at the Everglades Hotel. I was thoroughly quizzed by two of the major owners and the company lawyer, Burt Kanter. They were apparently satisfied that I knew the broadcasting business well and that I could produce the format they were looking for. They gave me an 18-month contract to set up the station, and at the end of this period, I would turn the station over to the English and return to America.

After my confirmation and a stay of a few days in Miami, Don sent me back to Dallas to supervise the recording of the station jingles and the recording of some programs that KLIF was making for us. There was little I could do to push the jingles along. I had previously had dealings with PAMS, the world's top jingle mill. Bill Meeks, the owner, was not the kind of guy to be pushed. He had the best staff that money could buy, and no matter how long it took, they were not going to put out a mediocre product.

As for the KLIF tapes, Don had made a deal with Gordon McClendon to make these tapes some time before. The original idea for the new station was to put a DJ on the air for four hours and fill the rest of the day with the KLIF recordings. The thought even crossed Don's mind to call the station 'KLIF London'. Irving Harrigan (now known by his real name, Ron Chapman) and the other deejays had been making these recordings of their programs for days and there were plenty of these tapes on hand at the time. All I had to do was get them to the ship.

Finally, PAMS finished the jingles, and I returned to Miami where Don had Art Nobo and me looking for various and sundry parts that we would need for the station operation. Art Nobo was a brilliant young man. He and his family were Cuban refugees who had fled Cuba when Fidel Castro invaded the country. Art's father had been a professor at the University of Havana, and all the children in the Nobo family were well educated.

Art had worked with Bill Carr, our consulting engineer, in setting up our 50,000 watt transmitter. Everything seemed to be pretty well in place as far as the transmitter was concerned; however, the engineers could not test the output while the ship was in territorial waters. Unknown to the engineers, there were many problems with the transmitter that were unresolved and there were especially grave problems with the grounding system.

Kou Walters, the ship's captain, was an Estonian immigrant. He had taken on a crew of West Indians to make the trip across the Atlantic. There was likely a representative from every major island in the West Indies and this included two Haitian cooks, one of whom was Michel Philistin.

The last few weeks in Miami, before the ship left the port, were a nightmare. The stockholders were leaning very heavily on Don to get the ship underway and, in turn, Don was pushing everyone under his command to make things happen.

There were several hold-ups, one of which was because the transmitter room had been built with the wrong gauge metal. Therefore, the American Bureau of Shipping would not let the ship out of port until this infraction was corrected.

It seems that Don had some pull in Washington DC, for within days, the whole transmitter room problem turned around. The ship's chandler, Benny Goodman, reported to me that the Bureau of Shipping had received a directive from the desk of the President to allow the M.V. Galaxy out of port. Don won this battle, but the ship was still not seaworthy. Tom Danaher had been working day and night to get the engines in shape, but the engines were old and there was a lot of work to do and only Tom to do it.


Back to Big L Index
Go to Part 2
Home