A KISN Good Guy: Tom Michaels

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KISN, 10th & Burnside. The ground floor studio window faced the busy street.

KISN was a legendary West Coast radio station — one of the Star Broadcasting Stations — owned and operated by the infamous Don Burden and his properties included KISN-AM (Vancouver-Portland), KOIL-AM/FM (Omaha), and WIFE-AM/FM (Indianapolis).  Many KISN “good guys,” the on-the-air staff, became familiar names to their listeners and to those of us who worked in radio. I can’t list everybody, but here are a few of the prominent personalities who helped make KISN a great station: The Real Don Steele, Tiger Tom Murphy, Roger W. Morgan, Mike Phillips, Roger Hart, Buddy Scott, Pat Pattee, Dave “Records” Stone and, the subject of this article, Tom Michaels.

Tom Michaels (real name Thomas Michael Gerlitz) was born in Walla Walla, WA. At age ten, his family moved to the Portland area. After high school, Tom enrolled at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. He had career plans of becoming a dentist, but that all changed when he was introduced to the campus radio station, KLC.

Tom had natural talent — a great voice, wit and a smooth delivery. Experience at the campus station led to Michaels landing his first announcing job at commercial radio station, KLOG in Kelso, WA. Michaels became acquainted with two of the KISN good guys, Tiger Tom Murphy and Roger Hart. That connection paid off: In 1962, Tiger Tom had to commit six months to Uncle Sam. With the approval of KISN management, Tom Michaels filled in for Murphy.

Tiger Tom Murphy

Michaels moved back to weekends when Tiger Tom returned to KISN. Michaels had never used his chosen air name during his KISN shifts. Per corporate dictate, first he had been known as “Tom Murphy’s Buddy” and, when working the weekends, as “Wonderful Weekend.” Don Burden had strong opinions and he wanted to focus on the weekends and music, and not the jock, so that was the name Tom went by. Things continued to change in 1966. For one month in January, Michaels was named interim Program Director (P.D.) at KISN. He started going by the name Tom Michaels during his midday shift. Come February, Buzz Barr arrived from Seattle to assume the role of KISN P.D. Tom went back to weekend shifts and reporting police news.

Buzz Barr disliked his time in Portland, so he didn’t stay very long. Once Buzz was able to land a gig back in Seattle, Tom Michaels was appointed KISN P.D.  From that point forward, Tom worked a variety of air shifts including mornings and midday.  In 1972, Tom was selected national P.D. of the Star Broadcasting stations. J.J. Jordan took over as the KISN P.D. Michaels remained in Portland, but his KISN air shift was shortened to two hours in the midday. KISN DJ’s were prominent in Portland: The station’s ground floor level studio window looked out onto the street at 10th & Burnside in downtown Portland. KISN, in an effort to comply with FCC  licensing requirements, often broadcast from a studio located at their transmitter site that was also in Portland.

Tom Michaels left KISN in 1974, moving across the city to KPAM-FM/KLSC-AM, where he would handle afternoon drive on the FM and serve as production manager for the combo. Later, he was moved to the midday shift. In 1979, Tom became the radio and television voice for Fred Meyer stores. Two years later, Michaels went to KEX-AM in Portland as production manager. He also worked a weekend air shift at KEX. 

Come 1987, Tom left radio to focus on production. Along with handling other accounts, he continued to be the talent on radio & TV advertising for the Fred Meyer stores. In 1987, the daily Oregonian newspaper recognized Tom’s abilities: “The most successful voice in the rapidly growing Portland advertising market belongs to Tom Michaels.”

In the fall of 1999, Tom Michaels suddenly and unexpectedly died at age 57. A month later, at its annual Rosey Awards ceremony, the Portland Advertising Federation paid tribute to Tom, acknowledging his career as a Portland DJ and his time promoting Fred Meyer stores. As to the fate of KISN radio, the FCC refused to renew the licenses of all of the Star Broadcasting Stations. Dave “Records” Stone signed the station off-the-air, from KISN’s studio at their transmitter site, on September 2, 1976. Reporters and FCC staff were crowded into the small space and Star Broadcasting C.E.O. Don Burden was on the telephone with Stone. KISN’S last moments ended abruptly when the FCC shutdown the transmitter during the final song —  Someday We’ll Be Together by Diana Ross & The Supremes.

Dave “Records” Stone

Tom Michaels was well-liked and respected. Two of his colleagues had nothing but good things to say about him. Per Dave “Records” Stone: “He was a terrific talent and my mentor. Loved him.”

Kirk Wilde, a ’60s and ’70s DJ in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado, went way back to college days with Tom Michaels. He said:

“I was a freshman at Lewis & Clark College, Portland OR, 1961, stumbling to coffee in beatnik rags and the black horned rimmed glasses so many disk jockeys wore. A guy stopped me: “You look like you should be a DJ.” I told him as a stutterer, no way.

Nevertheless, he persuaded me to follow him to a little shack in lower campus: KLC, a 50 watt station carried to campus buildings and dorms through the AC power lines (although you could hear it leaking nearby into regular radios at 680 AM). His shows there were pure Top 40.

He showed me how the magic is done, and sat me down to do it myself. Viola! Speaking into a mike with earphones on, I didn’t stutter!!  I was elated and wanted more.

Portrait of Tom Michaels

The guy who believed I could do it was Tom Michaels (Gerlitz), only a sophomore at the time, I think. But he could do the DJ shtick like the big guys I listened to constantly. I think he already worked part time at some small station nearby. He resembled nobody so much as comedian Steve Martin, both in looks and in antics–a natural-born entertainer. (Maybe Martin learned from him.) He would always do a Dick Van Dyke trip over his own feet for his posse, the Blue Men, locals who were too cool for school.

KISN was the dominant station over the region. The 7-midnite jock there was the legendary Tom Murphy. When Murphy was called to 6 months active military duty, KISN called on Michaels. Still a full-time underclass student, Michaels filled in seamlessly, as “Tom Murphy’s Buddy” or “Tom Michael’s Friend,” he used both names. I don’t think most Lewis & Clark people knew who they were listening to every night, but I was proud to know him.

I can’t trace all his career moves after that. I know that he would go on to be the program director, not only of KISN, but of its sister stations in Omaha and Indianapolis. And that he would settle back in Portland as part-time jock and full-time production director, so good was he at making commercials. He was most known as the spokesman for Fred Meyer, a big Portland retailer.

Tom visited me in Seattle maybe 1967. He told me that he had approached KOL to be its program director, which turned him down because he had asked for too little money. Too little money.

Seattle radio would have been very different had Tom had his hand in. Seattle’s loss.

Tom died young, of course.” 

—Kirk

Kirk Wilde

Examples of Tom Michael’s radio & TV work are included below. These files have been edited and scoped.

This KISN aircheck (Nov. 21, 1967) is all about giving listeners Thanksgiving turkeys

As part of a Christmas bit (1968) Tom sings a KISN themed Christmas song

           Four 30 second Fred Meyer Ads. Cameo appearance by Tom in the first three

 

Special thanks, for providing biographical information, to Kirk Wilde, Dave Rogaway, Craig Addams, PDXradio.com

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Author: Steven Smith

Presently editor and historical writer with Puget Sound Media in Seattle. Former radio broadcaster and radio station owner, 1970-1999. Journalism and speech communications degrees. I enjoy researching articles and online reporting that allows me to meld together words, audio and video. P.S. I appreciate and encourage reader comments and opinions.

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