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Back to Home >  Entertainment > Columnists >

Brad Kava

Posted on Mon, Apr. 01, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Radio mogul's payday

Mercury News

Popular KARA-FM disc jockey Kim Vestal will never forget the first time she met Robert S. Kieve, the owner of her radio station and a San Jose institution himself.

It was 22 years ago. Vestal, then 21, was working as a weekend news reader when she mispronounced the name of Iowa's capital city on the air. Suddenly, a sprightly little man in a suit and a bow-tie pushed open the studio door and shouted at her.

``It's Des Moines. de MOINE.''

And then he was gone.

It was only later she learned that the strange intruder was Kieve, the majority owner of her station.

Today, the 80-year-old Kieve completes the sale of the station, affectionately known as ``KARA of Santa Clara,'' to a 52-station conglomerate, Hispanic Broadcasting of Dallas, for $49 million -- Kieve bought the station in 1972 for just $470,000. At midnight, soft rock KARA became Spanish music station KEMR.

Kieve has had his hands in running every aspect of the station for 30 years. He will stay busy running his two other San Jose stations -- country KRTY-FM (95.3) and news station KLIV-AM (1590).

``You could always count on Bob to be there seven days a week,'' said John McLeod, vice president of programming who has worked for Kieve since 1967. ``He's still there seven days a week. And he'll answer the phones, make coffee, clean up the kitchen when it's dirty. He's down to earth.''

Kieve has always had energy to burn, and not only at the radio station. He has tried to inject his force of personality into the running of San Jose, his adopted hometown, as well. In his frequent radio commentaries, he has taken on government officials, newspaper editors, football cameramen who shoot too many close-ups of the ball and dry cleaners who use too much starch.

Since 1967, Kieve had been one of the ``mom and pop'' owners holding out against the large conglomerates. For two decades big media companies have successfully lobbied Congress to relax regulations controlling the number of stations they could own, claiming they couldn't make enough profit with a limited number of stations.

Kieve, who fought deregulation, has demonstrated the value of local ownership through his editorials, community involvement and loyalty to employees in a business known for hiring and firing at the drop of a ratings point.

``Bob looks at this business different than corporate America,'' said John Levitt, 50, whose family owned Kieve's chief competitor, KEZR-FM, until 1998. ``He looks at it truly as a broadcaster. He looks beyond the profits. He looks at the public license we have and what we are charged to do: provide a community service.''

Bow tie always in place, suit always natty, on the surface Kieve comes off like Ozzie Nelson. But, underneath, say those who know him, there's a streak of Ozzy Osbourne.

``When he first moved to California, he kept his old suits from New Jersey. He wore those to mow the lawn,'' recalled daughter, Lenoir, 36. ``I can't imagine what the neighbors thought, seeing him out there mowing the lawn in a suit, but that's what he thought he should wear.''

This son of a German-born handkerchief maker is ``shockingly liberal about some things and shockingly conservative about others,'' she said.

``When I was 7, I was telling him a story about someone using some swear words, but I wouldn't say the word. He stopped me and said there was nothing wrong with swearing. Finally, I used the real word, and he looked at me with such pride.''

He's been just as unconventional in some of his business decisions.

Two decades ago, women had almost as much chance of starring in morning radio as breaking into the National Football League. Yet Kieve gave Vestal a shot at the morning show right out of college, when everyone advised against it.

``I didn't argue with anyone,'' Kieve said. ``I just did it.''

She's gone on to do the Bay Area's longest-running morning show -- and one of only a few in which a woman is the top dog -- building a strong, loyal following.

He bucked the advice of those around him when it came time to sell his station.

He hadn't planned on selling, he said, but when he got the huge offer, he feared that he could be liable for a lawsuit by a recalcitrant stockholder if he didn't take it. That had happened to other broadcasters.

But rather than keeping his cards close to his omnipresent vest, Kieve immediately gathered his 50 employees and explained the situation.

Others told him not to do that, for fear the employees would leave or not do their best work. And when the sale went through, he promised each a year's salary as a bonus. All but six of them have stayed with the company.

``We feel they should have something at the end of it, just as we do,'' he said.

Kieve owns 50 percent of Empire Broadcasting; employees and former employees own 25 percent; and 25 percent is owned by local investors, including former county Supervisor Rod Diridon, beer distributor Mike Fox and former Frontier Village owner Joe Zukin. He credits them with not putting pressure on him to put profits over people, although KARA and KRTY consistently rank among San Jose's Top 10 stations and his three stations brought in $9.6 million in revenue last year.

Kieve continues to fight conglomerates gobbling up more and more stations, asking Congress to limit the number of stations companies can own and enforce regulations.

``All the things I worried about have come true,'' he said. ``Like so many aspects of American life, radio has become nothing but a stock-market game.''

Always willing to try something new, Kieve recently started three Internet radio stations featuring Beethoven, traditional country and big band.

Kieve seems happier about remaining in the business than in the fistful of dollars he's about to make.

``Not much is going to change for me,'' he said.

He'll keep his Ford Taurus and his modest three-bedroom house off Bascom Avenue. He'll start a charitable foundation with his share of the sale money and maybe indulge his one material passion: buying small gadgets, like his beloved Blackberry e-mail pager.

He's always enjoyed travel and will continue trips to Spain and the Caribbean. His only exercise is the walking he does around his station.

``At an age at which most of my contemporaries are either retired or no longer living, I have my health and the luxury of being able to work in a vocation which I love and in a variety of satisfying community activities,'' he wrote in a note.

Contact Brad Kava at or (408) 920-5040. Fax (408) 271-3786.
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