Says it was not unlike “WKRP in Cincinnati”
By Bill Coates | Pinal Central
Maybe July isn’t the best time to start a new gig in the Arizona desert. Not if you’re from Wyoming. February or March would be better.
But for Phil Riske, July it was.
It was 1979. He became general manger of the newly minted KSAA-FM — CASA 105.5 on the dial.
He remembered one day in particular.
“It was 113 degrees,” Riske said. “I’d never been to Arizona.”
Like many people who’d never been to Arizona, Riske, 75, ended up staying.
That’s a lot of Julys.
KSAA spun Top 40 pop out of a reconverted house on First Street, just across Hermosillo Street from St. Anthony of Padua Catholic School.
The building now houses Brutinel Plumbing & Electrical, founded in 1949 by Bob Brutinel. He fought on Iwo Jima in World War II. He later sold the business but stayed on as an employee. As far as I know, he still shows up for work every day.
Riske, the Wyoming native, now lives in Chandler. He’s married with three adult daughters and plenty of grandchildren. He reports news on behalf of the Rose Law Group in Phoenix. I worked with him at the Arizona Capitol Times in the ought-2000s. He had worked at other newspapers before that.
But his voice lent itself to a career in broadcasting. It’s a calming tenor that carries authority, a voice that draws your attention.
He worked on-air for radio and TV. He preferred radio. In 1969, Riske worked for a Laramie radio station owned by the late sportscaster Curt Gowdy. Riske reported on a controversy known as the Black 14. In brief, the University of Wyoming football coach in Cheyenne booted 14 black players from the team. They had spoken out against the Mormon Church for barring African-Americans from the priesthood, a policy since changed.
Tensions grew. The National Guard was called out. Rumors floated that blacks with guns were en route from Denver.
Riske insisted on reporting both sides, irritating some advertisers. They called for his firing.
He weathered the storm and stayed on the job.
In 1973, Riske went to work for Wycom, which owned radio stations in Wyoming and New Mexico.
Riske’s partner at Wycom, it happened, had friends in Casa Grande.
“He wanted to have a station where he could come and visit them, and we thought it was a good market,” Riske said. “It didn’t turn out that way.”
KSAA lasted three years.
Of course, nobody plans for failure.
So expecting a brighter future, Wycom bought KBFE and the house on First Street from Brett Eisele and changed the call letters. Eisele is now a real estate broker in Casa Grande.
Riske hired people he had worked with in Wyoming and New Mexico. Fitting in didn’t come easily, Riske said.
“We found Casa Grande to be very parochial.” He added: “They weren’t very welcoming.”
But he and staffers worked hard to make a go of it. One key was local news.
“We had news on the hour,” Riske said.
Community involvement played a part as well. Riske sat on the board for Hoemako Hospital, which predated what is now Banner Casa Grande Medical Center. He ran for city council. He campaigned on bringing a more progressive outlook to a small town. He lost by 40 votes in a runoff to Dewey Powell, father of current Councilman Dick Powell.
Riske also fought to bring the pronunciation of Casa Grande in line with proper Spanish. Casa Grande is, after all, Spanish for Big House. He wrote a letter to the editor, published in The Arizona Republic.
“Why don’t these people pronounce Casa Grande correctly?” he asked.
Seated across from him, I didn’t have an answer. I’m one of those people.
In its brief life, KSAA had as many as 10 people on staff. Sales staff cooled their heels in the living room. Reporters and other staff retired to the bedrooms, set up as offices.
One room had the studio. It was equipped with a state-of-the art computer setup dubbed “Hal.” Except for the live newscast, hours of banter, music and ads would run on a continuous tape. It freed up staff for other jobs.
“You could put your program on for a couple of hours, go out … and mow the lawn,” Riske said.
All the staffers had their turn with a mower. They took a radio to monitor the broadcast, just in case something went wrong.
They’d mow around trees and the broadcast tower. I checked Google maps. It still identifies the building as KSAA, but the tower’s not there anymore.
KSAA spun popular songs like “Betty Davis Eyes” by Mistaken Identity and “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits.
The year 1980 started with “Please Don’t Go” by KC and the Sunshine band at No. 1, according to Billboard. It ended with “(Just Like) Starting Over” by John Lennon, murdered that December.
KSAA went with NBC’s coverage of Lennon’s death. It followed up with a playlist of Lennon’s music. Three months later, it covered the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter still had the job. Riske had heard Carter was inviting community reporters to the White House. They could get a one-on-one interview with the president.
“So I wrote a letter to the White House and requested that my news director be invited some day,” Riske said. “And, son of a gun, she was.”
JoAnne Ross met with Carter for more than a half-hour.
Riske likened KSAA’s cast of characters to the crew on the TV sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
Scott Young was KSAA’s own Dr. Johnny Fever, WKRP’s envelope-pushing DJ. Young was 6-foot-10, Riske noted in an email.
“When people asked him if he played basketball, he said, no, he was a jockey.”
Interviews with politicians were a staple. Riske once sat down with Morris Udall at a local restaurant. While Udall was fitted for a headset, Riske stepped away for a moment. He returned to find Udall barely able to lift his head. It was almost flat on the table. Riske figured his Parkinson’s disease was getting worse. Just the same, he went ahead with the interview.
When they finally broke for a commercial, Udall asked, “Do you think you could get the cord on these headphones a little longer?”
The cord had caught on a chair.
“Oh, God, it was embarrassing,” Riske said with a laugh.
But KSAA wasn’t brought down by equipment failure. And it wasn’t brought down by KPIN, the Casa Grande rival with a country-western format.
It was competition out of Phoenix. The well-funded stations from the big city had no problem reaching Casa Grande radios.
“We just couldn’t compete with that,” Riske said.
By 1983, KSAA was off the air. Riske left radio for good. But he never lost his voice.