Off the 99 – The search for musical talent in the Central Valley *This is the first in a planned series of profiles meant to call attention to potential inductees for the Valley Music Hall of Fame
By Don Priest | firstname.lastname@example.org
“A class act.” “A real gentleman.” “A leader.” All terms used to describe Woody Miller, the radio pioneer whose career spanned over 6 decades, influenced the musical tastes of a wide swath of Valley listeners and included a number of significant firsts.
He was the first local radio programmer to successfully offer Blues, R&B and Country to the same audience on the same station. He was the first to program music, especially for the Valley’s Hispanic audience. He was the first to offer an all-black radio talk show. And he was the first African Americans to own and operate a radio station in California.
Beginning in 1949, Woody enchanted audiences with his charm, musical knowledge and witty story-telling at stations in Fowler, Bakersfield, San Francisco and back to Fresno, where he finally gave up the mic at KFSR in 2015.
According to Joe Moore, the current President and General Manager at KVPR and the former Station Manager at KFSR, Woody represented the last of that generation of broadcasters who came up in the immediate post-war era. “Woody was a direct link to those classic broadcasters like Daddy-O Dave in Chicago and Al ‘Jazz Bo’ Collins in San Francisco,” he said. “He was a direct link to that radio tradition, and through his interviews, a direct link to the icons of the music world.”
During his long career, Woody interviewed and befriended the musical giants of his day, including Ray Charles, Billy Holiday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, James Brown and a host of others. He then wrapped those experiences into captivating stories to share with his audiences.
So how did Joe Moore convince someone of Woody’s stature to bring his talents to the little station on the Fresno State campus? Story goes, it started with the listeners. “People would call up and tell me about this radio station out of Fowler that they grew up listening to,” he said. “It had jazz and R&B, and they had this guy, Woody Miller, who was the DJ and ran the show. It was the best thing ever, they told me.”
As so often happens in these seemingly fate-driven occurrences, a serendipitous phone call from Woody’s son, Mike, started the quest to bring Woody to KFSR. “Mike called to talk about something else, and about halfway through the conversation I realized he was Woody’s son,” he said. “That got me excited! And I told him I’d love to meet his Dad.”
So Mike arranged for the three of them to meet for lunch. It was a long and fruitful meeting. “At first, I just wanted to meet him and hear some stories, Joe recalled. “But I quickly realized why Woody was so beloved and popular, even by someone who had never heard him on the radio, because he was such a great personality. He was such a great storyteller, and he knew the music.”
By the end of the conversation, Joe was convinced he needed to get Woody on KFSR, but Woody was hesitant. It was 2005. He had just retired from radio and told Joe he was “all through with that.” Joe also speculates that Woody was probably a little suspicious of “this young white kid’s motives.”
But Joe was persistent (as only Joe can be) and finally convinced Woody to do a show on KFSR, where he quickly became the station’s most popular on-air personality.
“Anybody could play the music Woody was playing,” Joe said. “But what made it special was him. He truly was a radio personality, and you could see why he was a radio legend. He put everything into the performance. He truly was a radio performer.”
Others who knew him to agree. “Woody was a unique guy because he was the true gentleman of the business,” is how his long-time friend and colleague, Joe Collins described him. “He was a great story-teller and would charm your socks off. People were drawn to him.”
Don Fisher, another long-time radio veteran and KFSR host, remembers the spell Woody would cast on the air. “He played jazz and was Woody,’ he said. “His on-air persona was playing some music – but mostly telling stories. He had such great stories because throughout his career he had interviewed all these great jazz and blues artists.” He recalled how Woody once described Duke Ellington as being “very smooth, a sharp dresser, all the ladies loved him. But Ray Charles – he was real.”
In addition to being KFSR’s most popular on-air personality, Woody was also a generous teacher. “He relished being a mentor for people,” Moore recalls.
“He befriended a student trumpet player at Fresno State. Took a liking to him. Took him under his wing and gave him lots of encouragement and advice. That student is now a successful jazz player in Chicago. That was Woody.”
Fischer also pointed out that Woody was more than a radio personality. He was also very committed to his community. “He was very active politically. He ran for city council. He taught a class at city college. He hosted the first all-black radio talk show at KFCF to discuss the issues of the day,” he said.
Woody was also active in presidential campaigns for Robert Kennedy and Jesse Jackson. He was devastated when Robert Kennedy was shot – then proud and happy when Barack Obama was elected.
The end of Woody’s radio career finally came in 2015 with the onslaught of Alzheimer’s. It was a sad time for the KFSR staff and the listeners, recalls Fischer. “We got lots of calls when Woody quit doing his show. People from across the country would call and ask, what happened to Woody Miller? He was that popular.”
But radio was in Woody’s blood, so even after he was off the air, he would occasionally show up at the radio station. “The door would open, and there’d be Woody,” Fischer recalls. “Then he’d just come sit down in the office and start talking. And we’d stop everything and listen.”
Woody Miller passed in May of 2017. He left lasting memories with those who knew him. Said Joe Collins, “We lost a giant when Woody passed. He was always, always a class act and a gentleman. He touched a lot of souls. He touched a lot of people.”
Added Joe Moore, “Woody was a leader. A leader in the industry. A leader in his community. A leader with the students he worked with. I consider myself so fortunate to have had the opportunity to know him. I think everyone who had the opportunity to listen to his show probably felt the same way.”
To honor Woody in connection with Jazz History month, KFSR paid tribute to this radio icon at Fulton 55 on Sunday, April 28 with a show that featured an opening set of music from some of Woody’s friends and family, including Ed Burke, Bobby Logan and Woody’s son, Mike Miller. And a closing set of the big band jazz Woody was so fond of, performed by the Joe Lenigan Band along with a few “special guests” like Vern Selland and Deidra Contino. In between, son Mike hosted a “roast” of his Dad offered by a few of Woody’s closest friends and colleagues.