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Brian Adams
The Real Buster Friendly: Brian Adams of KICU knows that somewhere a lucky viewer is actually watching that Shirley Temple movie on 'Dialing for Dollars' and is ready to answer his lucrative call.

Brian Adams and KICU are the last of television's red-hot independents

By Zack Stentz

IN PHILIP K. DICK'S classic science-fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the source for Blade Runner), the near-future characters all spend their days glued to the television, addicted to an inexplicably popular variety/chat show called Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends.

The titular host manages the neat trick of staying on the air 24 hours a day, every day, always preternaturally bubbly and enthusiastic no matter the hour one tunes in. Buster Friendly, of course, was a fictional construct, a cybernetic Johnny Carson meant to flesh out the sense of alienation and strangeness in Dick's dystopian universe.

Buster Friendly's real-life analogue, however, actually seems to exist right here in the South Bay, in the person of Brian Adams of KICU (Channel 36). Flipping through the phone book in a vain search for Dialing for Dollars winners each afternoon or interviewing movie stars for the KICU Intermission segments, the mustachioed, gnomish on-air personality is a ubiquitous figure in the lives of Bay Area channel surfers.

For the longest time, Adams was a source of derision and dread to me. Who was this strange individual? Why was he always on television? And how did he manage to shift from a set only slightly more plush than the one on which I hosted Timberwolf Television back in high school to interviewing the likes of Rene Russo and Mel Gibson?

But in the midst of the Exxon Valdez-sized pool of slickness that Bay Area television has become, KICU's homespun, charmingly shoestring segments began to seem less like dross and more like welcome relief.

Forget Garrison Keillor. At the end of the millennium, Brian Adams vainly searching for a Bay Area resident who is both at home and paying attention says far more about locally rooted community in the face of creeping global homogeneity than a whole season of A Prairie Home Companion.

LOCAL TELEVISION. Remember that? Sherman, set the Way-Back Machine to 1978-87, the Golden Age of Bay Area independent broadcasting. While the Big Three network affiliates lumbered across the VHF landscape like cathode-ray brontasauri, the independent stations practiced an amusingly homespun brand of programming. Sandwiched between the old movies, game shows and Big Valley reruns were gems of regionally idiomatic programming: from radio KFRC's Dr. Don doing spots for KBHK (Channel 44) to the signature "dog in the chair" and James Gabbert's daffy on-air editorials on KOFY-TV20.

And best of all, Pat McCormick on KTVU (Channel 2) ran a one-man cottage industry of local television, doing everything from creating the Charley and Humphrey puppet morality shows (imagine Punch & Judy crossed with the Mormon public-service spots) to emceeing the Bay Area's original afternoon Dialing for Dollars movie/game-show program to hosting that ancestor of interactive television, TV Pow! There were giants in the tube in those days.

But no more. The three aforementioned independent stations have been gobbled up by the new mini-networks (Fox got KTVU, while UPN signed up KBHK) or outside media conglomerates (Granite Broadcasting Corp. just bought KOFY) and are slowly but inexorably succumbing to the "morning news, game shows, soaps, cartoons, evening news, tabloid junk, prime time, late news, talk shows, national anthem" formula that makes broadcast television so boring and predictable.

So it's left to San Jose's own plucky little station to carry on the proud tradition of independent television, a mission of which the folks at KICU are acutely aware.

"Absolutely, we're the heirs to that tradition," says Adams, who answers his own phone and is just as charming and folksy with this reporter as he is with Mel or Julia. "And the irony is, when I took my first tour of a television station back when I was a kid, it was the old KTVU building, where I got to actually meet Pat McCormick. And now I've got his job."

Talk about a generational passing of the torch. It was the local-television equivalent of the 16-year-old Bill Clinton shaking John F. Kennedy's hand on the White House lawn. "When we started Dialing for Dollars back in November 1994, Pat actually called to congratulate me," Adams adds.

Only the sick, retired, malingering or hard-core unemployed are able to stay home and catch Dialing for Dollars (weekdays, 1-3pm), so Adams is far more familiar to local viewers through his KICU Intermission interview segments, which run before and after the old movies that, with Sharks games and syndicated reruns, form the core of KICU's programming.

"The movies we run typically have odd lengths when commercials are added," Adams explains. "So we use the Intermission segments as filler to round out the hour. It's fun. I think a lot of people run into those segments while they're channel surfing and wonder how in the world the guy from KICU is managing to interview Mel Gibson."

That's putting it mildly. "Well, the station is willing to fly me to Los Angeles and New York for these publicity junkets, where the stars do sometimes 60 interviews a day. Me and Bob Shaw [from KTVU's Mornings on 2 program] are the only Bay Area television people who go regularly, and the studios like to oblige because they realize that Silicon Valley is a very important film market. Sometimes the day's interview roster will be Entertainment Tonight, Japanese National Television, CNN and Brian Adams from KICU in San Jose. It's very funny."

(The stars themselves seem more baffled than amused, and during their interviews, they often sport looks that appear to say, "How did you manage to swing this interview? I'll be having a word with my publicist when this is through.")

Other homegrown highlights of KICU's schedule include segments on Bay Area high school sports and public affairs and interviews with Silicon Valley business leaders.

STILL, NOTHING says local like the ritual of a host calling numbers out of the White Pages at random, on the very slim chance that the resident will be watching Dialing for Dollars with the jackpot amount and film's title handy.

After Channel 2 discontinued the program in favor of tedious syndicated talk shows, the irresistible combination of Shirley Temple movies and prizes you'll never win disappeared from the Bay Area altogether for several years. Then, in a bold stroke as welcome as Coca-Cola's reintroduction of its classic formula, KICU brought Dialing for Dollars back to Bay Area airwaves in 1994, with Adams hosting and only a few format changes.

"Our jackpot gets a lot bigger than it did in Pat's day," Adams boasts. "We've got a bigger population to draw on, and more couples are working and have answering machines than they did in the past." When told of the avid viewer I know who leaves the movie title and dollar amount as a message on his answering machine whenever he goes out of the house, Adams laughs and answers, "I don't think we've called him yet. But if he has the correct answer recorded, then who knows? He might get lucky."

Changes in technology and lifestyles aside, though, Adams says KICU plans to forge ahead with its back-to-the-future style of programming. "What we're doing is retro in a way," he says, "and my hope is that it will hark back to the days of local programming and let people know that we're a truly community television station."

It's nearly enough to make one want to stay next to the phone every day, waiting for that call. Now, throw in some moralizing hand puppets and voice-activated video games and I'll be truly happy.

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From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of Metro.

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