As an 11-year-old kid in the summer of 1981, life was, by all discernible metrics, pretty cool. Even in the nascent months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, very little seemed of consequence—or even important, for that matter—in the lives of Southern California teenagers. Except perhaps for radio. And just like the physical ecosystem in which they operated, local radio stations had their own distinct pecking order. There was KROQ-FM 106.7 for the cool kids, KMET for those who adopted their parents’ taste for classic rock and 91X from San Diego for the ultra-hip. But for the rest of us in the vast middle, there was the Mighty 690, a Top 40 station filled with booming voices of DJs with cool names such as Michael Boss and constant rotation of almost-caustic pop music.
Dating back to 1961, XETRA-AM, which advertised and branded itself as “The Mighty 690” during the 1980s, was one of many so-called “border-blaster radio stations,” transmitting on a 10,000-watt platform from a tower located on the outskirts of Tijuana. In 1981, the concept of listening to a radio station broadcast from nearly 200 miles away was about as close to globalism as was available.
On one Sunday night in late June of that year, Michael Boss announced that the Mighty 690 would hold a contest dubbed the “Summer of $50,000.” Details were to follow.
Radio contests were nothing new. But with the proliferation of new Southern California stations and formats, the ante had been raised, and listenership was competitive.
The station was going to literally bury $50,000 in cash somewhere between the international border and the San Fernando Valley, or as far as the signal would reach. Starting the following morning, the station would give out a series of cryptic clues that listeners would piece together to ultimately reveal the location of the buried treasure.
At its simplest, the contest had both the childish allure of a circus carnival and the sad sophistication of a technological medium realizing its limits. But for all of its possibilities, the contest was also a great equalizer. A listener from East LA had as much chance as an 11-year-old still trying to figure out sixth grade.
As I recall, the clues themselves were no more sophisticated than one of the Hardy Boys mystery books that were so popular in school libraries at the time. The first clue narrowed down the search area to “somewhere in Southern California.” Although I can’t recall with any specificity, the second clue was no more helpful than suggesting the money was buried either in downtown Los Angeles or near the water in San Diego. The third and fourth clues, as remembered, pointed to either dirt fields near Dodger Stadium or some unnamed sports venue in San Diego proper.
I do remember just as the clues began to narrow that I had convinced my grandfather, Max, to be at the ready sometime in the next week or two with his gold Oldsmobile Cutlass and a shovel. Just in case.
But I was too late.
On a Sunday that August, one of the DJs announced that the $50,000 had been found. I recall that the money was found by an immigrant family that figured out the clues and dug behind home plate at the old Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego. But recollections like that are often rife with revisionist charm. I didn’t know if I had remembered it right.
As it turns out, I hadn’t.
The contest run by the Mighty 690 in 1981 actually had its origins a bit further east, in San Bernardino County. The idea for the “Summer of $50,000” was the brainchild of Ted Ziegnebusch, onetime station manager and program director during XETRA’s formative years and now an “on-air” talent for KOST-FM in Los Angeles.
Ziegenbusch says he would listen to KMEN-AM as a child in the largely undeveloped areas of Upland and Pomona, roughly 60 miles east of Los Angeles. “The local radio station [KMEN] would periodically run a contest called ‘Treasure Hunt,’ where they would bury either a key or a chest with cash in a local farmer’s field,” he recalls. “The DJs on KMEN would give clues as to its whereabouts, and my friends and I would pore over a topographic map of the area with a magnifying glass, trying to pinpoint where it was.” Local retailers would get in on the action by posting physical signs with the clues provided by KMEN in store windows or local garages for those who had missed the earlier radio broadcast. “You can’t do anything like that anymore,” Ziegenbusch lamented. “With the advent of social media, the secret would be out before the treasure was even buried.”
Desperate to beat the ratings of burgeoning competitors such as KFI, the Mighty 690 hired consultants for its contest, as well as to boost ratings. “But the station folks didn’t like much of what they had to offer,” Ziegenbusch says. “The concept for a buried treasure contest was gold.”
Along with Chris Torick and Frank Felix, two other members of the programming staff at Mighty 690 during the early 1980s, Ziegenbusch distinctly recalls, the station intended to “milk the contest for as long as they could.” As a result, most clues “walked a delicate balance between providing the exact location for the cash and stringing listeners along just enough that they would listen to what at the time were high-production-value commercials.”
Of course Ziegenbusch was right—the contest lasted nearly 12 weeks and interest was perpetuated by word of mouth. In a stinging twist of irony, the actual money was not buried. In fact, it was not money at all. As Ziegenbusch corrected me, the treasure was actually an 8.5-inch-by-11-inch placard with a phone number the winner would call to arrange the pick up of a $50,000 check.
And the winner wasn’t the immigrant family I had imagined, but rather an unemployed twentysomething who was still living with his parents. And the location? No digging required. The placard had been placed behind the license plate of an old Buick that had been parked at the Redondo Beach pier for nearly the entire summer.
So my recollection was not only off geographically by about 200 miles, but also the whole notion of buried treasure being unearthed in an archeological frenzy was totally wrong. But that’s okay. Current consensus suggests that, as a society, we now seem more interested in debunking urban myths than celebrating them. That’s too bad. When I regale my children with urban legends such as the Mighty 690 contest, their eyes tend to glaze over. But I’m hopeful that somewhere in between the Snapchatting and Instagram follows, they can pause—even if for a second—to look back at how cool inaccurate and faded memories can be.
Alex Cherin is an attorney and lobbyist based in Los Angeles.
Alex Cherin is an attorney and lobbyist based in Los Angeles.