Seattle radio legend, concert and hydroplane promoter Pat O’Day died Tuesday at his home on San Juan Island. He was 85.
Pat O’Day loved radio.
His emotional connection to radio, both the entertainment side and the business side, was lifelong, and came through in every conversation I had with him. He knew who was working where, he knew which stations were doing well and which were struggling. He was always suggesting things: “This station should put these two people together on air, that station should change its format, that show stinks, this show is good.”
I’ve yet to meet anyone successful in radio who wasn’t in love with it as a kid. Radio’s ability to enlarge the limited world of a 10-year-old is intoxicating. For Pat, that love never faded.
By the time we met in the mid-1990s, he was selling real estate in the San Juan Islands. “Making real money,” he laughed, “not like the money I made in radio and concerts that kept disappearing.”
But years after he dominated the Seattle airwaves in the 1960s and 1970s — when KJR-AM was all about rock n’ roll and not about sports — with ratings no one saw before or since, he stayed involved in the business he adored by befriending and mentoring dozens of young broadcasters.
Pat and I had our first meaningful conversation one morning in 1995. He and his family were living in a small cabin on the north side of San Juan Island while their new home was being built next door. After breakfast, we talked for a few hours about what it took to be successful.
He told me to always be professional in how I presented myself on the air. We discussed the importance of talking in a way that sounded as if you were talking to each listener individually. He stressed how important it was to make personal promotional appearances. When you did, you needed to make every listener who came to see you feel special. I thought a lot about that last part as I scanned social media this week and noticed dozens of photos of fans with Pat.
“It’s very important that you always be approachable,” he said. Those photos are evidence that he walked that talk.
I asked him about his company, Concerts West, which revolutionized the way concerts were set up, presented and enjoyed. It was the first to move sound and lighting equipment with bands every night rather than rent them in each city. That allowed for bands to develop consistency in how they looked and sounded.
That day, we also had the first of many conversations about hydroplane racing and what, if anything, could be done to bring it back to its glory days. Pat was in attendance at the first hydroplane race on Lake Washington on 1951 when he was 16. That race was so popular among locals that it became a yearly event and spawned the annual Seafair summer celebration.
Pat did his first broadcast of the event in 1968 and was a presence in every broadcast for years after. He owned a boat, hired the first female driver (Brenda Jones) in 1981, and shared his love and knowledge of the thunderboats with me. (Later, we worked on several hydroplane racing broadcasts together.)
I soaked it all up. My wife, Renee, later said that sitting in Pat’s cabin in the woods watching him impart decades of wisdom to me was like watching Yoda explain things to Luke Skywalker.
I wasn’t the only one who had a relationship like that with Pat. Dozens of Seattle media members have posted photos with him on social media, each with comments effusive in their thanks for his friendship and wisdom.
Pat tried to help every young media person he met. He was generous in his praise, gentle with criticism, and always had a story to tell, stories that typically involved a small kernel of truth, a little hyperbole, a little of what the Irish call blarney, and usually ended with the storyteller and his listeners laughing.
His 2002 biography, It Was All Just Rock ‘n’ Roll, had hundred of such tales. Here’s Pat staring down the mob when they tried to muscle in on his concert business. Here’s Pat out-foxing the Baltimore police department when they stole money from his briefcase at a concert. Here’s Pat bullying a cruise ship captain in Mexico to alter the ship’s course so he could take 200 KJR listeners deep sea fishing with a friend in Cabo San Lucas. Here’s Pat standing in the sixth-floor elevator lobby with Jimi Hendrix at the Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle after a concert when Hendrix thought it would be funny to stop elevators on their way up to higher floors and present passengers with an unfiltered view of himself in his birthday suit.
He had a story for every occasion. His unmistakable voice, expressive blue eyes and willingness to bend the truth a bit made each one funny.
About 15 years ago, Renee and I joined Pat and his wife, Stephanie, for dinner at Roche Harbor. After dinner, a woman walked over and looked at Pat for a moment before turning towards me.
“Are you Mike Gastineau?” she asked.
I said yes. She went on to tell me that she was with a couple of friends who were big fans of mine, but too shy to come over and say hello. I told her to thank her friends and to tell them they should please say hello before they left. I was bursting with pride. Here I was, in front of my mentor, doing exactly as he had taught me: Making time for a fan.
She started to walk away, then said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t even introduce myself. My name is Mary.” I smiled at her and said good evening while Pat nodded to her.
“Hello Mary,” he said. “I’m Pat O’Day.”
She was stunned.
“You—you–,” she stammered, “you’re Pat O’Day? Oh, my God. Pat O’Day. I listened to you every day when I was a kid. Every day. Pat O’Day? I can’t believe it.”
Mary turned to me and delivered a knockout punch that left Pat and I laughing for years.
“I’ve gotta be honest, I’ve never heard of you. I have no idea who you are. But he’s Pat O’Day!”
More than 25 years after the peak of his radio career, he was still a big damn deal. A giant in the radio business, a DJ so talented he’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a man I was so fortunate to call my friend.