Mary Turner Pattiz, Rock D.J. During FM’s Heyday, Dies at 76
Mary Turner Pattiz, who as Mary Turner was a silky-voiced disc jockey at KMET, the album-oriented rock station that was the soundtrack of Southern California in the 1970s and early ’80s, before leaving radio to become an addiction counselor and philanthropist, died on May 9 at her home in Beverly Hills. She was 76.
The cause was cancer, said Ace Young, a former KMET news director.
KMET was a hard-rocking upstart in the early 1970s, with its laid-back jockeys delivering a steady flow of new music from bands like the Who, Pink Floyd and Steely Dan, along with slightly naughty patter — a bit of sexual innuendo, endless stoner jokes — that was a welcome counter to the Top 40 hits churned out by AM stations.
They were proud renegades, mixing surf reports with news coverage of events like the Mexican government’s spraying of its illegal marijuana crops with paraquat, a deadly poison. (When Jim Ladd, a late-night D.J., told his listeners to phone the White House to protest the practice, 5,000 callers jammed the White House switchboard.) Their bright yellow billboards were ofteninstalled upside down. They had a signature cheer, “Whooya” (the “w” was silent), that all the jockeys worked into their programs; the neologism was a refinement, Mr. Young said in an interview, “of the coughing sound we made when we smoked too much pot.” Ms. Pattiz — then Mary Turner — was known as “the Burner,” a nickname said to have been given to her by Peter Wolf, the lead singer of the J. Geils Band, for her seductive delivery and good looks, and she had the prime nighttime spot, from 6 to 10 p.m.
When major bands came to town to perform or promote a new record, they made a stop at KMET to be interviewed by Ms. Pattiz. She was soft-spoken and conversational, a gentle interlocutor who once teased Bruce Springsteen by asking, “Do you really know a pretty little place in Southern California, down San Diego way, where they play guitar all night and all day?” (She was quoting “Rosalita,” a song from Mr. Springsteen’s second album.) Most important, she let her subjects talk without interruption. For his part, Mr. Springsteen was so taken with her that he asked her on a date, and at his performance at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., the night after the interview, he dedicated the song “Promised Land” to her.
“You guys can’t see what she looks like,” he told the audience. “She’s real pretty.”
She was also extremely private, circumspect about her personal life, her background and even her age. If she dated a rock star, her colleagues weren’t aware of it.
“The image of a rock ’n’ roll woman on the hippest radio station during those wild years was not the real Mary Turner,” said Michael Harrison, a former host and program director at KMET who is now the publisher of Talkers, a trade publication about the radio industry. “The real Mary Turner wasn’t wild. She was smooth and professional. It was show business.”
Mr. Ladd, whose show followed hers, said: “You would listen to her, and you would fall in love with her voice. She was deceptively soft. She would say a joke and two minutes later you would get the punch line. And like all good interviewers, she knew when to keep her mouth shut.”
By 1981, two rock interview shows she hosted, “Off the Record” and “Off the Record Specials,” were being syndicated by Westwood One, a company founded by the media entrepreneur Norman Pattiz, whom she married in 1985. They were broadcast in every major market in the United States and 40 countries through the American Forces Radio and Television Service, giving Ms. Pattiz a worldwide audience of more than 20 million.
Members of the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury of Queen all opened up during her freewheeling sessions. Mr. Mercury declared that he found his early music disposable, “like a tampon.” Keith Richards was eloquent on the ineffable magic of the Stones’ chemistry, and Mick Jagger admitted to extreme burnout while on tour.
On Ms. Pattiz’s 10th anniversary at KMET, she was honored by Tom Bradley, then the mayor of Los Angeles, in a ceremony at City Hall. A few months later she left the station.
Her final show, on Aug. 6, 1982, is in the permanent collection of the Paley Center for Media in Manhattan. The hard-driving playlist included “Hang ’Em High” by Van Halen, “Back in the Saddle” by Aerosmith and, appropriately, “Rosalita.”
“Well, listen you guys, it has been a lot of fun spending every single weekday night with you for the last 10 years,” she said as she concluded the show, “but the old Burner’s got to be moving on.” And then she played her final tune, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”
Mary Caroline Turner was born on Feb. 4, 1947, in Baltimore. Her father, William Turner, was an aviation representative for an oil company. Her mother, Carol (Steuart) Turner, was a homemaker.
She studied communications at Indiana University Bloomington, thinking she might work in television, but instead found a job as a promotions director at KSAN, a progressive radio station in San Francisco. She did a little of everything there: engineering, hosting a weekend talk show and filling in for other disc jockeys. It was the days of free-form FM radio, when the D.J.s played music from their own collections, and to their own taste.
“It was an exciting time back then because you didn’t operate under any rules,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1982. “You could play anything you wanted, say anything you wanted, and who cared? FM at that time was a joke, especially to Top 40 people. We were the hippies, and they were the stars.”
She worked briefly at KSFX, a competing station in San Francisco, and then auditioned for an opening at KMET in 1972. At the time, she was one of only a handful of women working in radio. (Among the others was Alison Steele, otherwise known as “the Nightbird,” a sultry star on WNEW-FM, KMET’s sister station in New York City.)
Ms. Pattiz said she found her gender to be an advantage, despite the overzealous fans who lurked in the parking lot after her show and the stalker who frightened her so much that she never left work without her two German shepherds and a male colleague.
“I think being a woman helped more than anything else,” she told The Los Angeles Times. “The time was right for it, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Although Ms. Pattiz continued making her “Off the Record Specials” until the early ’90s, she mostly left the radio world — and her colleagues — behind after her marriage to Mr. Pattiz. The couple then became known for their philanthropy and for their regular appearances courtside at Lakers games.
Ms. Pattiz also began working as a drug and alcohol counselor, having confronted her own struggles with substance abuse. In 2006 she earned a master’s degree in psychology from the California Graduate Institute (now the Chicago School of Professional Psychology), and in 2008 she earned a Ph.D. In 2010, she became chairwoman of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., taking over from Mrs. Ford’s daughter, Susan Ford Bales. Most recently, she served on the boards of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and its Graduate School of Addiction Studies.
“When she left broadcasting she had no interest in discussing the subject whatsoever,” said Elliot Mintz, a longtime media consultant and a friend of the couple. “She became totally committed to improving the lives of people caught in addiction.”
Mr. Pattiz died in December. Ms. Pattiz is survived by a brother.
“The Mary Turner of the Betty Ford era was the real Mary Turner,” Mr. Harrison of Talkers said “The Mary Turner of KMET was a figment of our rock ’n’ roll fantasy.”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
Penelope Green is a reporter on the Obituaries desk and a feature writer. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times, an early iteration of Style, and a story editor at the Sunday magazine. @greenpnyt • Facebook
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