The Graduate

Most of the time, Alex Stone, a reporter for KOA radio, has nothing but news on his mind. According to Jerry Bell, KOA's news director, "Alex is as hard-core as you can get. He's got all the police scanners and stuff in his house and in his car, too, and they're on all the time. He lives, eats, sleeps and breathes this business." But on a mid-December morning, Stone admitted that his thoughts were on another subject -- namely how on earth he was going to pass his biology final at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"I took the class as an elective," Stone noted wearily. "But what I didn't see when I signed up for it on the computer was that, on the next screen, it said it was for doctors. And I'm dying in there."

Fortunately, Stone's diagnosis proved less than accurate: He made it out of biology alive and earned a CU diploma a few days later, accomplishing this goal in just three and a half years. Doing so marked a major passage in his life, as it does for most graduates -- but in his case, it was doubly significant. Although he's just 22 years old, he has worked in electronic journalism since he was twelve (and no, that's not a typographical error). As such, he's had to juggle broadcasting and school on a regular basis for the better part of a decade. With the dawn of the new year, however, Stone is finally able to concentrate entirely on a very promising career.

"Everybody's been great about working with my school schedule," he says. "But it's nice not to have to worry about that anymore."

A self-described "news nerd," Stone grew up in Santa Rosa, California, as the youngest of four children born to Barbara and Stu Stone. Stu, a stockbroker with Morgan Stanley, has done a little broadcasting, occasionally delivering stock updates over the phone for a local radio station. Nonetheless, Alex traces his media obsession to a trip to Atlanta when he was six. The primary motivation for the visit was to give his older brother a chance to check out a college in which he was interested, but while the family was there, they toured the CNN broadcast center. Upon their return, Alex says, "I started doing mock newscasts in my bedroom, producing videos and playing around with this small radio board.

"At that time, I think I also wanted to be a garbage man and a firefighter and anything else that would sound cool to a six-year-old," he adds. "But news is what stuck."

Did it ever. During the early '90s, when the average youngster on the brink of pubescence was into New Kids on the Block or Guns N' Roses, Stone was a devotee of Mornings on 2, a program aired weekdays by KTVU, an Oakland television outlet. Each Tuesday, the show originated from a Bay Area hotel, and after considerable goading, Stone talked his mom into driving him there to see how it was put together. As it happened, KTVU's general manager, Kevin O'Brien, was on location that day, and Stone took advantage of the situation. "I introduced myself to him, and he told me, 'Swing by and see the station sometime; come whenever you want,'" says Stone, who regards O'Brien as his mentor. "I thought it would never turn into anything, but he kept his word. I went down there many times through middle school and high school to watch them do the news."

Stone began broadcasting during the same period, but in a different medium. One of his teachers at Herbert Slater Middle School received a letter from KSRO, a venerable talk-radio signal, asking for help finding staffers for Teens on Air, a new, hour-long program to be made for and by the bloom of Santa Rosa's youth. "I showed the letter to my mom, and she said to give them a call, that it could be a lot of fun," Stone says.

Mother knew best. Alex was named news anchor for Teens on Air even though "I sounded like a woman back then. I'd make phone calls and people would say, 'Hang on, Miss Stone.'" He eventually rose to the position of associate producer, working with a staff of approximately twenty of his contemporaries from assorted schools in range of KSRO's signal.

Most of the stories Stone tackled on Teens were of the light variety, but there were exceptions -- most notably the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas, a girl who lived in the neighboring community of Petaluma. (She's memorialized by the Polly Klaas Foundation, an organization at that, among other things, supports families of missing or abducted children.) "I interviewed her parents and grandparents," he says. "I was thirteen at the time, and going through all that was quite an experience."

Such precociousness soon got the attention of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the hometown daily newspaper. In July 1995, the paper profiled Stone, who at the time was listed as being "14 and a Virgo." On top of his work with Teens on Air and a job at an affiliated radio station, KSFX, where he handled "commercial scheduling and billing," Stone revealed that he was the former editor of the Slater Middle School newspaper; onetime seventh-grade class president; a volunteer for the Salvation Army and the Leukemia Society; and a freelance producer of wedding videos. "Most people see me as a very serious person. But I'm a little nuts, too," he maintained. The author of the article didn't argue with this contention.

When Teens on Air was discontinued after a little over a year, a less dedicated adolescent might have taken its cancellation as a clue that he should be focusing more energy on girls and misbehavior -- but not Stone. Instead, he went to Jim Grady, KSRO's veteran a.m. personality, who immediately threw him a lifeline. "He told me, 'You can come in mornings. If you get us coffee, we'll put you on the air sometimes,'" Stone says. Grady's informal offer quickly evolved into a five-day-a-week post that wouldn't have been feasible without a big assist from Stone's mom: "She was a teacher at a preschool, and she had to open up the school early. So I'd get up at three in the morning, and she'd drive me to the station, and then after a while, she'd open up the school."

Mrs. Stone began getting a little more shut-eye after Alex reached sixteen and "our news director handed me the keys to the station car. I looked at him, and he said, 'Let's see what you can do.'" Before long, Stone was "doing splits, where I'd work the morning show, go to high school, then go back to the station, anchor the afternoon news, and get back home at seven or eight o'clock." His morning duties were particularly brutal: "I'd do newscasts on the half hour starting at 5 a.m., and they'd all be live up to 7:30. Then I'd tape things, because school started at eight -- and sometimes getting there wasn't easy. Every winter during the El Niño years, the rivers would flood, and we'd cover that. One time I ran into class with my rain gear on, and the teacher said, 'I didn't think you'd make it today.'" Luckily for him, Montgomery High School, from which he graduated, was just down the street from KSRO.

On the surface, Stone's status as a local celebrity should have translated into a certain amount of high-school renown. But he insists otherwise. "Our demographic was older, so the most I'd ever hear from someone at school was, 'My grandma listens to you sometimes.'" Indeed, seniors adored young Alex, and an address he delivered in 1999 to the Santa Rosa West Rotary club demonstrates why. When asked by other students why he steered clear of booze, drugs and partying, he informed the collected Rotarians, he said he had observed the damage these pastimes could do when covering accident scenes for KSRO. The night before he spoke, he related, an eighteen-year-old girl had been on her way home when she was killed in an alcohol-related crash, and he'd witnessed the nasty aftermath.

Whereas KSRO listeners knew him as a wonderfully mature young man, Stone says that to his Montgomery High classmates, "I was just Alex, who was way too into the news." A second Press Democrat article, penned by reporter Chris Coursey when Alex was eighteen, makes this point via a quote that clearly embarrassed Stone the second it left his lips. "The best mornings start with a homicide," he said.

When it came time to consider colleges, Stone zeroed in on CU-Boulder for reasons that were only partly inspired by the institution itself. More important was the fact that former KSRO muckety-muck Jeff Hillery had taken a position as program director at Denver's KHOW, and pledged to assist Stone if he wound up in the vicinity. However, during the interval after Stone committed to Boulder but before he arrived in Colorado, Hillery left KHOW in favor of a program-director job in Philadelphia; he has since moved again, to KLIF in Dallas.

Stone feared that Hillery's departure would spell doom for his employment prospects, but he was wrong. Not only had Hillery spoken about Stone to KOA news director Jerry Bell, but Bell, in a happy coincidence, just happened to hail from Santa Rosa. Like Stone, Bell attended Slater Middle School and Montgomery High, and entered the radio profession at an age when most of his peers were still settling on their majors; at 21, he joined the news department of San Francisco's K101-FM. No wonder that at his first meeting with Stone, Bell says, "He reminded me a lot of me."

This get-to-know-you session began inauspiciously. "I wore a suit, and as soon as I walked in, I was like, 'Whoops,' since nobody was wearing a suit," Stone says. "I haven't worn one to work since." But things improved quickly after that. "Jerry showed me around the station, and then he asked, 'Can you anchor this weekend? We need someone to fill in.'

"I thought he was joking," Stone continues. "I mean, I was in awe of KOA; nationally, it has this reputation of being a great station to work for. I thought I'd get there and they'd tell me, 'You can empty garbage cans.' To be eighteen and anchor on KOA was quite a surprise."

When this audition went well, Bell offered Stone a couple of regular slots that would have scared off any college student interested in having a social life: Fridays and Saturdays from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. But Stone jumped at the chance, and kept at it over the long haul despite all the debauchery he missed. "I had to live in the dorm that first year, and when I'd get back from the station, everyone would be dead drunk," Stone says. But he got his revenge after Bell asked Stone to file a daily story from Boulder: "I slept with my scanner next to my bed, which my roommate hated. But I wanted to run and report about anything that came up, so that I'd basically own the beat up there. And I did my darnedest to volunteer for things whenever they'd come up."

Such enthusiasm led to a number of showier assignments, and Stone made the most of them. Consider what happened to Stone and a producer during the riots that followed the Colorado Avalanche's June 2001 Stanley Cup victory. "I was doing a report saying, 'It looks like they're getting ready for tear gas,' when I hear this dink-dink sound. It's the tear-gas canister landing at our feet, and it went off right in our faces. I couldn't talk, couldn't breathe, and the producer was throwing up -- and we were still on the air." To date, Stone has been tear-gassed three times, and he acknowledges that "it's kind of a joke around the newsroom now that I sound better when I'm choking."

He got many opportunities to broadcast live amid fumes this past summer, when he and Jayson Luber served as KOA's go-to guys for coverage of Colorado's wildfires. As usual, Stone threw himself into this task, earning his certification as a wildland firefighter in order to gain access to areas that would be off-limits to reporters with less training. He didn't sleep in his own bed for a month and a half because he was jumping from blaze to blaze. "At the end of that, you get real tired of the smell of smoke," he says. But seconds later, he describes it as "a really fun summer."

For his efforts, Stone was honored as first runner-up for the 2002 ABC Radio National Individual Reporter of the Year contest. The prize was based on his reports about the wildfires, riots, flooding, a tornado and a series of investigations on security at Denver International Airport done in conjunction with KOA military analyst Bob Newman ("Bombs Away," November 8, 2001) that earned the twosome an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Given this level of recognition, Stone would seem primed to jump from KOA into a higher-profile gig, following a long line of predecessors, including Cheryl Preheim (now at Channel 9), Kim Kobel (a Channel 4 reporter), Carol McKinley (with the Fox News Channel's Denver bureau) and Steffan Tubbs (he's a correspondent for ABC Radio). Bell expects this will happen eventually, but he'd like to forestall it for a while. "We've had that talk," he says, "and we've come to an agreement that we've stuck with him through school, so he's going to give us a commitment of a few years -- and after that, we'll see what happens. We expect that at some time he'll grow to something larger within our organization, or maybe within Clear Channel [KOA's owner], or maybe somewhere else. That's the way I operate with people. But whichever way it goes, I expect him to be doing great things in the future."

To say the least, Stone displays not the slightest resentment about the scenario Bell has constructed for him. "I don't want to sound like I'm touting the company line too much, but KOA has been great to me. It's a great place to learn the business, and every time I work on a story, I feel I come back with a little nugget of information about what I like, what I don't like, and how to do my job better. They've been too good to me, so I'm not going anywhere."

Not right away, anyhow. Stone doesn't rule out an eventual jump to television, which first captured his imagination during that long-ago CNN tour. But he isn't dismissive of radio. "I have a bunch of professors in journalism school saying, 'It's great what you're doing now, but you don't want to do that forever.' And I tell them that radio's not dead. I mean, when we did wildfire coverage, radio was the only source of information a lot of people had. So down the line, I don't know which way I'll go."

Besides staying out of medical school, that is.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts