Friday, August 12, 2011

Steve Crosno

He was inherently a small-town guy, in love with his hometown and it's people

Steve Crosno embodied the community that he grew up in, he was a product of his surroundings. His appeal to Mexican-Americans has always struck some people as a novelty. Plenty has been written often with great emotion, about how Chicanos felt accepted and their culture validated by his efforts. But the truth is that it worked for him and he knew it, he was a white man embracing Chicano Culture, it made him different.  His multi-ethnic appeal gained him a loyal following and endeared him to subsequent generations of listeners.

Crosno's own ethnic background (Greek, Italian?) made it easier for him to gain acceptance within the Hispanic community. For the most part, his fans assumed he was Chicano or just didn't care one way or the other. Steve's career mirrored that of  Art Laboe, the d.j. credited with coining the term "Oldies but Goodies."  Laboe (who is Armenian, born Arthur Egnoian) became closely associated with SoCal Chicano culture by releasing a series of Oldies compilation albums. His syndicated "Killer Oldies" radio show and live music dance shows are things of legend on the west coast.

Lots of labels could apply to Steve, he was full of contradictions. Flamboyant, outrageous, attention seeking and yet humble, spiritual and generous to a fault. His self deprecating humor made him the butt of his own jokes and gags. Steve often second guessed his career choices, suffering through bouts of anxiety and self doubt. Despite his personal demons, he always stood up to his program directors to maintain control of his playlist and the format. It was that dogged determination got him run from almost every station he worked at.

We're not superstitious, We're Mexican!  

Steve got his start in radio as a sixteen year old while still enrolled at Las Cruces Hs. In 1956 he started hosting a one hour Saturday afternoon show on KGRT. By 1959, KELP  El Paso's Top 40 powerhouse had lured him away. After starting out on the overnight shift, he moved to days and got good ratings. This led to an offer from a station in San Diego that he couldn't refuse. In 1961, for the first and only time in his life, Steve packed up and left home. 

His stay in San Diego only lasted a few months, he soon found himself hopelessly homesick. Worse yet, Crosno's El Chuco schtick that played so well back home went over like a lead balloon in the Southland. He returned home to rejoin the staff at KELP. Upon his return, Steve landed  a weekly television show "Crosno's Hop" that can only be described as Mexican-American Bandstand. That show would run for eight years making his gaudy pompadour and lamb chop sideburns a common sight around Southern New Mexico. 

Crosno's enjoyed his greatest success at KELP. His show shot to number one, pulling in average Arbitron ratings of over 12.0 peaking with a 14.5 in 1965. That year KELP switched over to Drake's Boss Radio format, and the thought of Steve Crosno sticking to the script and working within the restrictions of a tight format seemed impossible. However, Steve did just that and it made him the top disc jockey in the El Paso/Las Cruces metroplex.  Around this time he also founded his own record label: Frog Death which was home to a number of local garage punk bands and soul combos. Working out of his home studio he produced several 45rpm vinyl 7 inchers, which if you can find them today are prized collector's items.

 If You See Kay...Tell her, I love her

As always Steve wound up butting heads with management, and by 1968 he was gone from KELP and back at KGRT. For Crosno it was like driving a Cadillac one day and a go-kart the next. He made the best of it, supplementing his income by hosting a weekly schedule of  live dances across El Paso and Southern New Mexico. His KGRT Top 100,  New Year's Day countdowns were classic all day affairs. "Tears of a Clown" was #1 in 1969, I know this because my sister and I sat there and wrote each one down as they were announced and played. (Hey Jude was #1 in 1968)  

In 1972 Steve was hired as program director and morning host at XEROCK-80, but the canned format was stiff and management quickly pulled the plug*. His often abrasive relationships with station p.d.'s  turned Crosno into a radio gypsy as he wandered the airwaves for several years.  By 1980 he had settled in at KSET where he rode a second wave of popularity, spinning hits for the disco masses (who were in the majority around El Paso/Las Cruces)**

* Crosno hired Chicano D.J.s from San Antonio's KONO (Rudy Rocha etc.) investors apparently got cold feet at the thought of a station aimed primarily at Mexican-Americans and went in a different direction. The syndicated programming that augmented the live broadcast was a lame format called "Rock of the World" it failed miserably.

** Crosno's success at KSET came on the heels of XEROCK-80's demise, that legendary border blaster having switched to a Spanish language Norteno Music format.

"Get out of the wheat field, mother, you're running against the grain".

During his stay at KSET his trademark became an Afro wig.. which brings us to the subject of his baldness. Contrary to the story that Steve would tell: (A hiking accident in the Gila Wilderness that left him with a broken arm and leg, caused all his hair to fall out.)  By his mid-twenties he was already going bald. A series of tacky wigs, starting with the pompadour, became his trademarks.
He had a rat's nest of them, an 80's rocker wig with a skunk stripe, a heavy metal hair farmer wig, one he called Tina Turner, and his favorite which resembled a dreadlock experiment gone horribly wrong.

As the years passed by, Steve moved from one station to another. He always found work either as a program director, on air or both. His mother whom he lived with and took care of passed away. Steve retreated into his custom studio at home, he was starting to have health problems of his own. By the year 2000 he was down to a weekly show on KVLC, an oldies station that is by far the most listened to of all Las Cruces stations. 

Uh! Uh! Uh! will you look at the time...

Every Sunday afternoon the sound of Cruzin' With Crosno floated along the lower Rio Grande Valley... El Paso, Las Cruces, Hatch, Hot Springs, Anthony, Canutillo, Clint, Fabens, Tornillo. North to Alamogordo and the Tularosa basin, through the mountain gaps west into Deming and on good days Silver City got in on the action. For those four hours the world belonged to Steve Crosno, and we were happy to be a part of it.

My favorite memory of Steve Crosno and I have many...will always be shooting hoops in the driveway on a glorious Sunday afternoon in the fall of 2005. We had called in a dedication and were biding our time till the man acknowledged us and gave us his blessing. It's a moment in life that you can't easily describe or forget.

Within a year of that day, Steve Crosno passed away, having suffered from a myriad of health problems in his last years. Every week his voice had grown progressively thinner and weaker, but his enthusiasm never failed him. True to his generous nature and due to expenses incurred during his long illness, he died practically penniless. At the end he was reduced to living  in two rooms of the house that he once owned.*** Steve Crosno was not a big man, but he did have a big heart.

***A fan of Steve's had bought the house to save it from foreclosure, he allowed Steve to live there and use the custom studio.  Upon Steve's death KVLC announced that they would broadcast archived shows every week, but then quickly backed off that plan. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours (airchecks) of Steve's shows out there.

 Dedicated to the ones we love

The Borderland has long had a love affair with radio, nothing in Albuquerque can really compare to it. El Paso's radio scene has always been highly competitive, this kept El Chuco's on-air personalities constantly looking for an advantage.  Steve thrived in that environment, he was a man constantly on the edge, re-inventing radio as he went along.  Over a period of almost fifty years, day in and day out, Steve Crosno gave it his all....God Bless the D.J. man.