Our Island Neighbors -- Richard Karger
Picture Caption: This month, on April 20th and 21st, the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be inducting Richard Karger. Richard is pictured here from those salad days.
The Fort Myers Beach Insurance Brokerage, located in the Key Estero Shopping Center, is the brainchild of Richard Karger. It is an independent, full service brokerage serving all of Florida.Outside of those needing insurance, this may be of not-so-great an interest. But if you pull the string on his story, Richard Karger turns out to be so much more than a successful insurance broker.
When asked how he ended up on Fort Myers Beach with a booming brokerage, Karger told a very colorful and often hilarious story of his journey, which began in Sharon, Massachusetts.
"It was a typical small town, 20 miles south of Boston, and I couldn't get out of there fast enough," Richard recalls. So after graduating high school, he was off to UMass at Amherst. "It was known as Zoo Grass by the students and locals," Richard relates with a wink-wink. While there, two spring concerts really stand out in his memory - The Grateful Dead during his first year, and Duke Ellington's big band featuring Ella Fitzgerald at the iconic Blue Wall during his sophomore year.
"I was going pre-med, and then I found out I could transfer out to California to San Diego State.You see, I was putting myself through school, and like a lot of kids then, I was 'California Dreamin', and I found out I could go to San Diego State for free after I established residency."This was in 1978, when anyone could register to vote and get their California license all on the first day there. "I paid out-of-state tuition for the first semester, and then I literally went to college for free for two years."
While studying spindle fibers and sister chromatids in the biology lab during the day, at night, pre-med student Karger was hanging around the college's radio station, KCR - The Live Wire. "At first they kept telling me to go away," Richard says with a chuckle. "But I didn't, and then they put me in some little production room and told me when I had learned how to be a DJ then I could have a show. So I taught myself how to operate the equipment, and how to segue, and finally I was given a 7-to-midnight slot, one night a week."
A few weeks after he got his first slot, during a production meeting, Richard suggested the station should be on all night. "The program director thought I was a smart aleck and told me no one could work that shift because they were all students and needed the time to study and sleep. I told him I would take three of the midnight-to-six shifts and that I'd do my homework while I was on the air." By the end of that meeting, Richard had four shifts, and three other students had offered to take the other shifts. "In that meeting, we went 24/7." This is a perfect illustration of Richard's innate ability to sell an idea. When this is pointed out to him, Karger says, "There's three kinds of people: the ones who make things happen, the ones who watch things happen, and the ones who wonder what the hell happened." As he tells this and other stories about his life, it is clear which kind of person Richard is.
Karger got very good very fast on his DJ gig. One of the other student DJ's was doing an internship at a commercial rock station - KPRI FM 106 - and suggested Richard try it. The station rejected his application because he was a biology major-they were looking for journalism students. Karger appealed their decision saying, "Listen, when I'm doing papers in biology, I'm going to need public speaking skills. This is very important, and I think I should have the same chance as anybody else." Of course, he was offered the internship.
His job at the station consisted mainly of sitting in a little room opening up Public Service Announcements for the newsman, Ted Tillotson. And while he got to see his rock DJ idols like Brie Brouchard and JT Summers, very few people gave him the time of day. "But I got to see how a radio station works, and it was very interesting, although I wasn't serious about a career in radio then."
Graduating with a BS in Biology in December of 1980, Richard was told his internship was over and to turn in his station pass. "I asked if I could just come one last time to mix down my college radio show tapes on their equipment, and they said okay." As it turns out, pre-med was out of the question for Karger - it was just way beyond his financial means. He had decided to try working in radio for a few years until he figured out what he really wanted to do.
Richard recounts what turned out to be a defining moment. "If they ever make a movie of my life, what a scene this would be:I'm in the production studio at KPRI mixing my tape, and it was hot so I had the door propped open. And this cat comes bopping down the hall, and he stops and walks back and it's Jesse Summers the Music Director who, up until then, had never given me the time of day. He was an older guy - 26, I was like 22 - and he says, 'Who's that?' and I say, 'It's me on the college station.' He says, 'Roll back that tape' and I roll back the tape.And he says, 'Play that again' and I play it again. And he says, 'Again'. And then he says, 'I like that. Hey, want to go to Vegas with me and do midnight to six? I just got made program director of a new rock and roll station there', and I'm like, 'Let me think about it. Yeah'." Talk about a door opening up. "Literally, if I had not propped that door open, Jesse would never have heard my tape."
So off Richard went to Las Vegas with his new boss, who had been hired by Lotus Broadcasting to reformat their station KOMP.They were switching over to rock.A month after earning his degree in biology, Karger was about to embark on a totally different pursuit - rockology.
Two weeks after that fateful open-door moment, 22-year-old Karger found himself at the craps table at the Circus, Circus casino. Not a gambler by any means, but he seized the moment."I'm just goofing around, yelling 'Dice, Dice baby' and 'Let's go, seven-come-eleven' and I was winning and the crowd around the table was loving it. I'm just doing this schtick and I yell 'Dice Martin in the house!' I'm putting on that I'm some kind of Vegas local, even though I knew nothing about Las Vegas," Richard says with the memory of that moment lighting up his face. The next night was his first shift on the new rock station, and he signed on as Dice Martin.A radio DJ personality was born."We took Vegas by storm. It went crazy."
Though Richard was made the Music Director, he learned that radio had become very corporate by then, and that the music director really didn't get to pick the music to be played on the shows. "They wanted us to play Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Rolling Stones and the Beatles.It was very formulaic."
Marching to the beat of his own drum, DJ Dice started slipping in a lot of 'untested' bands, like The Police, The Pretenders, and U2, on his midnight-to-6 shows. "The listeners went nuts over that stuff. I was really breaking the format. I also started pushing the local bands, and talked about them on my show. I drove a lot of kids into the clubs to see them. I really talked them up."
Dice Martin was hugely popular, but by the end of that year, 1982, the suits had had enough of his breaking away from the format, and Richard was fired.
It is important to note here that his loyal listeners, and the musicians he promoted on the air during his stint there, have never forgotten Dice Martin and what he did to amp up the Las Vegas music scene. This month, on April 20th and 21st, the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be inducting him, some of the local bands he talked up on his show, as well as other noted DJ's, roadies and promoters. Richard is visibly moved by the honor."My DJ work was thirty years ago, and I was only in Vegas for two years. But wow, how moved I am that they didn't forget me. And they even asked me to MC a portion of the show."
One of the DJ's being inducted with Dice is George Greco. "He passed away when he was very young. He had a son who was about six years old when he died. I was able to find his son, who is now a club DJ himself.When I found out George was being inducted posthumously, I contacted his son through Facebook and was able to offer him a ticket, and I also arranged to have him accept his dad's award at the induction ceremony. I feel good about that. You pay it forward, right? The listeners from Las Vegas didn't forget me from thirty years ago, so I just thought the son would be touched that we didn't forget his dad either, and he gets to step into the limelight. It's a chance for him to reconnect with his dad." (You can learn all about the event at vegasrockreunion.com)
So, Richard had lost his gig at KOMP, but barely took a breath before he threw everything he could fit into his '69 Fiat Spider and drove himself out to Los Angeles. "There was a station that I really wanted to work for, very avant garde I thought at the time, called KROQ.”
But after only four months at KROQ, Karger realized that the station was just as corporate and political as KOMP in Vegas had been, maybe even worse. "It was an illusion that it was free-form radio with alternative rock and all that. It wasn't."
For five months, living on unemployment, Richard kicked around the LA punk rock scene, thinking about what he wanted to do next. He moved back Massachusetts, reconnecting with his dad who had recently opened a hugely popular ice cream shop in downtown Boston, Steve's, and scooped ice cream for a year.
After that, at the tender age of 25, Richard was ready to get back into radio, this time on the ad sales side after realizing that the sales guys were making the money. Jay Sterin at WROR in Boston gave him a shot. "Jay became my mentor. He taught me all about selling radio time. I took to it like a duck to water. I reached Number One in sales on this really
crack sales team there."
After two years, Sterin became a partner at KIX FM in Syracuse, New York, and asked Richard to take the Sales Manager position there. "I recruited, hired, trained and motivated the sales team there. They did phenomenally well. I liked it.I was still selling." Richard spent several years moving around, always to higher-paying positions.
But in 1991, at 34 years old, Richard was burned out on radio and ad sales. Finding himself in Albany, New York, ready for a change, he answered an ad for a sales position with a Prudential Insurance agency. "I love sales, but I wanted to sell something more serious than advertising. I didn't know anything about insurance, but I went to the interview with an open mind." Here's how that day went for the intrepid Richard Karger.
"I walk into this place, and there are like fifty guys and a couple of gals in sharp suits. 'Wow', I thought, 'this doesn't look like a radio station'. I could put on my suit and work there and feel like a million bucks." Richard describes the man conducting the interviews, Mike Mali, as "a big, jolly Italian guy". "Mike loved my personality, and I had plenty of sales and management experience.” Before he could be hired, he had to take a test that would indicate whether he had the qualities and attributes that would make him a good insurance guy.After several hours of testing, Mali came out with the results. "Richie, Richie, Richie... you scored in the top 98th percentile. When can you start?"
In his first year, after attaining his license, Richard found success right away, earning the number one sales ranking in the office and the 1992 Rookie of the Year for the whole Northeast region. But after two years, he was tired of going to meetings, and decided it was time to branch out on his own. But he didn't just rent a little office somewhere and hang up a shingle.
"I had a very unique idea: I opened up in the mall - Colony Center in Albany. I rented an old Chess King store, put in a coffee table, couches and chairs, and it looked just like the living rooms I had been selling insurance in all those years.Every day, 7 days a week for two years, I stood by the door and people would walk by and say 'What's this?' and I would say 'It's the Insurance Brokerage Store'. When they would ask what that was, I would invite them to come in, sit down and I would explain what it was. Twenty minutes later, I would have a new customer." Richard continued his phenomenal success in the insurance business there for another seven years.
"I got tired of the winter, like everybody else, and decided to relocate to Florida. I opened an Allstate office in Cape Coral in 2004, and won two honorings in a row, in 2004 and 2005, which means I was in the top 5% nationally in sales." But, not surprisingly, Karger found working for a big corporation rather confining, so he sold the agency back to Allstate and went independent once more.
After a series of personal and professional ventures, Richard found himself on Fort Myers Beach in 2010, and opened up his Fort Myers Beach Insurance Brokerage, where our story began. "I started this business with nothing. But we were up 80% after one year, and this year, my third here, I am already up 70% over last year, even with the economy the way it has been."
Almost everything Richard Karger has ever set out to do - as a student, a disc jockey, an ad salesman, and an insurance broker - has earned him honors and accolades, and a good living.And there have been bumps in his road, some of which knocked him down pretty hard, which he says helped to make him a more empathetic person both personally and professionally. The successes, the failures, and his love of the humanities - art, history, philosophy, languages (he speaks seven - English, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, Italian, French and German) have coalesced for Richard in the last three years here on Fort Myers Beach.
"I love the beach.Most of the people I do business with on this island are really nice, really great people, and I have a relationship with them that goes beyond just dollars and cents. I'll help anyone in my business. I may make $30 on one deal and $3,000 on the next. Both are equally gratifying." When asked to describe how he would characterize himself and his business, Richard says without hesitation, " I am a helper. I have a career that helps people - something I didn't even consider when I first got into it."