Bay Area Radio History
by Alex Cosper
The history of San Francisco radio is a complex matrix of over 50 frequencies dating back to the earliest days of radio. The Bay Area's oldest call letters since the early days of AM radio include KGO (launched by General Electric in 1924) and KFRC (launched in 1925 at the St. Francis Hotel).
In December 1926 KYA entered the dial in a growing sea of call letters no longer recognizable to most Bay Area radio listeners. The following year KYA became one of the first stations of the ABC network, which was acquired by NBC in 1930 and then divested the following decade.
Another early station in the market was 1921 licensee KPO, which became KNBC in 1947 and then KNBR in the early sixties. But the earliest station in the Bay Area actually pre-dated commercial radio. It was a 1909 wireless experiment by Doc Herrold in San Jose. The station was KQW, which can be argued was the first station ever to feature the human voice (versus Morse Code). Today that station is called KCBS.
The first FM in the market was KWBR (97.3) in the forties but today is known as "Alice" (KLLC). The first stereo FM in the market (and in the entire country) was KPEN (101.3), now known as "Star 101" (KIOI). It signed on in 1957 and went stereo four years later. Today it remains the most powerful signal in the market at 125,000 watts. Its original owner, Jim Gabbert, achieved many milestones in his career and pioneered some of the most important technology in the evolution of radio since that period. Today the Bay Area radio dial is so saturated with signals, there is literally no room left for the FCC to allocate new frequencies, according to Gabbert.
In 2005 Infinity Broadcasting split the KFRC AM/FM combo and sold the legendary 610 AM station to Family Broadcasting for $35 million. One has to wonder who got the better deal, as KFRC AM covered most of Northern California and beyond, whereas the FM only covers the Bay. The new owners flipped the format to Family Radio Religion as a simulcast of KEAR (106.9 FM), which later in the year became Free FM, the market's first all talk commercial station on FM, under CBS Radio.
The "Big 610" had been a Bay Area trendsetter in 1966 when it flipped from middle of the road to top 40/rock and roll and became a market leader for many years. In late 2005 KFRC shifted format from 50s/60s/70s oldies to 60s/70s/80s oldies. KFRC resurfaced in 2006 at 106.9 when Free FM was dropped, but in 2009 KFRC moved to 1550 AM, replacing podcast station KYOU Radio as KCBS became a 106.9 FM simulcast of its 740 AM programming.
KFRC was the last station to beat KGO for the market crown in 1979. As of 2009, KGO has been number one in the market for 30 straight years although talk rivals KSFO and KCBS have had significant followings over many years. KYOU Radio (KYCY 1550 AM) was launched by Infinity in May 2005 as the world's first "podcast" station, based on talk and music shows submitted by the public. The station was more successful as a website as it disappeared from the radio dial but remained online in 2009 when frequent frequency jumper KFRC took its place. Later in the year Infinity changed its name back to CBS Radio and KGO was sold to Citadel, as part of a package buyout of ABC Radio stations.
KFOG, formerly an easy listening station and at one time in the sixties an elevator music station, has served "World Class Rock" to the Bay since 1983 when Susquehanna bought the station. Throughout its history KFOG has featured legendary voices over the years such as writer Ben Fong-Torres and M. Dung. The station has become the top choice for "fogheads" who enjoy the entire history of rock.
The station had more of a straight-ahead rock format until the early nineties, when it shifted to adult alternative, while maintaining a heritage rock sound. KFOG captured the feel of early FM rock radio with new alternative music mixed in. Familiar personalities have had long careers at the station. Dave Morey hosted the morning show for over two decades before retiring to Detroit in October 2008. Midday host Annalisa has also been a mainstay for many years.
In 2006 KFOG was acquired by Cumulus. Music Director Haley Jones left early in the year and moved on to a similar format at KMTT ("The Mountain") in Seattle. She was succeeded by Kelly Ransford. In the 90s KFOG's Program Director was Paul Marszalek, who was succeeded in the 2000s by Dave Benson. Big Rick Stuart, formerly of Live 105 for over a decade, has been doing afternoon/evenings since 2000.
KFOG is heard up and down the coast, even as far south as Monterey. It is also heard on a repeater signal in Yosemite Village.
One of America's most progressive markets
The San Francisco Bay Area is easily one of the most forward-thinking and adventurous markets in the country in terms of social and technological advancements. The entire metro has been a haven for progressive politics over the years. In the 2003 San Francisco mayoral race Democrat Gavin Newsom won with 53% of the vote over Green Party candidiate Matt Gonzales to succeed Willie Brown, who became a morning host on KQKE in 2006.
Both San Francisco and Oakland (as well as Sacramento) have had a long history of electing liberal Democratic mayors. Oakland's mayor is former California Governor Jerry Brown. Newsom has made national news in his defense of gay marriage, as the Bay Area has a larger than average gay community.
Land of many cultures and postcards
Many cities and towns surround the vast Bay with the three major markets being San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. More people now live in San Jose than either of the two other big cities. Bay Area signals can be heard in over nine counties including San Francisco, Alameda, Marin, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Solano, Napa, Sonoma and others. AM signals such as 810 KGO that occupy the left side of the radio dial can be heard through Sacramento and even further east, north and south of the Bay, covering over a one hundred mile radius.
In 2005 San Francisco remains the fourth largest radio market in the country as ranked by Arbitron. In the sixties it was the fifth biggest market. Today there are more than 6 million radio listeners in the Bay Area. The only bigger markets are New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
The universities in the Bay Area are known worldwide for their groundbreaking studies that have altered the course of modern technology. Much of the internet world has been developed at Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley. It's also interesting that some of the greatest innovations in radio history came from the minds of Stanford graduates. The San Jose metropolitan area aka "Silicon Valley" has become the center of the computer and internet revolution. Leading the digital and online revolution in the Bay are companies such as Apple, Google, Yahoo, eBay and many others.
KGO (which ABC Radio sold to Citadel in early 2006), has become a champion in providing a community forum for social issues. African-American host Ray Taliaferro on KGO is perhaps the most progressive voice in the Bay Area. He is the most listened to radio personality in his early morning time slot 1a-5a and no other station in the market comes close to commanding such a loyal overnight following. He may very well also be the most listened to voice on the station being that the signal reaches much of the western half of the United States after sundown. The entire station, like many, is heard by an international audience at www.kgo.com.
Bernie Ward was a progressive voice on KGO until being forced out following exposure of a scandal involving circulating porn of his kids online. He left in early 2008 and went to prison. During the daytime the station sounds more moderate, although Ronn Owens' 9a-12noon show tends to balance between mainstream and progressive issues. Other progressive voices heard on Bay Area airwaves are on public stations KPFA and KQED. Read more about the early days at KPFA. Even though Arbitron does not include public stations in its published ratings, they still track the information and it turns out that KQED has been number one in afternoons with National Public Radio (NPR) programming during the 2000s.
In September 2004 Clear Channel station KABL (960 AM) moved to FM as the company used the AM frequency to launch KQKE (The Quake), not to be confused with KQAK, which was a modern rock station in the eighties called "The Quake." With the new Quake, KQKE began delivering the national feed of "Air America," which was launched earlier in March 2004. The network marked the beginning of liberal talk radio as a national fomat but did not last through the end of the decade due to financial trouble.
Another experimental format was introduced in 2001 called CNET, an all technology talk station featuring Alex Bennett in mornings. Bennett had done mornings on the original Quake (KQAK) and then mornings on Live 105 for many years. CNET was run on 910 KNEW but went regular news/talk in 2003. Some may consider KYCY's "KYOU Radio" experiment to be progressive talk. It's the first station ever to launch a format based on podcasts submitted by the public.
Live 105 has been known throughout the nation as an influential alternative rock station. The station has gone through many changes since its inception in October 1986 as Live 105, which succeeded "Hot Hits," although the call letters have remained KITS all along. Because KITS was not winning the top 40 battle at the time with KMEL, Steve Masters began experimenting with modern rock on his evening show. The reaction was so positive the entire broadcast schedule switched to modern rock under the Programming of Richard Sands. Masters and other Live 105 personalities such as Mark Hamilton, Aaron Axelson and Spud, were responsible for discovering and launching airplay for several core format artists during the eighties and early nineties.
After CBS Radio purchased Live 105 from Entercom, programming from sister alternative San Jose station KOME shifted to Live 105 in 1998. This meant Howard Stern was the morning show until the end of his contract in late 2005 before moving to Sirius the following January. Also moving from KOME to Live 105 was Program Director Jay Taylor, who stayed with the station until 2003. KWOD graduate Ally Storm also transferred her midday show to the new Live 105, which began to take on a more industry-favored rock sound. Live 105's heritage had been a diverse sound, with emphasis on experimental music that did not mimmick popular trends. This included a lot of European keyboard dance music as well as hard rocking punk groups with plenty of humorous novelty songs thrown in.
The definition of the word "progressive" has taken on many meanings in the radio industry over the years. Usually the definition is stretched to fit an national industry format. But if one defines the word in its original sense, which was a sound beyond the normal mainstream that embraced more enlightening or challenging music, then the spirit of progressive radio lives on at KPFA. KFOG also captures that spirit to a degree within a realm shaped by a wide music library featuring rock's most intelligent and visionary artists.
America's number one classical station
KDFC has provided symphonic sounds for several decades and continues to be the most successful major market station in American playing classical music. At one time it was a "beautiful music" station in the fifties, playing the sound of instrumental pop artists such as Mantovani. For most of its history, though, KDFC has been classical. The station rose in prominence after a series of acquisitions in the nineties.
In 1996 Brown Broadcasting sold the FM station and its sister (KDFC 1220) AM simulcast station to Evergreen Media, who agreed to sell the FM to Bonneville Broadcasting and the AM to Douglas Broadcasting in 1997. That year Valerie Howard arrived as General Manager of KDFC FM. At the time the station's ratings were low but her vision to create a mass appeal classical station resulted in an amazing turnaround. While it may have been criticized as the "top 40 of classical music," one cannot overlook its success since the format historically has catered to smaller than mainstream audiences.
In most markets the classical format does not produce a top five station. KDFC defied the odds and has now hit the top five in San Francisco several times since then and has become recognized as the most successful classical station in the country. Bill Leuth, who had done mornings on rival classical station KKHI, moved to mornings at KDFC in 1997 and also contributed to the station's rise and shift from automation to live hosts. In 2003 KDFC became the first station in the Bay Area to broadcast in High Definition Digital Radio.
KQW and the early days of wireless transmission
Prior to commercial radio, the airwaves were mostly used by the U.S. Navy and other military branches, dating back to the early 1900s. There were also amateur radio operators but not many radio listeners. The Bay Area's earliest radio station came as an experiment from a Stanford graduate, Charles Herrold (1875-1948), who had been a classmate of a future Commerce Secretary who oversaw radio licensing in the twenties, Herbert Hoover (most remembered for being the U.S. President who led America into the Great Depression).
Herrold was the founder of Herrold College of Engineering and Wireless in San Jose, where he began experimenting with transmitters and receivers. It is possible that Herrold's station was the first in America to broadcast human voices, starting in 1909. Back in those days there was no regulation over what could be done with the airwaves, which is why none of the earliest stations had names, call letters or specific frequencies. Herrold began to broadcast on a daily basis in 1910.
As the technology improved and more and more amateurs were getting involved with short wave radio, the government saw the need to regulate communications over the air. The Wireless Act of 1912 was the beginning of radio licensing and call letters, as Herrold acquired his license that year under the name "FN." At that point call letters could be anything and didn't necessarily have to start with K or W. The name went through a series of changes that included 6XE, 6XF and SJN. In 1915 Herrold demonstrated the exciting new wireless communications technology at the World's Fair in San Francisco. From 1918 to 1919 all non-government stations were ordered to cease operations, which included Herrold's. In other words, everyone except defense contractor Westinghouse had to shut down, but began reappearing when the ban was lifted.
By 1920 there were about 30 commercial radio stations in America, but grew to over 500 within a few years. Herrold's station was assigned the call letters KQW on Dec. 9, 1921. Beating them by one day as the first call letters licensed to the Bay Area was the Fairmont Hotel's KDN. However, it still remains unclear whether or not KLS/Oakland was licensed in 1920 or 1922. In the early days several stations had three-letter calls but after 1930, no more such call letters were issued.
The next wave of early Bay Area stations began to appear on the AM dial in 1922. By that summer there were 13 stations on the dial that all shared the same frequency at 833 AM. These early pioneers besides KQW and KDN included Stafford and Eugene Warner's KLS in Oakland, the Oakland Tribune's KLX, The San Francisco Examiner's KUO, San Francisco's Emporium Department store station KSL, the Hale Brothers' KPO, Maxwell Electric's Berkeley station KRE and the Hotel Oakland's KZM. Other early stations in 1922 were KJJ, KLP and KYY. Other stations that were licensed at that time but not on the air were KDZG, KDZW, KDZX and UC Berkeley's KQI.
The following year saw changes in ownership as new stations began to spread across the dial. While class A stations KQW, KLS, KLX, KUO and KZM still shared the 833 position, class A station KRE assumed the 1080 spot under new owner the Berkeley Daily Gazette. Class B stations KFDB (590), owned by the Mercantile Trust Co, and KPO (710) each were granted their own frequencies. KGO debuted in Oakland at 960 AM in 1924, owned by General Electric. The following year it moved to 830 AM. By the end of the twenties it had moved to 790 AM, where it stayed until the early forties when it landed at the 810 position.
Throughout the twenties each year became a transition year for radio as the dial continued to evolve with new stations and shifting dial positions. KFOU briefly appeared at 1180 in 1924. Multiple stations continued to share frequencies through the 1930s. Most stations of this early age operated at 50 to 500 watts, with the exception being KGO at 2000 watts in 1925, but increased to 5000 watts in 1926. Starting with KTAB in 1926, more stations began to increase power to 1000 watts and beyond. In the mid-thirties KTAB changed its call letters to KSFO.
San Francisco AM Dial 1925
590 - KXL 700 - KPO 830 - KGO 1120 - KFRC 1160 - KRE 1220 - KUO 1240 - KLS shared with KZM (KLS moved to 1280 in 1928, sharing time with KTAB thru mid-30s) 1270 - KFPV shared with KJBS 1280 - KFUS shared with KGTT 1330 - San Jose stations: KFVJ shared with KQW 1360 - KFQH shared with KFWI
Commercial radio begins
Commercial radio began at KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA in 1920. The station's owner, Westinghouse, was one of the early pioneers in the development of radio technology as well as the radio industry. One of Westinghouse's partners was General Electric, which would later in the decade launch its own radio network, NBC. Together Westinghouse and General Electric invested in a radio manufacturing firm called the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). GE's founder Thomas Edison had introduced late nineteenth century techonology such as the light bulb as well as audio and film recording. General Electric put its first radio station on the air in New York. Its second station was KGO/San Francisco in 1924. KGO would then become part of NBC. The affiliation eventually changed to ABC and the station went on to become the market's most successful station.
KQW became the first station in the Bay to sell advertising. In 1925 Charles Herrold sold the station to Fred J. Hart of First Baptist Church, who sold it to the Pacific Agricultural Foundation, headed by Fred J. Hart in 1930. Four years later Hart sold his company to Ralph Brunton and Charles L. McCarthy, who kept the theme of agricultural news going for awhile. Brunton was the owner of crosstown KJBS, as the two stations wound up in the same building on Pine Street in San Francisco. In 1935 KQW's power increased from 1000 to 5000 watts. Another boost came in 1937 when the station signed on as an affiliate of the Mutual-Don Lee Network, which lasted through 1941.
After KSFO decided not to be bought out by CBS, the network approached KQW with an opportunity to become an affiliate, which the station accepted in 1941. At the same time the city of license changed from San Jose to San Francisco and the programming shifted from agricultural to network shows featuring the national voices of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. During World War II KQW became a base for the network show "Dateline San Francisco," which delivered national news.
In 1949 CBS bought the station and changed the call letters to KCBS. They also improved the signal a few years later by building a multi-tower antenna in Novato. At the same time CBS made a deal with KSFO to give their sister TV Channel 5 (KPIX) network affiliation in exchange for KCBS switching from 1010 to the 740 AM dial position, which was the FCC's final allocation of a 50,000 watt AM frequency for the market. KSFO was already on the cutting edge by being the first entity to introduce television to the Bay Area on Christmas Eve 1948.
Throughout the fifties KCBS delivered network programs mixed with local shows featuring music and announcers. In the late fifties that station developed the market's first call-in talk program called "Foreground Radio." In 1968 KCBS dropped all of its music and began its 24 hour news format. Earlier attempts at all news had been made, but KCBS was the first in the Bay to prove that it could be done successfully.
KSFO had been the CBS affiliate in the thirties. The station originally grew from a show called "The Hour of Prayer" hosted by Reverend George W. Phillips on KGO beginning in 1924. After the show was dropped from the schedule, Phillips was able to persuade the Tenth Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland to start their own station that would carry the show. The station debuted as KTAB in 1925. It sold to Associated Broadcasters, Inc, a few years later. In 1928 it joined a network run by Pickwick, a hotel chain and bus line service. Like so many other American businesses, the company folded with the stock market crash of 1929. Banker Wesley Dumm, who was a director of Associated Broadcasters Inc., bought the company in 1933. Like many stations of the period, KTAB jumped around the dial a few times but landed at 560 AM in the mid-thirties. The call letters were officially changed to KSFO in 1935, the same year the station hired Phil Lasky to run the station.
A new network was born in 1935 when KSFO and Los Angeles independent station KNX created the Western Network. But the network fell apart after CBS bought KNX in 1937 and KSFO became a CBS affiliate, replacing KFRC, that same year. From that time until 1942 many CBS radio shows were created in the studios of KSFO. It was during this period that CBS took full control of programming at KSFO, dropping "The Hour of Prayer." CBS, however, changed affiliation to KQW after KSFO refused to be bought out by CBS.
Shortly after the Pearl Harbor incident in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Wesley Dumm and asked the radio owner to set up a pair of short wave radio stations to broadcast for the Allied armed forces around the world. Dumm set up the stations KWIX and KWID in 1942 and 1943 respectively. These two stations marked the beginning of what would be established in 1943 by the Office of War Information as "Voice of America." In 1946 the network moved its base to New York. Dumm and his company Associated Broadcasters became majority owners of Universal Records during the war, which did transciptions for the military.
Ownership rules were much different in the forties than toward the end of the century. Back in the FDR era owners were only allowed financial interest in one station per market. The FCC's ruling on duopolies led to Dumm being forced to divest his share of crosstown KROW in 1944 and just concentrate on KSFO. He had purchased KROW from Oakland Educational Society in 1939 with partner Fred Hart, who was an early owner of KQW. Dumm and Hart's company that owned KROW became the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, in which Phil Lasky was VP/GM, while running KSFO at the same time. They changed the Oakland station's format from religious to personality and popular music. After the FCC ruling Lasky became part owner of KROW Inc, with partner Sheldon Sackett. KROW had originally been KFWM in the twenties at 1270, then moved to 930 in 1929, shared with KFWI. The station then moved to its own frequency at 960. The call letters changed to KABL in 1959 after being purchased by top 40 pioneer Gordon McClendon, who moved the KROW calls to Dallas as a simulcast of his legendary station, KLIF.
Dumm sold KSFO to Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasters in 1956, as Dumm went on to become President of sister televison property KPIX. During the fifties, KSFO was like most stations of the era, full-service news, personality and music. With the move of the Giants baseball team from New York to San Francisco in 1958, KSFO became the official Giants station featuring the popular sportscasting of Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges, which lasted until Hodges died in 1971. During the fifties Alan Torbet became station manager of KSFO, as well as KROW then KABL. He later became owner and GM of KRAK in Sacramento and established a national consultancy, Torbet Broadcasting Representatives, for 180 radio and TV stations around the country. One of Torbet's best moves at KSFO was hiring Don Sherwood, who would not only become the biggest radio star in the Bay for many years, but would also become the highest paid radio personality in America. Other voices who helped build the station's identity and made it a top station were Al Collins, Jim Lang, Jack Carney and Dan Sorkin.
The FCC changes the dial
The Federal Communications Commission made sweeping dial position changes across the country in 1941. The Bay Area was affected by the reallocation of the airwaves. KLX moved from 590 to 910. KRE moved from 1370 to 1400. KYA moved from 1230 to 1260. KROW moved from 930 to 960. KJBS moved from 1070 to 1100. KGGC moved from 1420 to 1450 before becoming KSAN AM. KLS moved from 1440 to 1310. KGO moved from 790 to 810. They also increased power to 50,000 watts in 1947. The FCC had just lifted its wartime ban on power expansion.
National networks rule the airwaves in the forties
During World War II the FCC issued a freeze on radio station allocation. With the end of the war came new stations in 1946. By the end of the 1940s the AM dial had been crystalized while FM stations began to appear. During this period national radio networks led the industry. The affiliations were: 610 KFRC (Mutual-Don Lee), 810 KGO (ABC), 680 KNBC (NBC) and 560 KQW (CBS). In 1946 the FCC ruled that NBC had grown too large and had to sell off one of its two radio networks. They kept the Red Network and sold the Blue Network, in which the Orange Network was a west coast subsidiary. KGO was part of the Orange Network at the time. The Blue Network then became ABC.
San Francisco AM Dial 1942
560 - KSFO (formerly KTAB) 610 - KFRC 680 - KPO 810 - KGO 910 - KLX 960 - KROW (first appeared in late twenties) 1010 - KQW San Jose (in 1947 moved to 740 and changed to KCBS, which was the final AM assignment in the market) 1100 - KJBS (first appeared in late twenties, in 1958 became KFAX) 1260 - KYA 1310 - KLS (formerly at 1440 and previously 1280, shared with KTAB, became KWBR in 1945) 1400 - KRE (formerly at 1370 until 1941) 1450 - KSAN (formerly KGGC)
San Francisco FM Dial 1949 source: OldRadio.com
91.7 - KALW 94.1 - KPFA Berkeley (Pacifica Network) 94.9 - KFSH 96.3 - KSJO San Jose 96.5 - KRON FM 97.3 - KWBR (became KGSF in 1950) 98.5 - KLOK FM San Jose 98.9 - KJBS 99.7 - KNBC 102.9 - KRE FM (went on the air Feb. 1949 as simulcast of KRE-AM) 103.7 - KQW (became KCBS in 1950) 104.5 - KRCC 106.1 - KGO FM
San Francisco - Oakland - San Jose Radio (1950s-2000s)
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