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.
KQW and the Birth of Commercial Radio
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.
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.
SF AM Dial Takes Shape
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.
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.
Early KFRC History
The K-F-R-C call letters are by far the most legendary in the history of San Francisco music radio, based on the strong influence the station had on the entire industry in the sixties and seventies. A market leader in the thirties, forties, sixties and seventies, it continued to survive in the new century. The station originally made its debut with 50 watts at the 1120 AM dial position in 1925. Its first owner was the Radio Art Corporation, a shop that sold radios at Sutter and Powell.
Harrison Holliway was KFRC's first station manager and station voice. He later went on to bigger fame at KNX in Los Angeles. In its early years, KFRC played strictly opera and classical music. Soon after its launch, the shop sold the station to the City of Paris Department Store. In 1926 the station changed hands again to car dealer Don Lee, who moved the programming to the 660 AM dial position. He also raised the power to 1000 watts in the day and 500 watts at night. The following year he purchased KHJ in Los Angeles from the L.A. Times.
In 1929 KFRC finally landed at its long term home, 610 AM. That same year Lee signed an agreement with CBS to create shows at KFRC and KHJ for the growing national radio network. It worked out so well that the following year the partnership changed its name to the Don Lee-Columbia Network. By the end of the twenties KFRC had moved to 790 AM, where it stayed until the early forties when it landed at the 810 position.
After Lee's death in 1934, his son Tommy took over the company, which separated from CBS and signed with the Mutual Broadcasting System two years later, marking the beginning of the Mutual-Don Lee Network, which included KDON in Monterey. RKO-General acquired KFRC in 1949. From that time until the mid-sixties it fell out of market dominance with its personality-oriented MOR programming.
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
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