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San Francisco Bay Area Radio History: 1950s
by Alex Cosper

Introduction 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s

see also American Radio History

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.

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.

Radio is Eclipsed by Television

The end of World War II and the Big Band Era also marked an end of the first "golden age of radio" that was ruled by four national networks. With the advancement of television from the late forties and early fifties on, radio was forced to meet a new challenge. Prior to television, radio was the top medium that held the attention of a national audience. Now radio had to reinvent itself and find new directions for economic survival. At first radio tried block programming and then moved more to longer stretches of consistent programming, although many stations were one thing in the day and another thing at night.

Television became a way of life for most people in the fifties, but made its debut in the Bay on Christmas Eve 1948 as KPIX (originally licensed as KWIS). It was the sister property of KSFO-AM, owned by Associated Broadcasters, Inc, who sold to Westinghouse Broadcasting Company in 1954. Licenses had been granted in 1947 for ABC's KGO-TV and the San Francisco Chronicle's sister KCPR Channel 11. Another was KRON, which first appeared in 1949. By 1952 the television network affiliations were: KGO (ABC), KPIX (CBS/DuMont Project) and KRON (NBC). KCPR had become KNTV/San Jose.

Also emerging in the fifties were KQED Channel 9 and KSAN Channel 32. Serving Sacramento, Stockton and San Francisco at the time was KOVR Channel 13 with the tower at Mt. Diablo. Two stations that were licensed but not in operation in 1958 were KBAY Channel 20 and KMTR Channel 38. Channel 20 was KEMO-TV from April 1968 through April 1971. More stations had been added or changed by the mid-eighties, including KDTV Channel 14, KTZO Channel 20, KTSF Channel 26, KQEC Channel 32, KWBB Channel 38 and KBHK Channel 44. While KDTV signed on Channel 60, it later swapped frequencies with College of San Mateo station KCSM, in which the college station previously aired its content on Channel 14. KSCM also holds Channel 43 for digital television transmission.

In June 1973 a consortium of Bay Area television stations launched Sutro Tower Inc., in which Mount Sutro became the transmitter site for KVTU (owned by Cox), KRON (owned by Chronicle Publishing), KPIX (owned by Westinghouse) and KGO (owned by ABC). Today all Bay Area television signals are transmitted from Sutro.

Introducing Automated Radio

The idea of a radio station running without people in attendance came from the mind of inventor Paul Schafer in the early fifties. For the first two decades of the FCC's existence, the commission required that all stations must employ an engineer to be on duty at the transmitter site at all times. After the FCC loosened the rules, Schafer came up with a remote control system that did not require an on-duty transmitter operator. His device became the foundation of his new company, Schafer Electronics in 1953. That same year the first station to test out his invention was KROW (960 AM) in Oakland. Two years later Schafer's remote control systems were used for NAB field tests, which led to the FCC ruling in 1957 that all broadcast stations utilize the new technology.

Schafer continued to expand his experiments which led to the development of automated radio programming. In 1956 he introduced the concept with reel to reel decks and phonograph players at KGEE-AM/Bakersfield, CA. The owner of the station was trying to save money by replacing an overnight host with automation. Schafer made history again in 1965 when his equipment was used to test the viability of FM for the FCC.

KROW was purchased by Gordon McLendon, who would later be considered with Todd Storz to have been top 40 radio's earliest pioneers. Many figured McLendon would bring his brand of top 40 to the Bay. He was very successful in Dallas at top 40 giant KLIF. McLendon decided to move the KROW call letters to Dallas and change 960 AM's call letters to KABL, creating another first for the Bay: the area's first "elevator music" station. KABL's new identity beginning in 1959 was a forerunner for a highly successful "beautiful music" format featuring instrumental artists such as Percy Faith. Within five years the market would see another background instrumental station with KKHI (95.7), using automation.

Emerging Multiple Formats

Because of the popularity of television in the fifties, the national networks began to focus their attention on television programming as stations were left to create their own local programming. Prior to the stations most stations followed the same general game plan of running a wide mix of mostly adult-oriented pop music and talk. Beginning in the late fifties, with the advent of the transistor radio which caught on with teens due to affordability and portability, top 40 stations began to move toward younger demos, especially at night when radio lost a lot of its audience to television. With the arrival of rock and roll, which gave a national voice to teens for the first time in history, programming questions began to arise concerning the definition of mass appeal.

Top 40 radio came to be patterned after an idea at a Todd Storz station in Omaha back in the early fifties. The idea was to play the most popular songs in "rotations" to meet the need of the common listener who listened only so many minutes per day. The first top 40 station in the Bay Area was actually independent station KOBY. In 1956 classical station KEAR-AM went dark and then sold from Steve Cisler to Dave Siegel, who re-launched the station as KOBY (1550 AM) in 1957 with an early top 40 format that was the first in the Bay to feature rock and roll music. KOBY quickly rose to number one in the market in its first quarter. By the end of the fifties the top 40/rock and roll format had spread across the dial except at KSFO and KCBS. KGO (which went by "K-Go") and KNBR both flirted with fifties hits long before going talk. Country station KEEN briefly mixed in rock and roll around this time. Upstart KPEN (101.3), owned by Jim Gabbert and partners, was the first FM in the market to play pop music featuring rock and roll beginning in 1957.

KPEN began an a peninsula station licensed to Atherton with a power of 1500 watts. Two years after its debut, the transmitter moved to San Bruno and power increased to 35,000 watts. Then in 1960 power further increased to 125,000 watts, making it the most powerful signal west of the Mississippi River. Gabbert recalls in 2005, "The power really had nothing to do with the initial success of KPEN. We started at the beginning of the hi-fi revolution. Besides KDFC the only other FMs were owned by the big guys and they were simulcasting their AMs with poor audio quality. KFOG, which started as KBAY, was not on the air yet, KKHI did not exist and no independent FMs were playing popular music. It was unheard of that an independent FM would dare play popular music."

In the daytime KPEN played pop music and then at night it would be background "dinner music" followed by classical music at 8pm. Gabbert says, "I did a nightly show from 10 to midnight called 'Excursions in Sound.' It was like an eargasm for audiofiles. We did the first high fidelity (15khz) remotes from hi-fi shows and stores." The next FM to come along and get attention in the Bay Area was KSFR (94.9), owned by Al Levitt. "He tried to meet us head on and lost," says Gabbert, "finally going classical for years before he sold to MetroMedia and they made it KSAN." Gabbert and his partners realized after clobbering the station in the ratings that they should increase power and move to San Francisco. Over the years several FM stations would try to take KPEN on, but lost. Those competitors included KFOG, KBRG (105.3), KFRC-FM (106.1) and KGO-FM (103.7). "None of them figured out why we were successful," Gabbert concludes. "I could write a whole book on this, so I'll stop here...this was even before stereo."

Classical music seemed to be one of the most viable formats suited for early FM radio. The combination of hi fidelity for audiophiles and serious sophisticated music for the elite fan made classical a forerunner of FM formats. Throughout the sixties several classical stations came and went in the Bay, along with partial classical programming at night on KCBS-AM. FM stations that played classical during this era included the short-lived KAFE and KBRG. KDFC played complete classical works all day and a weekly opera on Saturday nights.

By 1960 the main top 40 battle was between KEWB (910 AM) and KYA (1260 AM) with KPEN developing as an independent alternative on FM. It quickly gained notoriety for being the first licensed stereo FM in the nation and was also the first FM of any format in the country to score high ratings. KOBY was out-promoted by the other two AMs and also lost listenership after dropping a favored policy that restricted two commercials back to back. KOBY flipped to beautiful music (soft instrumentals) then sold to Sherwood Gordon, who changed the call letters to KQBY, but continued affiliation with Mutual Broadcasting System. It sold again in 1963 to Frank Atlass, who changed the call letters to KKHI (1550 AM & 95.7 FM) and the format to MOR/personality. KKHI was unable to match competitor KSFO in the ratings. In 1964 the FM switched to automated elevator music before evolving into classical. The following year the combo sold to Buckley-Jaeger Broadcasting, which later became Buckley Broadcasting, who held the combo through 1994.

In 1959 the Oakland Tribune, who had owned KLX since it launched in May 1922, sold the station to Crowell-Collier and changed to top 40 KEWB. Program Director Chuck Blore had a knack for hiring talent that moved on to Los Angeles for bigger success at sister station KFWB. KEWB's morning man Gary Owens and other jocks Bill Wood, Mark Foster, Buck Herring, Ted Randal and Frank Bell gave the station a strong edge in personality. Some of the other legends who went through KEWB included the Real Don Steele, Robert W. Morgan, Don McKinnon and Emperor Bob Hudson. KEWB led the ratings following the decline of KOBY. KSJO (1590 AM) did well in the San Jose ratings as an early sixties top 40 radio station. By the mid-sixties they had a rockier sound than the other top 40s in the area, playing a lot of regional garage and surf bands that appealed to South Bay suburbanites.

KYA changed ownership from John Keating and Elroy McCaw to the Bartell Family Group in 1958, who flipped the former Hearst Publishing station to rock and roll. Then in the early sixties ownership switched again to Golden State Broadcasters. They held on to the station until 1963 when it was sold to Churchill Broadcasting and then again to Avco Broadcasting three years later. In 1961 KYA's Program Director was Bill Drake, who patterned his top 40 programming after KFWB in Los Angeles. It was at KYA that Drake crafted a sound that would eventually change the face of pop radio for years to come.

Other formats beyond top 40 began to surface as well. In 1959, Patrick Henry put jazz station KJAZ on the air at 92.7 in Oakland. KRE (1400) also played jazz. In the seventies, Wolfman Jack paid a visit to KRE-AM to film a scene for the motion picture American Graffiti. Since rock and roll was based in part on rhythm & blues music, it made sense to some stations to experiment with r&b as a dedicated format. KSAN-AM (1450), which had been a pop station since the forties, shifted to soul in the mid-fifties, going after the African-American East Bay audience. The Patterson Family (Norwood and Gloria) sold the station in 1964 to Les Malloy, who kept the format soul, but changed the calls to KSOL to emphasize the format.

San Francisco AM Dial 1959
 560 - KSFO
 610 - KFRC
 680 - KNBC
 740 - KCBS
 810 - KGO
 910 - KEWB
 960 - KABL
 990 - KKIS Pittsburg
1050 - KOFY
1010 - KSAY (country)
1100 - KFAX
1220 - KIBE (simulcast with KDFC)
1260 - KYA
1310 - KWBR became KDIA in 1959
1370 - KEEN San Jose (country, top 40)
1400 - KRE 
1450 - KSAN
1490 - KTOP Petaluma
1500 - KXRX San Jose
1550 - KOBY Oakland
1550 - KTIM San Rafael
1590 - KLIV San Jose

San Francisco FM Dial 1959
 89.3 - KPFB Berkeley
 90.1 - KSCU Santa Clara
 91.7 - KALW
 92.3 - KSJO San Jose
 92.7 - KJAZ Oakland
 94.1 - KPFA Berkeley (Pacifica Network)
 94.9 - KSFR
 96.5 - KRON
 97.3 - KEAR (originally KWBR in 1947 then KGSF then KSMO until 1952)
 98.5 - KRPM
 98.9 - KCBS
 99.7 - KNBC 
101.3 - KPEN (James Gabbert and Gary Gielow) 
102.1 - KDFC
103.7 - KGO FM
104.5 - KBAY
105.3 - KBCO
106.9 - KPUP

Introduction 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s 2000s

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