San Francisco Bay Area Radio History: 1960s
by Alex Cosper

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

see also American Radio History

see also Freeform Radio, KSAN, KMPX, Tom Donahue Story

Throughout the sixties KSOL competed with another Oakland soul outlet, KDIA, originally KLS then KWBR in the forties at the 1310 position, in which the station played r&b even back then. During the KWBR days one of the stand out personalities was evening jock Big Don Barksdale. Sony Executive (and Sacramento radio programmer) Bob Sherwood grew up listening to the station and recalls about Barksdale in 2005, "He was not only an icon for black radio listeners in the late 50s/early 60s, but a teacher of the artform to impressionable middle-class white listeners as well."

Long-time owners Stafford and Eugene Warner sold KWBR in 1959 to Sonderling Stations, who changed the call letters to KDIA. WBR had stood for Warner Brothers, but they had no relation with the record label or motion picture company. The new owners kept the format soul and stayed with a more produced mainstream sound, occasionally flavored with harder r&b. KSAN then KSOL, on the other hand, played the more screamin' r&b sounds along with blues. By the mid-sixties they added blues-based rock such as the Rolling Stones into the mix.

KSOL would emerge as the market leader for soul and carved a place in history, being the station that housed one-time air talent and Autumn label producer Sly Stone, who went on to have huge hits with Sly & The Family Stone. On the air he used the name Sylvester Stewart. He had joined the station when it was KSAN. At one point he did afternoons up against Tom Donahue (who owned Autumn Records) at KYA. One thing that made Stewart stand out was the he played a small electronic keyboard in the studio, as he would play and sing along with the records. In 1971 KSOL sold to Douglas Broadcasting, who changed the call letters to KEST and the format to MOR (middle of the road).

Middle of the Road Stations

MOR had become a proven format in the sixties, which is why so many stations flocked to the format. MOR stations of the era included KSFO, KNBR (formerly KNBC) and KFOG (which even played soft instrumentals). Other formats that began to spring up in the sixties were all-oldies, all-news and elevator music. KOIT first appeared as an automated oldies station in 1967, programmed by Bill Keffury, who had also previously programmed KYA and KROY/Sacramento. The seventies saw the emergence of a series of oldies outlets that included KCBS-FM, KLOK, KNEW and KFRC-FM.

America's First All News Station

The Oakland Tribune contained an article in 1961 with the heading "America's first all-news station." The article was about KFAX, which originally had been KJBS from the twenties through the fifties. KJBS had made history by being one of the first stations in America to go all music back in 1930. In May 1960 it became all news as KFAX under the ownership of L. Ray Rhodes and J. Gil Partridge. FAX stood for "fast, accurate and exclusive." The idea of all news was considered revolutionary at the time as the radio industry across the country watched the development of KFAX. The 1961 Tribune article described how national advertisers wanted to buy time on top five stations, and did not want to advertise on an all news station unless KFAX could land in the top five, which never happened.

Because KFAX was unable to achieve the goal of 60% national sponsorship, in 1961 the station sold to Argonaut Broadcasting, who changed the format to religious programming. In 1977 power was raised to 50,000 watts during the day and 1000 watts from 10p-3a. Salem Communications purchased the station in 1984. In the late sixties, following the success of WNUS/Chicago, KGO and KCBS-AM moved to all news/talk. KNBR got into the act of all-news in the mid-seventies, as did KNAI (99.7), but both situations were temporary. Eventually KNBR went news again, as did KCBS in the nineties. After KEWB's top 40 run in the sixties, it briefly experimented with news/talk as KNEW and then shifted back to pop music again in 1969, before moving on to country in the seventies.

KFRC and Boss Radio

In the early 1960s KEWB and KYA were the AM top 40 leaders. On KEWB during this era was Robert W. Morgan, who was hired by Earl McDaniel after he had heard Morgan on KROY in Sacramento. Morgan went on to become one of the biggest names in Los Angeles radio for four decades. Another Bay Area jock of the early sixties who went on to bigger fame was Casey Kasem, first at KYA in 1961 then at KEWB in 1962. Bill Drake was Program Director at KYA (1260 AM) in 1961 and had instant ratings success with the "Drake Sound." He left in 1962 to program a Fresno, CA station that was owned by Gene Chenault. From this relationship developed a consultancy called Drake-Chenault.

Drake-Chenault devised a format - similar to one successfully introduced a few years earlier by WABC/New York PD Rick Sklar - that trimmed the playlist to highlight the hottest songs in repetitious rotations, which accommodated the two requirements for ratings success: familiarity and consistency. The emphasis was more on music and less on personality, as jocks talked over intros instead of in between songs. In other words, emphasis on fast-paced polished production called for elimination of "dry" linear content and an acceleration in excitement level over intros of the hottest hits. The jocks were more energetic and more concise than what had become the industry standard of low-key conversational talk hosts playing mostly soft pop songs and oldies for adults who grew up in the forties. The new sound was a mix of current top 40 and rock & roll oldies called "Boss Radio."

After consulting KGB in San Diego, the Drake-Chenault team that changed pop radio forever landed their format at KHJ/Los Angeles in 1965. KHJ was owned by RKO, which also owned KFRC (610 AM) in the Bay. Since Boss Radio was an instant hit in LA, RKO brought it to San Francisco in 1966 under PD Tom Rounds. Although KYA called themselves "The Boss of the Bay" in 1965, Drake gave KFRC its official Boss Radio sound. Tom Rounds left KFRC in 1967 and founded a radio syndication company with KHJ PD Ron Jacobs. The company was called Watermark, Inc. and three years later they launched the popular syndicated show American Top 40, hosted by Casey Kasem. Paul Drew, a future executive at Radio & Records, programmed KFRC in the early 70s. The founder of the trade magazine was Bob Wilson, who programmed KDAY/Los Angeles in the early 70s.

KFRC's success led to the decline of the more talkative KEWB, which moved to even more talk as KNEW after being bought by KSAN owner MetroMedia in 1966. KYA remained top 40 for nearly two decades and then was changed to KOIT after being sold to Bonneville in 1983.

Freeform stations KMPX, KSAN, KSJO, KOME, others rock the Bay

Prior to the rise of
freeform radio, which was the seed to album rock radio, fans of more guitar-oriented rock bands grew up listening to AM pop stations that mixed in rock and roll. By the mid-sixties KLIV (1590 AM) in San Jose was playing a lot of regional garage and surf bands along with British Invasion groups. San Jose had a blossoming suburban garage band scene that included bands who went on to have national hits such as the Count Five and Syndicate of Sound. KLIV leaned more basic rock and roll than psychedelic. In 1965 KNBR-AM briefly experimented with a rock-based format.

During this era a revolution was brewing on FM, as independent pop station KPEN (101.3) successfully ushered in FM stereo and received national recognition for doing so. KPEN, which changed call letters in late 1968 to KIOI, began experimenting with rock music as well. Up until that time it had been the top rated FM in the market. It eventually moved toward adult contemporary and regained momentum. Part of the station's success story was that it was the most powerful radio signal (at 125,000 watts) in the market. Certain radio companies such as ABC tried to protect their AM properties against the emergence of FM by filing a petition with the FCC in 1963, proposing to limit the power of FM stations, but KPEN owner Jim Gabbert and partners prevailed and were allowed to keep their wattage, although the FCC set a limit at that time of 50,000 watts, except for stations already transmitting at higher power.

Toward the end of the sixties listeners who did not want to follow pop radio's turn to repetitive "bubble gum music" with less emphasis on community information and commentary, were served by the emergence of KMPX. An early freeform pioneer who steered KMPX toward full-time freeform programming in 1967 was Program Director Tom Donahue, who did an evening show with his wife, Raechel. While freeform radio had developed in other places around the country for years, it was Tom and Raechel who defined the wave of freeform radio that would represent the progressive community from the late sixties through most of the seventies.

The KMPX story defined the evolution of early freeform radio. Owner Leon Crosby sold block time to different groups to air their programs in 1967. Although most of the shows were foreign language, in February Larry Miller began doing an overnight freeform music show. Tom Donahue arrived to do his 8p-12m show in April and became Program Director. Tom had worked on the air at several top 40 stations around the country including crosstown KYA. He had grown tired of the high energy of top 40 and its gravitation toward light information. So he offered a more surreal mix of album tracks outside the pop charts with more insightful as well as off the wall air personalities.

Then on May 21, 1968, following an employee strike, Donahue moved his staff to crosstown KSAN (94.9), which changed from classical to freeform, becoming Jive 95. In the early seventies, KSAN rose to number one in the 18-34 demographic. It developed a cult following for many years. KSAN was owned by MetroMedia, the same company that owned freeform rocker KMET in Los Angeles at that time. MetroMedia also bought KEWB and changed it into KNEW. After many stations around the country had looked to the Donahues for inspiration, Tom died in 1975 of a heart attack in his forties. Gradually KSAN became more structured until inevitably taking the shape of the more streamlined album rock format. Raechel has written books and played in movies and television shows. In May 2005 Raechel reflects, "KMPX was the root, KSAN was the flower. Since then, the bloom has pretty much been crushed beneath the boot of corporate radio."

Both KSAN and KSJO went on to become legendary rock stations throughout the seventies, but KSAN flipped to country music in November 1981 while KSJO survived as rock until flipping to Spanish in October 2004. A rock station that left the market but commanded a strong following in the eighties was KRQR (The Rocker). KSJO/San Jose debuted in 1968 as a freeform rock station, the same year that KZAP in Sacramento went freeform. Until 1971, KZAP could be heard all over the Bay at the 98.5 frequency. Then came KOME, which took the frequency, covering most of the South Bay, East Bay and parts of San Francisco. Both KOME and KSJO leaned more toward straight ahead rock and roll party music than the emerging psychedelic music. Other Bay Area stations including KGO-FM and KSFX attempted experimental programming with rock music following KSAN's popularity in the late sixties.

Bands of the Bay

The Beat poets and the subsequent "love generation" created national awareness of the "Haight-Ashbury" scene in San Francisco and the anti-war protest rallies of university students in Berkeley during the sixties and seventies. Due to the widespread popularity of that movement, San Francisco came to be known as a center of "peace and love." Bands that reflected this spirit which culminated in 1967 with the "Summer of Love" included the Grateful Dead, Santana, Big Brother & The Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival and many others who came to define album rock. In the seventies and eighties Bay Area bands continued to dominate the national scene with acts like the Doobie Brothers, Journey, Steve Miller Band, Tower of Power, Huey Lewis and the News, Boz Scaggs, Pablo Cruise and many others. Since the nineties the Bay Area's leading rock bands have been Metallica (originally from Los Angeles) and Green Day.

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