This article is near and dear to our heart. The founders of C. Crane, Bob and Sue Crane, hail from the Bay Area and our very first radio ad was with KGO. We hope you enjoy this history. Shared with permission of Peter Hartlaub and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Welcome to Our San Francisco, a yearlong project looking at 150 years of the city’s history. Each week a different chapter will be explored in the newspaper, on SFChronicle.com, in Peter Hartlaub’s The Big Event blog on SFGate.com, and on social media at #OurSF.
This week’s chapter: Radio in San Francisco.
The children of San Francisco were the first to discover the wonder of radio. The equipment had been stocked in a small corner of local toy departments for years.
But on March 20, 1922, the Emporium department store staff moved one of the radio receivers upstairs, and tuned in to a broadcast of an orchestra playing live across the bay in Oakland. The press and 50 other adult listeners were so amazed, they had to be pulled away from their headsets.
“Half incredulous, but wholly expectant, they adjusted receivers to their ears and listened with unfeigned amazement as the strains of the music sounded in the room as clearly and distinctly as though the musicians had been there in person,” The Chronicle reported in a front-page story. “Everywhere the interest was profound. Radio, so far as San Francisco, has arrived.”
San Francisco was an important town, for both the invention and development of radio. The spirit of innovation and the willingness to embrace technology has many parallels to the city’s startup culture today.
Then, once that technology became widespread, San Francisco found ways to reflect the expressiveness and eclectic nature of its population. Through nearly 100 years of broadcasting, the city has produced more than its share of broadcast legends.
San Francisco’s first radio stations emerged in the 1920s, but the technology had been experimented with locally for more than a decade. The words “radio station” appeared in The Chronicle as early as 1913, when the Navy was searching for a San Francisco site to locate a West Coast radio hub. Stories about military uses for radio technology appeared in The Chronicle throughout World War I.
But radio invention, and even some noncommercial broadcasting, had been happening under the media radar for years.
Charles “Doc” Herrold’s KQW originated in 1909, when the inventor conducted a broadcast between two buildings in downtown San Jose. He received the first radio license in U.S. history, then brought his “receiving booth” to the Pan-Pacific International Exposition, where stunned visitors heard a live test broadcast from Santa Clara County.
KDKA in Pittsburgh has widely been credited as the first radio station, debuting with scheduled programming on Nov. 2, 1920. But that was disputed by friends of Bay Area resident Lee de Forest. The wireless pioneer, who had proposed to his wife by telegraph in a San Francisco hotel in 1906, may have had a radio station operating in Marin County six months earlier.
“The California theater in this city had broadcasted more than 700 concerts and entertainments before the Pittsburgh station was opened, and all the credit to launching radio broadcasting on schedules belongs to de Forest,” Ellery Stone, one of the station’s builders, said in a 1922 Chronicle article.
When the potential of radio reached consumers, it caught on like few cultural sensations before or since. Much like television in the city nearly 30 years later, the hype was fueled by retailers, who started selling radio receivers on the promise of the future.
The March 20, 1922, Emporium experiment resulted in nearly a page of coverage, with a lead story headlined “Kiddies’ ‘Toy’ Now a Marvel for Grownups.”
“Up to a few months ago the radio department in reality was not a department at all, it merely was a side line in the toy department,” The Chronicle article explained. “Virtually the only interest taken in it was when some indulgent father came in to purchase a receiving radio set for his youngster. Radio sets were novelties, playthings for children, nothing more.”
Starting that day, and every day thereafter, The Chronicle printed entire playlists for KZY and KDN, the first two local stations with scheduled programming. (Selections from operas including “Pagliacci” and “Don Giovanni” were included on that first day, along with a foxtrot from the Victor Military Band.)
For the following months, the newspaper was filled with local radio updates and advertisements. The Chronicle’s “Radio Question & Answer” column included news about parts and electrical diagrams for home radio enthusiasts who were trying to hotwire a set on the cheap.
Four new stations arrived in May 1922, including KPO, which was owned by Hale Bros. department store and broadcast at the Fairmont Hotel. By 1923, there was a station at the Hearst Building (KUO) and the Oakland Tribune (KLX).
Radio stations quickly started to diversify beyond opera, symphony and big band music. In one afternoon in 1923, KSL offered college information for high school students, a poetry reading and a home economics course in one two-hour block. (“KSL is also conducting a radio course in hygiene and baby care in the mornings, bringing expert nurses and physicians to the broadcasting room to send out information for mothers,” The Chronicle reported.) Another 1923 article explained in detail the benefits of radio in case of a zeppelin attack on San Francisco.
While radio was exploding in popularity, it still looked antiquated in those first two years, with a lot of programming but very little focus.
The future of Bay Area radio arrived in 1924, with the visionary new station KFRC, with a then-powerful 50-watt signal being blasted from the Hotel Whitcomb on Market Street. (KNBR in 2015 has a 50,000-watt signal.)
Harrison Holliway, a former sports writer with the San Francisco Call, took over KFRC at age 23. He had a knack for programming, bringing the Bay Area’s first radio celebrity interviews, children’s shows and sports coverage. Holliway’s “Blue Monday Jamboree” was an early version of the modern wacky morning zoo, mixing music and comedy while promoting “stunt” broadcasts in unique locations including a cruise ship.
Holliway departed for Los Angeles in 1936, but he had left a strong impression on the market. San Francisco had gotten used to broadcasters who pushed the boundaries, and craved content that was smart and fun.
It also resulted in some unforgettable stars. This chapter of Our San Francisco would be nothing but a list if we included them all. But we choose to start with Don Sherwood, the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Disk Jockey, who was known for his clashes with colleagues and management as much as his popularity — working mostly at KSFO in the 1950s through 1970s.
Sherwood quit his first job on KSFO in the 1950s, briefly relocated to Hawaii, came back for a television job, and got into trouble for a spirited on-air defense of the Navajo people. Chronicle columnist Herb Caen was a fan, but also seemed to enjoy stoking controversy around the popular star.
This from a 1961 Caen column: “‘Mayor Art’ Finley, the veteran TV and radio personality, resigned huffily from KSFO after reading (here) that Don Sherwood’s salary is around $300 a day. When The World’s Greatest Disk Jockey has been indisposed, Finley has been summoned to replace him — at the union scale of $34.25 for three hours. ‘I know I’m not half as good as Sherwood,’” admits Finley, ‘but I feel I’m better than one-tenth as good.’”
The middle of the 20th century was great for local radio, assisted by government regulations that strongly encouraged independent ownership, and stopped radio corporations from owning more than one station in the market. KSFO cemented itself as a powerhouse in 1958, luring Russ Hodges from New York and pairing him with Lon Simmons to broadcast the San Francisco Giants, who had just arrived from New York. Hodges publicly embraced the move, and felt as comfortable in the city as any native.
“You people aren’t provincial out here,” he said in a 1958 Chronicle story headlined “Let’s Meet Russ Hodges.” “If a man is good, it doesn’t matter what uniform he wears. … I can see merit in guys on the opposite side, and so can you San Franciscans.”
Hodges and Simmons continued a tradition of solid Bay Area pro sports broadcasters, from Bill King to Bob Fouts to Greg Papa to the current stellar lineup of Duane Kuiper, Mike Krukow, Dave Flemming and Jon Miller with the Giants.
The call-in talk show premiered in the Bay Area in the 1950s, allowing listeners to become part of the show, and shifting the dynamics of San Francisco radio. Iconic disk jockeys, including Al “Jazzbo” Collins, Carter B. Smith and Russ “The Moose” Syracuse, rose to prominence in the early 1960s, while KSOL and KDIA (in Vallejo) brought soul music to the Bay Area, bonding with the previously ignored African American communities, and saturating the San Francisco airwaves with Motown and R&B.
Locals were able to make a huge impact building radio stations from the 1950s to the 1970s, often starting with almost nothing. Jim Gabbert is a good example; the Stanford electrical engineering student built K101 into a powerhouse, before selling several stations and buying TV-20.
Another positive trend in the 1970s was the better-late-than-never rise of the female disk jockey.
In the 1920s, KFRC had openly pledged never to hire women as on-air hosts. (“Except in singing, a woman’s voice does not broadcast well,” owner James B. Threlkeld Jr. told The Chronicle in 1924. “Of course there will be notable exceptions to this rule as in the case of women of great national prominence who may happen to be visiting here.”)
Diana Blackmon on KDIA and Shana Livigni on KFRC were pioneering female DJs in Bay Area radio, while Belva Davis started her radio career at KSAN in 1961. (KSAN also supported Dusty Street and Bonnie Simmons, popular DJs who started in the late 1960s and early 1970s.) Spanish-language stations grew in popularity during this era as well.
KFRC returned to prominence in the 1970s and 1980s, with Dr. Donald D. Rose forging a strong relationship with listeners with a combination of rock music and goofy shtick.
By the 1970s, radio hosts were some of the biggest media stars in San Francisco. Stations such as KSAN, KMEL, KITS, KOME (in San Jose) and student station KUSF developed unique shows and loyal followings, launching popular iconic hosts including Alex Bennett, Terry McGovern, Don Bleu, Tony Kilbert and Renel Brooks-Moon. KFOG had a particularly long run, playing rock music that was off the beaten path for decades, with Dave Morey leading the cult of Fogheads.
Here’s an excerpt from The Chronicle’s 1976 interview with KGO’s brand-new host Ronn Owens, who was interviewed while sipping wine and photographed — no exaggeration — wearing a silk shirt opened to a fountain of chest hair.
“In New York, people don’t care what you do because they don’t have time for you,” Owens said. “I had high expectations for this city, and all have been fulfilled.”
Owens remains at KGO, but the station has struggled with plummeting ratings in the last decade. Looser rules have allowed consolidation, and most Bay Area stations are now part of a larger group with out-of-state owners, a depressing development for listeners who grew up in the era of Sherwood, Syracuse, Blackmon, Morey, Simmons and Hodges.
But San Francisco radio isn’t dead — it’s arguably closer to its roots than ever, even as corporate radio has stripped San Francisco’s larger stations of much of their uniqueness. San Francisco station KPOO has been embraced by the community, and independent public radio station KALW (an FM radio pioneer) remains a treasure. Online radio stations including Soma.fm, the Mission District’s Radio Valencia and BFF.fm have brought the pirate radio vibe back, with the kind of eclectic and experimental programming that the first Bay Area broadcasters experienced.
And the greatest asset for San Francisco radio hasn’t changed: intelligent and opinionated listeners, who want their broadcast talent to be the same.
We’ll let 1976 Ronn Owens have the last word on that.
“I can be less sensational and more substantive in San Francisco,” Owens told The Chronicle. “What I love about … San Francisco is that I’m overpowered here. I’m used to leading my listeners, but here I’m led a little. … I’m much more comfortable being genuine.”
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle pop culture critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @PeterHartlaub