Broadcasting in the
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"Sparks" Gaal at KUP,
the Examiner station.
Radio broadcasting as an experimental concept had an early start in the San Francisco Bay area with the activities of Doc Herrold in San Jose. Herrold's station which started broadcasting on a regular basis in 1912, eventually became KQW and then KCBS.
Apart from these early activities, however, widespread broadcasting did not begin to flourish until 1920. By 1922 it had very definitely arrived. A flurry of small stations would come on the air for several months and then suddenly go off the air, to be replaced as quickly by other short-lived stations. These weren't like the stations we know today; rather, they stood with a foot in the world of broadcasting and a foot in amateur radio. The purpose of the stations was often experimental, or to promote the activities ofthe business that operated it. The foundation of advertising revenue that provided stability for radio in its later years had yet to develop, and so there was nothing to financially sustain the stations' activities. Equipment failures were frequent, and the programming itself was of secondary importance. What was important was just being on the air.
To the listener of that time, radio was a new discovery. Again, programs didn't matter. It was the sheer enjoyment of listening to voices and music being pulled out of the air with a home-built crystal set. Within the course of two years, radio went from a means of point-to-point communications for commercial purposes, plus the activities of a small group of radio "hams", to everybody's hobby, and wire antennas stretched across the back yards of more and more households. Young boys found radio particularly exciting, and children across the country were winding wire around oatmeal boxes to build their own crystal radios. The "San Francisco Examiner" noted the sudden rise in radio's popularity when it reported in 1922, "Radio, the virulent malady which has swept the East, is rapidly spreading to the coast. Once bitten by the germ, there is no cure for the delighted victim."
However, during these early years, radio programs consisted almost entirely of phonograph records, with only occasional news reports, crop reports or live music programs. Programs did not have the polished, produced sound of later years. For example, KUO, the "Examiner" station, announced its programs, "Hello; hello; this is the San Francisco Examiner's radio broadcasting station, KUO -- K - U - O. Receivers will kindly give us a check. Thank you, thank you."
6XW/AG1Another of the early broadcast operations was carried on by none other than the U. S. Army. The Army Signal Corps in the San Francisco Presidio operated an amateur station to communicate with local amateurs and other Army bases, and also broadcast music and information programs to the general public. Known first as 6XW (the 'X' in a call letter indicated an experimental license), then later by the call letters AG1, this station was operated by Sgt. Richard C. Travers. In an article appearing in 1921 in "Radio" Magazine, Sgt. Travers described the purpose of the operation:
The most prominent recollection of those who remember tuning in to 6XC is that it broadcast on an extremely low frequency. Early broadcasts were on 1450 meters, but this was soon changed to 1260 meters.
de Forest employed a full-time station operator to broadcast the concerts. Mr. C. Logwood, who had been an assistant to the early San Francisco radio experimenter Francis McCarty in 1905. Logwood operated the transmitter and audio equipment during the frequent concerts. Weekdays there would be three half-hour concerts per day, plus the Heller Orchestra concerts every Sunday morning. To pick up the music of the orchestra, a microphone was attached to the end of a large loudspeaker horn, and the entire assembly was hung from the ceiling in the back of the theater.
This station was notable for many reasons, in addition to the fact that it was established by de Forest. 6XC began operations over six months prior to KDKA in Pittsburgh, and it broadcast regularly scheduled programs composed entirely of live music, in a time when all of the few "radio concerts" on the air consisted entirely of phonograph records. In addition, while most broadcast transmitters of the time operated at between five and fifty watts, de Forest had installed a thousand watt transmitter, though it seldom operated above half its capacity.
6XC continued to broadcast its daily programs from the California Theater until late 1921. At that time, the Atlantic-Pacific Radio Corporation became the Western representative for the de Forest Radio Telephone and Telegraph Company, and it was determined that Oakland would be a better location for radio transmission. Thus, after broadcasting over 1,500 separate programs from the California Theater, the station was moved to Ocean View Drive in the Rock Ridge area of Oakland, and the station became KZY, "The Rock Ridge Station", operated by the Atlantic-Pacific Company.
The installation of the station in Oakland set something of a record for its time. The station was put in the home of Henry M. Shaw, President of the company, located in the hills above Oakland. Shaw desired to have the station on the air Christmas Day, which gave the crew just over a week to complete the installation. The antenna was to be 135 feet long, suspended between two tall masts. Because Shaw's property was not big enough to accommodate both masts, it was decided to put the other on a neighbor's property, directly up the hill. This property, it was found, was owned by a Santa Barbara man; telegrams to Santa Barbara uncovered that the owner was on vacation and could not be reached. In desperation, Shaw sent Fred Anderson to Santa Barbara, where it was learned the owner was vacationing in Los Angeles. Anderson drove on to there the same day, found the man and had him sign an agreement for the use of the property. He returned December 18th and construction was begun the same day. The first tests were made just four days later, and the station went on the air at midnight, Christmas Day, 1921. The initial program consisted of several hours of Christmas carols, and closed with an official announcement of the opening of the station.
KZY's facilities were quite elaborate, by 1921 standards. The radio room, which housed the DeForest transmitter and a receiver, opened onto a large music room where concerts of large groups could be held.
KZY, the Rock Ridge Station, became one of the best-known coastal stations of the period. It had a large and loyal following in the Bay Area, and could be received clearly at night across all of the Western states. Live and recorded music programs were supplemented by news reports supplied by the "San Francisco Call" and the "Oakland Post-Enquirer".
On March 24, 1922, KZY made national history when the station's receiver picked up broadcasts from WGY, Schenectady, New York, marking the first time radio signals had been transmitted across the continent.
The Rock Ridge station's programs continued for only about a year before the company lost interest in maintaining the station and it ceased operation. The City Council of Oakland considered the possibilities of obtaining the station and establishing an Oakland "municipal station". They had hoped to establish it as a publicity agent for the city, as well as to broadcast descriptions of criminals at large to police departments of other cities. But, the concept apparently never took hold, and KZY passed quietly into oblivion after a brief but colorful history.
The Meyberg operation was established by Sheldon Peterson, Manager of the company, and Gerald M. Best, a phone company engineer. It was situated in a small wooden shack on the roof of the Hotel, right next to the time ball that was used to signal ships. Equipment consisted of a home-built five- watt transmitter, a Victor phonograph for music programs, and a player piano. A flat-top antenna was strung between two fifty-foot poles on the roof.
6XG went on the air in June, 1921. It was first operated by the Meyberg staff, but this soon became difficult, and the company hired a young radio operator who had just returned from sea. His name was Alan Cormack, later to be Chief Engineer of KFRC and KCBS. Cormack recalled his task was to go to the Sherman-Clay music store daily and pick out records for the programs that evening. These would be borrowed from Sherman-Clay in exchange for mentioning the store as the source of the music. After selecting his records, he would go to the Meyberg offices on Market Street where he would pick up the weather and market reports, "mostly butter and egg prices". He would then go to the station and put the program on the air.
All programs went on the air through the single telephone-style carbon microphone connected to the transmitter. Besides announcing into the microphone, Cormack would hold it up to the phonograph to pick up records, winding it occasionally to keep the music up to speed. Or, he related, "I used to hang the microphone at the back of the piano, put on a roll, and sit down and pump it." Programs of this nature were on the air between one and two hours daily.
After a while, the station began receiving calls from listeners requesting different types of programs, and KDN started branching out. Some notable special programs broadcast on KDN include a broadcast by a quartet from the Scotty Grand Opera Company, September 29, 1921. This group was staying in the Hotel, and accepted an invitation to sing over KDN. Cormack led them up the tiny wooden stairs to the roof, where they sang into a microphone rigged to the end of a phonograph horn. Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, an internationally-known opera vocalist of the time, also sang over the KDN microphone one evening. Cormack recalled that she was "big, hefty, very German, and very emotional. She was pretty much overcome that her voice was going over the air, to the point where she shed quite a few tears."
Another incident Cormack recalled is the night a small orchestra played for the KDN microphone. As there was not enough room in the operator's shack for the orchestra, they stationed themselves on the roof while Cormack positioned his microphone in the doorway. Just as the broadcast got under way, it began to rain. But, the show must go on, and the little group played its entire concert in the downpour, although, as he recalled, the violins sounded a bit "soggy" towards the end.
At one point in the station's history, Mayor James Rolph and several officials of the Matson Line visited the station. A new luxury cruise ship was beginning its maiden voyage that date, and the men's' speeches were picked up by the ship and piped to the passengers through the P. A. system.
In later years, KDN broadcast regular programs of Rudy Seiger's Fairmont Orchestra through a line that had been installed down to the hotel's ballroom for remote pick-ups. In February of 1922, the station built a 50 watt transmitter, and the old five-watter was relegated to standby use. However, the station was still mainly a vehicle for phonograph records and news reports.
Several things finally brought about the demise of KDN. The first was the death of Sheldon Peterson, the driving force behind the station. Mr. Meyberg, the company President, was an older gentleman whose primary interest was in the sale of lighting fixtures and associated electrical equipment. He had little real interest in the station, and lost the desire to operate it after Peterson's death. In addition, a new station, KPO, had installed a remote amplifier to pick up the orchestra programs from the Fairmont, and KPO's 500 watts would provide reception of the Rudy Seiger broadcasts over a larger area than KDN could provide. So, KDN quietly left the air in early 1923.
KLP, known earlier as 6XAC, was operated in 1921 and 1922 by the Colin B. Kennedy Company, manufacturer of the well- known Kennedy line of receivers. The station itself was located in the home of Emile A. Portal, the Treasurer of the company, in Los Altos. Portal was a radio experimenter of many years' experience, having been one of Doc Herrold's foremost students in San Jose in 1912. Originally, 6XAC was meant to be strictly an experimental station used in connection with the tests of Kennedy receivers. However, response to the unscheduled programs resulted in the company obtaining the KLP license for commercial broadcasts. Portal sent out weekly post cards to listeners that gave the program schedule for that week. Programs consisted entirely of phonograph records.
Before there was ever a KSL in Salt Lake City, those call letters were assigned to a station operated by the Emporium Department Store in San Francisco. The operating room was on the seventh floor, where there was also a studio large enough to hold a small orchestra. The station was operated by Harold R. Shaw, a former KDN engineer, along with Harrison Holliway (later of KFRC). KSL went on the air with much local heraldry on April 3, 1922, but lasted only a year.
KUO's studios were officially completed the following month. They consisted of a large "acoustically-perfect" studio with the transmitting equipment sitting in one corner, and a special battery room. The antenna stood 150 feet above the twelve-story building. The KUO transmitter, nicknamed "Big Bertha", was the most powerful in the area at the time, rivaling only KLX in Oakland for signal strength.
"Sparks" Gaal was the operator and sole member of the KUO staff during its entire existence. The station began with a full head of steam, but like many others, began to lose interest after about a year. By 1924, it was broadcasting programs on an irregular basis, consisting largely of weather and farm reports, news, sports and stock quotations. The Examiner began to quietly phase out its broadcast operations, and by September, 1924, had taken the KUO schedule off its own radio page. However, KUO continued to operate until 1927, sending mainly weather and marine information to the San Francisco pilot boat.
KFDB began construction in May of 1922 near the summit of Telegraph Hill, where Lombard Street turns and begins its ascent toward Coit Tower. The bank constructed three separate buildings for the station: a concrete transmitter house and wood-frame studio and artists buildings. A fifty- watt transmitter was constructed by Chief Engineer Ralph Heintz and his assistants, and a power amplifier was used to boost the output to a maximum power of 1,500 watts. This was one of the first times a linear amplifier was used by any station. Underneath the floor of the transmitter building was a battery room containing over 300 six-volt batteries, all connected in series to provide the necessary 2,000 volts plate voltage for the transmitter. Motor generators were used in turn to charge the batteries.
The KFDB antenna system was suspended between two hundred-foot spruce poles that had been floated down from the Northwest on a log raft. It consisted of three fourteen-inch "cage" elements, with a ground element suspended below it that could be raised or lowered for best effectiveness. A system of counterpoise wires was arranged in a fan-like pattern, stretching from the roof of the transmitter building.
The studio was an 18-by-24 foot building, acoustically draped and decorated with wicker furniture, a piano and a phonograph. The microphone was mounted on a flower vase pedestal and covered with a drapery arrangement to hide it from the view of nervous performers. The entire apparatus was affectionately called "Julius" by the staff.
KFDB began operation on an experimental basis in August under the call letters 6XB. During this period, the fifty-watt transmitter was used late at night to test the equipment for sound quality and coverage. The staff was quickly pleased with the results of the test: on the night of October 28, their tests were answered by CFCN in Calgary, Alberta, and were picked up by listeners several hundred miles north of there. On November 2, they were heard clearly by several receivers in Hawaii.
Finally, KFDB began broadcasting on a regular schedule November 1. During the daytime, programming was devoted to agricultural news and market reports, with hour-long reports broadcast at 10 AM and 2 PM. These were transmitted on 360 meters, the only frequency allocated by the government for broadcasting at that time. All area stations shared time on this one frequency. However, the government also authorized a limited number of stations to broadcast agricultural information on a separate frequency, 485 meters. KFDB held this license in the Bay Area, and received its market information via Morse code from a Department of Agriculture station and rebroadcast it at 6:30 PM daily.
In addition to all of its farm programs, KFDB broadcast a daily concert from 9 to 10 PM. This was arranged for the station by the Pacific Radio Trade Association, an organization of radio retail merchants and broadcasters that acted as the governing board of Bay Area radio. (The P. R. T. A. also arranged the time schedules for the area stations broadcasting on 360 meters and operated a yearly radio exposition in San Francisco.) The KFDB programs were a direct result of comments made by some of the smaller stations at a P. R. T. A. meeting. They complained they could not endure the heavy expense of operating a station, and that the P. R. T. A. should pool its efforts and produce a single high-powered station with first-class programs, instead of coordinating the activities of several mediocre stations. KFDB offered time over its new station to test this method of joint programming, and President Arthur Halloran agreed to put it on an initial one-month test.
KFDB's concert hour commenced November First. This program was referred to as a "community broadcast center" and was entirely programmed by the P. R. T. A. under the direction of Mrs. Ada Morgan O'Brien. The best musical talent in the Bay Area was hired to perform on this daily program, and the performers were personally escorted to the station by Mrs. O'Brien in a shiny new limousine! No expense was spared to make these broadcasts the best.
Public reaction to the concert hour was very favorable, and, although the proposed P. R. T. A. station never materialized, the program was extended well beyond its initial test period.
Despite KFDB's high standards of operation, the station soon followed the route of so many of its predecessors and ceased broadcasts. There were several factors that eventually led to its demise; first of all, the station did not have the coverage its owners had hoped for. Although it could be received over most of the Western States as hoped, reception was sporadic and the truly dependable reception area was much smaller. Although KFDB had regular listeners in the San Joaquin valley and a few branches of the bank were opened there, it was not the publicity and expansion agent they had hoped for.
Secondly, equipment failures were frequently. The fault lay, not in the station's construction or operation, but in its basic concept of design. The state of the art in electronics had simply not advanced enough to perfect the linear amplification system used by KFDB. As a result, the transmitter broke down on the station's opening broadcast, and it was quite a regular occurrence for it to be off the air because of equipment failure. Evidently the bank decided that, because of these problems, the high cost of operating the station did not justify the few publicity benefits that were reaped. They finally shut the station down November 30, 1923. KFDB, the great innovator and one of the most elaborate stations of its era, had lasted hardly more than a year.
The selection of stations on the radio dial in San Francisco stayed relatively stable for a few years, but 1925 saw the onslaught of a second "wave" of new stations almost as great as 1922. Seven new stations took to the airwaves within a ten month period, and only three of them lasted more than a few years.
At that time, unless an applicant requested specific call letters, they were chosen for the applicant by the government, and assigned in alphabetical order. For this reason, many of the stations had similar call letters, resulting in considerable confusion with the listeners.
KFUS relied heavily on religious programming. Dr. Sherman gave free time to many of the churches in the area without regard to denomination. In fact, he built a small church himself just a year later, and his son became the pastor. It was located on Havenscourt Road near E. 14th Street, and the station was moved there in 1926. The antenna was strung over the church, between two metal towers. One of these towers was still standing in the 1970's. It was at the Havenscourt Community Church, the successor to Dr. Sherman's church. The tower held the letters "Jesus Saves".
The station's license was revoked by the Federal Radio Commission in 1928, on the grounds that it had often drifted too far from its frequency and had not been on the air often enough to warrant the additional congestion of the airwaves. However, in its short history it was notable as having been the first radio station to carry the voices of Luther Burbank and Earl Warren (then Deputy District Attorney of Alameda County - later U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice).
Then there was KFQH, which was licensed to San Mateo Union High School, but located at the Radio Service Company, a Burlingame radio shop. The license was later acquired by the Burlingame Chamber of Commerce, which changed the call letters to KFOB. It too bit the dust after just over a year of operation.
1925 was a year for church stations. KFWM went on the air October 15, operated by the Educational Society of Oakland, also known as the Watchtower Society (aka Jehovah's Witness), and headquartered in a church on Eighth Avenue in East Oakland. The transmitter and studio were located in a separate building on the church property, and the antenna was strung between two wooden poles. The station shared its frequency with KGTT, a station operated by the Glad Tidings Temple on Ellis Street. This latter station debuted November 30 with 50 watts, and was operated by the Pastor, Robert J. Craig, who also served as Station Manager and announcer. By 1930, KFWM had become KROW and KGTT had been sold to the Golden Gate Church and was known as KGGC.
The last new station to make its debut in the San Francisco market went on the air January 22, 1926, and was the only one of these late comers that attempted to air any high caliber radio entertainment. The company called itself Radio Entertainments, Inc., and it was licensed as KFWI. Thomas Catton, one of the original founders of KFRC, became Manager of the station and continued a program called "The Tom Cats" which he had originated on KFRC. The studios were in the Wiley B. Allen building on Van Ness Avenue, with the 500 watt transmitter atop Twin Peaks. KFWI broadcast on a frequency of 1200 kc (later 1120).
KFWI started out with great plans and made a serious attempt at becoming a first class station, operating with a large and varied program schedule. But it seems to have been beset from the start by internal turmoil. Catton resigned the following year, along with Vice President Ernest Walcott. KFWI went through several more managers in the next few years. Studios were moved to the Marshall Square Building at Eighth and Market in 1927, and later to the Bellevue and Pickwick Hotels. In the latter location, it occupied studios built for KTAB that had been vacated after the stock market crashed forced that station's ownership into bankruptcy. A Federal Radio Commission reassignment of frequencies in 1928 had forced KFWI to share time on 930 kc. with KFWM in Oakland, which limited the station's potential. Further, like many, the station suffered financial setbacks in the depression. KFWI was able to struggle for a few more years before going broke. By 1933, KFWI was off the air.
For a complete story about KFWI's financial and regulatory woes, see this article.
Just as radio was about to be rendered totally useless in all of the confusion, the Federal Radio Commission was organized. This was an independent government agency that had been given the authority to effectively regulate broadcasting. It quickly took charge and immediately made sweeping changes. The frequencies of 129 stations were re-assigned on Nov. 11, 1928, and it was made known that any deviation from these frequencies would result in a loss of license. The F.R.C. also gave notice to 164 stations that they were not judged to be serving in the public interest, and that their licenses had been suspended pending hearing. Most of these notices were received by stations in the East and Midwest, where the greatest congestion problems were being felt. Only five stations on the West Coast were notified, and none of them was in the Bay Area. In the end, 109 stations were forced off the air by this notice.
The coming of the Federal Radio Commission in 1927 marked the official end of radio's "childhood". It had sewn the last of its wild oats, and had finally become a mature mass medium. Within a few years, the last of the little "shoestring" stations in the Bay Area would be gone, and only twelve stations would remain on the dial: KQW, KFRC, KTAB, KGO, KPO, KLS, KLX, KRE, KYA, KROW, KJBS, and KGGC. These were the only stations heard in San Francisco from 1933 until the end of World War II, and all of these remain on the air to this day. The future for radio lay in the big broadcast networks, and radio was finally settling down to the task of becoming the greatest entertainment medium in the nation.