The History of KFWM-KROW-KABL, Oakland, California
By John F. Schneider, 2021
Copyright 2021 - John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Bella Sumares performs on the KROW Portuguese Hour
Scott Weakley Man-On-The-Street
Mary Ann Goss, the "Girl of the Golden West"
Bill Brokaw, the "Old Midnight Vagabond"
KROW QSL letter 1937
Wesley Dumm and Philip Lasky
Nick n Noodnick button
Bruce Sedley at KROW
Rod McKuen at KROW
Del Gore at KROW
Walt Jamond at KROW
KROW Talent Show, 1959
Radio station KFWM in Oakland, California, debuted in 1925, and was known by its slogan “The Golden West Station”. It was primarily religious in nature, owned and operated by the Oakland Educational Society, which had a close contractual relationship with the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society (renamed Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1931). KFWM was authorized by the Department of Commerce on July 8, 1925, initially approved to operate on a frequency of 224 meters/1338 kHz with a power of 500 watts. (The call letters were issued sequentially, which was the DOC’s practice at that time – thus it was just a few letters beyond KFWI, San Francisco, which was authorized June 29). KFWM began broadcasting on October 15 at just 50 watts with a temporary transmitter, until its 500-watt transmitter was placed into service the following January. The transmitter and studios were housed in a building adjacent to the International Bible School at 1520 8th Avenue in Oakland. (Both buildings still exist today, and they are now home to the Bible Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church). The wire antenna was an inverted-L suspended between two 121-foot towers. The transmitting equipment and station facilities were built by Heintz and Kaufman, a respected San Francisco radio engineering company. (The transmitter was later replaced by a Western Electric 106B, and the Heintz and Kaufman unit was placed into standby service.)
Within a few months, KFWM was required to move to 207 meters/1430 kHz and share its time with a new station, KGTT, of the Glad Tidings Temple in San Francisco. Each station was given 50% use of the frequency. However, this was not to KFWM’s liking, and so in July they shifted its frequency without authorization to 325.9 meters/920 kHz. They were taking advantage of a temporary regulatory vacuum brought about by a court decision invalidating the Department of Commerce’s authority to regulate the radio spectrum. (KTAB in Oakland was another so called “radio pirate”, also shifting its frequency at that time.) The situation was resolved in 1927 when Congress created the Federal Radio Commission, which had the legal authority to control the radio spectrum. The new Radio Commission quickly reassigned the frequencies of hundreds of stations, and KFWM was moved to several different frequencies during the year. Finally in November, 1928, it was permanently assigned to 930 kHz, which it shared with KFWI in San Francisco on a 50%/50% time basis
The KFWM operation in the Oakland church was not without its controversy. In 1929, residential neighbors filed a complaint with the City of Oakland, objecting to electrical noise and radio interference coming from the station. The city determined it had no legal jurisdiction over the activity of radio broadcasting, and turned the complaint over to the local federal radio inspector.
Tragedy struck at KFWM in May, 1928, when 18-year-old William Richardson was killed while serving as a volunteer transmitter operator. The steel nails of his hobnob shoes accidentally came into contact with the transmitter’s high voltage generator, electrocuting the boy. Ironically, his death occurred while KFWM broadcast a program entitled "Does Man Go to Heaven Immediately After Death?" The boy’s parents filed a $50,000 lawsuit against the station. The outcome of the suit is unknown, but it’s possible that it may have resulted in the sale of the station in January, 1930.
The KFWM license was transferred to the Educational Broadcasting Corporation, with Henry P. Drey becoming the president, general manager and 37.9% stockholder. The remaining ownership consisted of more than 100 individuals associated with the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, with no one person’s share exceeding 10%. The transmitter and studios were moved north to Richmond, and its power increased to 1,000 watts day, 500 watts at night. The call letters of the station were changed to KROW shortly thereafter. While Drey was an active member of the Watch Tower Society, the change of ownership represented a separation between the station and the church – while KFWM had exclusively broadcast programs originating with the Watch Tower Society, KROW was operated as an independent station that simply carried some Watch Tower programs.
In 1933, the studios were moved to 1803 Franklin Street in downtown Oakland and the transmitter moved back to the church. Also, in October of that year, the frequency sharing arrangement ceased when station KFWI left the air for good, and KROW took over the 930 kHz frequency on a full-time basis. By this time, the programming had transitioned to a variety of popular and commercial programs, although the Watch Tower Society’s religious programs still occupied portions of the day.
In 1934, Scott Weakley joined KROW as its production manager, coming west to Oakland after previous radio work in Illinois and Kansas. His midday man-on-the-street interviews were a popular feature for many years, usually conducted on the sidewalk in front of the station’s downtown studios. Weakley was also responsible for a great many of the station’s special event and promotional broadcasts. He stayed with KROW until 1947 when he was elected to the Oakland City Council, backed by local labor interests. There he suffered a difficult three years on the council, caught up in conflicts over the issues of neighborhood urban renewal and public housing. Ultimately, Weakley lost a recall election in 1950 by just five votes out of 75,000 cast.
In 1936, KROW moved its studios one city block to the second floor of the building it called “Radio Center” at the corner of Broadway and 19th Street in downtown Oakland. The ample new studio suite was equipped with custom studio equipment designed and built by the broadcast division of the Remler Company in San Francisco. Construction was overseen by KROW Chief Engineer C.E. Downey. There was a model electric kitchen studio, used for the broadcast of housewife cooking shows. Auxiliary studios were installed in the Bellevue Hotel in San Francisco. The transmitter remained at its original church location.
By the mid-thirties, KROW had developed an eclectic mix of programs. News and farm reports were interspersed with public service programs on the subjects of health and diet. The Oakland Public Schools had a daily program. There was an evening show called “The Italian-American Hour”, hosted in Italian by Renato Medeot, which ran from 1938 to 1944. Another popular program, begun in 1932, served the ample Portuguese population of the East Bay, and featured live music and skits hosted by an emcee. Programs in Swedish and Spanish were also heard during the week. Watch Tower programs were broadcast in English, Italian, Greek and Japanese. And recorded music filled the remaining hours, principally dance and symphonic music.
In 1939, KROW was purchased for $110,000 by an investor group led by Wesley I. Dumm, the owner of KSFO in San Francisco. Dumm was a 49% stockholder; Fred J. Hart owned 30% (he was the former manager of KQW in San Jose, and now manager of KGMB in Honolulu); Philip Lasky, KSFO’s general manager, owned 17.5%, and Wallace F. Elliott, 3.5%. Lasky resigned from KSFO and became the new manager of KROW. Fred Hart reportedly sold his interests in the station shortly afterwards.
In later years, Wesley Dumm explained that he was obligated to honor an agreement with the Tenth Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland that he had made when he purchased its station KTAB (later to become KSFO). The agreement stated that he would continue to provide free air time to the church on KTAB for its “Hour of Prayer” program. However, KSFO had recently become the San Francisco affiliate of the Columbia (CBS) Network, and CBS required control over all programs on the station. Dumm’s purchase of KROW gave him another station on which to broadcast the church program.
In 1944, a new F.C.C. “duopoly” regulation prohibited the ownership of more than one radio station in a community by a single entity, and so Wesley Dumm was forced to sell his interest in KROW. It was sold again for $250,000 to KROW, Inc., whose principal owner was Sheldon Sackett, the owner of KOOS in Coos Bay, Oregon and KVAN in Vancouver, Washington. Sacket held a 65% share of the station, and manager Phil Lasky kept a 35% share and remained as manager. However, Lasky sold out in January of 1946, went back to KSFO and soon became the manager of KPIX-TV when KSFO opened its new TV station in 1948. Commercial Manager Wilt Gunsendorfer was promoted to become the new manager of KROW.
KROW programs changed somewhat under Gunsendorfer. Its slogan was now “The Home Interest Station”, with an emphasis placed on local news and community events. Station identifications included the recorded sound of a crowing rooster. Foreign language programs were eliminated, and more emphasis was placed on sports, with Lloyd “Speed” Maddock announcing Pacific Coast League baseball games and hockey games from the Winter Garden in San Francisco. A popular mid-day news report featured John K. Chapel, hired from WOW in Omaha in 1944. (In later years, he would be heard on KLX, KABL and KPAT.) Scott Weakley’s daily Man-on-the-street program followed Chapel to fill out the noon news hour. Recorded music was principally symphonic and dance music with an evening operatic feature. Weekends were heavy with religious programs and sports broadcasts, and with polka and swing music on Saturday nights.
In 1945, KROW hired a young ex-Armed Forces Radio announcer named Russ Coughlan, who soon rose to become the station’s program director. And in 1951, Alan Torbet became KROW’s general manager. Together, they brought KROW into the 1950’s disc jockey era, modeling it after a successful Los Angeles station. They hit paydirt with a new KROW wake-up show hosted by “Nick and Noodnick”. “Nick” was Nick Nicholsen and his “Noodnick” sidekick was a young announcer named Don Sherwood who had been let go at KCBS for not being “serious” enough. His clowning around on the air was encouraged at KROW, with the result that the program attracted a sizeable audience. The morning team was supported with comic bits played by the station’s ad copywriter, Phyllis Diller. The mascot of the program was a cuckoo named Cuthbert, whose call was used as a time signal. The KROW morning show rose to number two in the Bay Area audience surveys, right behind market leader KSFO. This attracted the latter station’s attention, and in 1954 they hired Torbet, Sherwood and Diller away from KROW. Torbet became KSFO’s new manager, and Sherwood’s legendary KSFO morning show became the top-rated program in the Bay Area until 1969. At KROW, Ray Yeager and Bruce Sedley took over the program, becoming the new “Nick” and “Noodnick”.
Another notable KROW program host in the early 1950’s was Rod McKuen. He had a late-night program where he played records and read his own poetry. The result was that both he and Phyllis Diller were hired as entertainers at San Francisco’s famous Purple Onion. McKuen subsequently rose to become a nationally-known poet, and Diller’s stand-up comedienne act at the Purple Onion led her to national renown in television and films. Russ Coughlan left KROW in 1957 and later became Vice President/General Manager of KGO-TV and a respected local TV newsman. Sedley went on to host a children’s program as “Skipper Sedley” on KRON-TV and also invented the “Zoo Key” audio narration system used in the “Talking Storybook” machines at Lake Merritt Park.
In 1946, KROW moved from 930 to 960 kHz as part of the nationwide shift of station frequencies occasioned by the NARBA Treaty.
Up until now, even though KROW had become a notable local station with a well-placed downtown studio, it was continuing to broadcast from the wire antenna at the original church location using its 1920’s Western Electric transmitter. It was limited to only 1,000 watts daytimes and 500 watts a night. A better transmitter system was needed to improve the station’s coverage. Under Wesley Dumm’s ownership, an application had been filed in 1941 to increase power to 5 kW from a new site, but the wartime freeze on station changes put that project on hold. Finally, in 1947, KROW was able to lease a 20-acre island from the Port of Oakland on the north end of the Oakland approach to the Bay Bridge. It was dubbed “KROW Island”, and a three-tower directional antenna system was built on the property, overseen by Chief Engineer Downey. The move included a power increase to 5,000 watts, giving KROW a more potent signal in the region. At the same time, KROW filed an application for one of the two remaining TV channels in the Bay Area – channels 9 and 11. However, there were many other applicants and KROW was ultimately unsuccessful.
After operating the station as the sole owner since 1945,
Sheldon Sackett sold KROW to the McLendon Pacific Corporation in April of 1959 for
$800,000. The buyer was Gordon McLendon,
who operated successful Rock’n’roll stations KLIF in Dallas, KILT in Houston,
and WAKY in Louisville. McLendon’s
original plan was to duplicate his “Top 40” successes in the Bay Area, but he
quickly realized there were already four stations with similar formats. In addition to market leaders KOBY and KYA,
two more stations had just joined the pack – the Oakland Tribune’s KLX was sold
to Crowell-Collier and became KEWB, and KFRC had just converted to Top 40. The two latter stations had both abandoned “good
music” formats, and McLendon detected that this left an opening in the
The radio station that had been KROW ceased to exist on May 11, 1959, after a 52-hour marathon broadcast playing the same record over and over – “Giant Gila Monster”, which was a hat tip to a new movie of the same name being produced by McLendon. Its radio competitors all listened intently, expecting to soon hear the birth of a new McLendon Top 40 station. But what appeared was KABL – the Bay Area’s newest “Good Music” station. The format included soft instrumentals, show tunes, light classics, and an all-classical “Symphony Hall” each evening from 8 to 10 PM. In the daytime, music was presented in 15-minute blocks, separated by no more than three commercial announcements. Station identifications began with harp glissandos and ended with the clanging of a cable car bell: “This is Cable, K-A-B-L, … in the air, everywhere — over the San Francisco Bay.” The objective was to downplay the station’s Oakland location, and this helped break the obstacle the East Bay stations had always encountered attracting listeners and advertisers from the West side of the Bay.
The new format was an instant success. KABL’s Hooper rating in June of 1959 was a 10.5 – a giant leap forward from KROW’s modest 2.0 the previous October. KABL had reached fourth place in the market after just a month on the air.
KABL’s studios remained at the corner of Broadway and 19th until August 1964, when its administrative and sales offices moved to 632 Commercial Street in San Francisco. Its programs all originated from a small combo studio at the Bay Bridge transmitter site. It was a lean and mean operation, but it rode continually near the top of audience surveys for two decades.
In 1963, McLendon acquired KAFE-FM in San Francisco for $125,000. It became KABL-FM, operating on 98.1 MHz with 100 kW.
The radio industry began to change towards the end of the 20th Century as the FCC gradually relaxed broadcast ownership restrictions. Individual station owners were being replaced by large corporations building portfolios of many stations around the country. For its part, KABL found itself being passed from one corporate hand to another as the ever-larger station groups swallowed each other up. In 1972, Gordon McLendon sold KABL AM/FM to William F. Buckley Jr.’s Starr Broadcasting Group for $10.8 million. In 1978, the Starr group was acquired and merged into Roy Disney’s Shamrock Broadcasting Company, Inc.; in 1995, Shamrock was in turn acquired by Chancellor Media Corporation. Then in 1999, Chancellor was acquired by Clear Channel Communications, Inc. – a behemoth investor corporation that owned 830 radio stations and 19 television channels. (Clear Channel later changed its name to iHeart Media, Inc.)
Beginning in 1997, KABL shifted its music focus from Beautiful Music to adult standards and big band. In 2004, the KABL call letters and format were abandoned, and the station became KQKE “960 The Quake”, offering a progressive talk format affiliated with the “Air America” network. In 2007 it was again re-branded as KKGN “Green 960”, featuring programs focused on environmental issues. Finally, in 2012, it became KNEW with a mix of progressive and conservative talk hosts. (Note that the KNEW call letters had previously been used Oakland’s 910 frequency – the old KLX and KEWB – in the 1970’s.) In 2014, Rush Limbaugh’s conservative syndicated program moved to KNEW for a short time, and the station’s focus shifted entirely to conservative talk programs, known as “960 The Patriot”. But this lasted only a few months, and KNEW became a Bloomberg Network business talk affiliated station in September, 2014. KNEW continues to be operated today by iHeart Media, Inc.