On Saturday, June 21, 1947, at 8 p.m., United Broadcasting's KEEN Radio made its inaugural broadcast with 1,000 watts at 1370 kilocycles from San Jose. The grand opening broadcast originated from the Hotel De Anza on West Santa Clara Street in downtown San Jose. (KEEN's transmitter was located in an orchard on the Old Oakland Highway near Wayne Avenue, near the Milpitas town limits.)
The gala broadcast featured Red Skelton — a popular radio star who would later become a favorite on TV — and was followed by a reception for local luminaries and the station staff at the De Anza.
KEEN and United Broadcasting received its primary financial backing from George Mardikian, an Armenian freedom fighter who escaped from a Turkish prison and came to the United States in 1922. With limited knowledge of the English language, he made his way from New York to San Francisco to join his brother and sister. His first job in America was washing dishes in a cafeteria; from there, he took a job as a steward on an ocean liner and began learning the skills necessary to become a chef.
Upon his return to California, in 1932 he opened his first restaurant, Omar Khayyam's, in Fresno, which led to two more restaurants of the same name — the famous of which was located in San Francisco — and a chain of sandwich shops. From 1942 to 1954, Mr. Mardikian served as a food consultant to the United States Army. He also founded the American National Committee to Aid Homeless Armenians and worked with the Boy Scouts for more than sixty years. A naturalized citizen of the United States, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award an American can receive, for his service to the nation.
Mr. Mardikian became involved in radio through his "Dinner At Omar Khayyam's" broadcasts on San Francisco's primary NBC station, KPO, which led to a friendship with station executives George D. Snell, Jr., and B. Floyd Farr. The trio began discussing the ownership of their own radio station, and subsequently applied to the FCC for the available 1370 kc. frequency in San Jose, which they received authorization for in October 1946.
Along with Mr. Mardikian, Mr. Snell originally owned a 32% stake in United Broadcasting and served as KEEN's first program director, while Mr. Farr held a 22% share and was its original general manager. Samuel A. Melnicoe (10%) and Alfred Aram (4%) held minority stakes in the company.
While KEEN soon became best known for its country and western music programming — with such notable personalities as Cottonseed Clark, Cactus Jack, Red Murrell, Black Jack Wayne, Cal Shrum and Foy Willing hosting shows on its airwaves — George Mardikian continued to host his own program, "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," at noon each Sunday on the station into the early 1950s.
PHOTOGRAPH: Courtesy of Keith B. Farr.