The History Of
KPO, San Francisco
By John F. Schneider
KPO was a radio station that started small but was destined to become a
giant. It all began in 1921, when Joe Martineau completed his tour of
duty with the Navy and came back to San Francisco. He had done a lot
of radio work in the Navy, and wanted to continue with it. He visited
the Hale Brothers — Francis, Marshall and Reuben — owners of Hale
Brothers Department Store, one of San Francisco's largest. He proposed
to them that they install an experimental broadcast transmitter in the
store and allow him to operate it. They agreed, and KPO was built at
a cost of just $2,400. It made its debut at 9 AM on April 17, 1922.
KPO's programming then was explained in later years by Reuben Hale:
KPO was started on a shoestring. It was a small station, but
with high ideals. No programs were permitted except that
they were high class, and we were quite sure they would not
offend the sensibilities of a mother with children in the home.
Commercials were not allowed...
KPO was on the air just one hour daily during its first year, sharing with other
San Francisco stations the single broadcast frequency of 360 meters
(833 kc.) Programs were usually from recordings, and consisted mainly of classical
music or opera. Frequent live concerts featured local singers and pianists.
In addition, when it could be arranged, national stars were heard. For
example, Southern Pacific put up $2,500 to bring opera star Reinald
Werrenrath from New York to San Francisco to sing over the Hale station.
KPO during these years was largely a one-room, one-man operation. The
studio was on the sixth floor of the Hale Brothers store, and it contained
a piano and a phonograph, as well as the fifty-watt home-brew transmitter
and associated equipment.
Soon after KPO first went on the air, the Hales recognized the value of
radio as a publicity agent for the store, and they determined to make it
the best station in the area. Thus, KPO was "reborn" January 16, 1923,
and came on the air this time as a Class "B," 500-watt station. The
Class "B" license was a step above the former Class "A" license, and it
required all programs to originate live from the studio, so the Hales
threw out their phonograph and began building a larger studio.
$60,000 was spent on refurbishing the station, quite an elaborate radio
investment in 1923. The Western Electric 500-watt transmitter was mounted
with its associated amplifiers and other equipment in what had been the
original KPO studio, and a small room next door was converted to house the
generators. A new and larger studio was constructed adjacent to these rooms,
and a pipe organ was installed. Two 125-foot steel towers were erected on
the roof of the building, and a four-wire T-type antenna was strung between
them. The new super-powered KPO was on the air.
Joe Martineau became "Director" of the station, and a staff of several people
was hired, including announcer Claire Morrison. The schedule was expanded
to include several hours every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday night.
KPO completed its remote hook-up to the Fairmont Hotel in May of 1923, and
inaugurated it with an address by Secretary of War Weeks on May 25. Regular
music programming from the Fairmont Hotel began two days later.
In May of 1923, the Department of Commerce broke up the logjam on 360 meters,
and most stations were assigned to their own frequencies. KPO, as a Class "B"
station, was given the preferred frequency of 710 kc. (The following year, KPO
was moved to 700, and then back to 710 in 1926. Finally, in 1927, KPO moved
to its permanent home of 680 kc.)
President Harding visited San Francisco in July of 1923, and KPO set up its
equipment to pick up Harding's July 31st speech. A nation-wide hook-up was
set up to send the speech eastward to five other stations, in what was to have
been the first ever coast-to-coast broadcast. However,
the broadcast never went on the air. Harding became ill while in San
Francisco, and was taken to the Palace Hotel to rest. He died there August 2.
By the end of 1923, it was becoming obvious to the Hales that radio was
more than a passing fad, and that it was proving to be an excellent public
relations effort for their retailing organization. The Hales reaffirmed
their commitment to make KPO a top-notch station.
With the help of the KPO engineering staff, remote broadcast equipment
similar to that already set up at the Fairmont Hotel was installed at
several other points in the city, and many of KPO's nightly programs
originated from outside the studios. In October of 1923, a remote station
was installed in the Palace Hotel, where the music of Cy Trobbe's Orchestra
originated. Trobbe later became KPO's Music Director. And, in March,
1925, additional remote facilities were set up at the States' Restaurant,
Loew's Warfield Theater and the Cabiria Cafe. In addition, KPO operated
a remote truck, which could be set up anywhere for remote broadcasts.
Mrs. Jean Campbell Crowe became Program Director in 1925. She was an
accomplished pianist, and, along with violinist Trobbe and George Von Hagel
on cello, she established the first KPO studio orchestra -- a trio. Trobbe,
who at 75 was still very active in San Francisco music, remembered the KPO
"We were just brought up there as extras, to fill in the time
between programs ... we'd get ten dollars a show, and play about
fifteen minutes. The policy of KPO was 'NO RECORDINGS' -- everything
had to be live. So, we were kept pretty busy after a while."
Regular programs were also supplied by Max Bradfield and his Versatile Band
and Rudy Seiger's Orchestra, both originating from the Fairmont. After KPO
broadcast the dedication ceremonies of the California Palace of the Legion
of Honor on January 11, 1925, this became yet another regular remote broadcast
location, and Marshall W. Giselman broadcast organ recitals every Sunday
KPO JOINS WITH THE CHRONICLE
Perhaps the biggest day of all for early KPO was March 4, 1925. On this
date, it was announced that the "San Francisco Chronicle," whose new building
was just around the corner from Hales, would join with the store in the
operation of KPO. On that date, the station began announcing what was
to become a trademark: "This is KPO -- Hale Brothers and the Chronicle."
Also on that date, KPO became a part of the first coast-to-coast network
broadcast: the inauguration of President Calvin Coolidge. KPO was the
westernmost link of a transcontinental telephone line connected to 27
other stations across the nation. The broadcast had been arranged by RCA,
a company that would be going into the network business on a full-time basis
just eight months later, forming the National Broadcasting Company.
Beginning in August, the station began calling itself "The Greater KPO,"
for it was now broadcasting with 1,000 watts from remodeled and enlarged
studios. This new operations center reflected what was then the ultimate
in radio facilities. The station now had ten rooms on the sixth floor of
Hales, which included two studios, a control room, transmitter room,
generator room, offices and a reception area. The main studio was large
enough to hold a 90-piece orchestra, and also held the KPO studio organ.
A second, smaller studio was built primarily for ensemble groups. Each
studio had a special "announcer's post" in the corner. This was a desk
where the announcer would sit in front of his microphone and control all
studio mikes from a panel in front of him. This was unique to KPO at the
time, but would later be utilized by the networks.
Another broadcasting landmark was set by KPO in November of 1925, when it
became the world's first station to transmit a picture by facsimile. It
was a picture of comic strip character Andy Gump, and it was signed by
Chronicle publisher George T. Cameron, along with the words "Radio's latest
wonder -- pictures through the air. What new marvels will this science
bring forth?" Although it never materialized, it was thought for many
years that radio facsimile would someday be utilized to transmit newspapers
directly to the homes of their subscribers.
KPO became part of a two-station network in January, 1926, when it was
connected with KFI in Los Angeles. Regular programs were exchanged
frequently. Four more stations were added to the network the following
year as the Western Division of the National Broadcasting Company was
formed. Programs being heard in the East Coast over the NBC Red and Blue
Networks were recreated by the NBC staff in San Francisco and heard over
the NBC "Orange Network." (See separate document on the early West Coast
EARLY KPO PERSONALITIES:
By this time, KPO's programs were beginning to take on the polished
"produced" sound radio would acquire in later years. KPO was the home of
many local personalities that later went on to become big names across the
nation in the thirties. One such person was Hugh Barrett Dobbs (photo, right), known as "Dobbsie." Dobbsie had arrived in California from Annapolis in 1924, and
worked as an athletic instructor in Oakland. The following year, he began
a physical fitness program on KPO.
His air personality soon earned him a
better position, however, and the "Ship of Joy" program was born. Dobbs
had a way with words, and his voice fairly dripped with sincerity, whether
or not it was genuine. This ability qualified him as a top-notch radio
salesman, when commercials first started to be heard, and his program soon
became the "Shell Ship of Joy," after sponsor Shell Oil Company. Dobbsie
became one of the area's top radio entertainers, and he was certainly one
of the few radio personalities of his time to be earning $80,000 annually.
Dobbsie's hollow sincerity served to get him into a few tight spots. Early
one morning, after a particularly fervent campaign he had started against
reckless driving, he was arrested for speeding. He spent the rest of that
night in a Marin County jail, rather than pay the fine and admit his guilt.
There were other KPO personalities well-known to the local radio audience:
Jolly Bennie Walker and his "Women's Magazine of the Air" began on KPO and
later moved to NBC. And, there was the well-known "Big Brother," host of
a popular KPO children's program. Lyle R. Tucker (photo, right) was the original Big
Brother, whose program began in 1925.
The Big Brother program was the typical children's program
of the era, and consisted of what the Chronicle described as "stories,
educational chats and answers to the questions of his little listeners."
Children were encouraged to write to Big Brother, and he would print their
letters in his daily column in the Chronicle, as well as answer their
questions over the air. All children who wrote in were sent a red, white
and blue Big Brother button, and automatically became members of the "Big
Brother Club." Tucker's philosophy in dealing with the children was
similar to the approach of later successful children's programs: "I like
to give the girls and boys what they like -- funny stories, their own letters,
and a good story which will have a little educational value hidden among
the fun so that they won't suspect they are being 'preached at'."
Tucker left KPO two years later to start a similar program at KTAB in
Oakland. His replacement was Jack Keough (photo, right), who would be a fixture on
San Francisco radio for many years. It was while Jack was doing this
program that a famous slip was supposedly made that gained him
notoriety for years to come. According to the story, after finishing
a particularly well-done program, he shut off the mike and told a
fellow employee, "Well, I guess that'll hold the little bastards!"
But, he had thrown the wrong switch, and the comment had gone out over
Whether Keough actually made the famous blunder was never fully resolved.
Bill Andrews, who was a close friend of Keough's and a fellow announcer
at NBC, said that Keough told him the whole incident was just a back-
fence rumor, started by a person who had heard him make the comment in
the studio. However, Carl Christiensen, then a KPO engineer, had claimed
to be the engineer on the air at the time. He said it did go on the air,
although faint in volume and covered up by music. Regardless of its
authenticity, the story followed Keough like a ghost for the rest of his
Keough was also KPO's sports announcer, well-known throughout the city
for his colorful play-by-play reporting. He was also responsible for Don
Thompson's start in sportscasting, as KYA's sports announcer Ernie Smith
... (Keough's) misfortune was to fail to show up in 1928 for
a Shrine East-West football broadcast, because New Year's Day
was too soon after New Year's Eve. Don Thompson, who was to
have been his spotter, was pressed into service by a frantic
oil advertising executive, Hal Deal — and gave a great
performance. Don's long career is, I hear, in its 42nd year
as a producer for NBC in Hollywood.
Ernie Smith (photo, right) also had a long and successful
career, as a sports announcer for the San Francisco Seals baseball team. He
was San Francisco's third baseball announcer, following Claire Morrison and
Jack Keough. He wrote of his beginnings as a baseball announcer:
Facilities for reportorial broadasting were naturally primitive. The Stanford booth was
scarcely large enough for my spotter Mel Venter and me. I broadcast the first
baseball game on the Pacific Coast from a make-shift aerie perched in the
rafters of Kezar Pavilion, when Stanford and California played their first off-campus
series as a dedication of that pavilion. Once I broadcast a Stanford-California
game from a telephone booth on top of the Memorial Stadium press box.
During the late twenties, Cy Trobbe was a popular musical figure at KPO.
He conducted the studio orchestra and was the host of several popular
music programs. One such program was the "REO Masters of Music," sponsored
by the REO automobile. On this hour-long program, aired five nights a week,
Trobbe promised to fulfill any song requests received in the mail. Another
feature was "Cy Trobbe's Scrapbook." Years later, Trobbe recalled the
purpose of this program:
I had enormous scrapbooks of anecdotes of musicians, composers, and
all sorts of things, and I would read portions from these about such
people as Beethoven or Mozart. Then we'd play some appropriate
music to follow it. One time, I became very dramatic and I turned
around to the mike and said, "Would you like to hear of the last
hour of Chopin?" Some joker in the orchestra yelled "No!" After
that, I was finished — I broke up with laughter and couldn't go
In 1929, work was begun on KPO's third and biggest expansion project: the
increase to 5,000 watts. A new Western Electric transmitter was purchased,
and the studio complex was again enlarged, this time to the point of using
up all the existing floor space on the sixth floor. For this reason, the
transmitter was installed in the new nine-story Hale Brothers annex
building located across the alley.
The old radio towers atop the store
were dismantled, and two new ones constructed — one on top of the store,
and another atop the annex building. The larger towers raised the antenna
an additional fifty feet above the street level, and situated it at a right
angle to old antenna, which was oriented it for better coverage up and
down the coast.
A new Studio "B" was constructed, larger than its
predecessor, and directly adjacent to the main control room. The old
Studio "B" had been on the opposite end of the building, and this new
location would enable both large and small studios to be operated from one control room.
A new innovation just developed by the Western Electric
laboratories, known as a master control panel, was installed in the KPO
control room. This enabled the volumes of all studio microphones to
be controlled separately and mixed together. This piece of equipment has
since become the heart of any radio studio.
KPO continued to hold its reputation as one of the West Coast's most
important stations through 1932. At that time, the station was leased to
NBC, who later purchased it outright. The existing KPO operation was
absorbed into the vast NBC-San Francisco complex, and the great station
that was KPO became only a local relay for NBC programs, with few local
shows and no staff of its own. It was to continue in this fashion
throughout the thirties.
In 1933, KPO became the first station on the west coast outside of
Los Angeles to increase its power to 50,000 watts. NBC constructed an elaborate
transmitting complex on the salt flats of San Francisco Bay
near Belmont. A spacious concrete transmitter building was constructed,
and a huge General Electric transmitter was installed. The transmitter
consisted of fifteen cabinets that were arranged in a U-formation around
the main control desk. A spray pond was located outside the transmitter
building, where the water used to cool the giant transmitter's tubes was
cooled. The antenna consisted of two large self-supporting radio towers,
with a single-wire T-type antenna suspended between the towers.
NBC changed the call letters of KPO to KNBC
on November 23, 1947. In 1949 a new
550-foot tower was constructed, replacing the longwire T-type antenna
that had been in use at the Belmont transmitter site since 1933. The new
antenna was of a unique design, similar to one recently constructed for
WNBC in New York. The improved system was designed to reduce fading
in many locations during evening reception, and resulted in better overall
signal performance. John Elwood, General Manager of KNBC, announced
the new tower had increased the station's prime coverage area by roughly
10,000 square miles.
In the 1950s, KNBC featured a mix of network programs and local record
programs hosted by disk jockeys, including the popular Doug Pledger. This
continued as the station's basic program offering into the 1970s and
beyond, with popular later hosts such as Frank Dill and Carter B. Smith.
In the early 1960s, NBC wanted to move the KNBC call letters to its Los Angeles
TV station KRCA, to commemorate their move from the Hollywood
Radio City building to new studios in Burbank. As a result, the call letters of its
San Francisco radio station were changed once again, this time from KNBC to KNBR.
KNBR made a short attempt at rock music programming in 1966. That was the
year that a nationally-recognized programming expert studied the station
and the San Francisco radio market. He declared that KNBR's sure-fire
road to success would be Top 40 radio. NBC tried it for only six months,
before discarding it as an utter failure.
KNBC operated from the NBC Radio City building at Taylor and O'Farrell
Streets, virtually the only broadcast activity that took place at NBC's
huge radio palace in the fifties and sixties. In 1967, KNBR was moved
to studios in the Fox Plaza building.
In May of 1989, in the breakup of the NBC-owned radio stations, KNBR
was sold to the Susquehanna Broadcasting Co.
© 1997 John F. Schneider. All rights reserved.
"Scoop," published by the Press Club of San Francisco, 1970.
"San Francisco Examiner," January 14, 1923.
"Commercial Broadcasting Pioneer: The WEAF Experiment, 1922-26." by William
"The Loudspeaker," KPO publicity newsletter, January 23, 1926.
Interview between author and Cyrus Trobbe, former KPO Music Director. San
Francisco, California, September 30, 1970.
"San Francisco Chronicle," January 16, 1925.
"San Francisco Chronicle," March 4, 1925.
"San Francisco Chronicle," August 3, 1925.
"Oakland Tribune," March 12, 1944.
Interview between author and Bill Andrews, former NBC announcer. San Francisco, California, October 13, 1970.
"First Quarter Century of American Broadcasting," by E. P. J. Schurick.
"A Tower in Babel," by Eric Barnouw.
The Federal Radio Commission station list, as authorized on 11/11/28.
From research by Barry Mishkind, 1993-94.