KMPX FM 107
Friday, May 5, 1967
At 8 p.m. on Friday, April 7, 1967, Tom Donahue cracked open the microphone in the KMPX studio at 50 Green Street in San Francisco, firing a figurative shot that would echo across the radio landscape forever.
Having left Top 40 KYA a year earlier, Donahue had spent the months in between searching for something different, something better. No longer interested in fitting into the tightly-formatted world of Top 40 — which was being rubber-stamped across the country with the assistance of Bill Drake, who had worked with Donahue five years earlier at KYA — the gargantuan “Big Daddy” had taken to playing his favorite songs from rock albums for friends visiting his North Beach apartment, often playing cuts buried deep in those LPs, which had rendered them largely invisible to the radio programmers who sought out only the hits.
Donahue (born Thomas Coman) had even gone so far as to call on his former employers at KYA, seeking an opportunity to try this new, seat-of-your-pants style of choosing what to play, but was initially turned down. He was, however, offered jobs at the Bay Area’s two dominant soul stations, KSOL/1450 and KDIA/1310, but chose to decline them rather than take a job from a deserving black announcer.
Taking a friend’s advice to look at stations on the FM dial, Donahue sat at home one evening, tuning in the scattered stations occupying the band. Coming across one that seemed promising, KMPX, he looked up the station in the Yellow Pages and dialed its number, only to find that its phones had been disconnected. Rather than being discouraged, Donahue found that it made KMPX even more attractive to him.
KMPX had begun life a decade earlier as Jazz-formatted KPUP under the ownership of Franklin Mieuli. Mieuli, who had produced sports broadcasts for KSFO in the 1950s, bought the Philadelphia Warriors of the National Basketball Association in 1962, moved them to San Francisco, and — in order to help finance the deal — sold the station, which by this time was known as KHIP, to Leon Crosby. Crosby, who also owned KFMR in Fremont and would later own KEMO-TV (Channel 20), changed KHIP’s call letters to KMPX.
Operated by Crosby on a shoestring budget, KMPX struggled with several formats, including middle of the road music, before settling on offering blocks of time for sale to various foreign-language programmers. The station broadcast several hours of programs in Chinese, Portuguese, Italian and other languages throughout the day, as well as playing music in the blocks of time that weren’t sold.
Into this sorry state of affairs walked a young folk guitarist and disc jockey named Larry Miller in February 1967. Miller had arrived in San Francisco several months earlier, looking for work in either the local clubs or at a radio station. He met with Leon Crosby and was offered the vacant overnight shift at KMPX for $45 a week. He accepted, and went on the air with a self-selected mix of folk and rock records.
A month later, Donahue made a similar pilgrimage to see Leon Crosby, albeit with a more elaborate plan and, by several accounts, without prior knowledge that Miller was already doing an all-night program with a similar theme.
Crosby agreed to Donahue’s expanded plan to program KMPX, at first hosting his own program from 8 p.m. to midnight each evening, then adding other announcers of Donahue’s choosing as other blocks of time became available. (At the time of this broadcast, as noted in the recording, Bob Postle worked the 6 to 10:30 a.m. shift, with Bob McClay on from 1 to 4 p.m. and Larry Miller continuing his overnight slot.)
This frail, tinny stereo recording captures Donahue at KMPX in the dawn of creating his ideal radio station for those times: a variety of music — rock, folk, Indian ragas, pop, soul — played by a disc jockey/programmer who selected the songs not by corporate edict, but by individual instinct.
Donahue’s relaxed, conversational announcing style, however, is not far distant from the technique he crafted in his earlier stops at WIBG in Philadelphia and across town at KYA; in fact, some of the music heard here — specifically, selections by Simon & Garfunkel, Ike & Tina Turner and the Spencer Davis Group — owe more to the contemporary Top 40 scene rather than the “acid rock” or “underground radio” format that this genre would veer toward.
In March 1968, a year after he first contacted Leon Crosby with his programming plan, Donahue walked away from KMPX. Having taken on additional responsibilities as programming consultant and announcer at co-owned KPPC in Pasadena — which reportedly led to missed shifts at KMPX — Donahue was told by Crosby to choose one job or the other. Instead, Tom decided to walk out.
On March 18, 1968, the rest of the announcing and engineering staff went out on strike in sympathy with Donahue. Unwilling to give up almost total control of his station to people that he felt did not have his best interests at heart, Crosby hired replacement workers. (See Historical Timeline: 106.9 FM In San Francisco for additional detail.)
On Tuesday, May 21, 1968, a little more than eight weeks after the strike began, members of the former KMPX staff, including Donahue, began moving over to KSAN (94.9 FM), beginning the transformation of that station into the hallowed institution known as “The Jive 95.”
— Text by David Ferrell Jackson
Tom Donahue on KMPX 107 (May 5, 1967)