Tom Donahue

San Francisco

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.

Tom Donahue, immortalized in 1968 by the revered rock photographer Jim Marshall.

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.

KMPX FM 107 Poster (1968)
A KMPX FM 107 poster from 1968

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

On The Air Sign (Image)

Tom Donahue on KMPX 107 (May 5, 1967)




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Michael Hart
Michael Hart
7 April 2019 7:15 AM

I would listen to Tom at KSAN while going to Career Academy School of Broadcasting in Fox Plaza downtown San Francisco. Weekends were at Golden Gate Park free concerts

Andrew Goreff
Andrew Goreff
12 April 2019 4:18 PM


Stephen Jeffries
Stephen Jeffries
7 April 2021 12:21 PM

I can remember listening to Tom on KSAN on Saturday night. Tom at one point said that he broadcasts for the guy who is working on his car in the garage. And another point about Tom and KSAN, I would drive up to the mountains skiing and come back Saturday evening. About Davis I could pick up KSAN on my radio and listen to Tom all the way to SF. It was a joy.

Alan Williams
Alan Williams
7 April 2021 3:41 PM

These were great times in San Francisco. Bob McClay lived around the corner from me when I was a kid. I was so lucky to grow up in The City during these times.

David Mahler
7 April 2021 7:40 PM

I used to sit by an open window at night at my parent’s house in Lafayette in the East Bay pointing the radio antenna on my transistor toward San Francisco trying to pick up KMPX. It would come in erratically, but it changed my life, even in that short time.

9 April 2021 6:01 PM

The announcer’s advertisements were interesting, too. I remember ads for Magnolia Thunderpussy, an ice cream delivery service in San Francisco.

James Reynolds
Reply to  alex
24 January 2022 3:41 PM

Oh yeah! I lived in the “Haight” before, during and a little after “Big Daddy”…regularly would go down to Green St., climb the stairs up to the studios, with a selection of music from my San Francisco “Sound” psychedelic, etc., bands…offering them to Gus Gossart the late-night dj on KMPX…having grown used to tripping in the back room The Psychedelic Shop record store on Haight Street, the restive serenity of KMPX studios was a sanctuary of sorts. I met Gus when he was dj’n in Honolulu, Hawai’i…I think I was the first to bring Jimmy Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” 45-singe to the state…Gus was spinning in a studio with a big plate glass window obviously visible from the parking lot just outside…which wa s usually somewhat full of cars with folks listening to his music on their radio speakers, and a couple on the studio’s outside wall. First time Gus played “Purple Haze” lights started flashing in his head…soon after Gus put together the 1st Hawai’i Pop Rock Festival at the Waikiki Shell…I put up the up-front $ to get the bands out&back from San Francisco…then Gus’s co-producer took the box office from both nights and split…to Algeria I later was told, Anyway, Gus and I had a great time on lots of levels and at many places there on Oahu, and Maui…then again in San Francisco…”ah the stories we could tell” (Jimmy Buffett)

Don Baraka
Don Baraka
Reply to  James Reynolds
15 April 2024 11:44 AM

I was playing sax with Jimmy Soul and the Soulmakers, Honolulu 1964-65, won the KORL “Battle of the Bands” twice 😎 Also sat in with Dick Jensen at Da Swamp. Army/AF guys brought soul records back from leave, we’d take them to DJs at KUMU, played them at the Alii Room – also played music there with the Uptites. Good days – bringing soul music to Hawai’i…

Robert Skaggs
Robert Skaggs
13 August 2022 1:05 AM

I’m old enough to remember Tom Donahue on 1260 KYA AM… We lived close to San Pablo Bay where the signal was strong and static free…
A short time after I moved there this local kid asked me what station I listened to… I told him “I listen to KYA”… He responded, “we can’t have that in this neighborhood, we listen to KEWB”… 😛

Barb Whitley
Barb Whitley
7 April 2023 10:48 AM

Thanks for sharing the story after KYA…. Love it!!!! Enjoying the music.. great memories of Cow Palace shows and Peter, Paul, and Mary…. We had fun times, my edgy friend!

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