KROW Becomes KABL
Monday, May 11, 1959
The recording that accompanies this exhibit is truly the stuff of legend. Taped by James Zahn over the weekend of May 9-10, 1959, it captures a fabled moment in Bay Area broadcasting history, and one of the greatest curveballs ever thrown.
Basically, what happens is the transition of Oakland’s KROW (960 AM) into a new radio station under the ownership of Gordon McLendon (photo, right), radio’s youthful “Old Scotchman” — he was only 37 years old in the Spring of 1959 — famed for founding the Liberty Broadcasting System and his recreations of major league baseball games.
In partnership with his father, B.R., McLendon had purchased KROW and was intending to convert it into another Top 40 station, mirroring most of the other stations in his stable. However, after months of research by Dallas-based McLendon and his right-hand man, Don Keyes, a different format was hatched.
Don Keyes picks up the story:
With my old trusty Zenith Transoceanic portable (which weighed a ton) we headed for the airport with packed bags. As the cab ride to the Fairmont ticked off the fare we both fell in love with this beautiful city by the bay. The whole area reeked with charm. Flower stalls on Union Square, the Tonga Maru snugging into the pier loaded with tea and teak from Thailand. The Oakland Bay Bridge leapfrogging across the bay. The tantalizing fragrance of Chinese cuisine in Chinatown. Coffee shops in North Beach. The absolutely breathtaking Cinemascope view from Twin Peaks. Gordon wanted a radio station in this city and I felt the same.
We repaired to our suite and got out the yellow pads. For two days we swept the Zenith dial back and forth making copious notes. And frankly, we were somewhat chagrined to find no fewer than five Top 40 formats alive and kicking. If memory serves me we were confronted with KFRC, KOBY, KEWB and of course, “Carefree and Gay KYA, the Voice of the Bay.”
Since our forte until this point was Top 40 programming, we concluded after some detailed monitoring that we could put a superior Top 40 station on the air, but then the question arose: would the general public notice the marginal difference and flock to 960 khz.? Sadly, our combined answer was “No.”
After a few vodkas to ease the pain of our decision, we went out to dinner at Ernie’s.
Next day at breakfast, feeling refreshed from a good rest, we started talking about a station back in Dallas owned by our friendly competitor, Lee Segall. It was a low-powered daytimer called KIXL. It was a Beautiful Music station, [a format] which later became known as Easy Listening. I don’t recall the Hooper rating numbers in those days, but KIXL was listened to in homes all through the affluent areas of Dallas.
Then that great fertile mind kicked into gear as Gordon mused, “Say, what if we took the basic KIXL format, gussied it up a little bit and added the promotions for which we’re known and just surprised the hell out of everybody? And while we’re at it, forget the KROW call sign and name it KABL after San Francisco’s quaint, colorful cable cars?”
And so it was. We flew back to Dallas and met with Lee Segall, who, with his charming wife, Dutch, couldn’t have been more gracious. During that evening visit in their home, Lee gave us the key to KIXL: The Music Format. It was absurdly simple and contained only two major points. One, the music must be familiar — in our case, familiar to Gordon — and two, it was formatted into quarter-hour segments that simply repeated every fifteen minutes. Not the songs themselves, but the arranging.
For example, Category One opened the segment, a rich, full instrumental such as The Boston Pops playing “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Category Two followed, which was a small instrumental group such as The Three Suns with “Tenderly.” Category Three was vocals like Robert Goulet singing “Some Enchanted Evening,” which segued into Category Four which Lee called “Tempo Break Up,” which may have been the Xavier Cugat Band with “Blame It On The Bossa Nova.” I started assembling the music as Gordon and his Dad negotiated with the seller. I also began hiring air staff consisting of old school, heavy-voiced announcers.
As was our practice in other markets we began playing a really objectionable record for three days straight. This particular record was “The Gila Monster” taken from one of Gordon’s home-made horror movies, “The Giant Gila Monster,” which has developed a cult following on obscure cable TV channels over the years.
After three days of this madness we broke with the new easy listening KABL format on the beginning of the fourth day. In three months we checked in as number one in the ratings, not because the format was that good, although it was. The fact remained that the biggest audience, Top 40, was splintered and splattered all over the dial. We were number one by default!
However, we didn’t remain number one, but throughout KABL’s history we were always in the top five or ten and the station with its appeal to affluent San Franciscans made tons of money.
As noted by Mr. Keyes in his narrative, the changeover from KROW to KABL was done with a helping hand from the goofy rockabilly-style theme from “The Giant Gila Monster,” a prototypical 1950s straight-to-drive-in movie produced by B.R. and Gordon McLendon. The song was incorporated into the so-called “stunting” with supposedly straight intros, such as “Here’s Frank Sinatra to sing his latest hit,” or “Now Teresa Brewer steps to the mike with this old favorite.” Each time, the listener was rewarded with yet another mind-numbing spin of “The Giant Gila Monster.”
Finally, after a full weekend of Gila Monster-drenched anticipation, it was time to unveil the new KABL. While Bay Area listeners and pundits sat waiting for McLendon to throw a major league Top 40 fastball, instead they got the Old Scotchman’s best off-speed pitch: beautiful music, with majestic interludes describing San Francisco in all its glory. An excellent description of the proceedings may be found in San Mateo Times radio and television columnist Bob Foster’s contemporaneous account, which can be found below on this page.
Listeners to the recording will note that it takes very little time for McLendon and company to begin their delicate dance around the legal station identification requirement, which didn’t exactly jibe with the new owner’s goal of rebranding Oakland’s KROW as San Francisco’s KABL. While legally licensed to Oakland (and legally required to identify itself as such), the station began the long-term practice of announcing itself as “This is Cable, K-A-B-L, Oakland, on your San Francisco dial — 960 … in the air, everywhere — in San Francisco.”
KROW Becomes KABL (Monday, May 11, 1959)
Special thanks to James Zahn for providing
the classic recording heard in this exhibit.