Johnny Holliday:
From Jock To Rock


Sylvester Stewart, a/k/a Sly Stone of KSOL
Sylvester Stewart, a/k/a Sly Stone of KSOL

One of the most talented jocks in the city was Sylvester Stewart, also known as “Sly Stone,” working at KSOL (K-Soul”) a 1000 watts day/250 watts night station. KSOL programmed to the city’s black audience. I’d listen to Sly with guests like Billy Preston who’d drop by and jam with him on the air. Sly had a great set of pipes and a soothing radio style. It was Sly’s idea to add tunes by the Beatles and Bob Dylan to the KSOL playlist.

After I became friendly with him, we cooked up an idea to put a television show together. Sly would be the “black guy” and I’d be the “white guy,” and we’d call our show “Salt and Pepper.”

We met at the Mark Hopkins coffee shop one afternoon to brainstorm the plan. Sly was in his flamboyant hippie clothes and we were both aware of the heads turning as we entered the hotel shop. We got a kick out of guessing what other people might have thought we were doing together.

“Salt and Pepper” would be a variety show with audience participation and guest musicians from the Bay Area. I think Sly was looking to create a show that would be equally popular with black and white audiences. The show never got off the ground, but we had fun dreaming it up.

Sly was a compelling DJ and a really good guy. Although he later got involved with drugs, he was pretty sharp when I knew him. Sly produced Bobby Freeman’s hit “C’mon and Swim” and later songs by local bands, the Beau Brummels and the Mojo Men. By February of 1967, he was performing locally with his own group, The Family Stone. A benefit show at Bill Graham’s Fillmore for the Council for Civic Unity was one of their first gigs, but it took only a year before “Dance to the Music” was a Top 10 single in the USA. By 1969, Sly and the Family Stone was world famous.

Bill Gavin, Radio God
Bill Gavin, Radio God

Every year, Bill Gavin would name his Radiomen of the Year awards. I had been an honorable mention since 1962 against folks like B. Mitchel Reed, Dan Ingram, Joe Niagara, and The Real Don Steele. I was absolutely blown away when Gavin named me as America’s Number One Top 40 DJ in 1965. In no way did I think I was in the same league as my competitors for that honor.

Sometimes I’ve joked, “What a coincidence! Both Gavin and I lived in San Francisco, and Bill’s daughters babysat for my young girls.” However, Gavin’s credentials and integrity were impeccable and he played no favorites. Nobody could convince or sway him to do anything that he didn’t want to do. Clare’s reaction to my winning this award was sort of “Big deal; when is your next basketball game?”

During my four years at KYA, we experienced a fundamental, historic change in radio programming. I had started in Top 40 AM personality radio, and next came “flower power” music, the underground movement of the newly emerging FM format, pioneered by Tom Donahue at station KMPX. (Donahue had worked at Washington D.C.’s WINX in the very early ’60s.)

San Francisco quickly became the heart of the new hippie music movement in America. Local promoter Bill Graham took over managing the Carousel Ballroom, renaming it the Fillmore West. Neighborhood bands like Sopwith Camel, Blue Cheer, Moby Grape, Jook Savages, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Warlocks played their mix of pop and blues, there and throughout the city. The Warlocks changed their name to The Grateful Dead and slowly began to build a devout following.

As the FM format began to attract listeners, KYA tried to adapt. Our new format became less structured. We had more freedom to try new things. The spirit was to talk more and express our personalities. The regimentation that I had experienced in Cleveland and New York eventually evaporated at KYA.

Billboard Magazine profiled my own changing approach to radio programming on July 29, 1967:

Billboard Magazine_Logo

KYA Plays List Flexible Way

San Francisco — There has long been friction between two schools of thought in programming a rock and roll station — on one side the program director with a playlist of records shorter than a miniskirt, on the other the program director who stretches his playlist like last summer’s fishing story. Johnny Holliday is one of those program directors who can’t resist playing a good record. The playlist of (San Francisco’s) KYA expands as the occasion demands…

Holliday believes there are other ways you can knock off a tight playlist station. ‘It’s a wonder stations don’t get wise in the ways you can knock off a screaming tight playlist operation. This can be done through creative radio. I think the day of the screamer is gone. You have to be more creative as a personality today… you have to relate to the audience; deejays cannot merely play the music, saying the same things…”

KYA has been able to air 10 to 12 records exclusively and Holliday feels it lends excitement to Hot 100 format radio by playing potential hits first. On this, he’ll listen to the advice of his deejays; it was Tony Bigg who discovered “Oogum Boogum” and brought it to Holliday’s attention.

Does anyone remember “Oogum Boogum“?

Our AM station had a 24-hour open-door policy for the local musicians in an effort to compete with the new FM format of our competitor, KMPX. I came to expect musicians like the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Beau Brummels, and other up-and-coming groups joining us in the studio, or to see members of the Grateful Dead fan club hanging out in the lobby.

The 1260 KYA Air Team (1966 Photo)
The 1260 KYA air team, as seen in the Summer of 1966.

Another big change for me came in ’67 when Churchill sold KYA to AVCO Broadcasting. Personnel changes would soon follow. Tony Bigg joined the on-air staff, doing nights. Tony later changed his name to Tony Pigg and is now Regis Philbin’s TV announcer.

Ed Hider came on board from New York. Mike Cleary (who recently retired with a brilliant radio career resume as one of the top morning men), Tom Campbell, Gary Schaefer, and Chris Edwards rounded out the new team. It was almost a complete personnel change. Gene “The Emperor” Nelson, and yours truly, the “Baron of the Bay,” were the only talent they kept after the ownership change.

Our new KYA general manager, Howard Kester, was noticeably different from the other radio staff. Many of us at the time wondered what Kester had done — what his background had been — to earn this plum job at KYA. Some of us still wonder. He had to have done something good to become the new KYA boss. After KYA, he went on to be the executive director of the Northern California Broadcasters Association. He passed away in 1989.

Click here to purchase your autographed copy of "From Rock To Jock" by Johnny Holliday and Stephen Moore
Click here to purchase your autographed copy of “From Rock To Jock” by Johnny Holliday and Stephen Moore

Kester was an immaculate dresser, but he had two annoying features: a constant blink and a nose sniffle. He’d say, “Hi, Johnny,” followed by a blink and a sniff. I’d look at this guy and want to laugh.

Kester added “Program Director” to my duties. Immediately, I disliked the pressure of being the KYA PD. I tried to refuse the job, but he was a big imposing figure and the boss.

When I moved to mornings, Kester would often call first thing at 6:05 a.m.

“KYA,” I’d answer.

“Who is this?”

“It’s Johnny Holliday.”

“Yes, Johnny, this is Howard (sniff). I’d like to talk with you when I come in this morning. I have a few ideas.”

“Sure, Howard, no problem.”

Then I’d get another call at 6:20.

Howard would ask, “Who is this?”

“It’s still me. It’s Johnny Holliday.”

These repeated calls would go on until my shift ended. Kester would usually have an urgent need to read me something he’d written, or share a contest idea. His mind was always running — just like his nose.


Copyright © 2002 by Johnny Holliday and Stephen Moore. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with the permission of the authors.

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