KSMO and Successor Stations
on 1550 kHz in San Francisco
By Fred Krock
CALL LETTER HISTORY
KSMO (1947-1952), KEAR (1952-1956), KOBY (1956-1960), KQBY (1960-1961),
KKHI (1961-1994), KPIX (1994-1997), KYCY (1997-)
FRED KROCK started listening to KSMO in 1950 when he moved to the Bay Area to attend college. His major was electrical engineering. He started working at KXKX-FM in 1953 as an announcer. He was promoted to KKHI chief engineer in 1966. He also announced the afternoon drive show and did the sound mixing for most of the live music broadcasts. Fred left KKHI after twenty-six years in 1979 when the engineering staff went on strike. After completing a special project for a local consulting engineering firm, he started with KQED-FM in 1980 as its engineering supervisor. Today, his voice appears in some of the strangest places as a result of his freelance voice-over work.
This is a history of radio stations operating on 1550 kHz in the San Francisco Bay Area. Over a period of fifty-one years, power levels have ranged from 1 kW up to a future 50 kW. Call signs in chronological order have been KSMO, KEAR, KOBY, KQBY, KKHI, KPIX-AM, and finally KYCY-AM. Program formats in order have been mostly classical music, Top 40, beautiful music, MOR, classical (again), news-talk, and finally country music. What is interesting about this story is how many other Bay Area radio stations were involved in one way or another with the station on 1550 kHz.
Our story begins in 1947. The Amphlett Printing Company built KSMO. City of license was San Mateo, a suburb of San Francisco. Amphlett owned a daily newspaper, The San Mateo Times.
The KSMO transmitter was built on four acres of land on the east side of Highway 101 in Belmont. The station used two transmitting towers. It was licensed for one kilowatt of power full time on 1550 kHz non-directional day and directional night (DA-N). Station equipment was bought in a package deal from Raytheon.
Program format was mostly classical music although KSMO did broadcast local San Mateo news and high school football games.
Studios were located on B Street in downtown San Mateo adjoining the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. They were less than soundproof. Listeners could tell if the SP Daylight train from Los Angeles was on time or not because it went past during a regularly scheduled newscast.
According to the best thought at that time, AM radio would be replaced by FM in a few years so the AM station was built as cheaply as possible. Amphlett obtained an FCC construction permit for a high power FM station located in the hills west of San Mateo (I seem to remember 50 kW ERP). This FM station never was built when it became obvious that FM was not about to become an overnight success.
Also in 1947, the Warner Brothers, owners of KWBR in Oakland, built an FM station on 97.3 MHz in San Francisco with call KWBR-FM. [The pioneering Warner Brothers of KWBR, Stafford and Eugene, were no relation to the Warner siblings of motion picture fame.] A three-kilowatt GE transmitter operated into a four-bay antenna about fifty feet above ground with an ERP of ten kilowatts. After the FCC decided that AM and FM stations licensed to different communities could not share a common call sign, KWBR-FM was changed to KGSF.
The KGSF studios and transmitter were located in San Francisco just off Portola Drive in an area which today is known as Diamond Heights. To satisfy zoning requirements the station building had to be built in the form of a dwelling. This was the only station building I’ve seen which was built with a living room, a kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a two car garage in addition to a studio, control room, and transmitter room. Late shift announcers sometimes used the bedrooms for extra-curricular activities, but that’s another story.
About 1949 or 1950 Warner Brothers gave up on operating an FM station so KGSF went dark. The license was returned to the FCC. The building was rented as a dwelling. FM stations were going off the air in large numbers. The transmitting equipment had little value so was left in place.
In 1952 the San Mateo Times needed a new color printing press. The radio station was only marginally profitable at best. It was sold to raise money to pay for the new press. I remember the price as $72,000.
The new owner was Stephen A. Cisler. He had owned stations in Louisville, Kentucky, and several other locations. He was an occasional dealer in used broadcast equipment. He changed the call letters from KSMO to KEAR. The station logo became a human ear. Program format remained mostly classical music. The high school football game broadcasts were a thing of the past.
The KSMO and KEAR broadcast day was divided into a number of fifteen-minute, thirty-minute, and one-hour programs. Each program had its own theme music played at beginning and end. An effort was made to sell program sponsorship rather than spot announcements.
Names of the programs described music played. Some typical show names were “World of Opera,” “Luncheon Concert,” Evening Concert,” “At the Ballet,” “Adventures in Folk Music,” and “Polka Party.” “Candlelight and Wine” was elevator music from a transcription service for the dinner hour. “Concert Grand” was a fifteen-minute program designed for sale to a piano store. “Telemusiquiz” gave theater tickets to the first listener to call with the correct answer to a musical question. Other programs played music from operettas, from Broadway musicals, and from movies. As you can see from the program names, KEAR played more than just classical music.
Listeners loved the theme music played for each program. They would write to say how much they looked forward to hearing the theme music ushering in their favorite programs. As far as I could tell, no listeners ever realized that the real purpose of the theme music was to separate spots. With classical music broadcasting, a single piece of music often lasts around forty minutes. This gives only a limited number of places to run spots in each hour. With the theme music you could run a spot on each side of a station break, play thirty seconds or so of theme music, introduce the program, and then play two more spots. In five minutes you could play four minutes of spots without complaint either from listeners or sponsors. Sponsors tended to complain if their message were in the middle of a triple spot cluster.
Listeners might think that a classical music radio station would be very sedate and serious. Quite the contrary was the case. Announcers would try to break up each other on the air like any other radio station.
I remember one attempt which got me. The chief engineer was a pipe smoker. He ran clear plastic tubing from his mouth down between his legs out the rear. While I was reading a spot on the air, he walked past a studio window apparently blowing smoke out his rear. I lost it. I broke up completely. I had to read the spot later as a make-good.
Cisler also purchased the KGSF building and equipment from Warner Brothers. He applied for a new license to operate on the same 97.3 frequency to avoid having to retune the antenna. By this time a number of different FM frequencies were available for the asking in San Francisco.
The new call sign was KXKX-FM. From 3 to 5 p.m. KXKX-FM played records. From 5 to 11 p.m. it simulcast KEAR programs. It was off the air from 11 p.m. to 3 p.m. the next day. (These same call letters re-appeared in San Francisco in 1962 when the Presbyterian Church built an educational FM station on 88.5 MHz. There was no connection with the previous KXKX-FM other than using the same call letters. In 1969 the church donated this station to KQED and it became KQED-FM.)
New studios were built in an office building on 37th Avenue just off El Camino in San Mateo. Gone were the occasional train sounds. Programs originated from the studios from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from the Belmont transmitter the rest of the time.
The “Seeburg Selectomatic Music Hour” came from the studio two nights a week at 9 p.m. The Seeburg Company, a well-known manufacturer of jukeboxes, was attempting to expand into the consumer market. Seeburg took one of their stock 100 record units without coin slots and put it into an attractive wooden case for home use.
Cisler traded advertising time for one of the Seeburg home units. All records on the “Selectomatic Hour” were played on this jukebox. One infamous night the announcer finished his announcement “…will be played flawlessly on the Seeburg Selectomatic.” This was followed by dead air.
Then was heard the sound of a chair scraping on the floor, the sound of footsteps, the sound of the announcer kicking the Selectomatic, and the words “damn jukebox.” The announcer had forgotten to close the microphone. That was the end of the “Selectomatic Hour.”
This same announcer was a California state licensed embalmer. He posted his embalming license next to our station license and operators licenses in the control room.
In 1954 power increased from one to ten kilowatts. The station became full time directional (DA-2) with separate patterns day and night. An additional tower was added to provide required protection to other stations.
The transmitter was a 1937 vintage RCA model 10 DX purchased secondhand at a bargain price from WNEW in New York. While in New York it had been flooded. It had water marks inside the cabinets about three feet above the floor. For some time it had problems which could be attributed to its flooding.
This old RCA transmitter turned out to be a very reliable device. It lasted in regular service until 1979 and served as a backup transmitter for about eight more years. Finally, it was removed because it contained a lot of PCB-filled components and because it became subject to flooding at the Belmont site. It is rumored to have been shipped to Mexico where it may still be on the air.
With the power increase, the city of license was moved from San Mateo to San Francisco. This required some creative interpretation of the proof of performance field strength measurements to meet FCC required minimum signal strength within the city of license.
Studios moved to Number 1 Nob Hill Circle in the basement of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. This space previously had been home to KSFO and KPIX-TV (Channel 5). International shortwave broadcast station KWID, owned by the same company as KSFO, also had used these studios.
KSFO owned KPIX, which later became part of the history of the 1550 station. The large two-story-high KSFO audience participation show studio, which became the first KPIX television studio, never was used by any of the following radio station tenants. It was used by the hotel to store old furniture.
KEAR studios were in the former office space since the hotel garage had expanded into the other old radio studios. A person walked through a large, heavy, padded door with a round window which once obviously had been part of a studio sound lock to get from the garage into the radio station.
The deal with the hotel originally called for half cash and half advertising trade to pay rent. Advertising consisted of using the phrase “with studios in the Mark Hopkins Hotel” as part of a specified number of station breaks during each day.
After one year the advertising trade contract ran out and the hotel wanted all cash for rent. This was a common ploy by property owners in those days. An offer to trade was an incentive to get the station to move in. Once the station had gone to the expense and trouble of moving and was trapped, the landlord stopped trading and demanded all cash. After KEAR moved out in 1955 following much unpleasantness about late rent checks, this area was used by KYA.
The KEAR operation was under-capitalized and always in financial difficulty. The owner even sold stock to the public on the air. The financial string ran out in 1956. The AM station was sold and went off the air. The FM call letters were changed from KXKX-FM to KEAR and the classical music format continued. Studios and offices had moved from the Mark Hopkins to 1550 California Street.
The new AM call was KOBY. Studios were in the basement of the Bellevue Hotel at the corner of Geary and Taylor streets in San Francisco. This space had been used as a recording studio.
KOBY came on the air with the first Top 40 format in the Bay Area. It was a direct copy of the format pioneered by Todd Storz in the Midwest. KOBY was a fantastic success. It went from off the air to number one in the rating books in just twelve weeks without spending any money for outside advertising or promotion.
Dave Segal owned KOBY. He also owned stations in a suburb of Denver and in Greenville, Mississippi. All had an identical music format. Announcers worked under the same house names at all three stations. That way Segal could use one set of jingles at all three stations to save money. House names also prevented announcers from taking their air names to the competition if they got a better offer. Continued below…
KOBY Radio Jingles (Circa 1958, 1 minute):
Produced by IMN and Richard H. Ullman, Inc., this rare “W Series” jingle package from the late 1950s was used as a demo by the production company as part of its sales pitch to radio stations. The vocalists on these jingles may be the Johnny Mann Singers, who appeared on numerous Ullman jingle packages during this era.
Al Knight on KOBY (1959; 3 minutes):
Al Knight is one of the best-known radio personalities in the history of Bay Area radio, although you may know him better as Norman Davis (KYA, KSFO, KSAN, KMPX). This rare clip, provided to us by Norman, is one of the very few recordings of KOBY in existence.
In 1958 studios moved to 340 Mason Street in a building which had been a nightclub with private upstairs entertainment rooms. Offices were on the main floor where the bar had been. Studios were built upstairs where the private rooms had been located, which seems singularly appropriate. A printing press in the basement turned out thousands of copies of the KOBY Top 40 music list which were given away weekly at record stores all over the Bay Area.
In 1958 KOBY became the Mutual Broadcasting System affiliate in San Francisco. The only Mutual program which was broadcast on KOBY was the news commentary of Fulton Lewis, Jr. Spots run in Mutual newscasts were run as make-goods on KOBY.
In 1958 the KEAR (FM) operation had used up the money raised by selling the AM station. Steve Cisler sold it to Family Stations which changed the format to religious broadcasting.
The KEAR (FM) transmitter site on Diamond Heights was condemned for an urban renewal project. Family Stations moved the KEAR transmitter to Mount Beacon in Sausalito and increased the ERP to 82 kW.
Years later in a three-way frequency swap with KMPX (106.9) and with CBS, the original 97.3 frequency of KEAR wound up as the frequency of the CBS-owned San Francisco FM station. The call sign now is KLLC. Family Stations walked away from the deal with $2 million for swapping frequencies. The KEAR call is still on the air today.
In 1959 KOBY applied for the last available commercial FM channel in the Bay Area at 95.7 MHz. A used GE 3 kW transmitter was installed on Mount Beacon with a four-bay antenna to give an ERP of 10 kW. KOBY began simulcasting programs on AM and FM. Thus two different FM frequencies, 97.3 and 95.7, were associated with the AM station on 1550.
By 1959 after the huge success of KOBY with a Top 40 format, you could tune from almost one end of the AM dial to the other in San Francisco without hearing anything except rock and roll music. Even KGO went rock as the big K-GO, pronounced “Kay-Go.” KNBR played chicken rock. Only KSFO and KCBS never succumbed to the temptation.
In 1958 and 1959 some heavy hitters nationally in Top 40 broadcasting bought Bay Area stations. Bartell Broadcasting, which owned the very successful KCBQ in San Diego, bought KYA. Crowell-Collier, which owned KFWB in Los Angeles, bought KLX from the Oakland Tribune and changed the call to KEWB.
Through leverage from top-rated KFWB/Los Angeles and KDWB/Minneapolis, Crowell-Collier got an exclusive on a big artist’s new record. KEWB got it to play starting on a Friday while KOBY would not get that record until Monday. KEWB was playing it once an hour fading the music to announce “A KEWB exclusive. Hear it only on KEWB” to keep other stations from taping it off the air and playing it. Unfortunately, the KEWB jocks picked different places to fade the song. We taped it four times and were able to assemble a complete song from the four takes. KOBY had it on the air about five hours after KEWB started playing it. Such was competition in the Top 40 market.
The legendary Gordon McClendon bought KROW in Oakland in 1959. Local Top 40 station managers were apprehensive because McClendon’s Top 40 stations dominated their markets. Probably most local broadcasters were listening when McClendon’s KABL signed on. Instead of rock music, what they heard were harp glissandos and violins. McClendon had outsmarted everyone by putting on the first beautiful music format in the Bay Area. KABL became very successful because it attracted all the people who could not stand the rock music on most other stations. The success of KABL figures in the future of the station on 1550.
(KABL is credited with being the first beautiful music station in the area. Other stations, such as KIBE and KLX, had played similar music featuring Mantovani, Percy Faith, Andre Kostelanetz, Morton Gould, and the like. KABL was the first to put it all together into a single package. The KABL format was a direct copy of the format of KIXL, a McClendon competitor in Dallas.)
Gradually the KOBY audience began to erode with the heavy competition. Where KOBY would give $100 prizes to listeners, other stations would give $1,000 prizes. The owner of KOBY decided to take his money and run.
The selling price of a profitable radio station is based upon its gross and net income. The higher these figures, the higher the selling price. The owner of KOBY removed all restrictions on the number of commercials to inflate income figures as much as possible. He planned to sell the station before plummeting audience number figures arrived. Rating services always are about six months behind the fact.
KOBY committed suicide. Its audience was built on the fact that it never played more than one commercial between records. After the restrictions came off, I remember one twenty-five minute period in drive time when KOBY played exactly one record. The rest of the time was occupied with commercials, jingles, promos, time and temperature, and more commercials. No wonder the audience fled.
Dave Siegel outsmarted himself. He sold his radio station but the buyer realized what had happened and backed out of the deal. Siegel was stuck with a station with no audience.
In 1960 KOBY changed formats from Top 40 to beautiful music. It became the second beautiful music station in the Bay Area. Then it was sold.
The new owner was Sherwood R. Gordon who operated beautiful music stations in Mesa, Arizona, and San Diego. Gordon had a long radio career. As a child actor he claimed to have played Bobby Benson of the B-Bar-B Ranch on the network radio show “Bobby Benson’s Adventures.”
Gordon changed the call letters from KOBY to KQBY. The letter Q stood for quality. KQBY tried to compete with KABL by running a similar format even including a two-hour concert of popular classical music each evening at eight.
KQBY bought a series of teaser billboards featuring the letter Q with the slogan “Beautiful music in the air.” KABL promptly started running promos which began, “You’ve seen our signs. Now you’ve found our music…” KQBY sued.
The Mutual network affiliation continued. In 1960 KQBY became the hub for the Mutual West Coast operation. Spots were time-shifted in Mutual newscasts. Service was provided to the west coast from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. Pacific Time after the eastern network went good night.
Some spots were time-shifted because they were bought to run at specific times. Laxative spots regularly were shifted. Laxative spots at meal time produced listener complaints. A spot fed at 9 p.m. eastern time, an ideal time for a laxative company, arrived on the west coast at 6 p.m. dinner time. Some spots were recorded from their earlier network feed. Most were played from transcription discs supplied by advertising agencies.
KQBY failed to attract enough listeners or advertising income. Gordon ran out of money and took the stations off the air. In an interview with a newspaper reporter, he blamed the ratings system, which “counts the number of ears, not what’s between them.” Gordon was able to obtain a waiver of the FCC rule requiring a person to own a station for three years before selling it. He sold the stations to Frank Atlass.
Atlass came from a family in Chicago with a long record in broadcasting. His father and uncle had owned and managed stations for many years. Atlas had inherited some money which he invested in KQBY.
Atlass changed the call letters from KQBY to KKHI emphasizing its high spot on the dial. The receptionist was instructed to answer the telephone, “This is KKHI, Hi!”
In 1963 KKHI AM and FM signed on the air with personality disc jockeys and a MOR format in direct competition with KSFO. Some of the talent had been recruited through the Atlass family radio connections in Chicago. Ratings were minuscule.
In 1964 a new FCC rule prohibited AM-FM simulcasts. The KKHI-FM format changed to elevator music played by a machine.
Frank Atlass owned a scarlet macaw, a big Brazilian parrot, named Robert. His wife threw the bird out of the house so Robert came to live at the radio station. His perch was at the top of the stairs leading to the studios. Naturally, a staff project became to improve Robert’s vocabulary. One of the few phrases taught to Robert repeatable in polite company was, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.”
In less than one year Frank Atlass had run through his inheritance and all the money he could borrow from his family. He was out of money. He was not able to get a waiver of the FCC three year rule so he could not sell the stations.
Atlass worked out a deal with the unions representing his workers. The unions agreed that a few jobs were better than no jobs. Total station staff was cut to seven people which included one time salesman and one secretary-accountant. Three remaining staff members had classical music broadcasting experience dating from the KEAR days. No AM stations and only a few FM stations were playing classical music in the San Francisco market, so Atlass decided to change the format to classical music. A program director, Bill Agee, was hired away from KSFR (FM). Bill was coming home since he had worked for KSMO and KEAR.
A waiver was obtained of the FCC rule preventing simulcasting on AM and FM stations. (WGMS in Washington, DC, had just obtained the first such waiver which was limited to classical music broadcasters.) KKHI began simulcasting classical music with records from the personal libraries of the program director and other staff members. Many familiar KEAR programs returned with the same theme music.
Before long KKHI was breaking even in cash flow because expenses were so low. However, it was not able to make a dent in the debts run up earlier. Frank Atlass sold the stations to Buckley-Jaeger Broadcasting Company in 1965.
Buckley-Jaeger owned several stations scattered around the United States. No two stations had the same program format. The owners decided that a classical music format could make money so it was retained. Although KKHI never was a big money maker, the operation always made a respectable profit until the end.
The FM transmitter was located in a building owned by KDFC. By this time KDFC was broadcasting a classical music format. The owner of KDFC did not like the idea of a competitor under his roof so he started harassing KKHI-FM.
The KKHI-FM transmitter moved to Mount San Bruno in 1966. Under a then-new FCC rule, if an FM station moved its transmitter, it came under regulations which based power output on the elevation of the antenna. ERP was reduced to 5.2 kW. A later recalculation allowed a power increase to 5.6 kW.
In 1966 studios moved to the 14th floor of the Saint Francis Hotel. The lease had run out on the Mason Street quarters and the building was about to be demolished. Once again rent was a partial trade. This trade deal, unlike the Mark Hopkins, lasted a long time.
Buckley-Jaeger became Buckley Broadcasting. The classical music format at KKHI continued until 1994. This format had lasted continuously for thirty years.
KSMO and KEAR had published a program guide. KKHI did not publish a program guide until about 1970. Circulation never got much above 2,000 so the guide was discontinued after about two years. Later KKHI program listings were published in split runs of “Ovation” magazine.
In addition to recorded music, KKHI broadcast live performances by the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, Oakland Symphony, and San Jose Symphony. Local live music broadcasts ended in 1979 when the KKHI engineers went on strike and threatened to picket any concert broadcast by KKHI.
The strike became mired in unfair labor practice charges by the union against Buckley at the National Labor Relations Board. Buckley was found guilty of unfair labor practices. Technically the strike lasted for about ten years during various appeals.. Live music broadcasts on KKHI never resumed.
In 1994 Buckley Broadcasting became over-extended and had to sell some stations to reduce debt. Rumor had it that Rick Buckley had paid too much for WOR in New York.
KKHI and KKHI-FM were sold on May 4, 1994, to Westinghouse Broadcasting, the owner of KPIX-TV. Calls became KPIX-AM and KPIX-FM. New studios in the KPIX building were not ready in time, so classical music programming continued for another few weeks under Westinghouse ownership.
Finally, everything was ready. The operation moved to the KPIX building at 855 Battery Street. The format changed to news-talk. KPIX radio was not able to attract an audience in competition with CBS and KGO.
News had never been important on 1550 kHz. In early days FCC rules strongly insinuated that all stations must broadcast news. Rip-and-read newscasts from either AP or UP wires, whichever was cheaper at the time, fulfilled this obligation. KSMO ran some fifteen-minute newscasts which included local stories from the San Mateo Times. Later stations ran five-minute newscasts hourly at fifty-five minutes past the hour.
For a time at KEAR the news service had been cut off because on non-payment of bills. Newscasts were read from the morning newspaper until the newswire was restored.
A feature of KOBY newscasts were reports from “The KOBY Patrol.” An announcer who was on duty but not on the air would phone in a report pretending to be on the scene of some local news event, the gorier the better.
Along came the O.J. Simpson murder trial. KPIX radio became the “All O.J., All The Time” station, broadcasting gavel to gavel coverage of the trial. These programs attracted a moderate size audience. The Simpson trial ended. KPIX radio went back to its old format. The audience began shrinking.
In the meantime, FCC rules limiting the number of stations a single company could own had changed. CBS, Infinity Broadcasting, and Westinghouse merged into one company which took the name CBS. The new company was one FM station over the limit in the San Francisco Market.
KPIX-FM was sold in 1997 to Bonneville Broadcasting in order to comply with the ownership limit. Call letters were changed to KZQZ, and it went on the air with a rock music format.
KPIX-AM call letters were changed to KYCY-AM. It began simulcasting the “Young Country” programs of CBS-owned KYCY (FM). What goes around comes around. KYCY (FM) was once KYA-FM, which had moved into studios in the Mark Hopkins Hotel after KEAR moved out.
In 1994 when Buckley Broadcasting sold KKHI, it sold the record library and call letters to Mt. Wilson FM broadcasters in Los Angeles. Mt. Wilson bought the former KTIM and KTIM-FM in San Rafael and changed the call letters to KKHI and KKHI- FM. KTIM had a similar background to KSMO. It was put on the air in 1947 by a local newspaper, The Marin Independent-Journal. Classical music KKHI now has no connection with the previous station. All programs originate in Los Angeles studios.
Today, CBS has a construction permit to increase the power of KYCY-AM on 1550 to 50 kilowatts daytime from a transmitter site in Fremont. Engineers are working on designing a directional antenna to operate at night from Fremont. Exact power level which will be allowed is unknown, but it probably will be less than 50 kW.
NOTE: On January 1, 2009, CBS moved the legendary KFRC call letters to 1550 AM, where the station had begun broadcasting the syndicated “True Oldies Channel” format, featuring Michael Scott Shannon.