KQW Radio, San Jose
“The Story Of KQW”

Saturday, November 10, 1945

Featuring Ken Ackerman,
Clarence “Clancy” Cassell and Jack Webb

The widely-acknowledged inventor of radio broadcasting, Charles David (Doc) Herrold, often referred to as “Prof Herrold” by

Charles David "Doc" Herrold on KQW (c. 1920s)
Charles David “Doc” Herrold on KQW (c. 1920s)

his students, is heard in this program commemorating the thirty-sixth anniversary of San Jose’s KQW (now KCBS, 740 AM, in San Francisco).

Intended to trumpet KQW’s rightful place as the world’s first radio station to broadcast programming to an audience on a regular basis, the program was aired the same week that the industry was saluting the first broadcast of Pittsburgh’s KDKA, which took place on the night of November 2, 1920.

Longtime KQW/KCBS announcers and newsmen Ken Ackerman and Clancy Cassell serve as the narrators of the dramatic “Story of KQW,” which features a young radio actor named Jack Webb in the role of young Doc Herrold. Webb would go on to greater acclaim as Sgt. Joe Friday on the long-running radio and television series “Dragnet.”

Two other actors heard in the broadcast, Dick Ellers and Herb Ellis — each of whom plays multiple roles in this broadcast — would also be part of Webb’s repertory company on productions such as “Dragnet,” “Pat Novak For Hire” and “Pete Kelly’s Blues.”

The script was written by Roy Grandey, who also produced and directed the program at the behest of KQW owner Ralph Brunton and station manager Charles L. McCarthy, who were strong proponents of KQW’s place in broadcasting history.

In a 1996 interview with Gordon Greb, Grandey explained:

“I was given several files and there must have been the equivalent of about 50 pages that would go into a press book. They were articles about instances of what happened from those days — the early days — a lot of different biographies of Doc Herrold and so forth. … There was no controversy in the research material at all. It was very straightforward … this pioneer did it!”

By Marty Cheek

Born in Illinois on November 16, 1875, Charles Herrold moved as a boy to Santa Clara Valley and grew up on his family’s San Jose farm. His young and inquisitive mind set upon creating new inventions. One of his earliest was a clock-driven telescope that held aim at the stars during astronomical observations.

After graduating from high school, Herrold attended Stanford University and studied physics and electricity. “Wireless” technology was still in its infancy, developed in 1895 by the Italian Guglielmo Marconi whose invention “telegraphed” messages over the airwaves.

Herrold, however, saw a greater potential for radiowaves than just a medium for sending the dots and dashes of Morse Code across the distances. He believed voices and music could also be transmitted. The radio pioneer saw the future potential.

With ambitions of fame and fortune, in 1900 Herrold founded an electrical manufacturing firm in San Francisco. Things went well until 1906 when a rather major earthquake hit the Bay Area early one April morning. Herrold lost everything but his dream.

He headed to Stockton to teach at a state technical college for a couple of years, then made his way back to San Jose in 1909. Here, he set up his electronics academy — the Herrold College of Wireless and Engineering. Students called him “Doc.”

The Garden City Bank Building in San Jose (1910)
The Garden City Bank Building in San Jose (1910)

Although his name is not as famous as Marconi’s, Doc Herrold’s work did add several significant contributions to wireless innovation. He built a spark gap transmitter attached to a carbon microphone. With this experimental device, he and his college’s students were able to send out relatively low frequency 50-watt transmissions from San Jose’s seven-story Garden City Bank Building. (The Knight Ridder Building now occupies the downtown spot where it once stood.)

In those days, wireless technology was still in its infancy. So Herrold and his students had to spend their spare hours building simple crystal radio receivers for listeners to pick up their transmissions. Local folks were astonished to hear the words “This is the Herrold Station” and “San Jose calling” on the bulky receiver headsets they wore. The moment must have seemed magical for many.

Unfortunately, Herrold’s early transmitting device had a major headache. The carbon element burned out every couple of hours. Replacing it cut into transmission time. So, Herrold came up with a new transmitting contraption he called the “Arc Fone.” It was a series of six arc lights which generated high frequency radio waves strong enough to carry voices and music longer distances.

The power-hungry Arc Fone required far more than 50 watts — the power of a light bulb. So Herrold “borrowed” the 500 volts he needed from San Jose’s streetcar line. He had to water-cool his microphone to keep it from incinerating.

In 1910, Herrold became the first broadcaster to play music across the airwaves on a regular basis. He made a “trade-out” deal for records with San Jose’s Sherman Clay music store. He played songs such as “My Old Kentucky Home” on a wind-up Victrola phonograph pointed at his crude microphone. He even became the first person ever to take song requests over the phone.

Herrold also pioneered radio contests presenting prizes to reward loyal listeners. And he became the first to broadcast current events and weather reports over his wireless station, setting the format for today’s radio and television news. He also came up with the concept of radio advertisement — commercials breaks — to pay for this exciting new technology.

Read about Doc Herrold's life and times in Gordon Greb and Mike Adams' fascinating biography of the man who invented radio broadcasting. [Click here]
Read about Doc Herrold’s life and times in Gordon Greb and Mike Adams’ fascinating biography of the man who invented radio broadcasting. [Click here]

Starting in 1912, Herrold’s wife Sybil Herrold became the first female disc jockey. Her “Little Hams” program was aimed at getting children involved in the radio experience.

Herrold’s wireless transmissions could be heard all over the Bay Area including in Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister. In 1915, he transmitted music from San Jose to the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco, giving amazed attendees at that world’s fair a taste of the technology.

In April 1917, the United States entered the Great War in Europe. For national security, Uncle Sam prohibited all non-government wireless transmissions. During the war years, Herrold’s Arc Fone became obsolete when Lee DeForest introduced his Audion tube — a more innovative technology that eventually led to computers.

In 1921, Herrold rebuilt his San Jose station. The government assigned it the call letters KQW. Facing hard financial times, he sold the enterprise in 1925. He stayed on as station engineer for a time until he was fired.

Herrold’s last years were marked by a series of humble jobs such as a security guard. He died on July 1, 1948, never truly enjoying the recognition he deserved as a genuine pioneer of radio.

Today, the term “wireless” is a technology buzz word again — this time connected to the Internet. Wireless is the next stage of high-tech’s evolution. It’ll soon be common for laptop computers to have widespread mobile connections to the vast ocean of World Wide Web information.

Here in the South Valley, people like Jim Carrillo see the potential of wireless Internet connection. Modeling Herrold’s first radio commercials, Carrillo’s innovative Morgan Hill-based company, Public Wi-Fi Project, sells advertisements to pay for the regional development of wireless Web technology.

Some historians consider Charles Herrold to be “the father of broadcast radio.” Although now virtually forgotten, his impact continues to spread like the radiowaves he loved. Remember his San Jose station KQW? Well, in 1949 it moved to San Francisco, the call letters changed to KCBS.

Marty Cheek is a regular columnist for the Gilroy Dispatch and is the author of “The Silicon Valley Handbook.” This article was reprinted with the generous permission of the author.



The actual broadcast of the KQW 30th anniversary production, digitally re-mastered from the transcription disc. Narrated by Ken Ackerman and Clarence Cassell; written, directed and produced by Roy Grandey; Don Victor, associate director; cast including Dick Ellers, Herb Ellis, Dick Glyer and Jack Webb; sound effects by Don Creed; engineering by Paul Smith.

1959          Gordon Greb: The Story Of Broadcasting (1959; 26 mins.)

BONUS COVERAGE! San Jose State Professor Greb interviews Ray Newby, Joseph Cappa and Sybil Herrold True (Prof’s wife, and a pioneer broadcaster herself), each of whom were there fifty years earlier when Charles Herrold began broadcasting, as well as radio pioneer Lee De Forest, who attests to Herrold’s achievement.


SOURCE MATERIAL: Background information for this presentation came in part from “Charles Herrold, Inventor of Radio Broadcasting” by Gordon Greb and Mike Adams

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