The History of KZM and KLX and KEWB
By John F. Schneider
One of the Bay Area’s foremost radio pioneers was synonymous with the word radio in Oakland for many years. Preston Decker Allen became interested in radio in 1910, when he was a high school student in Oakland, and worked nights as a Western Union telegraph operator. That same year he was granted one of the first amateur radio licenses, 6PF, and began operating his own spark transmitter.
In 1911, Allen was granted a commercial radio operator’s license, and spent the next several years at sea as a marine radio operator for the Marconi Company, a predecessor of RCA. He was working for this company operating its high-powered trans-Pacific telegraph station at Kahuku, Hawaii, when World War I broke out. Enlisting in the Navy, Allen worked for Naval radio operations in Hawaii, Washington D. C. and Gibraltar before being discharged as a Lieutenant in 1919. He continued to work for the Marconi Company in Hawaii for two years afterwards.
Returning to Oakland in 1921, Allen opened a radio operator’s training school called the Western Radio Institute. The school occupied two rooms on the seventh floor of the Hotel Oakland. Bill Andrews, later an NBC announcer, was one of Allen’s first student instructors. He remembered that one of the rooms was a lecture room with a large schematic diagram of a spark transmitter on the wall. The other room was used for code practice. The purpose of the school was primarily to train the students in the electronics theory necessary to qualify as a ship’s radio operator.
About mid-1921, an experimental radio station was started as a part of the school’s operation. Allen built the transmitter from spare parts and a couple of discarded French tubes he had acquired while in Europe with the Navy, and it was on the air as 6XAJ. The station’s five-watt transmitter operated from batteries; they in turn were kept charged by the D.C. current used to run the hotel elevators. The Hotel Oakland was a magnificent structure, with two towers rising from either side of the building that were perfect for supporting the station’s antenna. The entire operation was housed in a tiny room of the West tower.
Roswell Smith was the operator of the station during its first years. Ross was a student at Allen’s school, and worked at the Oakland Magnavox factory. He said that most of the programs during this experimental period consisted of, “Hello, can you hear me out there? How’s the modulation?” After a while, though, Allen acquired a used Edison cylinder phonograph, and the microphone was inserted into the phonograph horn to pick up the station’s first musical concerts.
It wasn’t long until Allen applied for a broadcast license and began regular programs. 6XAJ became KZM in September. Programs consisted of phonograph concerts broadcast Tuesday and Friday evenings, as well as daily news reports from 7:15 to 7:30, with news material supplied by the Oakland Tribune. The station broadcast on 325 meters.
KZM’s association with the Tribune developed quickly. The Tribune began printing KZM’s radio schedule, and continued to supply the station with news material. Although most news on the station was read directly from the paper, the Tribune frequently sent a copy boy over to the hotel with late-breaking stories or ball scores.
The Tribune eventually became so involved in KZM that Allen convinced Publisher Joseph Knowland that the Tribune should apply for its own license. Allen would run the station from the school, and the Tribune would finance it. The license arrived, and the Tribune went on the air as KLX July 25, 1922, sharing the single broadcast frequency of 360 meters with all other area stations.
KLX was a new station in name only, for it was operated with the same staff and equipment as KZM. Ross Smith remembered that they used to shut down the transmitter as KZM, then take to the air a half hour later as KLX. The five-watt transmitter, nicknamed “Little Jimmy,” was relegated to standby use shortly afterwards when the fifty-watt “Powerful Katrinka” took to the air August 4. The names were derived from characters in Fontaine Fox’s “Toonerville Folks” comic strip, which appeared in the Tribune.
A cable was run from the transmitter room in the hotel tower to Allen’s two classrooms, and the rooms doubled for a time as the KLX studios. Occasional live performers in these studios began to augment the recorded music fare. When larger space was needed in the 1923 broadcast of a concert band, a wire was dropped out of the window in the tower, and attached to a microphone on the roof, where the band was seated.
In 1923, another tube was added to “Powerful Katrinka” to boost her output to 100 watts. Ross Smith remembered that KLX and KUO battled for a time to be the most powerful station, each adding another tube to its transmitter to gain the edge.
In the fall of 1923, the Tribune Tower building was completed, and KLX moved into the 20th floor of the tower. An antenna was strung from the top of the tower to the Oakland Bank Building, located at the other end of the block at Twelfth and Broadway. A 500-watt transmitter was purchased and installed in the Tribune Tower, and studios were constructed adjacent to the transmitter room. The station moved to the 590 kc. dial position. KLX began an operation which would continue operating from the Tribune Tower for thirty years.
KZM continued to operate from the Hotel Oakland until April of 1928, broadcasting only short news reports each day. At that time, Allen, who had become Manager of KLX, decided that the radio school was taking up too much of his time as the managerial duties of KLX became more and more demanding. Finally, Allen sold the school’s equipment to the Oakland School Department, and sold the KZM license to Leon P. Tenney, a Hayward businessman. Allen became full-time Manager of KLX.
Tenney moved KZM to new studios in the Palmtag Building at Castro and “B” Streets in Hayward, operating the station under the company name “The Golden West Broadcasting Station.” The station operated with 100 watts, sharing time with KRE in Berkeley, first on 1300 and then shortly afterwards on 1370 kc.
KZM operated from Hayward for a little more than a year. On August 8, 1929, the station left the air and was scheduled for a license renewal hearing by the Federal Radio Commission. In January of 1930, Tenney sold the station to Julius Brunton and Sons, operators of KJBS. However, the F.R.C. in 1931 refused to renew the station’s license for several reasons. These included unauthorized transfer of the station to the Bruntons, a history of wandering from its assigned frequency, and for being “mechanically inferior.” The KZM license was formally deleted on June 23, 1931.
Meanwhile, KLX continued to grow and become a permanent fixture of the East Bay community. After its move to the Tribune Building, both the staff and program schedule had been enlarged considerably. Ross Smith became the Chief Engineer, a position he held until his retirement in 1968.
One of the first programs to be broadcast over the new station was the dedication of the University of California’s new Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. In November of 1923, the station broadcast the first game ever played in the new stadium, the football contest between California and Stanford. This game continued to be an annual event on KLX for many years.
In 1924, Ross Smith took a leave of absence to do some radio work in Japan, and Manager Preston Allen hired Bill Andrews to replace him in the capacity of announcer and engineer. Andrews, who had been a technician and instructor for Allen at the wireless school, many years later had fond memories of the four years he spent at KLX. He recalled that most of his time was spent alone at the station, as it was still frequently a one- man operation. Andrews the technician would operate the transmitter and associated equipment, and Andrews the announcer would introduce live remote programs from the studio. And, when the station was off the air between 7:00 and 7:30 each evening, Bill Andrews the reporter would compile the 7:30 newscast. This news was received in Morse code over a telegraph line, and it would have to be copied and edited before air time.
One of Andrews’ most important jobs at KLX was announcing the Oakland Oaks baseball games. These games were not announced from the ballpark, as might be expected. The broadcasts were not conceived to be either play-by-play remotes nor re-creations; rather, Andrews was simply the middleman who relayed the game’s progress to his audience. When the game was being played in the home stadium in Emeryville, or at the Seals’ stadium in San Francisco, the scorekeeper phoned the information to KLX by half-innings. If the team was out of town playing one of the other Pacific Coast League teams (Los Angeles, Seattle or Portland), the information was sent by telegraph. Andrews relayed the results to the audience as they came into the studio, and filled the remaining time with color information and results of other games. If there was nothing to say, he would simply remain silent, frequently for over a minute.
One of the most popular KLX programs during the twenties was a variety show called the “Lake Merritt Ducks,” with Captain Bill Royal. Every Monday night at nine, the “quacking” of Royal and his comrades would announce that the weekly broadcast of the Ducks was on the air. The program was meant to be KLX’s answer to the “Hoot Owls,” which was on the air from eight until nine over KGW in Portland. Andrews recalled that the program could not originate from the KLX studios because larger quarters were needed. So, a remote microphone was placed in a large office annex at the base of the tower. When the Ducks went on the air, Andrews would announce the program’s introduction, throw the switch that would turn on the microphone and walk out onto the tower balcony, where he would lean over, wave his arms and shout “Okay! Go ahead!”
Some other programs heard on the Tribune station during the twenties were live organ concerts from the Scottish Rite Temple; hour-long Hawaiian music concerts, broadcast live from the KLX studios daily at noon; dance music from the Athens Athletic Club and Sweet’s Ballroom, and by Horace Heidt’s Californians from the Claremont Hotel. One of the musical groups heard regularly was the Arion Trio, a group of teenage girls from Oakland Technical High School, who had been brought together and coached by the school’s choral instructor. Their popularity at KLX soon led to positions with the NBC staff, and they were heard frequently over the Pacific Coast network during the thirties. Indeed, Bill Andrews himself was to go on to NBC as their first West Coast staff announcer, and would later become the first announcer for the series “One Man’s Family.”
KLX changed frequencies from 590 to 880 kc. in November of 1928, when frequencies of many stations in the country were reshuffled by the Federal Radio Commission. (The station was to move once more, this time to its contemporary dial position at 910 kc., in March 1941.)
KLX increased its power from 500 to 1,000 watts in September of 1931, when it installed a new crystal-controlled transmitter. At the same time, the station’s studios on the 20th floor of the Tribune Tower Building were augmented with new facilities installed on the 21st floor, where the new transmitter and a control room were located. The previous transmitter room was converted into a second studio. The four-wire long-wire antenna was replaced with a single-wire L-type antenna, which continued to be used until 1952.
Sports programs continued to be an important part of the KLX schedule during the thirties, with Oakland Oaks baseball, Stanford and Cal basketball, and college football. Also popular was a program of dinner music by the Hotel Oakland Concert Trio, broadcast daily from the hotel. There were several other popular remote broadcasts and a regular schedule of news programs.
KLX was intended to be a publicity agent for the Oakland Tribune, according to former Chief Engineer Roswell Smith, and was never designed to be a money-making venture. The station continued to be run by the Tribune until 1959, and was the finest of the East Bay stations during those years.
1959 was the year that the Oakland Tribune sold KLX to the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company. This company operated KFWB, a successful rock’n’roll station in Los Angeles, and KLX became KEWB. “Cube,” as it was called, programmed 24 hours a day from its new studios in the Bermuda Building in downtown Oakland, and transmitting from the new 5,000-watt transmitting facility that had been constructed at Point Isabel in Albany in 1952. It became the king of rock’n’roll radio in the Bay Area in the early sixties, running off the pioneer rock station KOBY within a year of its introduction.
Russ Butler worked at KEWB in the early sixties. He says that continuous promotion was an important part of KEWB’s success. He describes his experience coordinating the production of the “Miss Teenage America” pageant, sponsored by KEWB in 1963:
We went through the qualification rounds (applications, education, talent, etc.), auditions, and then had a final presentation event at a theatre in downtown San Francisco. All of the KEWB DJs wore tuxedos and the contestants were in full gowns. Miss America, Lee Ann Meriwether, was the hostess, there was an orchestra in the orchestra pit, all the families of the contestants, and Peter, Paul and Mary contracted to perform on stage.
It was a “really big night” for KEWB, the sponsors Bay Area Honda Dealers and all. It was also the biggest night for a rainstorm that cancelled just about every event in San Francisco that night — a deluge flooding the freeways. It was terrible, and going on while we were in the theatre! We attracted maybe 100 brave souls besides the contestants’ families. There was no way to cancel at the last minute, so “the show went on.” And it was terrific, by the way, with the KEWB DJs handling the audience as the rain started to drip into the theatre!
KEWB remained unchallenged in the rock radio arena for a few years, but, by the mid-sixties, both KYA and KFRC had adopted the increasingly important music format. In 1966, Crowell-Collier sold KEWB to Metromedia Broadcasting, converting a $750,000 investment into $3 million in just six years. Metromedia, which operated the successful station WNEW in New York City, soon changed the call letters to KNEW, after paying a Spokane, Wash., station $75,000 to give up its call letters. The station was moved to plush new studios on Jack London Square in Oakland.
Jack Sullivan, head of Metromedia’s radio division, heard in 1966 that a Los Angeles area dial-a-prayer was receiving 30,000 calls a week. With this as the seed of his inspiration, he began an all-night telephone talk show on KNEW, hosted by Joe Dolan. The success of this program resulted in a gradual expansion of the format, until KNEW was a 24-hour talk station. It competed with KGO during the late sixties for the talk audience, but was consistently outclassed by its more powerful competitor.
KNEW finally threw in the towel on talk programming in 1969, and returned to popular music programming. In the 1970s, KNEW changed to Country and Western music, which was finding an ever-increasing audience in the Bay Area. This proved to be a success for KNEW, and it continued with this format into the 1990s. The station was sold to the Malrite Communications Group in March of 1988.
“Preston D. Allen — Radio Pioneer.” Unpublished biography, supplied by Mr. Allen.
Interview between author and Bill Andrews, former KLX operator. San Francisco, California, October 13, 1970.
Interview between author and Roswell Smith, former KLX Chief Engineer. Sutter Creek, California, April 9, 1971.
“Pacific Radio News,” October, 1921.
“Oakland Tribune,” July 23, 1922.
“San Francisco Chronicle,” March 1, 1925.
“Oakland Tribune,” August 5, 1971.
“KLX, Great Broadcasting Station of the Oakland Tribune, Keeps Pace With the Rapid Technical Development in the Radio Field,” by Preston D. Allen, “Oakland Tribune Yearbook,” 1932.
The Federal Radio Commission Station List, as authorized on November 11, 1928. With research by Barry Mishkind, 1993-94.
Copyright © 1996 John F. Schneider. All rights reserved.
All articles copyright © 1997-2006 by John F. Schneider. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with the generous permission of the author.