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San Francisco 1950s

Radio Recollections: the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s

Editor’s Note: Fred Krock is a retired broadcaster who worked in commercial broadcasting in San Francisco and New York City. An electrical engineer, he got his start in radio at KZSU at Stanford University in 1950. Fred offered to share his memories of KZSU and radio in the Bay Area from that time, and we jumped at the chance to publish them here. In part one of this three-part series Fred sets the scene for what the region’s radio dial sounded like at mid-century. -Paul

I started college at Stanford in 1950. College was very different in those days. Some veterans were finishing their college education using the GI Bill. They were about ten years older than most students and concentrating on getting their meal ticket to a good financial future; they were not very interested in other college activities. Since they were over 21 years old, they had no problems buying liquor for student parties.

Radio broadcasting also was very different. The FCC had authorized many new radio stations following the end of the war. In the San Francisco Bay Area we had new AM radio stations in San Jose, Palo Alto, San Mateo, San Rafael, Pittsburg, and other suburban communities. Some were licensed for full-time operation and others were daytime only. These stations had a very hard time competing with established San Francisco stations for listeners and advertising dollars.

Radio networks dominated listening. Only 9% of US homes had a television set in 1950 and public television also was in the future. KQED signed on April 4, 1954 and it was one of the first public television stations in this country. Big stars had network radio shows that did not move to television for several years. Much network radio, however, was cheaply made popular garbage like “Mr. District Attorney” and soap operas.

Every summer Stanford participated in the Stanford-NBC Radio Institute. NBC had similar programs in a few other cities around the country. The Institute was not restricted to Sanford students, although those who had matriculated at Stanford could get class credit. Total class size was limited to 75 students. Classes were given on campus and at the NBC studios at 420 Taylor Street in San Francisco, in which NBC employees described their jobs in very intimate detail. I attended in 1952. It was fascinating and I learned a lot.

1952 also was the last year of the NBC Pacific Radio Network. Most of the programs came from the NBC national radio network but some programs distributed only to the West Coast originated in San Francisco. NBC employed fifty-two engineers in San Francisco. But after the Pacific Network closed, it was all downhill. Some of the laid off engineers were able to get jobs with the NBC Television Network in Los Angeles. However, NBC, unlike the other networks, did not own a radio station in Los Angeles or a television station in San Francisco. So, the radio network continued without any San Francisco programs, except for “One Man’s Family.”

At this time FM broadcasting had come, and for the most part, gone away. Many existing AM stations had also gotten FM licenses, but because the public had not bought many FM receivers, those stations had tiny audiences. Wide-spread listener-supported public stations were many years in the future. One of the very first was KPFA in Berkeley, founded by a group that had bought very cheaply a failed commercial FM station and put it back on the air. That’s why KPFA has a license in the commercial part of the FM band.

Other FM broadcasters had gone off the air and returned their licenses to the FCC. Many now empty FM channels were available in the Bay Area. Used FM transmitting equipment could be bought for about 10 cents on the dollar of original cost that was slightly over the scrap metal value.

A few FM stations were kept on the air by AM stations because simulcasting their main signal did not cost much. In a few cases they filled in holes in the AM nighttime signal coverage. That gave their owners brownie points with the FCC for keeping them on the air at a loss. In actuality, they had cost a lot of capital to put them on the air and they were providing tax deductions for depreciation.

Those few independent FM stations that managed to survive had other sources of income. The San Francisco Chronicle operated KRON-FM in addition to television channel 4. Both lost money in the beginning. KRON-FM had one full time employee who broadcast the minimum time required by the FCC to keep the license: six days a week. The FCC did not require operation on Sunday.

KDFC leased space for other transmitters such as land mobile radio at its Mt. Beacon location behind Sausalito. KDFC broadcast the Musicast background music that competed with Muzak. It transmitted a 15 kHz tone when anything other than music was broadcast, and special receivers were required to hear the music programs. The Musicast receivers muted whenever this tone was broadcast so that all that ever came out of the receiver was music. Later the FCC prohibited these so-called “simplex” broadcasts so they moved to an SCA channel on KDFC.

KSBR in San Bruno was owned by Eitel-MacCollough, manufacturer of Eimac transmitting tubes. It was put on the air in 1947 to demonstrate the product, and the station had a small studio in the Eimac factory, with the transmitter on Mt. Diablo. ERP was 300,000 watts on 101.5 mHz making it one of the most powerful FM stations in the United States. The signal covered the entire California Central Valley from Redding on the north to Bakersfield on the south.
After Eimac no longer needed KSBR to demonstrate transmitting tubes, no one would buy the station. So Eimac turned in the license to the FCC. It sold the transmitter building and tower on Mt. Diablo to KOVR-TV in Stockton.

There were several stations at educational institutions. KALW, owned by the San Francisco School District, began broadcasting in 1941 on the original 42-50 MHz FM band. It had to buy a new transmitter in 1946 to operate on the new FM band. Run by the John O’Connell trade school, a San Francisco public school, KALW broadcast programs for classroom listening, primarily was used for teaching radio and television technicians.

The College of San Mateo had KCSM, and both were located in downtown San Mateo; the new campus on the hilltop was years in the future. KCSM trained electronic technicians but it also taught announcers.

In Stockton KUOP was owned by the University of the Pacific. It had a 7 kW ERP signal that reached into parts of the San Francisco East Bay, up to about 30 miles from the campus. It was a typical college station operated by students but was fairly tightly controlled by faculty.
I don’t remember any local full time religious stations on the air in 1950. Some commercial stations sold time to churches to broadcast Sunday morning services. A few ministers bought commercial air time then asked on the air for donations.

All stations were required by the FCC to dedicate part of their broadcast time to education. So there were programs that could be logged as educational on commercial stations. Most were on Sunday morning.

In the Bay Area commercial stations broadcasting the same music format during the entire broadcast day were just beginning. Top 40 radio came later. By broadcasting a unique format to the entire area, a station could get enough total listeners to be viable. KSMO in San Mateo broadcast classical music full time. KVSM in San Mateo broadcast country music, and KWBR (later KDIA) in Oakland programmed for black listeners. But these stations were the exception. Most stations were block programmed with different programs for separate audiences at different times of the day.

College radio stations took two forms. A very few had FM licenses; most were carrier current. A low power transmitter fed signals into dormitory wiring so that any AM radio plugged into the dorm wiring would receive the carrier current signal exactly like any other broadcast signal. The FCC did not license carrier current stations since technically they did not broadcast. But the FCC would reserve the carrier current station call letters so they could not be used by any other station.

In part two Fred takes up his days at Stanford’s KZSU.

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