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Radio Recollections: Stanford University’s KZSU in the 1950s

Editor’s Note: This is part two of Fred Krock’s three-part series on San Francisco Bay Area radio in the early 1950s. In part one he gave an overview of what the radio dial sounded like then. Fred got his start at Stanford University’s station in Palo Alto, which is where the story picks up.

When I started college in 1950 KZSU at Stanford was a carrier current station broadcasting on 880 kHz, a frequency that was not used by any broadcast station in the area. The Stanford speech and drama department had good quality new RCA studio equipment used for radio classes and by the station.

Still, broadcasting was not important at Stanford. It did not give a degree or have graduate studies in broadcasting. The speech and drama department’s classes mostly were taught by the same professor or one particular instructor. I talked with that professor about his broadcasting classes. He stated very clearly that, “Stanford was not a broadcasting trade school.” I asked him who would find his classes useful, and he replied, “Future public television program directors can get an idea about what was required to work in broadcasting.”

Later I tried to interest Stanford in getting a FM license for KZSU. I had arranged for alumni working in electronics to install a donated FM transmitter at no cost to Stanford. The reply was that Stanford as a private university had no obligation to supply radio programs to the residents of Palo Alto. Years later KZSU did get the FM license that it uses today.

I personally had no intention of going into broadcasting as a career. If I had made a list of 100 possible future careers, broadcasting would not have been number 101 on that list. Rather, all Stanford freshmen were expected to have an extra-curricular activity, but I did not. One of the students who lived down the hall from me in the freshman dorm had volunteered to work at KZSU. He said, “Why don’t you join me? It’s fun.” So, I got started because I needed an activity.

KZSU broadcast from 7 to 11 PM Monday through Friday. Occasionally it was on the air on weekends to broadcast a Stanford sports event.  I was taught to spin records, run the board, and operate other studio equipment. Since I was the new kid I was assigned to work Friday night. The station had trouble getting people to work then because that was a main evening for dates. Even then, working in broadcasting couldn’t compete with sex.

Before long I also was combo announcing on Friday nights as well as running the board because the station could not get anyone else to announce. I had no training or experience announcing; it was like teaching a person to swim by throwing him off a pier. “Here is how to turn on the control room microphone. Go.”

KZSU, then, was where I learned the trade of broadcasting that I used later in commercial radio. I worked my way up at KZSU to be chief engineer and then station manager.

The main program I announced when I began was “Friday Night Request Time” from 9-11 PM. KZSU had an outside telephone line that did not go through the Stanford switchboard so it could receive request calls at any time.

KZSU studios were in Memorial Auditorium (MemAud). In addition to two theaters, it also had classrooms and offices. MemAud was closed and locked after 6 PM, so a speech and drama graduate student was paid a small salary to unlock the doors and keep an eye on things while KZSU was on the air. His title was graduate manager. He spent most of his time studying in one of the offices, but usually would walk through during the evening to remind us he was there.

I was aware of several couples who were staff members who would wander away from KZSU while it was on the air and go to a dressing room or some other private corner of MemAud to have sex. The dressing rooms had a sofa and co-ed dorms were very far in the future. Students had difficulty renting a motel room because motels had problems with students renting rooms and throwing wild parties.

KZSU had an office in the basement of MemAud that was open around the clock. It had an external door that formerly had been a window, and an interior door leading into MemAud was locked when the building was closed.

When I was station manager in 1953, KZSU purchased a used Western Electric console from KWBR in Oakland. Engineers built a very small control room and studio in part of the office. That way KZSU could go one the air when MemAud was closed and the staff had no access to the control room or when the studio was in use by a class.

At KZSU student supervisors–like the program director, chief engineer, business manager, and station manager–were elected by staff members. The faculty advisor had veto power but I don’t remember that he ever used it.

In 1952 a woman was elected station manager. I was chief engineer. She and I began a romantic relationship and went steady without ever agreeing to go steady. Neither of us wanted to date anyone else. She was tall, slender, and very pretty. She could have worked as a model, but she also was very smart. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

While KZSU was on the air it had an operations director known as the “O.D.” The name came from the military term “Officer of the Day.” He usually was one of the regular supervisors but it could be any staff member. He ran the station and made any decisions that were needed. He solved the problem if an announcer called in sick or had to study for a test.

The O.D. wrote a review of all the programs that were broadcast, which was posted on the bulletin board at the end of the day, for all to read. This was meant to be a teaching aid to help improve the quality of programs, but the O.D.’s competed with each other to see who could write the funniest wittiest reviews.

KZSU also was a commercial station. Students sold advertising to local merchants and were paid commission exactly as other advertising salespeople. Unfortunately, the income did not go to the radio station, but to the Stanford general fund. Yet, the commission payments came out of the KZSU budget. So the more advertising that was sold, the less money was left in the budget.

Was the advertising successful? I bought my future wife an engagement ring from a long time KZSU sponsor because it was the first name that came to mind.

Many college stations at the time were commercial. The complications in paying advertising revenue to colleges caused the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System to pay some stations with broadcast equipment instead of cash. The college treated it as a donation. KZSU got a new RCA 44-BX microphone that way.

In part three Fred will detail KZSU’s radio dramas and broadcast signal.


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