THE HISTORY OF KGO,
Copyright John F. Schneider, 1996
The General Electric Company had been one of the giants of the electrical
industry since its founding by Thomas A. Edison in the nineteenth century. After
conquering the worlds of power generation and electric lighting, the company
became one of the pioneers in the radio field as a partner with Westinghouse in
the new RCA manufacturing conglomerate. As a major early manufacturer of radio
receivers, they, like Westinghouse, saw the value in operating broadcast
stations to promote the sale of radio receivers. General Electric constructed
and operated WGY at its manufacturing facility in Schenectady, New York in 1922.
With the success of WGY, General Electric began making plans to build two
other high-powered radio stations. One station was to cover the mountain and
plains states, while the third was to be heard on the Pacific Coast. They
immediately began investigating the San Francisco area as a base for the Pacific
station, because of its location midway along the coast, and because of the
ample supply of musical talent in the area. Originally, General Electric
announced plans to build the station on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, and had
drawn up plans for several ornamental antenna structures to be built there.
However, they finally settled on a site in Oakland, at a G. E. power transformer
manufacturing facility there, located at East 14th Street and 55th Avenue. At
the time, what is now known as East Oakland was only sparsely populated, and G.
E. had just completed their sprawling plant on a 24-acre site earlier that year.
Construction was begun on the studio and transmitter buildings in June of
1923, about a year before the company's third station, KOA in Denver, was begun.
The license was applied for and the call letters KGO assigned. Those call
letters had previously been held by a radio store in Altadena, near Los Angeles.
That station had gone off the air after less than a year of operation.
Meanwhile, newspapers in the area were heralding the coming of a great new
super-station to the Bay Area. The "Examiner" headlined, "Plans
Ready for Biggest Radio in the West". It announced that the new
thousand-watt station would be strong enough to "throw the human voice one
third around the world ... more powerful than any station west of Schenectady,
New York," referring to G. E.'s eastern operation.
KGO first took to the air January 8, 1924. A beautiful new two-story brick
building had been constructed expressly to house the studios, and the
transmitter building and antenna were at the opposite end of the plant. On the
first floor of the studio building were the station offices: Program Manager,
correspondence room, and a reception room for visitors. In the rear of the
building was the power room, containing banks of storage batteries and large
generators, which were used to power the amplifying equipment in the control
room upstairs. On the second floor there were two studios, the second
considerably smaller than the first, and both equipped with ample soundproofing
and a ventilation system. There was also a large control room between the
studios, equipped with a loudspeaker to monitor what was taking place in the
studios. Three operators were always on duty in the control room -- two to keep
the equipment running properly and to maintain a constant output volume, and a
third to listen for distress calls from ships at sea on a separate receiver. In
the event of a distress call, all coastal stations of the period were required
to shut down, clearing the radio bands for emergency traffic.
The transmitter building was located about a thousand feet away from the
studio, and the buildings were connected by several cables carrying the program
audio plus a system of signal lights and an intercom. It was a small one-story
stucco building that housed six power generators in one room and three
transmitters in the other. KGO was one of the few stations then to have a
duplicate of every piece of transmitting equipment, so that the station could
stay on the air in the event of equipment failure. This was the purpose of two
of the three transmitters. The third was for communicating with ships in
distress, and was kept on standby at all times. The two 150-foot steel towers
that supported the antenna straddled the transmitter building, one on each side,
at a spacing of 260 feet, so that the antenna was strung directly over the
structure. Twelve counterpoise wires were hung parallel to the antenna fourteen
feet above the ground and covering an area of 150 x 300 feet. The letters K-G-O
were mounted in large illuminated figures on the side of one tower. For its
time, the station represented the epitome of technology.
KGO went on the air initially on a schedule of 8 to 10 PM every Tuesday,
Thursday and Saturday. Immediately, it developed a reputation among its
listeners for having consistently high program quality. Some of the top musical
artists in the Bay Area were enlisted to perform over KGO by Studio Manager
Howard Milholland. Indeed, most of the program staff itself was musically
inclined. Milholland and three other staff members formed a quartet that was
heard frequently over the air waves. Announcer Jennings Pierce, who later
announced for NBC, was a very fine tenor. Carl Rhodehamel, Publicity Manager,
directed the KGO Little Symphony. In fact, it is quite possible that KGO
required all its staff members to have musical abilities.
One of KGO's most popular programs was Ann Holden's Home Forum, which began
shortly after the station's first broadcast, and continued to be a regular KGO
feature until 1962. The original Ann Holden, whose real name was Flora Davis,
was replaced by Francis Minton after the former's death.
KGO pioneered in educational broadcasts as well as music. Arthur Garbett's
radio classrooms were listened to daily in schools all over Northern California.
These beginnings were expanded in later years to encompass radio courses in
history, drawing, chemistry and other subjects, as well as broadcast lectures
and University extension courses. KGO also excelled in radio drama. Wilda Wilson
Church, who had headed the dramatic department of an all-girl's school in
Berkeley and had directed early radio plays at station KRE in that city, became
KGO's full time dramatic director. She assembled and directed a dramatic company
called the KGO Players, and quickly showed a superb talent in developing radio
drama as an entity totally separate from the theater and suited to the aural
properties of radio. It was here that she developed techniques that would later
bring her national recognition with NBC.
KGO was part of an interesting experiment conducted by General Electric March
7, 1924. G. E. microphones picked up the proceedings of the alumni banquet at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, held in the ballroom of the
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. This program was broadcast over WJZ in New
York, and sent simultaneously by wire to Schenectady, where it was broadcast by
WGY and the G. E. shortwave station there. The shortwave broadcasts, heard in
Europe, were simultaneously picked up by shortwave station KFKX in Hastings,
Nebraska, which rebroadcast it for pickup by KGO. Thus, in 1924, a New York
broadcast could be heard live anywhere between the Pacific Coast and Europe.
KGO also carried many less-spectacular remote broadcasts in its early years.
A San Francisco studio was installed in the St. Francis Hotel in May of 1924.
Regular programs by Henry "Hank" Halstead and his Victor Recording
Orchestra were heard from the hotel for many years, as well as performances by
Isham Jones' Jazz Band. Numerous pick-ups from clubs, churches, auditoriums,
hotels, theaters and dance halls on both sides of the Bay were also frequently
In December of 1924, KGO was authorized to increase its power to 1,500 watts
under a special arrangement with the government that provided for gradual
increases in increments of 500 watts until the station was found to be
interfering with other broadcasters. Only five other stations in the U.S. had
been allowed to broadcast at 1,500 watts up until that time.
Several frequency and power changes took place over the next few years under
DATE FREQ POWER
1/8/24 790 1,000
12/3/24 790 1,500
1/12/25 1000 1,500
1/15/25 1000 2,000
3/26/25 830 2,000
7/13/25 830 3,000
10/8/25 830 3,500
11/8/25 830 4,000
3/30/26 830 5,000
4/26/27 830 12,500
6/15/27 780 5,000
11/11/28 790 5,000
11/22/28 790 7,500
In November, 1928, KGO settled on 7,500 watts at 790 kc. and they remained at
this power level until 1947, when they were authorized to raise their power to
the present 50,000 watts.
Shortly after KGO first went on the air, it was provided with an emergency
source of power by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, at that Company's own
suggestion and expense, to provide the area with an emergency radio service in
the event of a power failure. KGO began operating with one of the first
crystal-controlled transmitters in 1926, and was recognized by the Bureau of
Standards as a "constant frequency station". These and other
technological advances helped make KGO one of the nation's top stations
technically, as well as in programming.
On August 17, 1929, KGO put a short wave station, W6XN, on the air as part of
the sixth Pacific Radio Show held in San Francisco's Civic Auditorium. The
proceedings of that exposition were transmitted via shortwave to Schenectady,
where they were rebroadcast over WGY and her shortwave stations.
In April of 1927, KGO became an affiliate of the new NBC Orange Network,
along with KPO in San Francisco. (Keep in mind that NBC was operated by RCA, and
General Electric was one of the companies that owned RCA.) On October 1, 1929,
KGO was selected as the key station for the west coast network, and NBC took
over complete management and operation of the station. After that date, KGO's
programs originated from NBC's San Francisco headquarters at 111 Sutter Street.
The Oakland transmitter continued to be used until 1947.
(See separate article for references to NBC's operation in San Francisco)
In 1946, the F. C. C. decided that NBC controlled too much of the broadcast
industry, and it forced a divestiture of NBC's second network. The Blue Network
operation was sold to new owners, and it became ABC, the American Broadcasting
Company. The Red Network remained under NBC ownership, and was now called simply
the NBC radio network.
After the F.C.C. lifted its war-time freeze on the expansion of broadcast
facilities , KGO immediately applied for improved facilities. The station was
still operating with 7,500 watts from the same General Electric factory where it
had originally begun. After the freeze, however, the F. C. C. granted KGO's
application to broadcast with 50,000 watts, the maximum allowable power. What is
today's KGO transmitter facility was constructed on land fill at the Eastern
approach to the Dumbarton Bridge near Fremont. Three 300-foot towers were
constructed, each anchored in salt water. KGO became the first San Francisco
station to broadcast with one of the new multi-tower directional antenna
systems. The new signal favored north-south reception, allowing KGO to be heard
clearly along the entire Pacific coast at night, while protecting a New York
station on the same frequency from interference. The new KGO transmitter was
among the most modern then in use. It was the first to be air cooled, and
featured a complete set of spare tubes that were kept heated at all times, ready
to be switched into the circuit at the push of a button.
KGO's new signal took to the air December 1, 1947. The increase in power
effectively doubled the station's daytime coverage area. KGO became the second
station in Northern California to broadcast with 50,000 watts -- former sister
station KPO had preceded it by 14 years.
May 5, 1949, marked the inaugural broadcast of KGO-TV. The city fathers
relinquished the historic Sutro Mansion on Mount Sutro to the new station, with
a number of restrictions on building modifications. The station began
originating most of its programs from the mansion, with the transmitter and
tower at the same location. In the early 1950's, both the radio and TV studios
were consolidated at KGO's new location on Golden Gate Avenue.
In the 1950's, KGO radio featured a recorded music format hosted by
personality disk jockeys. KGO's most popular disk jockey was Rolfe Peterson, a
former English instructor at Brigham Young University who had turned to radio
because the pay was better. One KGO program that was notably innovative was a
man-on-the-street program, hosted by comics Mal Sharpe and Jim Coyle. The
program was essentially a radio version of TV's "Candid Camera". Coyle
and Sharpe would pose as researchers for the Milpitas Physical Fitness
Institute, and ask passers-by to do calesthenics; or, they would pose as
experimenters from the University of California, testing animal-human brain
communication through the use of impressive, if not genuine, electrical
The 1960's saw KGO inaugurate all-talk programming, with a full array of
hosts who discussed the issues of the day with their call-in listeners. KGO
quickly became one of the foremost talk stations in the country, and continued
this format into the 1990's.
Article: "Station KGO, San Francisco and Oakland, California".
Unpublished, from KGO historical files.
"San Francisco Examiner", June 1, 1923.
"San Francisco Examiner", January 4, 1925.
"Berkeley Gazette", March 27, 1923.
"Radio" Magazine, May, 1922.
"Radio" Magazine, March, 1924.
"San Francisco Chronical", January 9, 1924.
"Big Business and Radio", by Gleason L. Archer.
"Background on Old Personalities in KGO History".
Unpublished; from KGO historical files.
"New Equipment Boosts KGO Broadcast Efficiency".
Press release; from KGO historical files.
© Copyright 1996 John F. Schneider. All rights reserved.
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