THE HISTORIES OF KZM AND KLX,
Copyright 1996, 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
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
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, and 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 the characters in the Tribune
comics page. 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
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 910 kc.,
in March of 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
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 Isabella 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
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 DJ's wore tuxedos
and the contestants were in full gowns. Miss America, Lee Ann
Merriweather 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 ever 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 DJ's
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, Washington, station $75,000 to give up its call
letters. The station was moved to plush new studios on Jack London Square
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 in 1969, and returned to popular music programming. In
the 1970's, 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 1990's. 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 11/11/28.
With research by Barry Mishkind, 1993-94.
© Copyright 1996 John F. Schneider. All rights reserved.
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