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Last Update 7/8/01


by Leon Fletcher


Historians still disagree about which was the first radio station to broadcast regularly scheduled programs in the United States. KDKA, Pittsburgh, usually gets the honor for going on the air November 2, 1920. Others say it was WGI, Boston, reportedly started eight months earlier, in March.

But knowledgeable folks in the San Francisco bay area scoff at those claims. They know that it was in San Jose---90 miles south and considered even then to be a part of San Francisco's sphere---that the nation's first broadcast was transmitted, in 1909.

That year was ripe with innovation. Perry reached the North Pole. The first transcontinental flight was made. Sikorsky developed the helicopter. The Boy Scouts of American was incorporated. New Mexico was admitted as the 47th state, Arizona as the 48th. Parcel post service started. Ford introduced the Model T. The Radio Club of America began. The first SOS by radio was sent by an American ship.


And in San Jose, Dr. Charles David Herrold---called "Doc," of course---established the Herrold College of Engineering and Wireless. That school soon began broadcasting occasional tests of electronic gear developed by faculty and students. Listeners hearing those signals phoned the college to report their reception and ask when the station would be on the air again.

A student at the school, Ray Newby, then 16 years old, Herrold's assistant from 1908 until 1923, said, "It was not long until we got into a pre-arranged scheduled so that we would have listeners that could report to us."

The resulting schedule---half-hour broadcasts at 9pm Wednesdays---became "almost a religion with Professor Herrold," according to Newby.


The case for Doc's station being the first to broadcast on a schedule was endorsed on a 1994 PBS documentary by wireless historian Bart Lee, who said, "There's no question about that. He was first."

On that same program, Gordon Greb, Herrold researcher, said he interviewed Lee De Forest in 1959 and asked, "Do you believe that Herrold's station deserves credit to be the world's first broadcasting station?" De Forest's reply, "I sure do."

By 1910 the station had expanded its broadcasting from transmitting brief, simple test messages, to airing musical recordings played on a phonograph. News was added by reading articles from local newspapers. Doc's wife, Sybil, was one of the on-air voices. That made her, she later claimed, "the first woman to ever broadcast a program."

Early Programs

One of her shows, "Little Ham Program," featured records she borrowed from a local music store, Sherman Clay. Grandson Stephen True said the store "loved it because the next day they would sell out of whatever she would play over the radio." Thus the power of what would become radio advertising was documented early.

Sybil also introduced the first contests for radio listeners. She announced there would be prizes award each week to folks who came to the station to report hearing the transmissions. Often the prizes were little pieces of galena, so small they were usually handled with tweezers. Galena was lead ore, needed in crystal sets, the first widely-used radio receivers.

Before stations had call signs, Doc identified his station by announcing, "This is San Jose calling." Soon the government required stations to use call letters, and allowed stations to select their own calls. Doc picked "FN," later changed to "SJN." In 1920, the Commerce Department began issuing licenses for broadcast stations and on December 9, 1921, Doc's station received the call sign KQW.

In 1937, KQW joined the just-established Mutual-Don Lee Network; that association ended in 1941. In 1949, the Columbia Broadcasting System bought KQW, changed its call to KCBS, and the station was established as a major outlet in San Francisco.

In 1968, KCBS began broadcasting news only. Today it continues to be the primary radio news source for millions of listeners daily.

Broadcasting Grows

But back in the early 1920s in San Francisco, other radio stations were also going on the air.

Famed electronics inventor Lee De Forest started 6XC, later known as KZY. His station went on the air in May, 1920, six months before KDKA, that station so widely believed to be the first. De Forest's station featured three half-hour concerts a day. Music was by a theater organist and by Hermann Heller's Symphony Orchestra.

Another pioneering San Francisco station, KDN, started broadcasting in June, 1921, as 6XG. It was one of the first of several radio stations that transmitted from the Fairmont Hotel, ideal for broadcasting because of its location atop of San Francisco's Nob Hill. Former ship's radio officer Alan Cormack was hired to be the on-air personality. He played music on an old wide-up phonograph that had to be rewound frequently.

Another early radio station in San Francisco was KPO, started by former Navy radioman Joe Martineau. He convinced the owners of Hale Brothers Department Store---Francis, Marshall, and Reuben---to install a station in that store and let him operate it. The first program was on the air on April 17, 1922.

In 1924, KFRC began broadcasting with an exceptionally strong signal, heard on the East coast, Hawaii, Alaska, even New Zealand. Yet its transmitter was considered "relatively low-powered" and its antennas only modest. Engineers studied the phenomenon, could not agree on why the signal was so powerful, but decided that perhaps the building which housed the station, the Whitcomb Hotel, might have been situated on land that was an ideal ground---that is, connection with the earth.


One of KFRC's announcers, Dean Maddox---also known as "Buddha"---became my idol. One day I watched him present one of his many man-on-the-street interviews. Afterwards, I asked him for an autograph. I was but a child and had no paper or pen with me. He smiled broadly, signed the script for a commercial he'd just delivered, and gave it to me.

KFRC aired many performers who became famous, including Don Wilson, well-known later as Jack Benny's announcer. Other voices heard in the early days of that station were Morey Amsterdam, Ben Benederet---well-known female announcer---Ralph Edwards, Merv Griffin, Art Linkletter, John Nesbitt, and Harold Peary. 

More New Stations

Radio grew fast in the 1920's. Some stations were on the air for but a few months, then folded. By 1929 eleven radio stations and their spots on the dial (kilocycles) were listed in local newspapers

KTAB - 550
KFRC - 610 
KPO - 680 
KGO - 790
KLX - 880 
KFWI - 930 
KJBS - 1100
KYA - 1246
KTAB - 1280 
KRE - 1304 
KGTT - 1420

Programs included

Good Cheer Hour 
Shell Happy Time 
Country Store 
Towne Cryer
Amateur Audition 
Hawaiians Shopper's Hour
Kiddie's Orchestra
Farm Features 
Mystery Hour 
Studio Concert
Might Owls

Big Time

San Francisco soon joined New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles as one of the nation's leading centers of radio programming. San Francisco's major hit program was "One Man's Family."

That series started on Friday, April 29, 1932, a half-hour program aired at 930pm PST; it became the longest-running radio drama in history---continuing for 27 years, until May 8, 1959. Written by Carleton E. Morse, the show included 35 characters of the fictional aristocratic San Francisco family, the Barbours. In the story, they lived in the prestigious Sea Cliff area of San Francisco. One actor, Anthony Smythe, played the father, Henry Barbour, throughout the entire series.

The success of that show sparked Carleton E. Morse to write the spin-off program, "I Love a Mystery"---billed as a new "adventure thriller." A newspaper guide to radio programs of those days claimed the series presented "hair-raising, teeth-chattering thrillers that have all American on the edge of its chair!!!"

First aired in January, 1939, on NBC's Pacific Coast stations, by 1940 it was a nation-wide sensation. Many of the actors in Morse's "One Man's Family" show also appeared in this new mystery. From it came three movies, a comic strip, and a TV series pilot.

Famed Actor

Jack Webb was another nationally-famous radio personality with a San Francisco broadcasting heritage. He began there as a radio announcer. After he was well-known, he told interviewers, "My early radio career (in San Francisco) was as romantic as playing post office in an old maids' club. I got to the station every day at 430am, pushed a button and said, ˜And now back to New York.'"

Webb's next step to fame was playing the title role in a the radio drama "Pat Novak for Hire." Created by San Francisco writer Dick Breen, it cast Webb as a wise-cracking detective. The series was broadcast in San Francisco for 23 weeks, then moved to Hollywood. There, Webb said later, "I was everybody's hot cake."

Before long he was starring in TV's "Dragnet"---a show that grew out of his previous detective series. Even today, more than a half-century later, "Dragnet" is rerun on many stations. Webb also went on to star in many other radio and TV shows and in feature films.

Today, there are 38 radio stations on the air in San Francisco, plus numerous other stations in the many towns in the bay area. Such a radio heritage helps document San Francisco's claim as "The city that knows how!"

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Copyright © 2001 Leon Fletcher . This article was first published in Monitoring Times December 2000.

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Leon Fletcher, author of this article, has 17 written 17 published books, including How to Speak Like a Pro, and 800+ articles published in TV Guide, Writer's Digest, World Digest, Monitoring Times, World Digest, Sea, et al.    His online address