This is the San Francisco
The Broadcast Archive
Maintained by: Barry Mishkind - The Eclectic Engineer
Last Update 7/8/01
SAN FRANCISCO'S RADIO HERITAGE
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
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
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."
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
In 1968, KCBS began broadcasting news only. Today it continues to be the
primary radio news source for millions of listeners daily.
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
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
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
Good Cheer Hour
Shell Happy Time
Ye Towne Cryer
Hawaiians Shopper's Hour
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
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.
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
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!"
- - - - - - - - - -
Copyright © 2001 Leon Fletcher .
This article was first published in Monitoring Times December
- - - - - - - - - -
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