Like a lot of us, I grew up being a big fan of popular music, particularly rock and roll that was produced during the 1960’s. If I was lucky, one of my older sisters would purchase some of the records that were currently in vogue, or maybe one of my favorite singers would be making a television appearance. Some of us might have spent a lot of time around juke boxes, or might even been fortunate enough to attend a live performance of a well know recording artist. But if you were like me, chances are your primary source was the radio, whether it while sitting around the house, at a friend’s, or riding around in a car. Of course trying to enjoy rock and roll via the radio meant being at the mercy of the station’s playlist, hearing endless jingles and countless commercials, and having the DJs talk over the beginning and endings of our most eagerly anticipated songs. But not only did we put up with these obstacles and accept them, but most of us would develop a fondness for some of the radio stations, and became, at times, loyal listeners to many of the DJ’s. This could often be problematic, as the story of early Bay Area rock and roll radio is littered with stations being bought and sold, formats being switched, call letters being changed, and on-air personalities constantly being replaced.
Radio itself, in the early 1950’s, had gone through a process of reinventing itself. Once the dominant medium for home entertainment, and America’s go to source for news, entertainment and live sports events, the advent of commercial network television in the late 1940’s triggered a fast erosion of radio listeners. By the 1950’s, not only had television lured away some of radio’s biggest stars, such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Groucho Marx, but had also captured the lion’s share of bigtime advertisers. With sit-coms, game shows children’s programming now the property of TV, most radio stations knew that to survive, they would need to emphasize the one genre they could deliver better than television…music. It wasn’t long before radio stations all over the United States began developing formats that featured popular music being presented by a host who hopefully, would have an engaging enough personality to prevent his audience to turn the dial hoping to hear another song of their liking. Although the term “disc jockey” dates back to the 1930’s, it was during the 1950’s, and the growth of local radio personalities that the word became commonly applied. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the most successful of local radio star was Don Sherwood, who was KSFO’s morning man throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Billing himself as the “World’s Greatest Disc Jockey,” Sherwood generally played music that was in line with his own tastes, and much of his listening audience…easily listening contemporary selections, performed by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney and various vocal groups.
Top 40 radio, the concept of radio stations focusing their playlists primarily on whatever the most current popular songs happened to be started in 1951, although at that time, none of those selections could be considered rock & roll. But everything changed in July of 1955 when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” became the first rock and roll record to top the Billboard Pop charts, illustrating the tremendous potential the genre had, not only in terms of record sales, but in attracting a young radio listening audience. Dave Segal, owner of Top 40 stations in Denver and Greenville, Mississippi, acquired the 10,000 watt KEAR 1550 in 1956, changed the call letters to KOBY, and beginning on October 5, 1956, Northern California had its first Top 40 station that featured some rock and roll. Segal ran KOBY on a shoestring, recycling station jingles used on his other stations, assigning aliases to his on-air disc jockeys (names they would have to leave behind when moving on to other jobs) and running numerous contests that featured very cheap prizes. Contests had always been a promotional tool in radio, sometimes resulting in lucky listeners winning significant amounts of money or merchandise…the best Segal would do was the “Name it and Claim it” competition, where the first caller to the station that could identify the particular record being played, would win the 45 rpm record…a 90 cent value. I vaguely remember one KOBY contest called “Break a Record,” where the winning caller got to remove a record from the playlist, banning the song from airing for an entire week. One gal named Susie, the victor of the game, choose the Everly Brothers hit, “Wake up Little Susie” as the song to be “broken,” and banished from KOBY for seven days. Her reasoning…”My name is Susie, and people keep teasing me when the song comes on.” Wow, tough life!
As far as KOBY’s disc jockeys, most of them were veteran radio announcers who had had little knowledge or interest in rock and roll, but ever the troopers, they bravely soldiered on, introducing songs by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Ricky Nelson, probably hoping the craze would blow over in a few years. But despite the lack original promoting, lame contests and out of place deejays, KOBY quickly climbed to number one in the market, demonstrating the power of the music. Of course, KOBY’s success did not go unnoticed, and eventually KOBY would have competition.
Looking back, it’s seems surprising that KOBY went unchallenged for over 18 months, and even when KYA 1260 did, in May of 1958 start to move toward a Top 40 format, they took baby steps, allowing rock and roll to be played for only a few hours a day. But really, you can’t blame the radio establishment for any reluctance in embracing rock and roll. Even the oldest Baby Boomers were only between 10 and 12 years of age, and were not yet a demographic with a lot of purchasing power… plus traditional recording artists like Perry Como, Patti Page and of course Frank Sinatra were still selling millions of records. A look at the KOBY’s first ever Top 40 Survey (October 7, 1956) finds Elvis Presley holding down the #1 spot with “Don’t Be Cruel,” but #2 was the easy listening instrumental, “Canadian Sunset” by Hugo Winterhalter, with Doris Day, Johnny Ray and Patti Page all with top ten entries the same week, showing that rock and roll was not yet dominating the charts.
But if KYA wasn’t willing to commit to fulltime Top 40, another station was. On the morning of June 8, 1959, KLX 910 became KEWB 910, when a young, pre-Laugh-In Gary Owens introduced Wilbert Harrison’s “Kansas City.” In taking on a Top 40 format, KEWB distinguished itself from KOBY and KYA by hiring a fresh team of DJ’s, all with seemingly comfortable with rock and roll. In addition to Owens, KEWB’s lineup would include Casey Kasem, Bobby Dale, Ron Lyons and the “real” Don Steele. Now with two bona fide competitors, KOBY started losing listeners, and by February of 1960, the Bay Area’s first Top 40 radio station changed its call letters to KQBY, and switched to a beautiful music format.
For me, the legacy of KOBY was not just being the first station to bring rock and roll to Bay Area radio, but also introducing many of us to the weekly top 40 (or 20 or 30) music survey sheets.
Since the beginning of Top 40 radio, it has been standard operating procedure for stations to flood the area with weekly one page fliers, advising listeners of that week’s most popular songs. Usually distributed at local record stores, these surveys were almost a Baby Boomer equivalent of the Dow Jones Industrial Averages. Week by week, many of us would follow a song’s progress as it would enter the chart at a top 40 position, then rise to its highest slot, then begin a steady decline before disappearing from the survey, usually forever. I followed the top 40 surveys as religiously as I did the MLB National League standings, and I would openly root for my favorite group’s releases to climb as high as possible, sometimes reaching #1. Some of us, upon hearing a song for the first time, started handicapping as to how high a record could go. My friend John was so sure that Herman’s Hermits “Listen People” would reach number one, he bet another friend Bill an undisclosed sum that it would do so…it stalled at #5.
Although the Billboard Hot 100 is considered the gold standard for tracking chart performance of current records, the Bay Area radio station surveys were decidedly independent of any national surveys, as a song’s position was determined by the number of sales the record had locally. The Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” might have been #1 nationally, but only reached #6 on KYA’s Official Top 30 during the summer of 1964, while the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” #8 in Billboard, held the #1 position on KEWB’s Fabulous Forty Survey for 6 weeks in August and September of 1963. “Land of 1000 Dances” was a national hit for both Wilson Pickett and Cannibal and the Headhunters, but in Northern California, it was some guy called Round Robin who had the most success with the song, reaching #1 in April of 1965. Then there is the case of the iconic “Louie Louie.” Although the best known version of the song was recorded by the Kingsmen, whose release reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in December of 1963, it was the Paul Revere and the Raiders rendition that the Bay Area preferred. Not only was “Louie Louie” a hit for Paul Revere in San Francisco during the fall of 1963 (reaching #5), but it reappeared on the Bay Area charts in June of 1965, climbing as high as #2 on the KYA survey, and remaining in the Top 10 for nine weeks…I wish I knew why.
It was in 1960 that KYA began the two year process of putting together the Bay Area’s most remembered rock and roll broadcast team. In July of that year, the station hired a deejay who went by the name of Johnny Raven to work the late shift. Advancing to program director, Raven, who would become better known as Les Crane, went about hiring on-air personalities who seemed to be as hip as the music they were playing. In August, Bobby Mitchell was added to the line-up, followed months later by Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue. In August of 1962, Russ “The Moose” Syracuse and Tommy Saunders joined KYA, but the station’s most significant hire came about in December of 1962 with the addition of Gene Nelson. Unlike many of his counterparts, Nelson never relied on the fast talking, bell and whistle approach to Top 40 broadcasting, but instead, preferred to talk frankly about things that interested him, which included local professional sports teams, television and movies. Manning the 6am to 9am slot, Nelson soon proclaimed himself the “emperor of the airways”, inviting thousands of young listeners to become one of his “Royal Commandos.” Emperor Gene Nelson would soon become KYA’s all-time most popular disc-jockey, and during most of the remainder of 1960’s, his voice was second only to KSFO’s Don Sherwood as Northern California’s most familiar.
Nelson and company surged ahead of KEWB as the Bay Area’s leading Top 40 station, but the latter received a well needed shot in the arm in early 1964 with the advent of Beatlemania. On February 9, 1964, the Beatles first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show attracted over 73 million viewers, which helped propel their current record, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to #1 on every known record survey. KEWB’s station managers figured out immediately that playing as many Beatle songs as possible throughout the day would put them at least on equal footing with KYA, no matter how popular KYA’s on-air talent had become. Soon KEWB’s deejay’s (including Bobby Dale and Ron Lyons) were instructed to refer to the Fab-Four as the “KEWBeatles,” and began programing sound bites from Beatle interviews throughout the day, sometimes editing them to give the appearance that KEWB personalities were conducting them. Not to be outdone, KYA presented its first Beatles marathon in May of 1964, devoting an entire weekend to wall to wall Beatles music, which wasn’t easy considering that the entire Beatles catalog at that time was comprised of only 30 or so songs. Although the Beatles would remain popular forever, the “mania” phase of their career was over by 1965, and KEWB settled back behind KYA in the local Top 40 ratings.
In early 1966, both KYA and KEWB got some unwanted competition when KFRC 610 switched to a Top 40 format. Aiming for a younger demographic, KFRC streamlined the traditional formula, limiting the playlists to just the Top 30 songs, giving the deejays very little discretion regarding the choice of songs to be played, or even in what order. As lame as it sounds now, KFRC’s new style was a huge success, quickly passing KYA and KEWB in the number of listeners. In the fall of 1966, KEWB threw in the towel, changing its call letters to KNEW, focusing on country music.
But by now, change was in the air…rock and roll was progressing, developing a more complex edge as witnessed by the “San Francisco Sound” that was being created by the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead. Rock’s original audience was growing older as many were now of college age, and not really interested in the next single to be released by the Monkees or Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Former deejay Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue, who had left KYA to start a local record label, could see a void developing, with too much good, sophisticated music being virtually ignored by the Top 40 am stations. Donahue became a pioneer in FM radio, first with KMPX in 1967, and later with KSAN, giving listeners a chance to hear entire albums, with little in the way of contests or station jingles. Also, more and more automobiles were becoming equipped with tape players, giving drivers still another alternative to Top 40 stations.
Of course, KYA and KFRC did not go away overnight, as both stations were able to hang on to the loyalty of the younger Baby Boomers, offering up the talents of men like Dr. Don Rose and Big Tom Campbell. Emperor Gene Nelson left KYA in 1968, and I was much surprised one night, when after listening to the end of a Giants night game on KSFO, to hear Nelson come on, and work the late shift…he stayed there for 25 years. Eventually, the youngest Boomers outgrew Top 40 AM, and with the next generation more inclined towards MTV, Top 40 AM went into steady slide. In 1983, KYA 1260 become KOIT, while KFRC went defunct in 2005. Both stations, in their final years, adapted an “Oldies” format, attempting to recreate their golden 1960’s pasts. Since they were no longer playing current Top 40 music, neither station was bothering to send out survey fliers anymore, which was too bad…I really thought the Paul Revere and the Raiders version of “Louie Louie” was poised to make another run at the Top 10.
Note: Probably the Bay Area’s most unique radio station transformation took place in the spring of 1959 when radio mogul Gordon McLendon purchased Oakland’s easy-listening KROW 960. When McLendon announced that KROW would debut its new format on the morning of Monday, May 11, it was assumed that it was going Top 40, as McLendon already owned several rock and roll orientated stations throughout the U.S. Those suspicions increased when KROW, beginning on Friday, May 8, began playing an ear-jarring novelty record called “Gila Monster” continuously over the next 72 hours. What made the gimmick even more memorable was the fact that KROW never acknowledged what it was doing, as its deejays would introduce records by Frank Sinatra and Vaughn Monroe, only to play “Gila Monster” again and again. Finally, on Monday morning, with listeners and competitors alike convinced that KROW was going rock and roll, McLendon himself came on the air and introduced Northern California to KABL 960, “your Beautiful Music station.” It turned out that McLendon felt the Bay Area already had too many Top 40 Stations, and decided to offer older folks an alternative consisting of lush instrumentals, what we now call “elevator music.” Almost immediately, KABL became one of Northern California’s most popular stations.