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When it started broadcasting on April 13, 1922, KHJ became the second radio station on the air in Los Angeles. Known as “The Times Radiophone” because of being owned by the Los Angeles Times newspaper, the station was housed within a 10-foot by 12-foot room atop the original LA Times building. The famous transmitter site where the radio towers for KHJ were located the Fairfax district of Los Angeles is now gone. But, you still can drive or walk by the building at 5515 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood where the studios of KHJ in 1960s were located.
Back in those early days, newspapers regarded radio as competition. If you were a newspaper company that could own a radio station, well then, that would be a whole different matter! Since KHJ was owned by a powerful Los Angeles newspaper company, the station derived benefits from the corporation’s considerable promotional reach. Most notably, the affiliation with the Los Angeles Times pumped up the resale value of KHJ. Don Lee, a successful Cadillac dealer in Southern California, bought the station from the newspaper, and ultimately KHJ and the entire network (operated by Lee’s son Thomas after his father died) was merged into RKO Radio.
As I already mentioned, those famous call letters were intended to convey a sense of “Kindness, Happiness and Joy.” You would not believe that at one time, the early KHJ signed-off each night with an announcer reciting this poem:
May kindness, happiness and joy
be with you all the day.
And may the God who loves us all
Forget not KHJ!
God will not fail to watch thy sleep
And wake thee with his light.
And now dear friends of KHJ
I wish you all goodnight.
In these gloriously politically correct days of the 21st century, can you imagine a station signing off with a poem like that? And unlike today when stations broadcast 24 hours a day, in the earliest days of radio, KHJ and all stations of the day, had to sign off for three minutes out of every 15 so that any potential distress calls might be heard from ships at sea.
I can just imagine the announcer opening his microphone to say, “Okay, Los Angeles, we’ll be right back to the big band sound after we take a short time-out for distress calls from all the guys slogging away on those fishing boats off Santa Catalina.”
Technology Changes Everything
Another major difference in those days before the invention of tape recorders was that radio, out of necessity, had to rely upon live (not recorded) broadcasts. It was possible to make one-of-a-kind recordings on phonograph disks of actual radio broadcasts. But until audiotape was invented in Germany in 1928, recorded radio broadcasts were cumbersome and suffered from pops and cracks inherent to phonograph recordings of that era.
In the 1960s, KHJ, which had been located at different frequencies since the 1920s, ended up at 930 on the AM dial. Popular music of the day on AM radio was the prevailing standard in the broadcasting business back then. It wasn’t until the 1970s that FM radio emerged as the standard for music broadcasting. AM radio today is known especially for broadcasting the talk radio format, such as on at KFI, Los Angeles—one of the oldest stations in that market.
Popular music hits—once exclusively intended for people’s ears—morphed into multimedia products with video along with the audio thanks to major changes in technology. In 1981, Music Television: MTV became the first channel to show music videos exclusively. Popular music is almost always emphasizes the visual element today because of YouTube and other online video channels. Young people today can choose not to listen to radio at all. This is possible because popular music hits are available on demand with videos on television and on iTunes as well as on Pandora.
The passive experience of listening to a radio station that controls when particular songs are played can be perceived as the exact opposite of the active experience of instant, on-demand playback of specific songs using hand-held or computerized devices. Radio programming as it has been known for so many decades will need to change with the times and the technology. If the business of radio programming is to remain relevant in the years to come, someone will need to figure out some other way to engage and maintain a sufficiently large audience. What happened in San Francisco in 2011 at radio station KGO—a format change resulting in job losses for many older employees—can be expected to happen again in other markets. This is because younger audience members have already started abandoning radio broadcasting and have switched to hand-held or computerized devices as their primary source to participate in pop culture.
This cultural shift that we are seeing happening during the second decade of the 21st century is precisely why I feel it is vital for us all to remember the 20th century when radio stations attracted significant audiences of the exact demographic groups so desirable to advertisers. Those days were, indeed, glorious because of the people who appeared on the air. KHJ in the early days employed many famous entertainers whose careers began at the station. Eddie Cantor, and, George Burns and Gracie Allen—all famous names from a bygone era—are notable examples. Pat Weaver (the celebrated president of the National Broadcasting Company and father of actor Sigourney Weaver) was an announcer at KHJ in 1934.
During the big band era, KHJ had its own 50-piece orchestra. In 1931, crooner Bing Crosby made nightly trips to KHJ where he sang over the air for 15 minutes six nights per week. In the mid-1940’s, comic genius Steve Allen led the morning team with his show called, “Smile Time.” Allen returned to KHJ in the 1960s as host of a regularly scheduled live remote broadcast with his wife, Jayne Meadows, from their home in the San Fernando Valley.
On April 12, 1945, Franklin Delano Roosevelt died after serving as president since 1933. No other person was President of the United States longer than FDR. The 22nd Amendment in 1951 set term limits so no other person will ever again attain this distinction. Not yet even 10 years of age, Philip Yarbrough (who would become known in adulthood as Bill Drake) witnessed the emotional impact of the radio announcement of FDR’s death and made the connection in his mind that radio could be used in powerful ways.
The Corporation Called RKO
By the 1960s, live programming featuring celebrities on the radio was starting to be considered old fashioned and out of vogue in Los Angeles, especially in comparison to the rock and roll radio programming available on other LA stations such as KFWB and KRLA. Those in charge of RKO General knew that unless the programming on KHJ was updated to a sound or format that was more appealing to large numbers of people, KHJ’s financial performance would never improve.
Arguably, the RKO production output, reputation, identity, and brand all were essential to the very history of Hollywood, itself. To understand how corporations such as RKO owned and controlled entertainment properties like KHJ radio requires spending a little time exploring a complex set of purchases and sales that altered the very landscape of the entertainment business over the decades. Many very famous people and companies at one time or another have become part of the overall RKO story.
In 1925, Joseph P. Kennedy (the father of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy) purchased Film Booking Office (FBO) Studios in Hollywood. The elder Kennedy, who had a deep appreciation for the financial viability of motion picture entertainment, bought into other film companies so that FBO Studios ultimately included companies named Keith, Orpheum, and Pathé. Keith is the “K” and Orpheum is the “O” in RKO. Then, David Sarnoff, the founder and president of Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the parent company of National Broadcasting Company (NBC), pooled his financial resources with Kennedy’s film interests, adding the “R.” The resulting merger created a company named RKO Radio Pictures.
The strongly positive reputation of RKO Radio Pictures was solidified with such classic films as the original King Kong in 1933, numerous Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, and most importantly, Citizen Kane by Orson Welles in 1941, which is often cited as the best American film of all time. Billionaire aviator Howard Hughes bought controlling interest of RKO in 1948, but he then nearly destroyed the company with his eccentric approaches to the filmmaking business.
Desilu Productions, a television and movie company known for I Love Lucy, Star Trek, and Mission Impossible, was founded by the pioneering husband-and-wife television duo, Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Desilu purchased the RKO studio lot in Hollywood on Melrose Avenue in 1957, and later sold it to Paramount Pictures.
The motion picture side of the original RKO continued to exist in various corporate forms until 1989 when Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley purchased RKO Pictures. The unique legacy is that RKO is that it became the oldest of the continuously operating movie studios.
The broadcasting side of RKO developed on both the east and west coasts of the United States and suffered a terrible fate. In 1943, the General Tire and Rubber Company entered broadcasting with its purchase of The Yankee Network, Incorporated and its stations, including WNAC-AM/FM/TV in Boston. The stations continued to operate under the Yankee Network banner. Then in 1950, General Tire and Rubber purchased Thomas S. Lee Enterprises Incorporated, doing business as The Don Lee Network, Incorporated named after its founder, Cadillac dealer Don Lee (father of Thomas S. Lee), whose primary stations were KHJ-AM/FM/TV in Los Angeles.
In 1952, General Tire and Rubber purchased Bamberger Broadcasting Company, owner of WOR-AM/FM/TV in New York City and merged the stations into The Don Lee Network. After purchasing the former RKO Radio Pictures from Howard Hughes (minus the motion picture lot that went to Desilu), all of the stations that General Tire owned were merged into General Teleradio Incorporated. Two beneficiaries of the RKO motion picture library were channel 9 in New York, WOR-TV, and channel 9 in Los Angeles, KHJ-TV. General Tire merged its broadcasting and film operations into RKO Teleradio Pictures Incorporated, and ultimately changed the company name to RKO General Incorporated.
Most people may know that in the United States, over-the-air broadcasting is federally regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). There is insufficient space here to cover the complete history of how the FCC came to be. What I think is very important to understand, however, is the reason why there is federal regulation today: Regulating the assignments and usage of over-the-air broadcasting frequencies in the United States emerged as a crucial need when the first radio stations were started by various different, competing companies. Imagine the chaos that would have occurred in those days if all were free to choose any over-the-air broadcasting frequency at will.
I believe that no federal agency should be funded with taxpayer dollars to regulate programming content, advertising sales, and other such elements. Technical issues such a frequency usage or effective radiated power of the transmitters could be managed by private industry. There is an everyday reality that the FCC as we know it in the present day is inescapably stuck in a partisan political environment: When a Republican gets elected to the office of President of the United States, a Republican can be expected to be appointed to be the Commissioner of the FCC. When there is a Democrat in the White House, the normal expectation is for a Democrat to get appointed as FCC Commissioner.
This is not a unique characteristic of the FCC. Federal appointments (known affectionately inside the Washington, DC Beltway as “plum jobs”) are found throughout the United States government, and not just in the Washington, DC area. You have to decide for yourself whether the established system of political appointments to federal positions produces the best possible choices in people to run the government. My views on this should be crystal clear, however.
RKO descended into infamy in the history of American radio and television companies because the company became entangled with the FCC over non-technical regulatory issues. Starting in the 1980s, stemming from allegations that RKO General violated federal laws, the FCC forced the corporation to relinquish all of its radio and television broadcasting licenses and sell the station facilities to new licensees at equipment value only.
Many people who worked at RKO in the radio and television business remain very proud of their work to the present day. But, the license revocations by the FCC in several large markets tore the company apart and left a permanent scar upon the radio and television broadcasting industry.
To understand what happened, it is best to start by looking back on what RKO owned before their legal problems with the federal government. Then it is possible to understand the sheer magnitude of the losses RKO suffered: WNAC-TV channel 7 in Boston was the first station license of RKO General to be revoked. Channel 7 in Boston became WNEV-TV owned by New England Television on May 1, 1982. You may wonder what happened to the parent corporation, General Tire and Rubber Company. In 1984, the company reappeared as GenCorp, a major technology-based manufacturing company headquartered in Sacramento, California.
The cascading impact of the destruction of RKO radio and television stations crashed through other major markets like a tsunami. The company was bought by United Stations, later known as Unistar. Corporate mergers followed and RKO/Unistar was bought by Infinity, ultimately part of CBS Radio, which, in turn, was bought by Viacom. RKO General’s KHJ-TV channel 9 in Los Angeles was the last station license to be pulled. Channel 9 in Los Angeles became KCAL-TV in 1990 and was owned by the Walt Disney Company. Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC in 1995. Less than 40 years after Disneyland had debuted as one Sunday night show on ABC, the Walt Disney Company had come to own the entire television network. Disney later sold KCAL-TV to Young Broadcasting and then in 2002, CBS Corporation bought the station.
In short, it was people at RKO who brought this destruction of a company’s brand and financial viability upon themselves. There simply is no one else to credit or blame but certain people employed at RKO who did shitty jobs of protecting the huge financial value of a once-great corporation. Blaming the FCC or the courts for the demise of the RKO radio operations is a complete deflection of responsibility away from individuals who mismanaged RKO radio into financial ruin.
In the present day, it is very easy to find examples of one corporation owning and operating more than one radio and television station in the same market. This routine way of doing business today literally was against federal law in the past. I happen to share the belief that today’s routine multiple media outlet ownership in individual markets greatly diminished what was once a wider diversity of content choices available to audience members. But, it probably is true today that your average citizen does not care about diversity of content choices. Another impact of this change in how business is conducted is that corporations which own these multiple media outlets can cut operating costs by using advances in technology that once were literally considered science fiction.
Although the radio broadcasting industry started firmly on the ground, the future literally took a giant leap into the heavens, where it remains today. Arthur C. Clarke invented satellite radio when he was spinning tales as a writer of science fiction. The visionary author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Stanley Kubrick transformed into a major motion picture in 1968, envisioned a world in which radio relay satellites in orbit around Earth would deliver instantaneous worldwide programming.
Clarke’s 1945 short story I Remember Babylon ushered in a futuristic technological enterprise that took just 30 years to make the jump from the pages of pulp science fiction to the basic bottom line of the American radio business. Clarke turned out to be correct when he speculated that man-made satellites could be “parked” in orbit at a fixed speed that enabled a fixed position far above the planet’s surface where receiving and relaying radio signals was enabled.
The use of geosynchronous satellites directly enabled what I consider to be an unintentionally negative use of technology by prominent media corporations: One announcer in one studio in one location can be heard by listeners doing a show live to multiple radio stations across multiple time zones, thus eliminating the need for media corporations to employ individual announcers in all those radio stations. This tangible loss of job opportunities can be directly attributed to the use of technology.
When I was a kid in the 1950s, I remember some adults assured me not to worry about the future. They promised me that advances in technology ultimately would be for the greater good of everyone. Those adults have since been proven to be mostly wrong.
Older workers today are the most likely to lose their long-held jobs in media corporations because their salaries are usually higher than those younger employees who have worked only a few years. This is largely due to the reality that technology has erased employment opportunities that were once widely available in media markets of all sizes.
In 1973 RKO canceled the consultancy contract with programmers Bill Drake and Gene Chenault. After the work of many people at KHJ for eight years has set in motion a highly successful radio programming systems processes on a nationwide chain of major market radio stations that generated a lot of revenue, on one day in Los Angeles, it all came to an sudden end.
There was life for KHJ after Drake-Chenault. But, symptoms of groupthink in Los Angeles starting in the 1960s at RKO Radio caused the team to lose “the spark” or “the magic” that had once enabled them to stay at the top of the radio broadcasting business.
For a dozen or so subsequent years after Drake-Chenault, other programmers who were not connected to the Drake-Chenault team attempted various strategies and tactics in programming KHJ. Some will be remembered. Others will not.
The year 1974 featured one very memorable Los Angeles radio programming event. Superstars of rock and roll such as John Lennon went on the air live on KHJ to “do their own thing” without a format or music playlist. That was an exciting moment for rock and roll radio because it was so unpredictable. I will never forget hearing Lennon joking his way through awkward reading of live announcer copy for KHJ’s commercial advertisers! You can listen to historic recordings here:
During the 1970s rock and roll radio started losing its once dominant appeal. One person who saw this coming in particular was Jan Basham. She lived until cancer claimed her in 2003. She distinguished herself at Herb Alpert’s A&M Records in Hollywood. She is best remembered and respected as the first female executive in the music promotion business in Los Angeles.
Basham was someone with whom I frequently interacted during my time at KIQQ during the 1970s. She was one of my most favorite people in Hollywood because she was honest and forthright. Imagine encountering those particular traits existing in Hollywood! In an interview with me in 1975, her characteristic candor was evident when she expressed her view that by the mid-1970s, the excitement was gone from top 40 radio in Los Angeles. “I’d say it’s not exciting as a record promoter or even as a listener. Most of the personalities on top 40 radio are really good, but they all sound alike. Nobody talks about what anybody on the air says today. Nobody cares. Top 40 radio is just really bland right now was far as personalities are concerned. I’m not sure if that’s the reason why radio in general has lost a lot of listeners.”
The former rock and roll powerhouse KHJ slid into a downward trajectory and the station never again was able to recapture its former status as a pop culture icon. The KHJ call letters lived on until the end of January 1986 when RKO made the decision to change KHJ to KRTH-AM (since their FM station call letters are KRTH-FM). The KRTH-AM call letters lasted through the Smokin’ Oldies format after which RKO sold both stations to Beasley, which in turn sold the AM station to Liberman Broadcasting, operators of Spanish language stations KWIZ in Santa Ana, and KBUA and KBUE known collectively as “Que Buena.” They turned the former KHJ into KKHJ, which became known as “La Ranchera,” but in so doing, the original call letters KHJ were given up.
When the Libermans purchased the station, the closest call letters they could obtain from the FCC were KKHJ. This is because call letters KHJJ were already in use by a station in the San Joaquin Valley calling itself KHJ. But, one problem was that KKHJ could not mention its call letters on the air in Spanish. The reason may not be apparent to those who only speak English.
In Spanish, the letter “K” is not pronounced “kay” as it is in English. The letter “K” is pronounced as “kah” in Spanish. If you say “kay-kay” in English, that doesn’t mean anything.
But, when you say “kah-kah” in Spanish, well—. You must have already figured out where this is going! Having station imagery with the word shit in it in any language would be a liability. To compensate for this problem, dating back to its inception, the station call letters were only given in English (“kay-kay-aitch-jay”) and referred to on the air in Spanish as “La Ranchera.”
In a drive spearheaded by KKHJ Program Director Alfredo Rodriguez and Chief Engineer Jerry Lewine, the station collected letters from listeners and community leaders explaining the problem the station faced. They forwarded those letters to and spoke with staff at the FCC with the request that they make an exception to their policies and permit the station to drop one of the “K’s” and return to the call letters that the station had for over 65 years, KHJ. Under the circumstances, the FCC made a rare exception to the rules and granted the request. As a result, on March 15, 2000, the original call letters KHJ once again returned to Los Angeles.
The Spanish language programming did not survive on the AM dial. In 2014 Liberman Broadcasting bought a Southern California FM station, KWIZ, Santa Ana, and moved the “La Ranchera” brand of programming there. Immaculate Heart Radio Education Broadcasting of Loomis, California purchased KHJ in 2014 and yet another radio format change on the station followed: KHJ started broadcasting Roman Catholic faith programming. Dominos vobiscum!