The History of KFRC San Francisco
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Cast Photos of KFRC's
'Happy Go Lucky Hour'
Sheet music for the song "Sunset",
introduced on the "Happy Go Lucky Hour" on KFRC
The city of San Francisco had several stations that were among the finest in the nation during broadcasting's early years. Bay Area listeners could choose from a variety of fine programs, but one station they tuned to most frequently was KFRC.
Young Harrison's first interest in radio appeared at the age of eleven, when he built a carborundum crystal receiver and first listened in on the airwaves. By 1920, he was operating his own amateur station, 6BN, and was very active in local ham circles. He was President of the Lowell High School Radio Club, and an officer in the San Francisco Radio Club. In 1920, he set a world amateur record for distance in voice transmission when he communicated with another ham in Vancouver, over 1,800 miles away. This brought him considerable local publicity. For a time, Harrison was on the air every day with 6BN, broadcasting record programs "for the sheer pleasure of it". He also worked as a part-time newspaper reporter, covering high school sporting news for the San Francisco Call.
The following fall saw Harrison Holliway enter Stanford University. He spent the next few years majoring in law during the winter months, and operating radio equipment on a trans-Pacific steamer during the summer. He took a leave of absence from Stanford in 1922, and, along with friend Harold Shaw, installed and operated KSL, the Emporium Department Store station. When that venture folded after less than a year, he went back to Stanford.
KFRC's first home was the Whitcomb Hotel in the Civic Center area. The studio was a converted hotel room on the second floor -- a single room hung with "monk's cloth", decorated with a few shaded lamps, and with a lone microphone and a piano. The transmitter was located in a shack on the roof of the hotel, and an L-type antenna was suspended between two 100-foot ships' masts. KFRC's assigned frequency was 1120 kc. The transmitter itself was a fifty watt unit, the latest Western Electric design. The only other one like it was in St. Louis, where it was said to "pound into New York like a local. The relatively low-powered transmitter was said to be preferred by the station engineers because it would cause less interference and yet deliver almost equal signal strength because of its superior circuit design.
KFRC became the official station of the "San Francisco Bulletin", which supplied it with a news service and a radio column in exchange for the broadcast publicity. The station's on-air trademark was a fire siren, chosen because it had also been used by station KDN before it left the air, and when it had been associated with the Bulletin.
KFRC's inaugural broadcast took place September 24, 1924, from 8:00 PM until midnight. The program opened with speeches by local dignitaries, and was followed by a concert and dance program by the Whitcomb Hotel concert, symphony and dance orchestras.
Almost immediately, it was noticed that KFRC had an exceptionally strong signal -- much stronger than had been anticipated from only fifty watts. It was heard in all the distant places being reached by only the strongest stations: along the Atlantic Seacoast, in Alaska and Hawaii, and even New Zealand. This had San Francisco's best engineers dumbfounded. No one could understand why the signal was so powerful, and it was announced that "the KFRC managers ... are as astonished as anybody." A group of Western Electric engineers was called in to study the situation, and after several months could still not agree on an answer, except that perhaps the Whitcomb Hotel was located on an essentially "perfect" electrical ground.
KFRC's first year of radio activity was nothing exceptional. The station's owners, Catton and Threlkeld, had formed the Radio Art Studios as a subsidiary of the radio store, and it was entirely financed by the retail operation. Budgets were modest, and so were the programs. Perhaps the only noteworthy regular program heard at this time was a variety program hosted by Tom Catton and called the "Tom Cats".
Holliway, who in the first year of KFRC was Manager, announcer, janitor and mail clerk all rolled into one, later recalled some famous personalities of the time whom he interviewed during the early years. They included baseball great Roger Hornsby, and actors William S. Hart, John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Speaking of the French-Canadian heavyweight boxer Jack Renault, Holliway said:
With the addition of City of Paris financial backing, KFRC's programs improved immediately. Frank Moss, a nationally-known pianist, was hired as the Musical Director and given the budget needed to round up first-class talent for a number of new programs. Several musical groups became KFRC regulars, most notably the Lorelei Mixed Quartet and soprano Flora Howell Bruner. KFRC was broadcasting almost exclusively serious music.
Another popular name associated with KFRC was Harry "Mac" McClintock, who hosted a daily children's program called "Mac and his Gang". Mac's homespun manners and cowboy ballads quickly became popular among the Bay Area's young crowd. His prior life best exemplified the kind of person he was: he had left his home in Tennessee as a boy and joined the circus. After fighting in the Spanish-American War, he headed for the Klondike and the Alaska gold rush. He had also worked as a railroad brakeman and as a miner in Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada. From these experiences he drew upon a wealth of Western songs and stories that made him a favorite with adults as well as children, and his style was often compared to that of Will Rogers. Among the many other feathers in his wester cap, Mac wrote and popularized the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain". His comic western band, Mac and his Haywire Orchestry, was frequently heard on KFRC's variety programs.
Temporary studios were soon built and installed in the Don Lee Building at 1000 Van Ness Avenue. The transmitter remained in its original location atop the Whitcomb Hotel, but plans were under way for an elaborate new studio complex and a 1,000 watt transmitter.
The new studios were completed and dedicated in a 28-hour marathon broadcast held July 6, 1927. The station was located on the mezzanine floor of the building, at the end of a large and ostentatious staircase leading up from the showroom floor. Two large studios had been decorated in a spanish motif, and they were said to be so acoustically perfect that a full orchestra could be on the air in one studio while a second group rehearsed in the adjoining one. The thousand-watt Western Electric transmitter on the top floor of the building fed a powerful new voice to the new antenna, strung between steel towers on the roof. As a higher power, Class "B" station, KFRC was authorized to move to the preferred frequency of 660 kc. (two years later, the station again moved, this time to its permanent home at 610 kc.) On its new frequency, KFRC was required to reduce its power to 500 watts after sunset.
The old 50-watt KFRC transmitter saw use for a while as a short-wave relay of KFRC's AM programs. Harrison Holliway and Harold Peery rebuilt the unit to operate on 108 meters, and the station received the experimental call sign 6XD. Originally, their plan had been to use the new station to transmit details of the Dole fliers in their trans-Pacific flight from Oakland that year, a plan later abandoned. But the station was operated for a while and heard as far away as Juneau, Alaska. 
The following year (November 14, 1927), Don Lee bought KHJ in Los Angeles from the Los Angeles Times. The station was relocated to the Don Lee Cadillac Building at Seventh and Bixel Streets in that city, where a new radio facility was built,stocked with all the finest new equipment. There were three elaborate studios including a full pipe organ.
Being the owner of two of the Coast's most prestigious radio stations, Don Lee wasted no time in connecting the two stations by telephone line to establish the Don Lee Broadcasting System. Lee spared no expense to make his two stations among the finest in the nation, as a 1929 article from Broadcast Weekly attests:
In Paley's statement to the press announcing the new venture, he said:
KFRC and KHJ originated numerous programs for the West Coast network. CBS programs were heard in the early dinner hours, and the Don Lee programs were fed after 8:00 when the eastern programs ceased. For these later evening broadcasts, KFRC and KHJ alternated evenings in feeding their programs to the network. Additionally, several of the San Francisco and Los Angeles programs were broadcast nationally by CBS. Many of the most popular KFRC programs became network offerings in this way.
Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of KFRC and the Don Lee System during this period is the large number of people they graduated to national stardom. In 1929, Lee hired an unknown flutist to be KFRC's Music Director. The young man was a musical prodigy, having played with John Phillip Sousa's band at age 16, and he had been the lead flutist for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at twenty. Now, he was to get a chance to conduct the Don Lee Studio Orchestra in San Francisco. To Meredith Willson, "The Music Man", radio would be the springboard to big and better things.
Jack Benny's announcer Don Wilson also began his radio career at KFRC as a member of the "Piggly-Wiggly Trio". Manager Harrison Holliway was impressed with Wilson's voice, and asked him if he wanted to try his hand at announcing. He only snickered and mumbled something to the effect that he wasn't going to become a "cream puff". Ralph Edwards and Art Van Horn were also announcers; so was Mark Goodson, who had a knack for quiz shows. He had several on the Don Lee Network, such as "The Quiz of Two Cities" and "Pop the Balloon" before he left for New York and teamed up with Bill Todman. Art Linkletter was a staff member in KFRC's later years, and hosted a series of programs from the San Francisco Treasure Island World's Fair in 1939, as did announcer Mel Venter. Bea Benederet was San Francisco's famous lady announcer. Harold Peary and Morey Amsterdam both began their radio acting careers at 1000 Van Ness Avenue, and Juanita Tennyson and Merv Griffin were popular staff vocalists; John Nesbitt began his "Passing Parade" at KFRC. The list is endless ....
Alice Blue, KFRC staff organist, wrote of her recollections of Al Pearce's
Al's most popular character was the bashful door-to-door salesman Elmer Blurt, whose knock on the door was always followed by the familiar line, "There's nobody to home today, I hope, I hope, I hope". Another was Miss Tizzie Lish, known for her bad recipes and good gags.
The popular program graduated from a West Coast offering to nationwide on
CBS. It moved to NBC in 1933 and became "Al Pearce and His Gang", a
network staple until 1947. (Brother Cal never made the move to the
networks, and returned to his previous career of real estate.)
Here's how the Oakland Post-Enquirer described the "Blue Monday Jamboree":
The weekly frolic attracts more listeners probably than any other local program. Now an institution, the Jamboree each week parades the import personalities of the station before the microphone for two hours. The important factor that makes the Jamboree attractive is its spontaneity. Listeners never know what is coming next, and the surprise element adds auditors.Another newspaper, the Los Angeles Inside Facts, added:
The studio itself is packed way out to the sidewalks on a Monday night, when an invited list of guests attend for a first-hand glimpse of their favorite entertainer, and are surprised to learn that Al Pearce, who sings "Barnacle Bill" in a high register, is a six footer; that Cotton Bond is not colored but white, and that Frank Watanabe is not a Japanese houseboy, but just Eddie Holden under another name.The program was one of the first variety shows -- a vaudeville production on the radio. During most of its existence, it claimed the vast majority of Bay Area radio dials. When KFRC was joined with KHJ, it was one of the first programs from San Francisco to be heard in Los Angeles, and its following in that city quickly equalled its northern counterpart. On June 7, 1930, the program made its debut on the entire Don Lee-Columbia Network, and by the end of the year, was being heard nationally on CBS. In California, the names Blue Monday Jamboree and Golden State Milk, the regional sponsor, became synonymous.
Holliway told a reporter in 1929 how the program was produced:
Preparation for this program starts Tuesday morning, nearly a week before it will be presented. The staff begins to talk things over, making suggestions for comedy and discussing available music. They are searching for something out of the ordinary.The Jamboree was literally Holliway's own program. He had devised the original concept, and wrote, directed and emceed the program, as well as playing frequent bit parts. Throughout his tenure at KFRC, the program remained his pet project.
One of the regulars on the Jamboree was a comedy team called Murray and
Harris: Murray Bolen and Harris Brown. Bolen, later an executive with a
Los Angeles advertising agency, told of his experiences with the program:
Another popular follow-up to the "Blue Monday Jamboree", called the "Midnight Jamboree Revue", was a vaudeville variety program heard weekly from midnight to 2 AM. It was broadcast with the express purpose of reaching listeners in distant cities. The program was heard beginning May 7, 1928.
Still another interesting KFRC program was "The Lady of the Clouds" with
Yvonne Peterson. On this program, Miss Peterson sang and played her
ukulele from the passenger seat of an airplane as it flew over the city.
A short-wave transmitter was used to relay the signal to the ground where
it was re-broadcast. The show was first heard in 1928, but was short-lived.
Paul C. Smith, later a broadcast arts instructor at the California State University at San Francisco, told an interesting anecdote in connection with the dummy antenna. In his early teens he had become fascinated by radio, and had just finished a tour of the KFRC facility when he spotted the Anthony towers. He crossed the street to the showroom and asked to see the radio station that was attached to the towers. The salesman on the floor smiled and said, "I'll show you what's attached to those towers". He led Smith up the grand mezzanine staircase and to the back of the building. He showed Smith into an office where a wire protruded from the wall and led to the back of a little Remler Scotty radio. "But the sign says KFI", Smith protested. "Right", said the salesman, "and it picks up KFI really well!"
(The KFRC antenna was dismantled in 1958, when the transmitter was moved to
Islais Creek. But, the KFI towers stayed until 1972. It was ironic that
the last of the scores of old-style T-type antennas once scattered about
San Francisco was the only one never actually used for broadcasting.)
Of course, the acquisition of KNX by CBS completely destroyed any remaining relationship with the Don Lee network. The purchase meant that KNX would replace KHJ as the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles. KNX had been sharing a number of programs with KSFO in San Francisco, so it was natural as well for the CBS affiliation in the northern city to transfer from KFRC to KSFO. In fact, CBS soon announced it had leased KSFO with a later option to purchase the station outright. (When that deal later fell through, CBS instead purchased KQW in San Jose, which became KCBS.) The entire structure of the Don Lee Network quickly collapsed. The McClatchy stations lost no time in joining with Hearst stations KYA San Francisco and KEHE Los Angeles to form the short-lived California Radio System. The Northwest station group opted to remained with CBS.
As luck would have it, that same year a fledgling eastern network
called the "Quality Station Group" had changed its name to the "Mutual
Broadcasting System" and was rapidly seeking westward expansion.
Tommy Lee contacted Mutual and lost no time in signing an agreement,
and the Mutual-Don Lee Network was born. This was how Mutual became
the fourth coast-to-coast network, and it also marked the beginning of
a new West Coast chain that would continue operation into the fifties.
The switch from CBS to Mutual was scheduled for December 29, 1936, the
date which marked the expiration of the CBS/Don Lee contract. (In
fact, for the last three months of the contract the CBS West Coast
programs were produced at KNX and fed to KHJ for transmission to the
network. The stations on the new Mutual network were the four Don
Lee-owned stations, plus KFXM San Bernardino, KDON Monterey, KXO El
Centro, KPMC Bakersfield, KVOE Santa Ana, and KGDM Stockton. Also
joining the network via shortwave hookup were KGMB Honolulu and KHBC
Hilo. (A number of Pacific Northwest stations were added the
One of those greatly upset by the restructuring was Harrison Holliway, as Murray Bolen related:
Holliway's replacement at KFRC was Tom Brenneman, a KFRC performer. He was soon superceded by Fred Pabst, a big wheel in the Don Lee heirarchy. Pabst guided the station with stern reins into the fifties, and then made a name for himself in local television.
Following the shake-up at KFRC, and under the guidance of Fred Pabst, a new KFRC appeared. During the late 30's and 40's, it remained among San Francisco's very favorites. Meredith Willson had moved to NBC, and he was replaced by Claude Sweeton. His nightly orchestral broadcasts became a San Francisco tradition, as did the nightly broadcasts of Anson Weeks' Orchestra from the Peacock Court of the Mark Hopkins Hotel. Tommy Harris, a 14-year- old vocalist who had appeared on the old 'Happy Go Lucky Hour', was another KFRC favorite. He and Joaquin Garay were regulars on "Feminine Fancies". (Harris later moved to NBC, as so many from KFRC had done before him, and for many years operated his own night club, 'Tommy's Joynt', on Van Ness Avenue.)
Another KFRC favorite during this period was the
"Hodge Podge Lodge" with Bob Bence. Still later years saw the lasting
popularity of Jack Kirkwood's "Breakfast Club", which continued into the
fifties as one of San Francisco's best offerings.
In the mid 1960's, KFRC changed to a Top 40 rock'n'roll format, and quickly became the dominant station in the region with that format through the 1970's, featuring the tight, carefully programmed sound developed by RKO-General's star programmer, Bill Drake.
With the decline of the Top 40 format by the end of the 70's, KFRC's programming was changed to feature a 1940's big band nostalgia format, known as "Magic 61". In the 1990's, KFRC continued with a nostalgia format, but this time serving the next generation, and playing the rock hits of the 1960's and 70's, recreating the successful Bill Drake years.
Interview between author and Alan Cormack, former KFRC Chief Engineer.