KMPX (106.9 FM) was a San Francisco FM radio station which was best known in the late 1960s as the birthplace of America's freeform progressive rock format ("Underground radio") and in the 1970s as the only station nationally devoted to playing big band music full-time.
On December 10, 1959, the station, owned by San Francisco businessman Franklin Mieuli, signed on at 106.9 MHz with the KPUP call letters.
Under Leon Crosby's ownership, the station began operating in multiplex stereo and the call letters were changed to KMPX (for "MultiPleX") the following month. Soon after, Crosby gained authorization by the FCC to increase the station's power from the original 37,000 watts to 80,000 watts. The transmitter was in Marin County on Wolfback Ridge above Sausalito.
By mid-1964, KMPX was airing a middle of the road music format. As the money-strapped station struggled, by 1966 the schedule became dominated by various foreign language and other brokered programs.
The birth of freeform rock radio
Though KMPX's daytime schedule was heavy with ethnic programming, the midnight-6 AM slot was mostly open. On February 12, 1967, on-air personality Larry Miller was given the shift, where he played his preferred folk rock music whenever a foreign language show was not scheduled. But even with this impediment and the station's high-end-of-the-dial position, word spread that "rock and roll is on FM".
A month later, Tom Donahue, a former well-known local Top 40 disc jockey on KYA, fledgling record label owner and concert promoter, was looking for an opportunity to do something unique on the radio. According to his then-girlfriend (and future wife) Raechel's recollection, mentioned in Jim Ladd's book Radio Waves, after spending a night listening to The Doors' first album at home, Donahue wondered why radio stations weren't playing it. He soon started calling around town to local stations on the less-desirable FM dial. When he found that KMPX's phone was disconnected, he decided to approach Crosby with his plan, as he felt the station had nothing to lose. Donahue proposed to take over some of KMPX's programming and replace the brokered foreign-language shows with freeform album-based rock music, declaring, "no jingles, no talkovers, no time and temp, no pop singles." Advertisers would come in the form of local businesses serving the local hippie and Haight-Ashbury communities. As Donahue was a well-known and respected person in local radio, Crosby hired him.
On Friday, April 7, 1967, Donahue went on the air at KMPX for the first time, working from 8 PM to midnight, leading into Miller's show. The station's programming evolved over the weeks and months that followed, and Donahue sought out air personalities who fit what he envisioned for the format. Early staffers included Edward Bear, Dusty Street, and even future actor Howard Hesseman. Donahue's rock music format expanded to full-time on August 6, 1967, as the last of the foreign-language program contracts expired. The station at the time employed an unheard-of all-female studio engineer staff. The presentation of music on the station stood in stark contrast to most other stations of the day. Instead of a hit music-dominated playlist, KMPX played more album cuts, local, emerging and cutting-edge artists, and a wide mix of genres such as rock, blues, jazz and folk music. Some of the music played in the Spring of 1967 included Jefferson Airplane's album Surrealistic Pillow, the first Grateful Dead album, Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced and The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which KMPX played uninterrupted in its entirety.
KMPX staffers go on strike
In November 1967, as the progressive rock format was doing very well for KMPX, Crosby offered Tom and Raechel Donahue the opportunity to also program a station his company recently purchased in Pasadena, KPPC-FM (106.7 FM). The Donahues accepted, and immediately began splitting their time between northern and southern California, consulting KPPC and hosting shows on both stations. They also hired a staff for KPPC, with the most notable personality being local Top 40 disc jockey B. Mitchel Reed.
The task of programming and operating two stations was rather time consuming, and Donahue had to occasionally miss his show on one or the other station. He also taped his shows on one station to air on the other the following day. The situation, as well as the overall casual atmosphere among the staffers, caused friction between Donahue and Crosby. When Crosby decided to institute a dress code and other forms of structure to the otherwise anarchic nature of the station staff, Donahue turned in his resignation. This led directly to a strike by the loyal Donahue-led KMPX staff in the early hours of Monday, March 18, 1968. The KMPX staff began picketing outside the station's offices, and were soon supported in their efforts by popular bands such as the Grateful Dead and Blue Cheer, as well as the station's devoted listeners. The staff at KPPC walked out the next day.
Crosby refused to cave in to his striking staff, and brought in his own replacements, who were forced to cross angry picket lines, to continue the progressive rock format at both stations. Several popular rock bands — including The Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead — insisted that the station not play their music, in a show of support to the picketers. The eight-week strike ended on May 13, with no resolution between the former staffers and Crosby. Instead, Metromedia decided to switch the format of their local also-ran classical music FM station, KSFR (94.9 MHz), to freeform rock and adopt call letters KSAN, formerly used by an early San Francisco R&B station. Metromedia hired Donahue and most of the displaced KMPX staffers, who started at the station on May 21. Metromedia also hired former KPPC staffers to work at KMET in Los Angeles.
With new competition from the very staff that helped to create KMPX, Crosby continued with the freeform format. In 1969, Crosby's radio stations were sold to National Science Network, Inc. KMPX reduced power to 40,000 watts and moved their studios twice over the next few years. They continued with the freeform format, though they tweaked it over the next several years. Crosby eventually purchased a local television station, KEMO, channel 20.
Big Band Music Format
In March 1972, KMPX dropped rock and switched to a big band/nostalgia format that proved quite popular. During that period, the station was essentially programming an audio history covering three decades of development in both the communications field and the world of entertainment. The KMPX philosophy was to recognize three major breakthroughs that occurred during the early part of the last century: the emergence of the recording industry, the introduction of sound to motion pictures and the birth of radio broadcasting. KMPX was dedicated to the preservation of a musical history that had been often neglected or maligned and it carried the distinction of being the only station in the country at that time to devote full-time programming to the sounds of the 1920s, 30s. 40s and early 50s.
John Jensen was General Manager/Program Director during that period and one of the first things established was a broader mix of music from those decades and a playlist formula established. Each hour required changes in tempo, genre, arrangement and composition so that listeners were never more than two selections away from their favorites. In addition, the station dabbled in playing programs from old time radio with the musical programs of that time proving especially popular.
Because so many of the bandleaders and celebrities of that era were still actively performing and visiting the Bay Area, entertainers like Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, Anita O'Day, The Mills Brothers, Tex Beneke, Ray Noble, Johnny Mercer, Eubie Blake and Helen Forrest were frequent guests on the station.
In addition, KMPX featured live band remotes from various venues throughout the Bay Area. The Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel with Ernie Hecksher and his Orchestra, The Mark Hopkins with Orrin Tucker, The Ali Baba Ballroom with Sid Hoff, The Turk Murphy Jazz Band at Earthquake McGoon's, Albert White and his Gaslight Orchestra from the Hyatt Regency and Joe Venuti from the Great American Music Hall are just a few examples of the many live broadcasts done during that period. KMPX increased power back to 80,000 watts in 1975. More information can be found at: KMPXRadio.com
Three-way station swap
When the owner of National Science Network died, his estate explored various opportunities to sell the station, including one offer from film director Francis Ford Coppola for $870,000, which was not consummated.
The company found a buyer in 1978, when Family Radio, owner of KEAR, struck a deal to purchase the station for $1 million. In accordance with FCC ownership guidelines at the time, Family Radio sold their station at 97.3 MHz to CBS Inc. for $2 million, and CBS in turn sold their lower-powered station at 98.9 MHz to a small local company, Golden Gate Radio, for $850,000. Golden Gate Radio decided to adopt the KMPX call letters and a similar format for 98.9 MHz, but dropped it in 1982. The three-way switch occurred on September 13, 1978. And 106.9 MHz became the new location of KEAR's religious format, until 2005, when KEAR moved to AM frequency of 610 kHz.
After a brief stint as Free FM talk station KIFR, 106.9 in 2007 became KFRC-FM, playing classic top 40 hits that recalled the former glory days of KFRC-AM. Apparently that format didn't work as a business venture, because KFRC-FM then switched to simulcasting all-news KCBS-AM (740 kHz).
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