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Airwaves: February 25, 2011

KKGO Celebrates 52 Years

Levine longest continuous owner-operator

Last week marked a major accomplishment: the beginning of 52 years on the air for KKGO (105.1 FM).

No, KKGO wasn’t the first FM station to begin broadcasting in Los Angeles; that distinction belongs to KRTH, which began life in August, 1941 as K45LA, broadcasting first on the original FM band at 44.5 MC and later moving to the current FM band, first at 99.7 and eventually to its current home at 101.1.

But KKGO, which launched on February 18th, 1959, is significant for another landmark reason: it has been owned and operated by the same person since it launched. That person is Saul Levine, and as far as I know, Levine stands alone as the longest continuing owner/operator of a major market radio station -- FM or otherwise -- in the entire United States ... perhaps the world.

I asked Saul about the launch, changes in the industry and if he would have done anything differently over the past 52 years. Here is what he said:

“Despite a few mistakes that I would not now repeat, I wouldn’t change anything. Three formats in 52 years -- Jazz, 29 years; Classical, 19 years; and now Country.

“When I put the station on the air in 1959, I had no money, but was lucky to get a $10,000 loan from a local businessman with whom I developed a friendship. I expected a financial struggle for a year or two (remember, there were few radios that could receive FM broadcasts ... and none in cars); instead it was more than ten years before things began to turn around financially.”

Indeed, FM wasn’t considered practical or viable by many at first, due to AM radio’s long head start and dominance of the market. Many FMs, in fact, simply simulcasted a co-owned AM signal, ran want-ads, or simply went dark. But that is to be expected in the beginning of a new technology. Many didn’t think radio itself would be practical in the early days. Same with television. Or personal computers.

“One of the highlights was turning the station on the air for the first time,” Levine continued. “It was about 8 PM February 18, 1959. With no advance publicity, we started getting phone calls from all over Southern California. The only studio I had was in the transmitter shack on Mount Wilson; inside was one employee, an announcer-engineer, who slept in a sleeping bag and stayed on the air until he was too tired to continue. Outside, it was a cold and stormy night on top of 6000-feet high Mount Wilson.

"The FCC required that the station operator wait for an official telegram which was the authorization to commence broadcasting. Late in the afternoon of February 18th, the telegram arrived. But I had no telephone on Mount Wilson. I had no way to contact my engineer with instructions to commence operating. So I took the telegram and a stack of classical LP's, and drove up to Mount Wilson driving through snow and ice with some difficulty. When I arrived at the transmitter shack. I burst through the door of the transmitter shack, handed the telegram to the engineer, and said 'Turn on the transmitter.'

"We dug into the pile of LP's, and came up with Land of Smiles, a light opera. I had permission from television Channel 4 to use the telephone number at their transmitter near our shack on Mount Wilson to check for listener telephone calls. So the engineer would announce the telephone number, and I would run over to the Channel 4 transmitter to retrieve listener calls, then run back to our shack and announce on the air the name and city of the listener who had found our station. The calls came pouring in from just about every community in Southern California. As I got into my car to drive down the mountain, there were some tears of joy. Thats why those listener telephone calls are so unforgettable.

“It was three weeks before I was able to put together a studio in the city, but we stayed on the air playing the world’s greatest Classical music. Being on the air and receiving those phone calls was a rare moment that can never be repeated.

How does radio today compare with yesterday? “In those early decades, Los Angeles radio was more exciting and creative. This was before prior to consolidation when the competition was a company with (at most) one AM and one FM station. I am doing my best to stop further consolidation, which is not in the public interest. In the early days, radio was a passion ... today it is a mere commodity for Wall Street.”

Levine is right. It is unfortunate that the industry has lost sight of that fact, but as I have said many times before, had radio kept its promise of broadcasting in the public interest, serving local communities with creative and competitive programming, the amazing popularity of alternative entertainment devices -- iPods, satellite radio, internet radio -- would never have happened. Radio needs more independent and smaller broadcasters like Levine. Saul and KKGO, happy 52nd, and here’s wishing many, many more.


Copyright © 2011 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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