CHURCH SELLS ITS RADIO STATIONS
The days of station ownership by Pasadena Presbyterian Church were soon ending. The church leaders apparently found that programming and running a commercial fm station full-time was a lot more work than putting their non-commercial AM station on the air only two days a week. KPPC-AM and FM were sold five years after the fm went on the air, but the church kept the 1240-AM transmitter in the basement of the new chapel building, along with its 25 by 35 foot main studio with perfect acoustics (designed by Clayton Blake), two smaller studios, record library, shop, and a reception room. The church rented out the studio and transmitter space to the new owners.
Those new owners, Crosby-Avery Broadcasting, purchased KPPC, effective October 5, 1967. The sale was first reported in the Los Angeles Times on August 12, 1967. The purchase price was $310,000 for the AM & FM. The story indicated that besides the Sunday church services, KPPC-FM/AM was broadcasting news, “middle of the road” music, and a variety of community-oriented public affairs programs. At that time, these community-oriented programs on KPPC included a show called “About Science” featuring interviews by nationally known scientists, arranged in cooperation with Caltech and distributed by the National Education Network to 110 member stations; “What Is a City” produced by the Pasadena Rotary Club, and programs by the League of Women Voters of Pasadena, Pasadena Coordinating Council and the Pasadena Arts Council. The newspaper story indicated that the AM signal reached a distance of about 55 miles, which may have been a generous estimate for the signal to be heard on the average AM radio of the day. Station officials were also quoted as saying the station would likely remain in Pasadena, but at a new location. However that did not take place until 1970.
In 1967 the station had a staff of 10, including station manager Edgar Pearce and program director Bob Mayfield. The church had put the two stations on the market about a year earlier. Pearce told the Times the fm had not shown a profit for the church, but added, “…its income had markedly increased in the past several years.” Church officials reportedly felt the money used to subsidize the AM & FM could be better spent elsewhere. Pearce said, “A commercial effort such as radio in the non-commercial atmosphere of the church is just not compatible.”
The new owners would soon use KPPC/fm to change the course of L.A. radio. However, the new licensee was still required as a condition of the station sale, to continue broadcasting the Sunday morning services of Pasadena Presbyterian Church over KPPC-AM.
By this time, 1240 AM was an obscure weak signal buried among the many more-powerful AM radio signals in and around Los Angeles vying for advertising dollars, while KPPC was still non-commercial. That was about to change after nearly 43 years. KPPC-AM's schedule had increased at this time to roughly 22 hours per week: Sundays from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday morning, and Wednesday nights from 7 p.m. until midnight.
NOT YOUR FATHER’S KPPC
In late-1967, the new ownership and management at KPPC decided to broadcast a format on 106.7/fm that could not be done on AM at the time. It was already on the air at San Francisco fm station KMPX, which was also owned by Crosby-Avery. The programming, initiated by Tom Donahue was called "free form underground" or “progressive rock” radio, which gave the flower children and counter-culture of the day a radio voice of their own. It was unlike any of the Top-40 AM rock music stations in the country, which is what the new KPPC djs/air personalities were rebelling against. The decision was made to simulcast the KPPC/fm format on 1240-AM when it was on the air, so KPPC-AM became the first AM station in the U.S. to air such programming. It was a mix of long-play rock album cuts straight from the hippie-drug culture of the time. The disc jockeys were relatively young (though some were a bit older), were into the music and sounded very "mellow," as if they had woken up from a deep sleep and were about to doze off again. They communicated one-on-one with the young listeners. It was a style of talking on the air much different than the fast-talking, high energy djs on the pop/rock AM stations of the era. Unlike the AM music stations popular then, these djs didn’t talk over song intros and didn’t repeat the call letters over and over or play jingles. They played sets of several songs in a row without talking, and they played longer songs and rock music that couldn’t get airplay on AM radio then. Many young people who found the new FM station liked this format, with very few commercials, and language they could understand. The younger generation opposed to the policies of Presidents Johnson and (later) Nixon, a generation against the Vietnam War and the draft, social injustice, and who didn’t trust anyone over 30, had a radio station they could identify with, when they discovered KPPC. So, KPPC-AM could be credited with helping to start what would become a hugely popular fm radio station in Los Angeles and across the nation, by broadcasting the 106.7 FM station on 1240-AM on Wednesday nights and Sundays.
Here’s a piece of KPPC trivia that I did not find out about until December 2006! According to radio historian Bill Earl, in 1967, Tom Donahue tried to change the call letters of KPPC AM and FM to KHIP, but the station owners would not let him.
According to Ted Alvy’s Web site, KPPC’s change to freeform underground rock music got started with this lineup:
“Exactly 10 years after KFWB went Top 40, Program Director Tom Donahue debuted his KPPC hipster air staff on January 2, 1968 in the basement of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church:
6AM-11AM LES CARTER (KBCA/fm)
11AM-4PM ED MITCHELL (KFRC)
4PM-9PM B. MITCHEL REED (KFWB, WMCA)
9PM-MID TOM DONAHUE (KMPX-FM, KYA)
MID-6AM DON HALL (KPPC/fm)
The original 1968 KPPC air staff also included TED ALVY (Cosmos Topper) and STEVEN SEGAL (The Obscene Steven Clean).”
A man named Jay Murley had worked in sales at KPPC-FM/AM back then. He was about to be named FM-AM sales manager in March of 1968, when the air staff went out on strike, and according to Jay, “the fiscal structure came apart.” In 1973, Jay Murley wrote an article for the AM band DX club IRCA (International Radio Club of America), called “Not Your Average Radio Station.” In his story, Murley wrote the following about KPPC:
“With candid discussions of grass, acid, pot and speed, and anything else that might pop into some freak’s head (from studios where contact highs were unavoidable), KPPC-AM quickly became something much different from its original intended purpose. Those studios (in the church basement), thankfully, were separated from the front office by good air conditioning — for staffers and guests who didn’t appreciate contact highs.”
Murley also explained in his article that due to the twice-a-week simulcast, KPPC-AM forced the first exception to the FCC rule then, which said AM & FM stations could not duplicate programming more than 50% of the time if located in major markets. Crosby-Avery Broadcasting claimed in 1968 that it was the fm programming that was intended to be unduplicated, while 106.7/fm was being duplicated about 8% of the time on KPPC-1240 AM on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Murley referred to KPPC-AM’s engineering in 1968 as “atrocious.” He wrote, “Who worries about modulation on a hundred-watt share-time station, when your total music needs involved half-a-dozen pipe organ solos a week, or a few numbers from an off key choir?” As for the previously mentioned KPPC wire antenna system, Murley said KPPC’s flattop was different. While the antenna design looked good, Murley described it this way: “It’s roughly parallel with all the leaky auto ignitions of Colorado Boulevard. It’s anchored to a structure that anchors the printing press of the daily paper published next door. KPPC has a static machine for an AM long-wire (antenna), the sort of static machine that does a job on 1240 and local adjacent channel operations, such as the black-programmed KGFJ on 1230.”
“In spite of its extraordinarily limited schedule and its very limited coverage pattern (barely reaching West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, never reaching the Pacific and covering less than a third of the Los Angeles market within the half-millivolt contour), this relic out of the past once performed a key function. It offered to the listener without the fm set the chance to sample free-form underground radio during its initial growth period, without having to listen to a friend’s fm. FM set sales skyrocketed among 18 to 24 year-old males, audiences jumped and the rest is history,” Murley concluded. This goes along with what James Mason told me about why the church didn’t keep the AM when the fm was sold in 1967. Apparently, new owners Crosby-Avery wanted 1240-AM to promote the fact that if listeners wanted to hear B. Mitchel Reed and other KPPC djs playing this music every day, the listeners should go out and buy a radio with FM, so they could hear KPPC fulltime on 106.7, and not just the two days a week that 1240-AM was on the air with the same music. So, the church replied, if you want the AM station, you’ll have to continue to broadcast our Sunday service. The new owners agreed to that requirement.
One of the KPPC djs in those days was Ted Alvy. Ted related to me a story that shows the strange connection between the older AM station and the fm in those days, when many of the “older generation” members of Pasadena Presbyterian Church still tuned into KPPC-AM every Sunday morning to hear the church services from 11 a.m. to noon. However, they soon got an “earful” of what the younger generation liked, when the church service ended on 1240-AM and the noon simulcast began on 106.7/fm and 1240-AM. Ted recalled that incident:
”I remember that sometime in the fall of 1970 (soon after our fm station went full power from Flint Peak), KPPC/fm reclaimed the AM signal on Sundays at noon, when it started its simulcast of our hippie underground music, as KPPC AM & FM for the rest of Sunday (just after the end of the church service broadcast on KPPC-AM). An uninformed part-time deejay once played a ‘blue’ routine by Lenny Bruce just as the simulcast began, and our station gm got a serious complaint from a shocked Presbyterian Church listener. The KPPC studios were now located at 99 South Chester (since Les Carter took over as pd on April Fools day 1970). My memory is a little foggy here, but sometime later our fm may have also simulcast (on 1240-AM) for an hour or two on Wednesday night after the church service ended.”
According to then-chief engineer Mike Callaghan, a similar incident was heard over KPPC-1240 when the Sunday church service ended earlier than scheduled, due to technical problems:
“A fraternity brother of mine, Mike Mathieson, was running the board at 99 S. Chester one Sunday morning, when the mike at the Church suddenly opened and a hurried voice said, "This concludes this morning's service from the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. We now return you to the main studio.” Period. No warning, no nothing. (The church's console had started smoking). Mathieson had absolutely NOTHING cued up or ready to go. Veteran dj Don Hall was pulling records for his 12 Noon shift, and he handed Mathieson an LP and said, "Here, play this!" Mike grabbed the record and, greatly relieved, started tracking it. "GIVE ME AN 'F' -- GIVE ME A 'U' -- GIVE ME A 'C'.......” – It was The Fish Cheer From Woodstock. The old ladies tuned into ‘God Squad’ never even had a chance to turn it down. Mathieson didn't say a word. He just stood up, lifted his license off the wall, and walked out the door, never to come back.”
KPPC Strike of ’68 Brings Changes
KPPC had its share of growing pains and problems, just a few short months after the sale and format change to “free-form underground” rock. Both KPPC/fm and sister-station KMPX djs in San Francisco went on strike at 3 a.m. on Monday March 18, 1968. Ted Alvy explains how and why this took place:
“KPPC and KMPX employees went on strike against harassment by the management and their attempts to prevent artistic and personal freedoms by replacing the long haired, bearded, or barefoot employees who created success at both stations. Tom Donahue resigned his management position to join the strike. Management bled both operations financially, as checks bounced week after week while most of the salaries were far below the average in the industry, often below the level of decent subsistence. Management misrepresented the goals of the striking employees in order to induce people to work as scabs.
After the strike ended at the end of Spring of 1968, some employees returned to KPPC, because KMET would only hire B. Mitchel Reed. Some good deejays played music in the church basement studios, but with little overall direction. So it took the sale of the station and the hiring of Les Carter as pd and building the state of the art studio near Cal Tech at 99 South Chester to allow a freeform air staff that was both creative and influential in spreading good music over the airwaves. The increase to full power with a transmitter on Flint Peak in September 1970 gave KPPC/fm a much bigger audience, even against KMET/fm with their powerful signal.”
Alvy went on to say, “I believe that KPPC/fm had two amazing Underground Radio airstaffs: if KMET had hired the KPPC air staff with B. Mitchel Reed, Tom Donahue and Les Carter in June 1968, KMET would have revolutionized radio in Los Angeles, and across the country, as it would’ve made lots of money playing lots of great music, with many imitators; if the program director Les Carter’s creative air staff had not been fired on October 24, 1971. The freedom given to intelligent deejays at KPPC was responsible for its creative success.”
Charles Laquidara, who had an incredibly long and successful career in rock radio in Boston as host of his Big Mattress morning show on WBCN until 1996, got his start in radio at KPPC. After getting his Bachelor’s degree in theater arts from Pasadena Playhouse, Charles tried radio announcing as a job, while seeking acting roles in Hollywood. Charles was at KPPC twice, first in 1965 and again in ’68 after the church had sold the FM and AM stations. In an email to me, he passed on these memories:
“I worked at KPPC as a part-time Classical music announcer in 1965. [Actually got a write-up in the Pasadena Star-News from the Arts/Entertainment editor, who called me the "refreshing new voice on Classical radio" because of, "his simple, straightforward delivery, which brings classical music to the average working folk..." [Think he was saying I didn't sound snobby and sophisticated like most announcers of the genre.] I still have the article somewhere – very proud of that one! The show was a Sunday night feature called ‘KPPC's Opera of the Air,’ I believe. I left in 1966 to return to Boston because of illness in the family, and when I came back to radio at KPPC in 1968, it was an Underground Rock station. I was hired as the late night 10 p.m. – 2 a.m. announcer and worked there over a year. Because I didn't know that much about Rock – and only a bit of Classical, I got some kind of reputation [or notoriety!] as the "crazy dj who mixes the Beach Boys with Bach and Jazz with Jagger." Soon I was offered a job in Boston to replace Peter Wolf, who was leaving WBCN to form the J. Geils band.”
Charles also added that when he returned in ’68, an event at Griffith Park took place one day to pay tribute to Lenny Bruce. Charles told me that suddenly, without warning, a bunch of Los Angeles police officers swooped down on his group and attacked them for no apparent reason. He told me that young people today would have a hard time understanding this time [late-1960s] in the USA, when people in their teens and 20s didn’t trust anyone over 30, and the police who were supposed to protect you, were not your friend. Charles says he realized then that he could mix his radio entertainment show with serious social commentary of the day. He talked about the Griffith Park incident on his radio show that night and did much the same on future KPPC shows.
Mike Callaghan, who has been mentioned previously in this article, started at KPPC in May of 1970. Mike gave me the story about how he started working at KPPC, his first job in radio broadcasting: “I was taking the Electronics Curricula at Pasadena City College, and one of the classes prepared you for the FCC First Class License. The teacher, Ken Johnson, told us on the first day that if we passed the test and got the license before the course was over, he'd give us an 'A' and we'd never have to come back to class. It made sense to me, so I studied like mad and passed. When the license arrived I hung it on the wall at Dow Radio, where I was selling radio parts. One of the KPPC people came in, saw the license, and asked if I wanted a job. I'd always been interested in broadcasting, so I interviewed and got hired. That was in the basement of the church. We had a Collins FM transmitter, and when it rained we'd wait until it stopped and took the station off long enough to drain the water out of the cable that went to the antenna. KPPC's [FM] signal was terrible. One of my first jobs, as the new chief engineer, was to design an antenna made out of a broomstick and coat hangers. We called it the "KPPC Super-Signal-Sucker Antenna" and sent hundreds of copies of the plans to listeners that wanted to hear us better.”
I asked Mike to please share at least one interesting memory or story about operating the stations: “It was so loose it was ridiculous. When we were building the new studios so we could get out of the [church] basement, we ran into last minute problems. The dj on the air kept saying how excited he was to be getting out of the basement, and it was I who had to call [literally about 2 hours before we were supposed to move] and confess we weren't moving for a few more days. The phone in the basement rang and rang, and finally someone answered. I asked who it was, and back came the answer, ‘Oh, this is Howie!’ ‘Howie? Who the heck are you? Where's the dj?’ ‘Oh, he went out to get a sandwich.’ ‘He did, eh? Who's running the radio station?’ ‘Well, I guess I am... Anything special you'd like to hear?’ ‘Ah, Howie, do you happen to have a license to run a radio station?’ ‘License, why on earth would I want a license?’ And so it went.”
Mike added that generally, there weren’t any problems between the church and this underground rock station operating from its basement: ‘The church left us alone. Their business manager, Bill Benke, was my contact if I needed anything [circuit breakers reset, etc.]. I only called him once on a Sunday afternoon, and he was totally ripped. Not happy at all about coming in. Generally speaking, there weren't that many people in the basement at one time. The Church heard about the 'Flashing Statues' and did ask us to leave. But by that time, we'd already had the Beatles, Stones, and other stars down to the basement. It was more of a drag for us to ask them into a church than it was for the church.”
Mike includes this funny story about the statues on his own Web site. Just one month after starting at KPPC, Mike managed to get the entire station kicked out of the basement studios. As the new chief engineer, Mike had rigged a set of plastic statues of the Holy Family with lights hooked up to the cart machines. When the first spot [commercial] was done playing, Joseph would light up. When the second spot was done, Mary would light up. Also, when the disc jockey turned up the volume too loud for the transmitter, Jesus would light up. Quoting from the Web site, ‘The church elders decided it was time to get the ‘heathens’ out of the basement and gave us two weeks to move. The deadline to move was a Sunday, and the party held in the basement Saturday night is still legendary. About a month after the studio move, we started building a new transmitter plant on Flint Peak between Pasadena and Glendale.” (Photo: Mike Callaghan)
I also asked Mike about the AM’s 100-watt signal when he worked there and if the AM usually simulcasted the fm station twice a week. Mike replied, ‘The AM ground system was better than you might expect. When it signed on in 1924, the IRS donated a bunch of copper stills they'd confiscated, and they were buried around the perimeter of the newspaper building. Copper straps went up the sides to the roof and were tied together. The signal was really crappy, though. No real ground wave to speak of. When I did a request show with Art Laboe from a root beer stand in East Pasadena [on KPPC-1240 AM], I had to buy a top-notch Sony receiver to make sure we were on the air. Even so, I did get QSL reports from as far away as the Hague in the Netherlands. That one made my day.’ (Author’s note: I believe the copper stills used as part of the ground system came later than 1924. KPPC’s antenna from 1924-1936 was on top of the church roof, not on the Star-News building. The church got permission in 1931 to use the former KPSN antenna system atop the Star-News roof, and that’s where the copper stills for the ground system were placed, possibly in 1931 or when the antenna system was re-done in 1936 for the power increase from 50 to 100 watts). Mike added, “If I had nothing else to do on a Sunday afternoon, I'd feed it [KPPC-1240 AM] from the Production Studio and play stuff I'd brought from home. No one cared. When there was a significant election in Pasadena about the School District, I took a tape deck to the meetings and ran them on 1240 on Wednesday nights.”
Mike recalled more about the move from the church basement:
“I remember all this well, as I was still in school when we moved. The exodus from the basement to 99 S. Chester was in May of 1970. After that was done, we started on Flint Peak, and that move was in September. What it meant was that less than 6 months after being named chief engineer, I had moved the entire station to new digs. KPPC-AM did stay in the Church basement. It was remote controlled from Chester St. And on 'Black Sunday', when the staff got fired [October 24, 1971], the jocks all were despondent when the FM went off and the police walked in and gave the staff 5 minutes to clear out or get arrested for trespassing. They all forgot the mike was open and the AM was still on the air. Now THAT is an aircheck I'd like to have!”
There’s much, much more to the KPPC/fm story during its “underground rock” glory years, including details of its format, air personalities, photos, etc. For more details, you are invited to explore these Web sites put together by Ted Alvy and Mike Callaghan, which are dedicated to the memory of KPPC/fm: KPPC, DUCK RUSH (Neon Mallard) KPPC-FM 1967 – 71.
As Ted points out, a lot of talented people came through KPPC/fm during that era, including all the previously mentioned names above, along with The Obscene Steven Clean (Steven Segal), Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen), The Credibility Gap (Richard Beebe, David L. Lander, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer), Don Hall, Mississippi Fats (Joe Rogers), Miss Outrageous Nevada (Susan Carter), Johnny Otis, Cosmos Topper (Ted Alvy), The Firesign Theatre and Jeff Gonzer. Other names that I’ve found associated with KPPC during this general era include Paul Anthony/Ralph Hull (1968); Steve Dahl (1972); and William F. Williams (1971). My apologies for not finding and including more of you. I hope those from the fm side can tell their history one day. Also, for an excellent overview on the history of this era of American broadcasting, a good source is the chapter “The FM Revolution,” from the excellent book Listening In — Radio and the American Imagination by Susan J. Douglas. You may be able to find it at your public library or at a used bookstore.
GRADUAL END OF UNDERGROUND ROCK BRINGS MORE CHANGES
KPPC AM and FM were later purchased by the National Science Network on October 8, 1969. I asked Ted Alvy if he knew why Crosby-Avery sold the stations. Ted said he believed Avery was ill and Crosby had financial problems. Ted added that two years later, General Manager Doug Cox fired the KPPC air staff on October 24, 1971. He claims that Cox also convinced the National Science Network that program director Les Carter was putting the station license in jeopardy for various violations the djs supposedly committed. The new owners also forced KPPC to run commercials for their own products, such as Isodine mouthwash and Kerid eardrops. Ted said Isodine turned out to be on a federal list of products known to be ineffective. Mike Callaghan remembers that National Science Network also wanted to run their pharmaceutical ads on KPPC/fm’s subcarrier, a hidden channel you can’t hear on a regular radio.
ART LABOE SHOW BRIEFLY HEARD ON KPPC
Mike Callaghan told me that L.A. radio legend Art Laboe was heard for a short time on KPPC-AM around 1972. So, I sent an email to Art to find out why he was on the low-powered Pasadena outlet. Here’s his email reply:
“In about 1970, Dick Moreland [previously with KRLA in the 1960s], program director of KPPC/fm decided he would like to try my old drive-in show on his #1 fm station KPPC/fm, but first he would try it out on his KPPC-AM station, 100-watts, which only broadcast Wednesday and Sunday evenings. For 4 hours each of those days, I was on from 8 p.m. to midnight. Just that one day per week. A restricted license held over from when KPPC-AM was owned by the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. PPC being the church's call letters. The show was on for about 3 months and for the 1st time in history was IN the Arbitron ratings. Quite a feat since it could only be heard in the general area of the church and [the signal] cut off at the freeway leading to L.A. The show was successful, but never got scheduled on the fm. That's the story. Thanks, Art Laboe.”
Mike believes Art’s show was heard on KPPC after the October 1971 firing of the air-staff: “It was later than 1970, because Dick Moreland didn't become the pd until after Les Carter and his cronies were fired. KRLA’s Doug Cox was the station manager, and Moreland was the pd. I remember being at a meeting at Moreland's house when he was picking the replacement air staff. He said, "Hmmm. Let's see who else I owe a favor to...”