Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The History of KFRC, San Francisco, and the Don Lee Networks, Pt. 2

Originally published in the January, 2009, Old Radio Times.(

The History of KFRC, San Francisco, and the Don Lee Networks
John F. Schneider

The Debut of KFRC

The summer of 1924 found Holliway working at a radio shop called the Radio Art Corporation, on Sutter Street at Powell. That was the same summer that a Western Electric salesman called on the owners of the store, Jim Threlkeld and Thomas Catton, and sold them on the idea of starting a new radio station (and of course, buying a Western Electric transmitter). And so, KFRC was born. Holliway couldn't resist the offer of the job of Station Manager, and never returned to Stanford. He and two other store employees, Harold Peery and Alan Cormack, began drawing up their plans for the station.

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:

"Renault came to the studios with his manager, the well-known Leo P. Flynn. He spoke very broken English, and at the same time developed a bad case of mike fright. Flynn did the French-Canadian dialect to perfection, so I introduced him as Renault. He made a fine speech, and no one ever knew that it wasn't Renault whom they heard. "


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