Birth of Community Rock Radio: A brief history of KMPX and KSAN-FM

Historical Essay

by Todd Coffin

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Scoop Nisker's underground news was an ongoing popular feature of KSAN's heyday in the early 1970s.

Image: Good Times newspaper, 1970.

Rock music on the radio? As late as the mid-1960s, this concept was foreign to most San Franciscans: except for the few tightly formatted top 40 AM stations, there was no outlet for the booming psychedelic rock scene.

The void remained only shortly, until a DJ, producer and concert promoter by the name of Tom Donahue began broadcasting four hours of modern rock every day on KMPX, a small FM station known primarily for foreign language programming. The show was an immediate success, and within two months, in June of 1967, KMPX was a full time rock 'n' roll station.

Although it was commercial, KMPX was an "underground" station in that its DJs played extended experimental and psychedelic music that addressed the culture of sex and drugs more openly than any previous San Francisco station. KMPX DJs also personified the mellow, often stoned, attitudes of listeners who believed there was a fun and festive side to the political and social upheavals of the times.

"All of a sudden, people were hearing albums that they'd never heard on the radio before," remembered KMPX DJ Bob McClay on an all-day KSAN retrospective in May, 1978. "It was astounding to be able to hear that kind of music and it was so important."

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KSAN poster courtesy the Digger Archive

The station immediately had a large following and caught the attention of advertisers of all stripes, including head shops, record stores, restaurants and small boutiques. It caught so much attention that the station's owner, Leon Crosby, realized he could turn a greater profit and wanted more commercials from bigger businesses. He soon instituted stricter guidelines for music and DJ air time. Donahue and his fellow DJs, however, walked off the job and migrated to a classical music station, KSFR, and worked with the management to reshape it into San Francisco's second community rock station, KSAN.

Although KSAN was owned by a large New York-based media conglomerate, Metromedia Corporation, its initial aim was to rise above the commercial fray and broadcast a mix of music and political satire. The station's youthful, countercultural attitude, expressed both through the music and commentary, appealed to hippies and became an integral part of the San Francisco youth experience.

One of the most appealing factors about KSAN and KMPX was that they afforded their audiences greater participation and a sense of shared community. When a spectator was stabbed to death at the Altamont rock festival in 1969, KSAN opened the phone lines for discussion and debate.

Free speech on the airwaves came under threat, however, immediately following the inauguration of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in 1969. Dean Burch, who chaired the Federal Communications Cornmission (FCC) in the first Nixon administration, at once threatened to put radio stations that played music with drug-related lyrics under intense Federal scrutiny. Although Congress eventually rejected a Burch-backed proposal to ban drug-related lyrics entirely from the airwaves, the proposed limitations on free speech had a grim effect on the willingness of radio station managers to flirt with the law and arouse controversy.

A crucial personality in the countercultural appeal of KSAN was Wes "Scoop" Nisker, a satirical songwriter who spliced together songs, speeches, interviews and sound effects to create satirical newscasts and social commentaries. Nisker recalled on the KSAN retrospective in 1978 that "in 1970, after the guilty verdicts in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial were announced, the San Francisco Examiner had an article saying that the rioters (in Berkeley) were listening to the KSAN news to find out where to go. And they were, of course, because we were giving them directions."

Although Nisker was soon forced out by a nervous management, he was succeeded by Larry Bensky, who broadcast equally radical news, yet without the dramatic and provocative sound effects that had tended to whip listeners into a frenzy.

As the Chicago trials proceeded, however, and as Bensky became more outspoken about his and KSAN's disdain for political corruption, the Metromedia Corporation began to exert more pressure on the station to disengage from its vocal, barbed criticisms. Bensky's extreme partisanship, satirical broadcasting, and propensity to turn the microphone over to community activists to voice their opinions led to his dismissal in June, 1970, only three months following Nisker's departure.

In fact, station management dismissed Bensky only thirty minutes after he interviewed disgruntled employees of Jeans West--a major KSAN advertiser--who complained about the contradictions between the company's "hip" image and its requirement that all employees take drug tests for marijuana. Bensky (and Nisker, before) was fired by station manager Willis Duff, a gruff businessman who succeeded station founder Tom Donahue, who had left KSAN shortly following its formation for KPFA, a listener-sponsored Berkeley community station.

Duff's management style symbolized a larger trend in community radio broadcasting: advertising and commercialization. By 1970, business realities began dampening the radical community nature of KSAN and other similar stations, as mass media advertisers grew increasingly attracted to the growing numbers of "underground" radio listeners.

Bensky, recalling the tensions between profiteering and social activism in a 1980 retrospective, said

"it makes them (executives and advertisers) nervous to think that there is social ferment, because there is a reluctance to participate in the consumer economy by people who think that they're going to be drafted or bludgeoned or beat over the head in their beds... They forget to go out and buy TVs."

By the early 1970s, the commercial potential and pressure overwhelmed free-form, activist community radio, and in spite of its appeal, the noncommercial nature disappeared almost completely by the late 1970s, except in pockets. The potential profits to be reaped from new rock music was too great to resist.

Interestingly, KSAN was for several years a commercial country music station, at 94.9 FM, and has since switched frequencies with one of its corporate partners. Twenty years after being known as the "Jive 95," the radio station broadcasting on 94.9 FM is now called the "Wild 95." Plus ça change!

Primary Source:

Armstrong, David. A Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc. 1981

Postscript from a reader:

Minor correction: the 1st use of KMPX as an alternative music platform did not begin with Tom Donahue. It was a guy named Larry, but I don't think his last name was Bensky. Larry hosted the hours from midnight to 6AM. I answered an ad in the Chronicle for people who wanted to become broadcasters to come to their station offices to apply. It turned out that the offer was contingent on having a broadcaster's license for which one needed to take a.class. it had to be paid for in advance, and I had no money at the time. The people running the station were trying to market 4 hr slots to folks who could pay a certain amount of money. What ended up happening was that some people who had licenses went out to the ethnic community to sell advertising time to small business operators to fund their time slots. Tom Donahue eventually took the 8PM to midnight slot (he had been in AM radio prior to then) and eventually KMPX became a full time alternative music option where there hadn't been any before. The KMPX frequency was the 1st to go that way. Problems began to develop around disagreements over money. KMPX was not commercially driven, but the commercial possibilities were obvious. The staff at KMPX sort of split and some of them went to KSAN. KSAN was driven by money from the first. I grew up in Mill Valley and heard all this happen right in front of my ears.

—Robert Cogswell, December 2021

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