The History of KFI-FM -- Mt. Wilson's First FM Station

Jim Hilliker, Monterey, California


December 2009

---

At the invitation of The CGC Communicator newsletter, radio historian Jim Hilliker has traced the history of KFI-FM, the first FM station located on Mt. Wilson:

  I was asked to write a short history of KFI-FM, so I'll do my best to tell about its few years on the air.  While space doesn't permit an entire history of the early FM band in southern California, I'll throw in a few of the old FM call letters to show most of the other stations on the FM band at the time KFI-FM was on the air.

  The first FM station west of the Mississippi went on the air in Los Angeles in August of 1941 from Mt. Lee.  That was K45LA on the old 42-50 megacycle FM band.  This was what soon became KHJ-FM and is today's KRTH at 101.1 MHz.  It was on 44.5 MHz initially but, when the old 42-50 megahertz band was needed for television, the FCC allocated 88-108 MHz as the FM band.  So, KHJ-FM was moved to 99.7 in 1945 and by 1948 to 101.1 FM.

  On November 29, 1944, KFI officials broke ground on Mount Wilson for construction of a new FM and TV transmitting facility.  The ceremony was broadcast live over KFI(AM) from Mount Wilson from noon to 12:15 pm that afternoon.  KFI-FM went on the air from that site at 105.9 megacycles (MHz today) in July of 1946 with its first test program, though some later sources say the station went on the air in 1947.  The station only lasted until 1951 when the owner, Earle C. Anthony, decided to turn off the FM station and returned the license to the FCC. This was common at the time, when some station owners saw no money from FM and no future in FM.  In the early '50s, while the audio quality was much better than AM, FM radios were not cheap, there were no AM-FM combination radios yet and stereo broadcasting on FM didn't happen until 1961.

  KFI-FM was the first Los Angeles FM station to have its transmitter on Mt. Wilson.  According to an article written by Marvin Collins several years ago, KFI-FM used a General Electric 3 kW Phasotron transmitter, operating with a 2-bay antenna, giving the station an ERP of 10 kw.  Later, the 1951 Broadcasting Yearbook listed KFI-FM's power as 16,500 watts.

  Through 1948 and '49, KFI-FM was broadcasting its own music programs, separate from KFI 640-AM.  A sample from the Los Angeles Times radio page for December of 1949 from 3 to 9 pm shows KFI-FM offering those with FM receivers programs with titles such as Afternoon Melodies, Classics, Music For You, Symphony Moods and World of Music.  By 1950, KFI-FM was simply broadcasting simultaneously the same programs from KFI-640.  Five other FM stations were also simulcasting the programs from their AM stations, while at least three other area FM stations had their own programs, according to a Los Angeles Times radio log. Most of the FMs were only on the air from mid-afternoon to about 9 pm, while some like KFI-FM were on the air from 6 am to midnight with the simulcast of their AM stations.

  Along with KHJ-FM, other early day FM stations in the Los Angeles region that went on the air in 1946 were the non-commercial KUSC-91.5 and KCRW-89.9. KFI-FM and KMPC-FM were broadcasting by 1947. By 1948 and 1949, other early FM stations on the band around L.A. included KNX-FM at 93.1; KWIK-FM in Burbank at 94.3; KFMV-Hollywood at 94.7; KECA-FM 95.5; KRKD-FM 96.3; KVOE-FM in Santa Ana at 96.7; KKLA (owned by KFSG-AM 1150) at 97.1; KAGH-FM in Pasadena at 98.3; KMGM (owned by the movie studio) at 98.7; KMPC-FM at 100.3; KNOB in Long Beach at 103.1 (moved to 97.9 by 1958); KFAC-FM at 104.3 (moved to 92.3 by 1955); KCLI-105.1 and KFI-FM on 105.9.  (KCLI was owned by the founders of KIEV-870 in Glendale.)

  By 1950, KCLI was gone along with KMPC-FM.  KFI-FM was listed in the 1951 Broadcasting Yearbook, but was gone from newspaper radio logs by mid-1951 and gone from the 1952 Broadcasting Yearbook.  KKLA-97.1 also went off the air for good in 1951.

  So, while KFI-FM made history as the first Los Angeles FM to transmit from Mt. Wilson, its short history lasted only about five years on 105.9.  The station was not sold.  The owner, Earle C. Anthony, simply shut the station down and returned the license to the FCC.  A new license for 105.9 in Los Angeles was issued in 1956 with the call letters KBMS (Better Music Station).  This FM station's original city of license was Glendale. The new station license had no ties to the defunct KFI-FM. After a few call letter changes, the current 105.9 FM license is still on the air today and has been known over the years as KWST, KMGG and since 1986 as KPWR or Power 106.

The information in this essay is believed to be accurate based on considerable research.  Quite a few CPs for FM stations were never built in the '50s while some old magazines had listed them as if they were actually on the air, so that issue had to be sorted out.  A letter to the author (jimhilliker (at) sbcglobal.net) would be appreciated if any of the material posted above appears to be in need of correction.

  ________

  In response to Jim's story, Marvin Collins (KFIam640 (at) aol.com), retired Chief Engineer of KFI(AM) and KOST-FM, added the following comments:

  Jim, your story looks very good to me.

  Something that might be of interest to mention is how the FM stations made money in the early to mid 50s by doing what was known as storecasting.  The younger generation probably is not aware of this today.  The main purpose of several FM stations was to provide background music to stores, etc.  I remember KUTE 101.9 having a 20 or 21 kHz tone that was transmitted whenever they opened their microphone.  The tone would mute receivers in stores and cut out the commercial massages since all of their few commercials were done live. This system was referred to as simplex.  I also remember KUTE using RCA 45 RPM record players for music.  35 mm film cans contained stacks of instrumental music to be played on the RCA players.

  I think it was in the late fifties that the FCC wanted to encourage FM development and changed the rules such that stations could no longer do the tone-mute simplex system.  They had to go to subcarriers for their storecasting and then run regular programming on the main channel.  I believe KBMS (Better Music Service) was another station that had to put on a subcarrier in order to continue serving their storecasting business.  KMLA 100.3 also converted to storecasting on a subcarrier.  There was a period where the subcarrier and the main carrier carried the same music but not the station IDs and commercials.

  Then as the main channel became more valuable than the subcarrier, the main channel programming went a different path than the sub.  Later several of the stations were sold but the previous owners retained the rights to the subcarriers.  The former owners really did not want to be in the broadcasting business but instead only the music selling to stores business.  I know KOST 103.5 had a subcarrier that I believed originated with a former owner.  KFI Inc. finally got rid of the subcarrier after owning KOST for a number of years.



Posted by Steve Blodgett
earthsignals.com