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Local Radio History presentation for SOCA

Alex Cosper on KWOD in the 90s

Sacramento Old City Association (SOCA) President William Burg invited me to give a presentation for SOCA about local radio history on March 9. The presentation was held at Mdtown Village Cafe and lasted over an hour. I captured a lot of it on video for SacTV.com. It was fun because afterward I hung around Midtown for Second Saturday and visited several artistic galleries. The presentation covered almost the entire evolution of radio, mixing national and local history. One of the themes was that Sacramento radio has contributed to national history many times. Another theme is that radio started with the telephone and that’s what’s replacing radio as mobile phones are steadily becoming the most preferred form of popular media. 

The SacTV video series is divided into three segments. The first segment covers early history from the invention of radio through the Great Depression. From the earliest stations onward, radio programming was typically sent over telephone lines from the station to a tower and then over the airwaves. During the 1920s the city only had one radio station, which was KFBK on the AM dial. Then Sacramento got its second AM station in 1937 when a city council member named Royal Miller launched KROY. By 1945 the city had a few more stations on the dial, which were KCRA and KXOA. FM stations then began appearing in the post war period, with each of the four being sister properties of the four AM stations. But at that time most people didn’t have FM receivers yet. 

The second video segment covers the 1950s through the late 1960s. As television took over as the most popular medium, radio had to find a new way to get people to listen. So they shifted from variety programming to formatted progamming. Pop stations that incorporated rock and roll targeted younger age groups while Middle of the Road (MOR) stations targeted adults who preferred big bands and pop standards. The first stations in Sacramento to play rock and roll were KGMS, KROY and KXOA. The popularity of transistor pocket radios starting in 1957 also helped fuel the craze for teen-oriented stations. By 1962 the main battle for the young audience was between 1240 KROY and 1470 KXOA. KROY became the number one station for a six year run starting in 1968, the same year that  98.5 KZAP began experimenting with freeform radio. Part of KZAP’s appeal was that the playlist wasn’t restricted to the same 40 songs over and over.

Due to the fact that my pocket video camera could only record so much, I had to redo the third segment later on, covering the 1970s through the 1990s. The seventies was a period when more FM stations became familiar to Sacramentans, especially by 1979 when new technology made FM more listenable in moving cars. It marked a huge migration of music fans abandoning AM for FM. Despite the fact that KSFM Earth Radio had become very competitive with KZAP, both stations shifted their programming in 1979. KZAP moved from freeform to "Album Oriented Rock," which was the format of a national radio consultant that trimmed the playlist to the most popular rock. Meanwhile, Earth Radio became FM 102 and started playing top 40 music. KROY AM listeners moved to its sister FM station, which became a rock station. 

Each decade marked a transition period for radio. In the 1980s FM 102 competed with KWOD and then the return of KROY for the top 40 audience. KZAP had won the rock battle by the middle of the decade but faced a new challenger that had been KPOP, formerly a soul station that briefly experimented with new wave then pop, then rock. It had been consulted by Sac State graduate Rick Carroll, who coined the slogan  "rock of the eighties" while he was Program Director at KROQ in Los Angeles and a consultant for MTV. KPOP switched to AOR and became KRXQ. Meanwhile, on the AM dial, Rush Limbaugh helped make KFBK the number one station in town before he moved on to national syndication, eventually becoming the highest paid on air person in radio history. 

The video series touches on my experience as Program Director of KWOD in the 1990s, which made national industry news, since it was one of the highest rated independent alternative major market stations in the country. But the entire industry changed starting with the Telecom Act of 1996, which allowed big corporations to borrow as much money as it took to buy out as many mom and pop stations as they could. Sadly, it didn’t work as corporations bought into a bubble of high valuations that eventually came crashing down, leaving the big companies deep in debt. As a cost cutting measure they began automating much of the programming and a lot of it became duplicated nationally, ending an era of localized radio culture. 

Public radio still exists as an alternative for people who want musical or educational variety with local flavor mixed in. The future of radio is uncertain, but it’s clear that the heyday was quite a long time ago. Most people still listen to radio on their commutes, but listening time has diminished while new technology provides a wider selection of choices. Radio in many ways has become nostalgia, which is why the SOCA presentation was fun for me. At one time radio had a lot to do with local culture and helping small businesses, but it’s hard to say if that’s true anymore. A deeper look at Sacramento radio history can be found at my site PlaylistResearch.com

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