KELW Burbank

by Jim Hilliker and David Ricquish

Early Tejano Music heard in New Zealand

Beautiful Downtown Burbank

You’re probably familiar with the expression ‘Beautiful Downtown Burbank’ which was applied wryly to that part of The Valley in the greater Los Angeles conurbation known as the City of Burbank. Home of TV and movie studios now, but 75 years ago it was no more than a peaceful rural area on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. They canned peaches there, and the peaches were grown locally.

KELW logo.
© Eric Shackle Collection

In 1934, New Zealand radio listener Eric Shackle regularly tuned to the early morning show from short lived Burbank radio station KELW on 780 kc. At this time of the day, KELW broadcast a two hour Spanish language program hosted by Pedro Gonzalez, one of the earliest Tejano music performers.

There’s another New Zealand connection with Burbank. The Lockheed Electra planes which flew the Tasman Sea in the colors of TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Limited) in the 1950’s and early 1960’s were built at the giant Lockheed facility in Burbank.

KELW owned by Earl L White

KELW was a radio station on air for only ten years from Burbank, roughly between February 1927 and 1937. It was started by Burbank real estate developer Earl L White, who gave his initials to the new radio station.

The first night of broadcast, on Saturday, February 12, 1927, saw many local and civic dignitaries join Earl White at the KELW studios. White was soon proud that KELW could be heard as far to the east as New York City, and was heard well throughout the western states.

During this time of ‘chaos’ in American radio, when stations could choose their own frequency and transmitter power, KELW used the wide coverage frequency of 560 kc and an initial power of 250 watts.

By mid-1927, the new Federal Radio Commission forced ‘wavejumper’ KELW to move to 1310 kc. Here it could still operate almost fulltime, as KPPC in Pasadena, which shared the frequency, only broadcast for a few hours on Sundays and Wednesdays. By 1928, KELW had increased power to 500 watts and famous personalities lined up to be heard, including evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and humorist Will Rogers.

Unfortunately, about 15 months later, The White Spot of the Fernando Valley as KELW called itself, was compelled to move yet again, to a new frequency of 780 kc. Worse, it had to share time on the frequency with KTM Santa Monica, which meant that advertising and sponsorship income fell from November 11,1928.

When the Great Depression hit in late 1929 and 1930, White was wiped out financially, and couldn’t afford to keep KELW running. It was then taken over by a group licensed as Magnolia Park Limited.

White had developed the Magnolia Park section of Burbank with tract homes, a shopping center, a movie theater, his own newspaper The Tribune and his radio station KELW at 3702 Magnolia Boulevard. So, with White out of the picture, KELW remained in the studios on Magnolia.

KELW Studios and one of the twin antennas on Magnolia Blvd, Burbank, CA
© Burbank Historical Society

KELW now promoted itself as Official Broadcasting Station for the Federated Church Brotherhoods of California (authorized by W P Willimott, General Secretary on June 19, 1934) as well as the American Legion Post 150 with ‘news and programs of Legion activities broadcast daily’.

At this time, the KELW schedule was 4am-6am, 10am-1pm and 5pm-8pm daily, or just eight hours a day. Although located in Burbank, the station also maintained a sales office in Los Angeles to increase advertising income. The rest of the broadcasting day on 780 kc was given over to KTM which used a more powerful transmitter.

Hearst Radio Inc buys out KELW

By 1935, KTM had become KEHE, named after the Los Angeles Evening Herald Newspaper and was the Los Angeles station for Hearst Radio Inc, part of the Hearst media empire. At the same time, KEHE bought KELW and ran both stations, sharing the same frequency of 780 kc. This effectively gave Hearst Radio a fulltime signal on 780 kc although via two separate FCC licences, two callsigns, and even two transmitters.

In 1937, KEHE was authorized by the FCC to increase power from 1000 to 5000 watts daytime and from 500 to 1000 watts nighttime, and to merge operations with KELW. At this time, KELW had been operating with 1000 watts daytime and 500 watts nighttime as well.

The KELW licence was deleted in 1937 and KEHE went on to eventually become KABC on 790 kc. With 5000 watts, KABC has always been heard well in New Zealand. And the studios at 3702 Magnolia? They were demolished around 1995-1996. Whilst living in Los Angeles in 1988-1992, like many others, I must have driven past the old KELW building more than once without knowing it was there.

Mexican Program

Pedro Gonzalez.
© espinosa productions, Scottsdale, AZ.

In a 1934 letter from KELW to its New Zealand listener, the Program Director wrote: We broadcast a Mexican program every morning from 4am to 6am PST. What you heard was an imitation prize fight. They put it on just for the fun of it right in the studio. I think the programs from 4am to 6am are rather interesting as they are always putting on something a bit different. Have you heard their duck? He performs over the mike quite often.

As well as this duck, a former telegraph operator from Chihuahua in Mexico, one Pedro Gonzalez, also performed over the KELW mike in the mornings.

Listeners in Burbank, all over southern California, and as far away as New Zealand, were actually listening to the birth of tejano music, the music style which has now become a multi-million dollar industry reflecting the culture of the borderlands between northern Mexico and southern California.

Pedro was a refugee of the Mexican Revolution. Originally condemned to death by firing squad by Pancho Villa, his life was saved when local schoolchildren placed themselves between him and the firing squad. He was later to marry one of the schoolgirls, but in the meantime, he was given a choice, join Pancho Villa or die. He stayed with the army of Villa until 1917 when it fell out of favor in Mexico.

During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Pedro Gonzalez became immersed in the emerging Chicano culture of Los Angeles, and eventually became one of the most popular radio announcers, writers and singers in the southwest during a period which witnessed an explosion of Spanish language broadcasting and recordings.

Los Madrugadores

Pedro’s show, commercially sponsored by Folger’s coffee was first broadcast on KMPC in Los Angeles, and later, KELW in Burbank.

Although these stations both normally broadcast in English, this early Spanish language program was possible because of the sponsorship income. Pedro broadcast live from the heart of the Chicano community from 4am to 6am every morning. Throughout the southwest, thousands of Mexicans, up at the crack of dawn to go to work in the canneries, factories and fields, tuned in to hear their favorite announcer and recording star.

Pedro’s show was to provide a vehicle for many young singers and musicians, who got their first breaks with him. Out of this confluence of talent emerged a unique style of music associated with Los Angeles. However, no group was as popular as Pedro’s own.

The group called themselves, aptly for the broadcast time, Los Madrugadores (The Early Risers) and they recorded over 100 songs on Columbia, OKEM, Victor and other labels. Pedro himself wrote many famous songs in this time including Sonora Querida and Lavaplatos.

Ballad of an Unsung Hero

The story of Pedro Gonzalez was eventually told in the Emmy Award winning 1983 TV documentary Ballad of an Unsung Hero on San Diego PBS outlet KPBS-TV and later broadcast nationwide over the PBS network.

Los Madrugadores © Arhoolie Records

More recently, Arhoolie Records of El Cerrito, CA released a collection of original recordings by Los Madrugadores, including a 28 page booklet with more information about Pedro and his program over KELW.

Dr David Burbank

The City of Burbank has an interesting local history. It was founded by David Burbank, a real estate developer who saw business opportunities in this then rural area, particularly when the Southern Pacific Railroad came through his lands and built a railway station there.

Jim Hilliker is a radio historian and former broadcaster.

He has written a number of articles on the history of broadcasting in Los Angeles.

He currently lives in Monterey, California.

Sample all 24 tracks from the album ‘Los Madrugadores’ including the famous Sonora Querido and Suenos De Oro and buy the album right here.

Los Madrugadores Del Bajio

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