The Forgotten All-Night Shift
|This article first appeared on LARadio.com and thanks to the author we can now present it here. Author: Jim Hilliker|
(November 21, 2002) Jim Hilliker of Monterey did some research on the Diamond Anniversary of all-night broadcasting. What may surprise you is that it started with a Southland station. His story:
Today, we take for granted the fact that our favorite radio stations around L.A. will be on the air, all day and all night. Since we now live in a society that is more connected to a 24/7, around-the-clock lifestyle than ever before, it’s hard to comprehend that at one time, this was not always the case. In broadcasting’s infancy, finding a radio station on past midnight was a rare occasion!
It was 75 years ago this month that a U.S. radio station first decided to broadcast during the “all-night” hours after midnight on a regular basis. One reference book on radio history said that in 1923, KYW-Chicago called itself “The 24 Hour Station” and another writer with a book on the history of all night radio in America said WDAF in Kansas City may have stayed on the air first for 24 hours in 1922. But these claims are difficult to prove and, if true, they didn’t remain on the air regularly for 24 hours each day very long. However, radio historian Elizabeth McLeod seems to agree with my research that shows a small L.A. station holds the honor of starting the practice.
The first radio station to broadcast 24-hours-a-day each day was KGFJ-Los Angeles. Believe it or not, it was the only radio station on the air regularly during the overnight hours for many years, well into the 1930s.
When radio broadcasting started in the early-1920s, it was a simpler time in America. The lifestyle was different, as people went to work at a later hour in the morning than is common now. Radio stations often went on and off the air several times a day. Many first went on the air only during the late afternoon and evening hours. Friday and Saturday nights were also the main times that radio stations broadcast music and entertainment programs past 11 pm or midnight. Even in the largest cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, stations rarely extended their airtime past 2 or 3 a.m., when many radio stations had popular late night entertainment and music programs.
By 1925 to 1927, the stations in Los Angeles with the largest staffs began broadcasting from early morning until about 10 to midnight, but still not much after that hour, except on special occasions such as New Years Eve.
In February of 1927, a 23-year-old USC student and ham radio enthusiast, Ben S. McGlashan, and his Los Angeles High School friend Calvin J. Smith, put a new radio station on the air in Los Angeles. They got their broadcasting license February 5, 1927 during a period of “non-regulation” for radio, just before Congress passed legislation to form the Federal Radio Commission, the predecessor to the FCC.
Ben had some broadcasting experience in 1925 and ’26, as “Big Brother” on KFWB, hosting that station’s daily children’s program. While working at KFWB, he decided he wanted his own radio station.
The call letters assigned to his station were KGFJ, which put out its first broadcast into the airwaves from the roof of the Odd Fellows Temple at Washington Blvd. and Oak Street. Like many radio stations of that era, a slogan that listeners could identify with was adapted from the call letters: “Keeping Good Folks Joyful.”
McGlashan’s friend, Calvin Smith was KGFJ’s first general manager. They had scraped together $200 to put the station on the air. Some of their first equipment was salvaged from a defunct broadcaster, KUS, which was on the air 1922-23 for the Los Angeles City Dye Works and Laundry Company, before that station went dark. In the early days of KGFJ, the station was broadcasting a very short schedule. Ben and Cal went on the air only when they had something to say, then went off the air to spend the rest of their time trying to sell commercials so they could return to the air the next day.
During the early 1930s, Smith left KGFJ to work for E.L.Cord as station manager at KFAC. Another older ham radio friend of McGlashan, H. Duke Hancock, served as KGFJ’s assistant manager for many years. Hancock had operated a “wireless radio station” at the end of the Venice Pier as early as 1912.
Toward the end of 1927, McGlashan decided to keep his station on all-night, by selling airtime for a program of KGFJ broadcasting nothing but recorded music, interspersed with the sponsor’s advertising messages. McGlashan was an astute young businessman and his goal was to make KGFJ successful by selling commercial airtime to advertisers. This practice took some time to gain popularity, but was becoming common by the late-1920s.
The first mention of the radio station staying on the air for 24 hours daily, was in the Los Angeles Times radio column of November 17, 1927 with the headline, “ALL NIGHT PROGRAM.” The brief item said:
“This week’s interest in radio locally brings no startling developments, although it does record a few items of interest. For instance, over at KGFJ, they have just inaugurated an all-night program of record selections. Starting at midnight, the broadcast of phonograph numbers continues until 6:30 a.m., when the regular morning breakfast program commences.”
While we don’t know the exact day of this historic occasion in radio, it’s likely to assume it took place a few days before November 17th. The first time the Times radio log lists the program is on November 22, 1927, with the first item, “Midnight – 6:30 a.m., KGFJ, Phonograph record music.”
During the next year, KGFJ’s slogan was amended to “Keeping Good Folks Joyful-24 Hours-A-Day.” The 100-watt station moved to 1420 on the radio dial November 11, 1928 and 1200 kilocycles on November 15, 1929. (KGFJ, now KYPA, moved to 1230 on the AM dial March 29, 1941. Power was boosted over the years on the Class IV/local frequency to 250 watts night and day, 1000 watts day/250 night in the 1960s, and in 1984 to 1000 watts day and night).
Being the only station in the entire nation to stay on the air all night brought fame to KGFJ and an increase in listeners throughout the years. After all, no other station in L.A. or anywhere else in the USA stayed on after midnight regularly at the time. When he started this new idea of all-night broadcasting 7 days a week, McGlashan said, “Nobody else would be crazy enough to do it.”
In August of 1928, KGFJ’s all-night show was called the “Kemper Nite Owl Program,” likely named after the main sponsor of the broadcast of recorded music. No announcer for this show was listed. By October of 1929, KGFJ was simulcasting several shows with KFOX-Long Beach, including the overnight “Nite Owl Program”, which started at 1 a.m. each day, after the Apex Nite Club remote at midnight. The radio listings show that M.B. Cosby was KGFJ’s “resident Nite Owl” and likely the announcer on the overnight show.
By 1929, a few other radio stations in Los Angeles followed KGFJ’s lead, by playing records overnight. These included KMIC and KPLA. But in a year or two, KGFJ was again all alone in the overnight broadcasting game.
By the middle of 1930, KGFJ moved into new quarters, with studios and offices on the top of the J.V. Baldwin Building in Los Angeles at 15th Street at Figueroa, or 1417 South Figueroa Street. The transmitter and antenna remained at Washington at Oak, where they remain to this day!
An article in the March 1, 1932 issue of Broadcasting said that 100-watt KGFJ, in the heart of Los Angeles, was a major financial and musical success. The station had its own 22-piece orchestra and a long list of loyal advertisers. McGlashan said at the time he owed his success to his “ten commandments” of business, which started with, “Operate 24 hours a day.” Some of his other rules included “Cash in advance”, and “Put money back into programs.”
Even in 1930, young McGlashan was well liked and respected. A July 1930 article in Radio Doings by early L.A. radio engineering expert K.G. Ormiston, said that at one broadcaster’s luncheon, the manager of one of the bigger stations in L.A. was looking for a place to sit. A friend suggested, “Sit by Bennie McGlashan. He might tell you how to make a broadcast station pay!” Note: Ormiston was Kenneth Gladstone Ormiston, who was chief engineer at evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s KFSG 1924-’25, and was by some accounts, her lover at one time. Ormiston was chief engineer at KNX when he died in 1937.
KGFJ was easily heard in the 1930s by the long-distance radio hobbyists known as DXers, who tuned across their radio dials late at night or early in the pre-dawn hours to hear ID’s from distant radio stations. Since KGFJ was the only station on the 1200 channel broadcasting during the wee small hours of the morning, its signal was heard by unknown numbers of far-away listeners, especially during the cold winter months. But, many of the DXers also wrote letters to the popular radio magazine of the day, RADEX or Radio Index. They complained that KGFJ was hogging the 1200 kilocycle frequency all night. They said the station was interfering with their chances of hearing other stations on 1200 or adjacent channels of 1210, 1220, 1180 and 1190. Some of the radio hobbyists said they should write letters to complain to the FCC about the situation.
In October 1934, RADEX published a letter from Luther E. Grim, publicity manager of the National Radio Club. On a trip out west from Pennsylvania, Grim visited KGFJ “to see why this station refused to leave the air.” He spoke with KGFJ program director, Thelma Kirchner. Grim said, “Miss Kirchner of the station was rather indignant that the DX fraternity should think so harshly of them. She informed me that they have a sponsor for those early morning hours and explained that every morning they missed, due to frequency checks, had to be made up under their contract. KGFJ is by contract, duty bound to broadcast all night. It made me wonder how many of us DXers would close down a station if we were in Mr. McGlashan’s position.” Kirchner had been with KGFJ since at least 1929. She eventually became general manager by the 1950s, possibly the first or one of the first women to hold that job at a radio station.
As the Depression years of the 1930s progressed, Ben McGlashan filled the KGFJ airwaves with other types of programming from midnight to 6, beside just phonograph records of music, which made those overnight hours profitable for him. He started playing syndicated sponsored transcriptions. According to radio historian Elizabeth McLeod, this was sort of a precursor to the use of infomercials as overnight paid filler programming on cable tv in recent years.
In fact, McLeod went on to tell me that much of the KGFJ broadcast day at the time (1931-1934) was made up of records, paid broadcasts by various ministers and fringe politicians, and 15, 30 or 60-minute transcribed ads for weight loss scams, laxatives and other obscure merchandise. Many of these KGFJ advertisers were occasionally mentioned in a column in Broadcasting magazine entitled “Station Accounts.”
Despite this shady type of programming, which was also heard on other L.A. stations from time to time in the 1930s, the fact that it was the only station on the air around the clock attracted much attention and made KGFJ very popular with nite-owls, overnight workers, insomniacs and late-night DX enthusiasts. Letters reporting reception of KGFJ’s signal poured in from every part of the U.S.
During this time from 1930 to 1935, other radio stations in big cities were gradually staying on the air until 3 or 4 a.m., but still none were 24 hours until the middle of the decade.
In 1938, WNEW-New York City promoted itself as serving New York and New Jersey 24 hours a day. This apparently began in the summer of 1935. WNEW went to a 24-hour-a-day broadcasting operation on Tuesday, August 6, 1935 with the “Milkman’s Matinee” record show from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m. This information is from the 1998 book “The Airwaves of New York.” But apparently the writers didn’t know about KGFJ starting the practice on the west coast in ’27, as they incorrectly called WNEW “the first station to regularly remain on the air twenty-four hours a day.”
Meanwhile, from 1938 to 1940, KFAC had joined KGFJ by also broadcasting 24-hours-a-day. However, KFAC took a two-hour silent period on Wednesday mornings from 3 to 5 a.m., possibly for maintenance. All the other L.A. stations at this time went off the air at midnight or 1 a.m.
By 1940, a few others around the nation saw the need to serve overnight listeners. But the big jump in 24 hour broadcasting took place when World War II started. With war-time factories going 24 hours a day, nearby radio stations saw the need to keep the workers entertained and informed during their graveyard shifts.
Ben McGlashan saw his dream of owning a radio station in Los Angeles come true. He worked hard to make it a financial success, during a time when low power in a big city didn’t mean your message wouldn’t be heard, even up against radio stations with greater power and resources. McGlashan finally sold the pioneer station in August of 1964. He retired to his home in Bel Air and died in 1976 at the age of 71.
We’ve come a long way from the sounds in the night of the 1920s and the music that filled the air with the Big Bands all night in the ’40s. Many of you grew up with the sounds of your favorite all-night DJs who brought you the hits of the day in the ’60s and ’70s and beyond. The tradition continues today, with all night music, or continuous news and sports talk programming, and various talk shows. And to think it all started at 100-watt KGFJ 75 years ago.
Jim Hilliker is a frequent contributor to LARadio.com on the rich history of Los Angeles radio.