January-February 2009

 There was a lot of great music on FM, like KPFK where Mary Katherine Aldin, John Davis, John Delgatto, Howard and Roz Larman and Tom Sauber gave listeners a broad range of folk and folk related music. But I wish to home in on another station, and what they provided to Los Angles music culture.

One of Los Angeles' flagship "alternative music" FM stations was KPPC, broadcast from a church basement in Pasadena. KPPC forced their listeners to be eclectic. Leon Thomas' jazz yodel shared airtime with the Doors. Disk jockeys had "personality" and musical limits or genre boundaries did not exist. A jazz cut might be followed by a folk cut, and then a full side of the newest Albert King LP.

KPPC was a church station founded in 1924 by the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. The original station was on AM radio, and only was authorized to be on the air for 22 hours a week to carry the Sunday services and the Wednesday night prayer meetings. Only the 35th radio license awarded in the USA, it carried just 100 watts of broadcast power, barely covering Pasadena. By the early 1960s, the Church wanted to expand the hours and coverage, but other stations had filled in the remaining AM time allotments. So the Church started KPPC-FM, at 106.7, with the studios and transmitters located in the basement of the church and the antenna on the roof of the newspaper building of the Pasadena Star-News located next door to the church. The FM signal was 5,000 watts, and the Church soon figured out that they did not have the ability to fill all the hours. KPPC as an alternative music station was born. Later, the studios were moved to an office on South Chester, a new mountain top transmitter and an increase to 25,500 watts, which meant a much wider audience of listeners.

Among those involved with KPPC were Tom Donahue, an individual often credited with creating the free form FM format in San Francisco; B. Mitchell Reed, a "reformed" AM DJ who dropped the register and speed of his vocal delivery to fit in the FM mode; Susan Carter aka Outrageous Nevada; Steven Segal aka The Obscene Steven Clean; Jeff Gonzer aka Bonzo Gonzer; program director and DJ Les Carter; Barry Hansen, who created his Dr. Demento persona at KPPC; Ted Alvy aka Cosmos Topper; Sunday late night DJ Elliot Mintz, who chatted with folks like John Lennon or the Manson Family girls; rhythm and blues pioneer Johnny Otis; the Firesign Theater; and The Credibility Gap. Station promos were sung by the a cappella singing group The Persuasions.

This was free form radio at its best. Not every story was funny, not every promotion worked or made sense. The "give-away" antenna boosters made of coat hangers was a good idea, though, since many listeners had to wait for the late night signal to actually hear the station. In my Orange County neighborhood, the signal was fickle, generally fading out or into another station, until late in the evening. That made KPPC that much more mysterious and magical.

One evening I listened as a DJ "accidently" scratched about 8 copies of the new Eric Burdon single, never making it more than 10 seconds into the cut. Mostly, the listener sensed that the folks on the air were having fun.

But the end was near. On my birthday in 1971, October 24, the entire air-staff was fired and replaced overnight with a new line up but with little of the élan of the prior regime. I didn't think this was a good present.

Still, the station had a number of milestones. They were the first true progressive "rock" station in Los Angeles, and the first station in Los Angeles to broadcast a stereo simulcast with a television program, providing the audio for a Leon Russell special on LA PBS station KCET.

Donahue, Reed and Alvy left early on to re-format KMET FM into essentially a more commercial version of KPPC. The Persuasions even sang the station promos, and many of the purged KPPC staff landed there in 1971.

Still, some 37 years after the true demise of KPPC, folks still speak with a smile when discussing the station, the music that was played and the fun that was there. And how many different kinds of music we may appreciate simply because of that "entertainment education."

Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He's released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard's and Paul Simon's revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.


All Columns by Dennis Roger Reed