This past January, after more than 70 years on San Jose’s airwaves, radio station KLIV (AM 1590) shut down operations. Independent to the very end, the station had never been owned by a major radio conglomerates like ClearChannel or IHeartRadio. Soon, it may be owned by a different kind of entity entirely.
On Friday, KLIV’s 97-year-old station owner Bob Kieve sat down with members of San Jose City Council to discuss a novel plan. After owning the station for more than half a century, Kieve wants to donate KLIV to the city.
“I was thinking about it around 4 in the morning, and I thought, ‘I’d really like to see something good done with this station,’” he says over the phone from the office at his other station, KRTY. “From time to time in the past I had thought about giving it to the city,” he says. “I would hope they would make good use of it, to inform the citizens about all the things city administration is doing.”
Talks between Kieve and the city have been underway for two months now. With each new discussion, Kieve remains optimistic that his vision will be realized.
“The meeting was very positive. I was delighted with it,” he said earlier this week.
If all goes according to plan, the format would be a mix of music and direct communication from the city to the people.
“The city or the university will be able to break in at any time—either on a regular schedule or as the occasion calls for it,” Kieve explains. “Say, some announcement that the mayor feels is important for the residents to hear—he’ll be able to break in any time.”
While city spokeswoman Rosario Neaves characterized his proposal as “a very generous offer,” the communications office was reluctant to go much further, stressing that any potential deal remains in a stage of early negotiations.
The idea of a city-run AM radio station may seem a little anachronistic in the age of Spotify, Pandora, Audible and Earwolf, but San Jose and radio have a very deep, often overlooked connection. In fact, history seems to indicate that the first words ever broadcast over the airwaves were: “This is San Jose calling.”
In 1909, local inventor Dr. Charles D. Herrold strung an antenna out the window of his office on the corner of First and San Fernando streets, and connected it with a nearby building. The dean of Herrold College of Engineering and Wireless, Herrold was one of the earliest advocates of broadcast technology. On his first transmission, his audience was a bewildered assortment of Morse code operators and children with crystal sets, all of whom were shocked to hear a human voice suddenly emerging from their devices.
It was still three years before Congress passed the Radio Act, which officially recognized the existence of radio stations, assigning them call names and requiring a federal license. Before Herrold’s station even had a name, it had an audience, scheduled programming, and even a DJ (16-year-old Raymond Newby).
Working with a 15-watt transmitter, the fledgling station had a radius of roughly 15 to 20 miles. Most of the equipment was made by Herrold himself. In a newspaper article from the 1970s, Newby described the initial setup as “six arc lights attached to a helix coil.” A professional sound technician reached for comment described this Xolotl-esque contraption to me as “some Tesla-ass shit.”
Because there were no amplifiers at the time, the station’s microphone was plugged directly into its antenna, causing it to overheat quickly. To solve this, Herrold invented a water-cooled microphone with an attached water tank. Even this proto-steampunk invention only worked for half an hour at a time.
Most of the history surrounding Dr. Herrold’s station was uncovered by SJSU journalism professor Gordon Greb, who in the 1950s saw Herrold’s water-cooled microphone in a museum. When he found out it was used on a radio station in San Jose in 1909, he began researching the story. Fourteen years later, Greb presented his findings at the annual conference of the National Association of Broadcasters. That year, the organization officially recognized San Jose as “Birthplace of Radio.”
Eventually, Herrold’s station got the name KQW, which it held until 1949, when it moved from its original downtown location to a transmitter in Alviso. At that time, it switched its call letters out for the name KCBS. Just two years later the station moved to San Francisco, where it still operates today—the direct descendant of the Herrold’s creation.
KLIV itself is something of a San Jose institution, its roots tracing back to 1946. In its earliest days, KLIV was a daytime-only station, going silent at night.
Since 1967, the station has been owned by Kieve, who has steered it through format changes including disco, Top 40, talk and hot country. During its 25-year run as a news and talk station, KLIV featured news and local sports often alongside iconoclastic commentary, city politics and history. Three alums of this period went on to be inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame.
If Kieve’s new plan were to come to fruition, it would be one of many surprising turns in his career. During WWII at the tender age of 21, Kieve moved to Spain as an agent in the short-lived Office of War Information. There, he wrote pieces for TV and radio that fused narrative with state narrative—features “with a propaganda slant that Washington had prescribed,” as he told San Jose Magazine in 2002. Along the way, Kieve broke into radio for real and ended up having a huge impact on the medium throughout Spain.
To this day he is considered the country’s “Father of Top 40 Radio.” El Arte Radiofonico, his Spanish-language book on the art of broadcasting, was the first of its kind in Spain, and was regularly used as a textbook by the University of Madrid for more than 20 years. He went on to become a scriptwriter for Eisenhower and an influential broadcaster, all before becoming KLIV’s longest-running owner.
As for his plans for his station and the city, so far it’s all just talk. Ever the optimist, Kieve remains hopeful. “Let me put it another way,” he says, before getting back to work. “There doesn’t seem to be anything to hold it back at the moment.”