An Unofficial History of KMAX Radio
By Hank Landsberg (KMAX DJ, early 70's)
Max (last name withheld) was a "radioaholic" since the day he was born in 1918. He probably had RF in his veins. Max's first foray into broadcasting was as a kid of 13, playing records on the ham radio bands. Not only was it illegal to play music on the ham bands, but Max was using the made-up callsign of "W6MAX". This caught the attention of the local Radio Inspector, who made a visit to W6MAX. "In a chair sat a badly frightened boy while his father paced the floor. Upon the table was a letter with the heading 'Department of Commerce, Radio Division'. It instructed Max to appear at the Supervisors Office to explain why he had been broadcasting music, operating without a station license, and using a fictitious call..." The whole story appeared in an article entitled "Bootleg" on page 40 of the July, 1932 edition of QST magazine.
Sometime later, Max did get his amateur radio license, with the somewhat prophetic call sign of W6DJJ.
And years after that, he again was broadcasting music, but this time legally on KMAX, the fm radio station he put on the air in Sierra Madre, CA.
KMAX, "The Informal Voice of the San Gabriel Valley at 107.1 on your fm dial", began in 1960, when Max built the station in Sierra Madre, CA. The studio was located at 48 1/2 W. Sierra Madre Blvd, adjacent to the old "Sierra Madre Hotel", just west of Baldwin Ave. A 250-watt ITA transmitter was also at the studio, with a 100' tower mounted atop the 2-story hotel building.
It was Max's dream to put his own fm radio station on the air. He fought for three years against several other parties who also wanted the FM channel that was assigned to Sierra Madre, CA. Eventually he prevailed; the FCC granted him the license, although the call letters "KMAX" were already in use by a US Navy ship. Somehow, Max convinced the Navy to change the ships call sign, and make KMAX-FM available for his station. The FCC agreed, and on December 3, 1960, KMAX-FM signed on the air.
When I was a kid growing up in the nearby Hastings Ranch area of Pasadena, I'd often see a large tanker truck parked next to a gas station in Sierra Madre. On the side of the tanker was a large banner that said "KMAX - 107.1 FM, The Voice of the Foothills". I never understood why a gasoline truck would be promoting a radio station. When I went to work for Max and his wife Mary Ellen, I found out.
Max operated not one, but two stations. One was the radio station; the other was a gas station, "Seaside Service". Seaside Service was located at the corner of Sierra Madre Blvd. and Lima Avenue in downtown Sierra Madre. A KFC chicken restaurant stands there today.
Before Max started KMAX, he earned a living operating the Seaside gas station, and (yet) another venture, "Petroleum Services Company". PSC was a two-man (Max & Mary) company that hauled gasoline from refineries in San Pedro to various independently owned gas stations in the Los Angeles area. Of course, he supplied his own Seaside station with gas, and when deliveries were done, he parked the tanker truck next to the station. When KMAX went on the air, why not advertise the station using the truck as a huge banner?
The original studio consisted of a Collins Model 212G 10-pot mono console, 2 Collins turntables with 16" arms, and a few Craig and Sony consumer-type quarter-track tape decks. There were no cart machines. A Hewlett-Packard FM frequency & modulation monitor was used to monitor the signal generated by the ITA transmitter, which used a serasoid-type exciter. The audio was "limited" using a Teletronix LA-2 limiter, though plenty of peaks got through!
KMAX's audio always sounded clean and rather bright, with more "sizzle" than other stations across the FM dial. I discovered the reason for this when I worked for Max in 1971. The turntables didn't have preamps, but instead, used passive equalizers made by Gray Research. The outputs of these equalizers were fed into Mic channels on the console, not an unusual approach for the day. Each equalizer had a knob to select the equalization appropriate for the record being played: Flat, Roll-Off, or 78. Max assumed that "Flat" was the way to go. In reality, the "Flat" position defeated the RIAA high-frequency rolloff (but kept the RIAA low-frequency boost). So for 15 years, KMAX was playing records with an extra 75 us pre-emphasis, boosting highs at 10kHz by an extra 10 db or so. No wonder it sounded bright! Certain records, Les Elgart LPs in particular, would cause modulation peaks around 150% on a regular basis.
When Max first started KMAX, fm was still "the new kid on the block". Sierra Madre was a small community with a handful of mom-and-pop businesses. Max told me that when he first went on the air, he couldn't give away commercial time. He offered the local merchants free advertising: if they wrote the copy, he'd read the spots for free for a few months to see if the ads produced any results. The merchants weren't interested. They barely knew what an fm radio was, let alone want to bother with advertising on it. When I was on the air at KMAX, I frequently got phone calls like this: "Where are you on the dial?" 107.- FM I replied. "My radio doesn't have a 107." It's on FM I'd say. "OH, FM. I don't know how to work an FM radio. I'll have to wait until my husband gets home."
Max quickly got discouraged and practically gave up trying to sell spots. The few spots that ran on KMAX were usually trade-outs. When I worked there in 1972, there was one GTE spot per day that was a trade-out for the phone bill. There would be spots for a local tire company if Max got new tires on his car. And he actually traded a few spots for burgers at Tommy's hamburger stand in Los Angeles. (The "Tommyburgers" spot can be heard on this website.)
The major source of revenue for KMAX was the block-programming that ran on the weekends. "If you've got the money, I've got the time" was Max's favorite expression! Foreign language programs in Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Croation, etc, were what paid the bills. Not only did he have the expense of operating KMAX, but also the expense of running the Seaside gas station. Since manpower was limited, Max had the telephone company run lines between the KMAX studio and the gas station's office. He had a "mini studio" setup at the Seaside office, where he could play records on KMAX while also tending Seaside customers. (Eventually, Max quit the Seaside station.)
The coverage provided by 250 watts atop the hotel was less than spectacular, so in 1967, Max moved the transmitter to the foothills of nearby Arcadia, and increased power by adding a Teletronix 3KW amplifier built by Jim Lawrence. KMAX's City of License was changed to Arcadia, and the studio was moved to 37 W. Huntington Drive. A Teletronix remote control system was added, and a 100' tower was installed, with 4 horizontal bays and 3 vertical bays. Somehow, that added up to an ERP of "3KW horizontal and 3KW vertical watts, high in the foothills overlooking the entire San Gabriel Valley". The signal (still mono) was potent, reaching over 75 miles from the San Fernando Valley to San Diego. There were regular listeners as far south as Rosarito Beach in Mexico.
Music programming on KMAX consisted of easy-listening, big bands, top-40, polkas,
6:30am The Early Bird Show (Max)
Both Max and Mary Ellen were daily DJs on KMAX. All of the music came from Max's record library. The records were kept in good condition, and sounded clean. Occasionally Max would do a show called "Max's Old 78's", where he'd play his old jazz 78s from the 20s and 30s. Sprinkled throughout the day were various PSAs, some read live and some recorded. There were also news actualities provided by the armed forces ("Our Boys In The Service") and a few recorded religious programs and vignettes. The Rosary was played daily at 6:45. Mary Ellen's mother had prayed for Max to get the license for KMAX. He promised he'd play The Rosary every day as a tribute to her.
When the station moved to Arcadia, Max would often do morning music shows from nearby Santa Anita Racetrack. He had telco lines between the racetrack and the studio, with a mini-studio (turntable, mic, mixer) set up in the press box. He'd play records from the racetrack, and comment on the pre-race sights and sounds of Santa Anita. Only from Santa Anita could Max play his Ann Margaret records.
Max had a "thing" about Ann Margaret...and Mary Ellen didn't like it! She forbid him from playing Ann Margaret records, and would take the tone arm right off the record if she heard one on the air! So Max would hide Ann Margaret LPs in other artist's record jackets so he could sneak them over to the Santa Anita racetrack studio. He'd play them from the racetrack, but as soon as Mary Ellen heard them she'd shut off his audio feed and play something else from the studio!
The show that was perhaps the most fun for listeners was "Operation Request", hosted weekday afternoons by Mary Ellen. Operation Request was an all-request record program, where listeners called in to make requests. The amazing thing was that Mary Ellen was the entire staff of the show! She answered the phones, took the requests, searched and founds the records, and got them on the air, announcing who made each request and to whom it was dedicated! Operation Request was two hours of chaos. Very often, a record would end (tick...tick...tick...tick...) before the next one was ready to go. After a few second of silence, you'd hear Mary Ellen talking to a listener on the phone, cueing up the next 45 while she was announcing who called in to request it, then put the song on the air. Operation Request was ideal for someone who wanted to tape songs off the radio. If you made a request and told Mary Ellen that your were going to record the song off the air, she would say "...and this next song is going out to Hank, who is taping"... then she'd leave a few seconds of dead air before starting the turntable just so you'd have time to get your tape recorder rolling. Operation Request was "informal radio" at it's finest.
Another request program was the Polka Party. Max had a big collection of polka records, and each Saturday night he'd do a request show of polka music. This show had a large and loyal audience, since KMAX was the only LA station playing polka music. Another popular Saturday night show was Request Dance Party, where Max and Mary Ellen played music of the big band era, taking requests and playing the music they loved.
The Program Log was produced in a typewriter. The black ribbon was used to show non-commercial programming; the red ribbon was used for spots and "commercial continuity". During the week, the log was mostly black. On weekends, thankfully, it was mostly red. The weekend religious and foreign language programming is what paid the bills. A typical log:
6am Baptist church program
The foreign language shows varied greatly in quality. Nearly all were pre-recorded on consumer quarter-track tape recorders. The Holland Hour was polished and sounded very good. At the other end of the sound-quality spectrum was Italian Words & Music, hosted by Johnny Lauro. He recorded his show by holding a cheap crystal microphone in front of the speaker of a child's record player. While music was playing, you could hear his kids making noise in the background. And to make his show audible by the largest audience, he would scream into the mic, producing distortion beyond belief. He'd be screaming into the mic, and his wife would be screaming at him in the background. But his show was on for many years, with all its miserable fidelity.
The German Hour was done by playing records from the studio, while host Fred Levine's commentary was added "live" via phone line. Fred had a microphone hooked up to his telephone, and would just talk down the line between records. A "phone patch" in the studio fed his phone line audio into the console, where it was mixed with music from the turntables.
George Rozos did a weekly live show called The Athenian Voice Hour each Wednesday at 9pm. George owned International Fine Foods, a Greek delicatessen in nearby Pasadena. He would arrive at the studio each Wednesday evening, with records, Greek newspapers, and (best of all) a few sweets from the deli. Needless to day, I was happy to engineer his show! I'd snack on baklava, trying my best to keep my sticky fingers from getting grease on his records. He'd do commentary and read the news from Greece, and I'd spin the records. It was a fun show.
After I left KMAX, my friend Dave took over my job engineering George's show. One evening, he and George "swapped places": George intro'd the show (in English), and Dave began the program, reading a script that George had prepared in "phonetic Greek"! To this day, we both can still say "ahkepiteemofeeleekahesperisis". We don't know what it means...probably "Welcome to tonight's program" or something like that!
WORKING THERE, etc.
To get a job as a KMAX DJ, you needed to have a "First Phone" FCC license. This is because Max, though he owned the station, had only a Third Class (personal) FCC license. In those days FCC regulations required the "chief operator" to have a First Class license. All was kept legal by hiring only those who held a First Class license.
I worked as a KMAX DJ starting in 1971. Shortly after, my friend Dave Whited was also hired. The combination of Dave and I would prove to be "entertaining" to Max and Mary Ellen, as we were both habitual practical jokers. In fact, before either of us joined the KMAX gang, we produced a 15 minute spoof of the station. We sent the tape to Max, who got quite a kick out of it. When Max hired us, we dared not confess that it was us who sent this anonymous recording. Only after several years did we admit to it!
One memorable Christmas Eve Dave and I decided to "redecorate" the studio. We built some badly needed shelves to hold tapes, records, etc. We strung hundreds of Christmas lights around the studio, and wired them into the console so when the mic was turned on, the place literally "lit up like a Christmas tree". We also hooked up a "light modulator" to the monitor system and put a light inside the studio speaker, so that when you spoke into the mic, the monitor speaker would flash. Of course Max and Mary Ellen knew nothing of this, and when Max first turned on the mic that Christmas morning, the studio really lit up! (Listen to "Christmas Morning, 1972".)
Another aircheck is the famous "Phone Tax Broadcast"....where Max got on his soapbox to deride the Arcadia City Council for passing a tax on the telephone bill. This segment of the Caffeine Club is typical, where Max would comment on local goings-on, open the mail, play some music, and invite listeners to call in and comment. There's also "Fleet Home Town News" , news items concerning the local 'boys in service'. This aircheck concludes with the Caffeine Club theme song, a 45 called "The Percolator". This 45 was played twice a day, 5 days a week, for many years. (No cart machines, remember.)
WE SHOULD HAVE KNOWN...
Perhaps the best/worst practical joke concocted by Hank and Dave was to commemorate the 13th anniversary of the station, on April 1, 1973. (The 13th: we should have known!)
Dave and I recorded a cassette containing various short vignettes: "Happy Anniversary" messages to Max and Mary, sound effects, music, etc. Each vignette lasted about 30 seconds; there were perhaps 10 of them on the cassette, spaced about 5 minutes apart.
Dave was on duty that night. After he signed off at 11pm, I met him at the studio with the tape, a cassette deck, and a relay switching device that I had built. We installed the cassette deck up in the attic, out of view. The audio output of the studio was routed through this relay switcher, then out to the telco line up to the transmitter. The idea was that when the cassette played a vignette, the switcher would take the studio off the air, and feed the audio from the cassette deck directly into the transmitter via the telco line. (When the cassette was playing, there would be no way it could be turned off, since it wasn't going through the console in the studio.) We plugged the cassette deck into a "lamp timer" and set it so that the cassette deck would come on at about 6:30 am, shortly after Max signed the station on the next morning.
But we didn't know that the AC socket powering the lamp timer was tied into the lights. After the installation was complete, we turned off the lights and went home. My tape deck at home was also on a timer, set to record the shenanigans at 6:30 the next morning. But when we turned the studio lights off (at about 2am), the cassette deck lamp timer was turned off also! Max came in at about 6am and turned on the lights as usual, but now our timer was delayed by 4 hours.
When I checked my aircheck tape at about 8am, it was evident that something had gone wrong. Nothing weird had happened; the cassette deck had never started. Then I remembered that we had plugged the timer into a switched AC outlet...and that all the craziness should happen about 10:30am (not 6:30am) due to the 4-hour delay while the lights were off. I rewound my aircheck tape, set it to record at 10:30, and left for work.
I was listening to KMAX while at work at Radio Recorders studio in Hollywood. At 10:30, the cassette deck came on, and the first vignette played. It lasted 30 seconds or so, then the studio came back on the air. I could tell Max didn't have a clue. He didn't say anything over the air, but he kept potting the turntable up and down, trying to figure out what had happened. About 5 minutes later, another vignette played. Same thing. A few minutes later, another. Then Mary Ellen came on the mic, sounding panicked. I could tell something was wrong. Neither she nor Max were amused or laughing, our intended result. I called the station.
Mary Ellen answered, and was nearly in tears. I told her what was happening, and how to turn it off (just unplug the lamp timer). Then she told me what was going on. It was scary....
A disgruntled advertiser had wrongly accused KMAX of double-billing for advertising. The FCC had launched an investigation. Without warning, the FCC had shown up at their door that morning at about 10am. At 10:30am, our practical joke went on the air. So here were Max and Mary, being grilled by the FCC, while audio of unknown origin was playing over their radio station (at about 200% modulation), and they, the station licensees, were unable to explain it, control it, or shut it off! While the FCC was grilling Max, Mary was in the studio. All she could do was play records over the console's "Audition" channel, and hopefully cover-up the weird stuff that was actually going out over the air! (No wonder she was panicked!)
After I told Mary Ellen how to turn off the cassette deck, things returned to normal. As it turned out, the 4-hour delay on the timer is what saved all of us. The FCC inspectors, staying at an Arcadia motel, were monitoring KMAX early in the morning before they made the unannounced visit to the station. If the timer hadn't been delayed by 4 hours, the cassette weirdness would have happened at 6:30am....exactly when the FCC was listening. Instead, it all happened while they were at the station, but they never heard it!
Dave and I apologized profusely for the whole disaster; Max and Mary knew we never meant any harm, and never held it against us. My home tape deck recorded the whole event. Max asked to have the tape. I gave it to him, and never saw it again.
Although Max and Mary Ellen had done nothing wrong, (as the FCC eventually discovered), the "witch hunt" that ensued as a result of the fabricated double-billing complaint caused them incredible stress, and soured them on the whole radio station. By the time the FCC mess was over, Max and Mary had decided to "get out" and sell the station. On April 1, 1975, the station was sold to Universal Broadcasting. The Last Polka Party broadcast of March 29, 1975, was the last time Max and Mary were heard on the air. By coincidence, that day was also Max's 57th birthday. Mary Ellen gave him a special gift during the show: she played some Ann Margaret records!
AFTER KMAX: "KMAX-2"
When KMAX was sold, Max and Mary Ellen retired. But Max, being the radioaholic that he was, couldn't stay off the air. He had a spare ITA exciter, an antenna, and a small studio built in his garage. Many evenings were spent playing records from his garage. He didn't dare hook up a microphone, fearing the wrath of the FCC again, but just played music.
In a birthday card he sent me in 1983, Max wrote: "Still at it. The 5 element beam (antenna) works FB. Very directional locally, but good for 20 to 30 miles at center of the beam. I am on air about once a week...I now have a mixer, two turntables, and tape recorder. Just having fun!"
Some months after Max passed away in 1994, Mary Ellen asked me to help her straighten-up and clean out some of the old equipment in the garage. While looking through all the gear, I noticed some old papers and a magazine sitting on his desk. There was the "Audio Proof of Performance" that Max and I did for KMAX in 1972, and the July 1932 edition of QST magazine (see first paragraph). I'm convinced that he put them there for me to find.
We all had a lot of fun at KMAX. It was Informal Radio at its best.
If you worked for KMAX, please let us know. We'll soon post a listing of KMAX DJs!
This website is sponsored by Henry Engineering
I'm always looking for airchecks (off-air recordings) of KMAX. Contact me if you have any!