Radio Waves: May 14, 2021

San Pedro’s radio station

The history of 1020 AM

For obvious reasons, the very early broadcasting stations get all the love when it comes to radio trivia. KNX (1070 AM), KFI (640 AM) and KHJ (930 AM), for example, are all either celebrating, or are about to celebrate, a full century of broadcasting.

Lost among the crown, however, are other stations with unique histories. One such station is KTNQ (1020 AM) which actually has its genesis as a station broadcasting out of the port community of San Pedro.

That’s right – San Pedro once had it’s very own radio station. According to radio historian Jim Hilliker — who provided much of this material via a long-ago telephone conversation as well as material available at — KTNQ is the 9th-oldest continuously operating radio station in the Los Angeles area, and over its 96 year existence has had only four sets of call letters.

Hilliker says that it was the McWhinnie Electric Company, then located at 1825 S. Pacific Avenue in San Pedro that decided to put a a radio station on the air. As told by local newspaper The Daily Pilot (one of the newspapers that eventually morphed into the newspaper you are currently reading) on March 30, 1925, McWhinnie brothers William (Bill) and Charles (Charlie) received permission from the Department of Commerce to build a radio station. The call letters were to be KVFD, and the assigned frequency was to be 1460 AM.

It cost $31,000 to get the station on the air, using a 100-watt transmitter and studios located at the company’s retail store. That cost would be about $470,000 today. June 12th was the first on-air test, and the signal reached many parts of Southern California including Catalina Island. 

The station featured a reception area, a large studio at 16×26 feet with a large glass window and sound-proof walls, and a control and transmitter room all in the same building. Stories featured in The Pilot told of about 2000 people visiting the station on that Friday, as the studios were open to the public from 1-10 p.m. Hilliker wrote in the story featured by that the head inspector for the Department of Commerce Radio Division said that “KFVD was one of the finest equipped stations in the country.”

The first official broadcast came the following night, Saturday June 13th, from 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. The inaugural broadcast consisted of speeches, congratulatory messages and music and entertainment from both local and regional talent. It may seem odd, given what we know of radio today, but the fact that the station would then broadcast only three nights per week (Monday, Wednesday and Saturday) from 8 to 11 p.m. was not unusual in the early days of broadcasting. Indeed, many stations had to share the same frequency, so they couldn’t broadcast all day.

In addition to the night broadcasts, the station also carried Sunday morning and Sunday evening services of the First Presbyterian Church, which due to the cost of the phone line needed to do the broadcast was a major expense of the station. Funds to pay for the broadcasts came from individual donations, businesses, and the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored monthly programs to help publicize San Pedro on the radio.

Over time the programming expanded. News and current events were a major part of the broadcasts, and the station made an agreement with the Daily Pilot, allowing it to use the paper’s wire services for its news and sports reports. The Pilot in turn helped promote the station by listing the daily programs in an early version of a radio program log. Local musical talent rounded out the programming along with special features such as a one-act play presented and performed by students from San Pedro High School.

Then, abruptly, it was gone. On August 9th, 1926, it was announced that the station would move its studios to the Venice Ballroom in Venice’s then oceanfront amusement park. No reason was given, but the move was quick: the station went off the air for almost a month beginning the day of the announcement. Newspaper reports alluded to giving the station a chance to expand its audience, but some believe that the transmitter’s location was causing interference to Navy ships in the area.

Early 1927 saw the station boost power to 500 watts; this didn’t last long as the brand-new Federal Radio Commission made the station drop power in June to 250 watts and move to 1440 AM, sharing with another station, KGFJ. February, 1928 brought another move to 1390 AM, then in November another to 700 AM, three months before the station was sold. In April, 1929, the station moved to 710, then in November it moved again … to 1000 AM. It stayed out for 11 years, broadcasting primarily during the day so as to not cause interference to WHO/Des Moines, Iowa.

More moves came along the way, but on March 29, 1941, KVFD mooed to its final radio home of 1020 AM, where it has been ever since. It now had it’s own frequency locally, but still had to sign off at night to protect another station, this time KDLA/Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.. In August, 1955, the station became KPOP, one of the early top-40 stations and the new home of someone who would become legendary among radio fans, Art Laboe, who would broadcast live from Scrivner’s drive-in restaurant, first in Hollywood and later at a new location at Western and Imperial.

June 1960 brought new call letters: KGBS, for new owner Storer Broadcasting’s George B. Storer.  It was still forced to sign off at sunset every night, but in Sundays from 9 p.m. until Mondays at 2 a.m., the station could go back on the air as KDKA signed off during that period for transmitter maintenance. I have an old air check of one such broadcast … quite odd, when you think of it: a station signing off at sunset, then signing back on at 9 Sunday night for five hours.

KGBS actually had some big talent and earned some decent ratings in spite of having to sign off  every night. Hudson and Landry, Bill Balance, and more helped the station compete. Finally, in late 1976, the station won authorization to broadcast 24-hours a day using a special pattern at night so as to still protect KDKA, and became KTNQ, Ten-Q, a high-energy top-40 format that brought in talent such as Charlie Tuna, Rich Brother Robbin, Ken “Beaver Cleaver” Levine, The Real Don Steele and “Machine Gun” Kelly, among others. To AM top-40 fans, it was amazing.

In 1979, the station was sold and it adopted a Spanish-language format. Today, it carries a Spanish-language talk format, and is the Spanish radio home of The Dodgers.

Few people know of the San Pedro (or even Venice) connection to radio, and in many ways it is a shame that these communities don’t have that any more. But the fact that they once did is a fun part of local radio history, and as legendary broadcaster Paul Harvey always said, now you know … the rest of the story.