Comprehensive Guide to Bay Area Radio:  History, Directory, Playlists, Formats, and More

What is it about radio that still fosters such fan loyalty after three-quarters of a century?  It's amazing how many adults can still recall the frequencies and call letters of their favorite radio stations from 20 or 30 years ago.  People don't claim TV stations as their own with the same degree of intensity.  (Click on Radio Guide to see the Bay Area’s most user-friendly radio directory.  Click on Radio Guide 2 for a list of radio stations outside the Bay Area.)

Soundtrack of Our Lives

There are several reasons for the difference in attitude.  For one thing, television has very little local programming that's worth watching; most stations carry network shows, making them virtually indistinguishable from one another.  Current trend notwithstanding, radio is the opposite of television:  It devotes only a few hours a week to syndicated programming.

By tweaking its playlist, a radio station can project--or at least give the impression of--a different sound from a competitor with the same format.  And the listeners continue to feel some emotional connection to a radio station's local personalities and deejays.  Local TV stations may have their news anchors and reporters, but they bring us mostly bad news.

Finally, let's not forget radio's main product.  Music is much more of a personal and private experience than movies and television.  Even talk radio has found a niche as the equivalent of a telephone party line or town hall meeting, especially in times of major news events.  It's more accessible than TV talk shows and less technical than Internet chat rooms.

Forever Radio?

Radio has survived despite the onslaught of television and other forms of home entertainment.  When broadband has the same market penetration as radio and television, the Internet may pose a threat to both radio and television.  Satellite radio may prove to be as successful as cable television in the long run.  Since the news/talk format has saved AM radio, stereo AM would be icing on the cake--unless FM radio co-opts AM news/talk, which hasn't happened to date.

When people talk about wireless technology today, we think of cell phones and Wi-Fi networks.  A century ago, radio communication was the original wireless technology—from telegraph to radio and television broadcasting.

Brief History

As one of the nation's top 10 markets, the San Francisco Bay Area is large enough--and the population diverse enough--to invite and sustain more innovative programming than most of the rest of the country.  The history of Bay Area radio is full of many trend-setting firsts.

Between 1912 and 1917, scientist Charles Herrold (1875-1948) operated one of the first--if not the first--radio stations in the U.S. from the engineering college he opened in San Jose in 1909.  He actually invented his own transmitter for the "Herrold Station" (no call letters back then), and his wife Sybil was possibly the world's first female DJ.  During the 1915 World's Fair in San Francisco, visitors were able to listen to the San Jose station's broadcasts.  (When the government began issuing broadcasting licenses in 1920, KDKA Pittsburgh became the country's first commercial radio station.)

[1915 World's Fair Centennial]

After World War I, Herrold's historic radio station resumed broadcasting in 1921 as KQW until 1949 when it became KCBS.  The number of U.S. radio stations grew to 550 in 1923 from just 30 in the previous year.  Two of the oldest stations in the Bay Area are KFRC and KGO, both dating back to 1924.  KGO and KCBS switched to a news/talk format in the 1960s.

In 1949, pacifist Lewis Hill (1919-1957) founded KPFA (94.1), the country's first community radio station.  It won its first Peabody Award within 10 years and later served as the voice of the free speech movement in the 1960s.  Family Radio aired its first religious broadcast on KEAR (97.3 originally) in 1959.  Also making its debut that year was KJAZ (92.7), a highly regarded jazz radio station during its 35-year run.  KABL (960 until 2004) began broadcasting as KROW in the same year (its long ride came to a stop in 2005).

Rock 'n' roll music energized radio in the 1950s.  As top 40 took off as a viable format in 1956, the Bay Area was there from the very beginning.  When AM radio was still king, KFRC (610) was watched closely--and taped--by fellow top 40 stations in the U.S.  Indeed, KFRC would go down in history as one of the best top 40 radio stations of all time.

KMPX (formerly 106.9) was one of the FM stations that gave birth to free-form radio in 1967.  Free-form FM radio evolved into album-oriented rock, of which KSAN (94.9 initially) was an early champion.  Since 1969, KIOI (101.3) has demonstrated that a "middle of the road" format like easy listening/adult contemporary has its advantages (a powerful signal doesn't hurt either).

Soon after New York's WKTU switched to an all-dance format in 1978 at the height of disco mania, KSFX (103.7) became the Bay Area's first dance radio station.  In 1979, KBLX (102.9 "The Quiet Storm") pioneered the "soft and warm" format, a blend of mellow R&B and contemporary jazz instrumentals.  While most radio stations change formats every other year, KBLX has survived with the same formula intact.

In the early 1980s, KQAK (98.9 "The Quake") was one of the first new wave radio stations in the country (patterned after KROQ Los Angeles).  Unfortunately, KQAK was ahead of its time.  After its demise, KITS (105.3 "Live 105") switched to modern rock--the new name for new wave--and emerged as one of the more subversive commercial radio stations by the late 1980s.

When KKSF (103.7) went on the air in 1987, it was one of the few stations at the time to play new age music--though its staff never uttered that term.  This new age/contemporary jazz/pop hybrid seems to work for KKSF.  In the late 1980s, KMEL (106.1) switched to urban top 40, embracing rap and later hip-hop.

What began in 1982 as an all-music religious station in the Wine Country (KCLB) is now part of K-LOVE's network of radio stations and translator stations (low-power repeater stations) in 34 states.  The same nonprofit ministry also owns Air 1, a Christian top 40 radio network covering 26 states.  KQED (88.5) changed format to news/talk in 1987 and is today one of the country's most popular public radio stations.

In 2002, KPTI (92.7 "Party"), which modeled itself on South Florida's WPYM, became the Bay Area's second and equally short-lived dance radio station.  CNET shuttered its two-year-old radio network in 2003, including the all-technology KNEW (910).  Less than six months after KPTI went off the air, KNGY (92.7 “Energy”) picked up where KPTI left off in 2004.

KNOB (96.7 “Bob”) was the first Bay Area radio station with a “free-form” oldies format in 2004, an idea that originated in Canada two years earlier.  Then KMAX (95.7 “Max”) followed suit in 2005.

The Bay Area made technology news again when KYOU (1550 “Open Source Radio”) became the first all-podcasting radio station in the world in 2005.  At the other end of the spectrum, the year also marked the return of the porker:  KPIG-AM (1510).  KFAT (94.5), which built a loyal following between 1975 and 1983, was one of the last freewheeling commercial stations in the Bay Area before radio went corporate (you can listen to its vintage broadcasts at  Watsonville's KPIG-FM rose from the ashes of KFAT and has been an institution just south of the Bay Area since 1988; its format is best described as Americana and triple-A rock.

Even though the Bay Area is far from the state’s southern border, California’s Latin roots are reflected in Bay Area place names as well as on the airwaves.  The oldest surviving Latin music station is KBRG (previously 105.3), which dates back to at least the 1960s.  There are now eight Spanish-language radio stations on the FM dial alone.  Among them is KVVF (105.7 “La Kalle”), one of the first Latin stations to jump on the reggaeton bandwagon in 2005.

Sprawling Market

The San Francisco Bay is the largest bay in North America.  This fact is one reason broadcast reception is such an issue (if you lived on reclaimed land in the middle of the bay, you’d have no problem with reception).  The Bay Area is bigger than Connecticut and slightly smaller than New Jersey in size.  Geography strikes again:  East Bay hills also pose a reception problem for the inland portion of the East Bay.

Less than a fifth of the local population lives in the northern half of the Bay Area (counties north of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge).  The southern half--San Francisco, the East Bay, the Peninsula, and Silicon Valley--is the heart of this major market in the U.S.  Furthermore, San Jose is now the largest city in Northern California, surpassing San Francisco in the 1990s.

The 26 Fortune 500 public companies in the Bay Area--in fact, in all of Northern California--are based in the five southern counties.  A local report on the largest public companies in the Bay Area provides a more detailed picture.  The same five counties are clearly the economic center of the region.  Refer to Bay Area Stats for more details.

As anyone who lives in the Bay Area knows, a radio station that wants to be a serious competitor must be powerful enough to reach all points surrounding the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose triangle.

Power Play

The U.S. is divided into 300-plus geographical markets.  Have you noticed the top-rated radio stations in the largest markets tend to be the ones with the strongest signals?  To level the playing field a little bit, the FCC should raise the current minimum broadcast power in the nation's top 50 markets.  The embarrassingly low minimum of 100 watts should be changed to, say, 2,000 (by contrast, the most powerful local radio station has a 125,000-watt signal).  This makes sense in light of the establishment of low-power FM radio.  If college radio stations could reach well beyond a 10-mile radius, they might be able to compete with commercial stations.  And that wouldn't be a bad thing.

Going Corporate

The U.S. radio landscape has changed drastically since the mid-1990s (see Telecommunications Act of 1996).  With mergers and liberalized rules allowing companies to own multiple media outlets in the same market, radio stations are more concerned with cooperation than competition.  iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel Communications), Cumulus Media, and CBS Radio are the three dominant radio groups in the country.  iHeartMedia owns about a quarter of all the U.S. radio stations; its weekly audience reach is 110 million listeners in all 50 states.

The Bay Area mirrors the national scene.   iHeartMedia has the largest market share.  Right behind are CBS Radio and Cumulus Media.  (Yes, Cumulus Media is the corporation that banned the Dixie Chicks from all 42 of its country stations in 2003.  It established its presence in the Bay Area after acquiring Susquehanna Radio in 2006.)  Only three Bay Area companies—KQED, Coast Radio (KUIC), and Empire Broadcasting (KRTY)—have consistently measurable market shares.

Bay Area Radio Ownership [March 2013]
Owner No. of Stations Ratings Share (%) [1] Ratings Share (%) [2] Ratings Share (%) [3]
iHeartMedia 8 FM, 2 AM 21.7 16.6 8.8
CBS Radio 4 FM, 2 AM 14.5 14.2 7.7
Cumulus Media 3 FM, 4 AM 12.9 10.4 10.8
Entercom Communications 5 FM 10.8 9.0 1.8
KQED 1 FM 5.8 4.6 -
Univision Communications 2 FM 5.7 12.4 -
NextMedia Group 2 FM 2.8 10.3 -
Spanish Broadcasting System 1 FM 1.9 1.5 2.6
University of Southern California 2 FM 1.9 3.4 -
Coast Radio 3 FM 1.3 - -
Inner City Broadcasting 2 AM 0.7 - -
Lazer Broadcasting 2 FM 0.6 2.1 -
San Francisco Unified School District 1 FM 0.4 - -
Empire Broadcasting 1 FM, 1 AM - 6.5 -
Maverick Media 4 FM, 1 AM - - 16.4
Redwood Empire Stereocasters 2 FM - - 12.4
Sinclair Communications 4 FM - - 12.4
Other - 19.0 9.0 27.1


Source:  Arbitron

[1] – San Francisco market (population:  6.1M).
[2] – San Jose market (population:  1.5M).
[3] – Santa Rosa market (population:  416K).

Straight Talk

Like other markets across the country, the news/talk format is popular in the Bay Area.  Beyond that obvious trend, older Bay Area residents seem to prefer adult contemporary music and oldies stations, and younger listeners manage to place three top 40 stations in the top 10.

Que Pasa?

There are four Spanish-language radio stations in the top 30, two short of the record set in 2005.  In the early 1990s, the Bay Area had a modern rock station and a country station in the top 10.  Neither format is represented in the top 10 today.

Public Access

KQED is the undisputed king among noncommercial radio stations in the Bay Area.  Indeed, it is the No. 1 station overall.

[See the Ultimate Bay Area Radio Guide]

[More Radio Stations Beyond the Bay Area]

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