Hollywood, Radio Finally Part Waves

Times Staff Writer

If everything goes as expected, nobody will really notice.

But with the planned flip of a switch at 11:05 p.m. Friday, another piece of Hollywood's golden age will disappear forever.

Microphones at the last radio station in Hollywood will go dead as announcers and newscasters complete their final on-air shift at the historic Columbia Square broadcast center.

The relocation of Los Angeles' first radio station, KNX-AM (1070), to new studios in Wilshire Boulevard's Miracle Mile area will end an 85-year tradition of radio broadcasting in the place that bills itself as the world's center of entertainment.

Over the years, Hollywood has been home to 68 radio stations and nine television stations. In the last few years, five television stations have left.

And when Columbia Square is shut down next year, two more -- KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KCAL-TV Channel 9 -- will move to new headquarters being built in Studio City. That will leave just two television stations, KTLA-TV Channel 5 and KCET-TV Channel 28, in Tinseltown.

After KCBS and KCAL depart, the Streamline Moderne building at 6121 Sunset Blvd. is expected to be demolished to make way for new development.

"I never thought I'd see the day when there are no radio broadcasts out of Hollywood," said KNX assistant news director Ronnie Bradford, who joined the station in 1968. "This is a company town -- movies, television and radio."

The exodus ironically comes as Hollywood is in the midst of a major upswing. After years of decline, crime is down and a host of new trendy bars, restaurants, hotels and theaters has drawn young people back.

But many believe that the loss of radio has less to do with neighborhood revitalization than corporate economics.

The dozens of radio and TV stations, once independently owned, are now part of big corporate chains. These companies, like Infinity and Clear Channel, save money by consolidating engineering and administrative jobs under one roof. The radio and TV buildings in Hollywood are old, making it hard to conform with the latest technology.

Infinity owns seven radio stations, including KROQ-FM (106.7) and KRTH-FM (101), while Clear Channel owns 10, such as KIIS-FM (102.7) and KFI-AM (640).

For some, Friday will mark a dark day in Hollywood -- and a reminder of how much the radio business has changed.

"There was a time when big stars were available to come on radio shows. They'd be passing by a studio and would just stop and come inside," said Johnny Grant, who had a 1951-59 afternoon show on Sunset Boulevard's KMPC-AM (710).

"Someone would call back, 'Bing Crosby's out here -- what should I do with him?' And I'd say, 'Bring him on back,' and I'd put him on the air."

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With its porthole-windowed studio doors and chrome-accented, round-cornered interior walls, Columbia Square was considered America's most spacious and technologically advanced broadcast facility when CBS built it in 1938. Legendary CBS President William S. Paley personally oversaw its design and officiated at its dedication.

It boasted eight large broadcasting studios, including one theater-like room that could seat an audience of 1,050.

"Radio was so important to everybody back then; there was no TV. Columbia Square was the epitome of radio. Everything was modern. It was beautiful," remembered Sherman Oaks resident Art Gilmore, who was working as a KNX announcer the day Columbia Square opened.

During the 1940s and '50s hundreds would line up in the building's U-shaped forecourt to get in to see live productions of radio shows featuring Jack Benny, Art Linkletter, Burns and Allen, Edgar Bergen, Orson Welles, Jackie Gleason, Steve Allen, Eddie Cantor, Rosemary Clooney and Ed Wynn.

Celebrities rubbed elbows with fans at Brittingham's Restaurant, on the east side of the forecourt. Passersby could watch broadcast engineers sending out the CBS West Coast feed from a large, almost theatrical-looking master control room visible through a wide front window. Forty-five-minute tours of the studios were offered daily for 40 cents.

"It was a little awesome just walking into Columbia Square," said Mel Baldwin, who worked as a KNX announcer, overnight "Music 'Til Dawn" disc jockey and program host between 1951 and 1991. He is now retired and living in Port Orange, Fla.

In the 1950s, radio dramas were still being produced in front of live audiences, Baldwin said.

"We had ushers that worked full time to make sure we had crowds for the shows. Studio B seated about 400 people. If it wasn't filled, they'd be out on Vine Street handing out comp tickets."

Former broadcast executive Don Barrett, who in the early 1970s ran KIQQ-FM in Hollywood and now operates the LARadio.com website, credits a childhood visit to Columbia Square with launching his career.

He was about 9 when his Cub Scout pack went there to watch a western-themed radio show being produced. Remembering the hoofbeats from previous broadcasts, Barrett figured he would be going to a ranch where real horses were galloping about.

"But there were actors reading from pages, and sound effects were doing the clomping. Then Gene Autry came out. Right then I fell in love with radio," said Barrett of Santa Clarita. "My love affair with radio started in that building."

During that period, all four radio networks had Hollywood studios within steps of each other around Vine Street, which was known as radio row.

"NBC was at Sunset and Vine. ABC was across the street on Vine. Mutual was also on Vine. CBS' Columbia Square was on Sunset. It was a very busy place," said David Schwartz, who was KIIS-FM's assistant music director when it was in Hollywood.

With the help of friends who are broadcast buffs or former on-air personalities, radio historian Jim Hilliker has tallied the call letters of 68 radio stations -- some with transmitters as far away as Mexico -- that were based in Hollywood at one time or another. KNX, which was launched in 1920 in the back bedroom of a house on Hollywood's Harold Way and officially licensed by the federal government as a commercial station a year later, is Los Angeles' oldest station.

No L.A. station has stayed in one place as long as the 67 years that KNX has resided at Columbia Square, Hilliker said. Besides changing addresses, many Los Angeles stations have changed call letters too.

KNX will join four other Infinity Broadcasting Corp. stations -- KFWB-AM (980), KLSX-FM (97.1), KTWV-FM (94.7) and KRTH-FM -- at 5670 Wilshire Blvd. At that high-rise, KNX and longtime news-radio rival KFWB will share the same floor -- separated only by a wall that features a sliding-glass window, said KNX news director Ed Pyle.

KFWB moved there June 24 after spending 80 years in Hollywood.

Left behind at its old Yucca Street studios was a large neon sign bearing the KFWB call letters and twin antique microphones. A community group, the Hollywood Project Area Committee, is campaigning to preserve the distinctive sign, which dates from the days when Warner Bros. owned the station and operated it on Hollywood Boulevard.

Community activist John Walsh said the group was also attempting to block the demolition of Columbia Square. Acquired 1 1/2 years ago for $15 million by a partnership called Sungow Corp. and rented back to Infinity's parent company, Viacom, the structure is widely expected to be torn down so the site can be redeveloped.

Alan Shuman, a Sungow partner, said there were "no plans at the moment" for the property, however.

The most ardent supporters of Columbia Square concede that the broadcast center is probably doomed.

Dan Gingold, who worked 18 years there as a television director for what is now KCBS-TV, is trying to piece together a video documentary about the place.

"I don't think any one of us realized it was a wonderful Art Deco landmark that should be preserved in history. At this point, I think preservation is a lost cause," said Gingold of Sherman Oaks.

George Nicholaw, who spent 36 years at KNX before leaving as general manager in 2003, said he mapped out a plan for preserving Columbia Square shortly after Viacom acquired the CBS stations.

Under his proposal, a new building atop an underground parking garage at the rear of Columbia Square would have housed Infinity's seven local radio stations. That would have cleared the way for the 1938 building to be remodeled and used exclusively by KCBS-TV and sister-station KCAL-TV, he said. The two TV stations are scheduled to move to Studio City late next year.

"That would have saved the building. I sent a presentation to New York but never heard back from them. I gave it a go. Columbia Square is a historical monument and part of Hollywood's history. It's a shame that they can't add on and expand it," said Nicholaw, a Hollywood resident.

Current KNX employees said they would miss walking in the footsteps of broadcasting giants.

"As a kid, I'd ride my bike here. My mom said Jack Benny worked here, and James Dean was an usher here. Bob Crane did his show from this very room," production chief Raul Moreno said.

KNX reporter Michael Linder has produced a 55-minute retrospective of Columbia Square's radio history scheduled to run Friday at 10:05 p.m. It will be the last time that old-fashioned reel-to-reel recorders and cart tape machines are used: The new studios are all digital.

Never mind the Hollywood Walk of Fame, he said. "The stars walked up and down this very corridor."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Once in Hollywood

Here is a list of radio stations that once had studios in Tinseltown:

KFPG-AM (570)

KMTR-AM (570)

KLAC-AM (570)

XETRA-AM (690)

KMPC-AM (710)

KBIG-AM (740)

KECA-AM (790)

KABC-AM (790)

KHJ-AM (930)

KKHJ-AM (930)

KFWB-AM (980)

KTNQ-AM (1020)

KNX-AM (1070)

XERB-AM (1090)

XEPRS-AM (1090)

KIIS-AM (1150)

KPRZ-AM (1150)

KGFJ-AM (1230)

KWKW-AM (1300)

KFAC-AM (1330)

KWKW-AM (1330)

KALI-AM (1430)

KPOL-AM (1540)

KZLA-AM (1540)

KSKQ-AM (1540)

KXED-AM (1540)

KDAY-AM (1580)

KFAC-FM (92.3)

KKBT-FM (92.3)

KNX-FM (93.1)

KKHR-FM (93.1)

KODJ-FM (93.1)

KCBS-FM (93.1)

KPOL-FM (93.9)

KZLA-FM (93.9)

KFMV-FM (94.7)

KFWB-FM (94.7)

KRHM-FM (94.7)

KMET-FM (94.7)

KTWV-FM (94.7)

KECA-FM (95.5)

KABC-FM (95.7)

KSKQ-FM (97.9L)

KMPC-FM (100.3)

KIQQ-FM (100.3)

KQLZ-FM (100.3)

KHJ-FM (101.1)

KRTH-FM (101.1)

KMPC-FM (101.9)

KEDG-FM (101.9)

KLIT-FM (101.9)

KSCA-FM (101.9)

KKDJ-FM (102.7)

KIIS-FM (102.7)

KGLA-FM (102.5)

KBIG-FM (104.3)

KXTZ-FM (104.3)

KWST-FM (105.9)

KMGG-FM (105.9)

KPWR-FM (105.9)

KLVE-FM (107.5)

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Note: KNX started as 5-watt experimental station 6ADZ and then KGC before getting its current call letters in 1922.

KABC-AM (790) began in Hollywood as KFVF-AM and then became KNRC-AM. Circa-1920s Hollywood stations KFAR-AM and KFQZ-AM are now defunct. Hollywood station K45LA, which operated at 44.5 on the old FM band, was the first FM station west of the Mississippi in 1941. It became KHJ-FM (99.7) when the FM band changed in 1945 and later became KRTH-FM (101.1).

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Source: Jim Hilliker, with the assistance of Dale Berg, Scott Fybush, Donna Halper, Richard Toebe, Roger Carroll and Bob Morgan

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