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Still alive 

KVEC celebrates 75 years of live radio, changes, drama, and success

This has been an interesting year at KVEC radio, and we’re not even halfway through 2012. I marked my 20th anniversary with the station in January, followed by that little firestorm surrounding inappropriate remarks by Rush Limbaugh in March. My producer and sidekick Mardi Hall lost her sister to cancer in April, one of those life-changing events that prompted Mardi to resign and move to L.A. to be closer to her family. Now our programming director, Mark Mitchell, signs off on Friday, May 18, because he decided he’d rather live in Palmdale. Palmdale?

All this drama as we try to celebrate the 75th anniversary of KVEC 920 AM, the oldest radio station in San Luis Obispo County. Drama has been in our DNA ever since our first broadcast on May 8, 1937, when the nation turned to radio for the horrific details of the crash of the Hindenburg (“Oh, the humanity!”) in Lakehurst, N.J.

If you’ve been a guest in the KVEC studio on Zaca Lane, then you’ve walked the hallway from the lobby to the booth, past the dated black-and-white photographs and framed programming materials on the walls. They’re mostly from the ’40s and ’50s and, yes, it’s always interesting to see how things used to be, though, to be honest, a lot of the photos aren’t marked—we have no idea who these people are. The constant turnover in station owners, management, and locations during the last 75 years has made preserving KVEC history all the more challenging.

I know a little, but not much. The station call letters KVEC came from Valley Electric Company, the downtown appliance store run by Christine Jacobson, the first owner of the fledging radio station. That’s right—a woman was responsible for bringing broadcasting to the Central Coast. Jacobson and Les Hacker launched KVEC, and I’m sure Valley Electric saw a boost in radio sales. Also, credit Jacobson with eventually establishing KVEC-TV (now KSBY).

Russ James popped up from L.A. in 1952 and became the morning host, famous for blasting John Phillips Sousa marching music at 7 a.m. while urging listeners to march around the breakfast table and wake up. James later introduced the first local radio call-in show “Party Line” in 1956, but the host was ordered by management to stay away from anything controversial, so the one-hour morning show typically focused on recipes and consumer topics.

KVEC moved from Hill Street to the Motel Inn in 1958. Standing at upper Monterey Street today, looking at what’s left of the historic Motel Inn, it’s difficult to believe that this was once the hot spot in town. This is where everyone came for dinner and dancing in the ’50s and ’60s, and KVEC was right in the middle of it all. Those were halcyon days. You went to the Motel Inn. You listened to 920. The cult figure of the day was Mac the Scotch Hillbilly who played eclectic country music on weekends. His show was so popular that there was a waiting list for advertisers.

The Motel Inn and KVEC parted ways around 1968 when the station was sold yet again, and neither one ever seemed the same. The Motel Inn gradually fell out of favor before being totally abandoned and mostly demolished. KVEC ushered in more contemporary programming, but they were no longer the only game in town, now facing competition from new FM stations.

It’s interesting to hear the programming stories from those days, how KVEC juggled a well-staffed local news operation with live music shows, sandwiched around Dodger baseball and high school sports coverage. Dan Clarkson, Bill Benica, Dean Opperman, Daryl Kruse, Jim Allen, Alan Ross, Deborah Williams—just some of the on-air personalities who worked radio magic for next to nothing during the ’70s.

But the magic couldn’t last. AM radio was dying by the mid-’80s, and more ownership changes brought KVEC to the brink of bankruptcy by 1991. Music programming had been tossed out in favor of news coverage. During the Persian Gulf war, the entire staff was laid off, and KVEC became strictly an outlet for CNN 24/7.

We bounced back, but the community radio station turned corporate in 2000 with the arrival of Clear Channel, followed in 2007 by El Dorado Broadcasters, and a new emphasis on conservative talk radio. Ratings are up. Sales are strong. But it’s different. King Harris and I are the only two full-time employees left at Zaca Lane; between us, we’re responsible for seven hours of local programming every weekday. Our goal is merely to try to keep local radio alive as long as we can. There’s that drama again.

Happy 75th anniversary to KVEC. A heartfelt thanks to all who have worked at the station, and all who have listened, over the decades. What an honor to be part of this legacy.

Dave Congalton can be heard weekday afternoons from 3 to 7 p.m. on KVEC 920 AM. Send comments to the executive editor at [email protected].


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