Modesto's Pioneering Radio Station

The FCC approved the radio station license on February 9 1934 at 740 kilocycles, later changed to 860. The KTRB call letters were derived from McTammany's initials of "T.R." and "B" from Bill [Bates]. Bill launched the station on his hand-built transmitter of 250 watts that was continuously enhanced to 5,000 by 1951 and soon to the maximum of 50,000 for daytime and 10,000 for nighttime.

It wasn't long before Bill Bates became a household name because of KTRB and especially for his personal one-hour program, "Old Time Tunes, that aired each morning at 8 o'clock. It was a program filled with conversation, weather, news, music and anything that Bates felt was suitable for his morning listeners. Every dairy bam was tuned in, shops, cars, houses as well throughout the community. To sign off he played the rollicking "Beer Barrel Polka." Longtime KTRB broadcaster and radio personality Cal Purviance noted that some days the "Beer Barrel Polka" was the only tune listeners heard because Bill would get to talking about politics and world affairs with listeners who called in, and there was no stopping him.  He too commented that Bates was "a man who loved every aspect of radio" and was the happiest behind a microphone.  He characterized his boss and friend as "a very sharp businessman, excellent engineer, great-hearted man, and one who would try to get the best from you."

When Bates was a youngster of eleven or twelve, he contracted polio, leaving him with an impaired leg for the rest of his life. He knew with this handicap that he must be educated to be successful in a career. He graduated from the University of California with an engineering degree and worked at radio station KNX in Los Angeles.  For a brief time he installed radio equipment in ships for the Mexican Navy, and while in Mexico, he met his wife Maria. It can be speculated that he may have been one of the first short-wave "ham" radiomen in California. It is known that his father was a retired Army major who lived in Delhi, one reason for Bill's eventual residency in Modesto.

First Airing

KTRB's first day on the air was June 11, 1934. The station's facility was a clapboard shack next to the Sylvan Clubhouse on McHenry Avenue. The signature song for the inaugural day was "Back in Your Own Back Yard," having the lyrics:

Looking for skies ever blue
They are there, waiting for you
Back in your own back yard.
Searching for Castles in Spain
Then look through your own window pane
Right in your own back yard

You may go to the east, go to the west
But some day you'll come back to the start
Back to your own back yard.

The lyrics conformed to Bates' neighborly radio philosophy for KTRB, a station that would be part of the community.

A Stack of Records

Longtime KTRB engineer and broadcaster Cecil Lynch, now in his nineties, recalled those first days of shoestring operation. When KTRB went on the air Bill had only enough 78 [speed] records to do one day of broadcasting.  The records were stacked on an old wooden kitchen table, painted green, and as we played from the stack we turned the record over into a second stack. That way the last record played in the afternoon would be the first the next morning, but the reverse side. It took the audience quite a while to figure out the limited scope of the music library. It [the number of records] started to expand when Bill worked out a trade deal with Lee Brothers stationery and music store, and he also picked up a Chinese gong and rubber mallet, to sound our time signals. The mallet served double duty to whack the double-button carbon mike occasionally, to improve the microphone's sensitivity. For the whacking operation, power was turned off so the carbon granules [in the microphone] could be more easily loosened.

"Swanee Cowboys" Singing Live! 

A favorite KTRB program for Modestan Lyndell Woodbridge was the "Swanee Cowboys". During the years 1936-1938, my life was all  Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Gene Autry, Tim McCoy and, many other western cowboy stars of movies and stage. To have a radio station in  your own town was a real treat. I can remember Bill Bates advertising rainbow doughnuts for 5 cents each and coffee at 5 cents a cup to dunk them into. A trip to the doughnut shop was a real treat as a movie cost 10 cents and sometimes only a nickel was available. The depression was still taking its toll.

At  6 a.m. each morning I was up with my hobby-horse and with my cowboy outfit on and ready to ride around the dining room table. That cowboy outfit including boots was bought up on 10th Street from the old Coey Shoe Store. My dad got a lecture for blowing  $8.95 on such nonsense when money was so tight.

Oh, how many bumps I received from cutting too close to the table comers. However the bumps were well worth hearing the refrains of KTRB's "Swanee Cowboys" (Members: Hungry, Slats, Jake, Skeeter, and Si) direct from the radio station. The refrains of "Little Girl Dressed in Blue," "Home on the Range," Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," and many others. What a thrill when my mother, Sara Woodbridge, sent to KTRB for a photo of the "Swanee Cowboys." I remember it cost her 20 cents. [Longtime KTRB employee Cecil Lynch recalled that "two recordings were taken of the singing group, on soft aluminum disks, using a thorn from a cactus plant, because it took a fiber-like needle to cut gingerly into the soft metal to record the harmonious sound."]

Early Advertisers and Programs

Some of the earliest KTRB advertisers were Lee Brothers, J.S.West, Asbill's, Velvet Ice Cream, and Rice Furniture. Early programming features were Cecil Lynch and Doug McCreary and their ''What Do You Think?" program, which consisted of interviewing the public on downtown Modesto sidewalks; Don Lapan and his "Knick Knacks" record request hour; Rev. Don Weston's weekly radio sermons; May Damrell with reports on issues concerning women; Andy and Uncle Eldon, who were early personality DJs; and other shows like "Sunrise Serenade," "Melody Matinee," Swap Shop," and "Jukebox Jamboree." For live "hillbilly" music [common colloquial term for country music then], KTRB first featured the "Swanee Cowboys, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and years later, Chester Smith and his country music guests.'

Cecil Lynch remembered

Bill was always community-oriented, in everything from farm news to service clubs and chamber of commerce, and the church broadcasts on Sunday. These were paid programs but as I recall they didn't pay very much. For quite a while I had Sundays all by myself from sign-on to sign off. Portuguese and probably a few chiropractor programs were mixed in. The people came in, handed me their money, went into the studio, and did their thing. Broadcasts were done from the Strand Theater with its live organ music flowing masterly over the airwaves. To enhance the throaty organ sounds, it was decided to incorporate some light mockingbird trills and warbling. Lynch placed a microphone on the Sylvan Clubhouse grounds, next to the station's shack, and captured the sweet sounds of neighboring mockingbirds. What the listeners heard was a fusion of organ and mockingbird harmonics, maybe a first in music mixing. The station aired other programs from the Strand Theater, such as an address by Admiral Byrd on his Antarctic expedition, an expedition that Lynch had been personally monitoring on his short-wave radio. In 1951, Cal Purviance was hired by Bates and was soon promoted to program director when the program director Don Lapan left KTRB. Cal appreciated Bill as an employer because he was never overbearing and was always interested in knowing what others thought of his ideas.

Community Charity

Bates was a generous donator to community causes and many times his contributions were anonymous. It is known that he provided between fifty to seventy-five turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas for a number years to those who were impoverished. He commandeered a KTRB program called "Auction Block," where community members could advertise merchandise for sale from a dog to a ranch. He'd take in the bids on the telephone and sell the merchandise on his program. Bates once made an appeal on the air for afghan blankets for wounded service personnel at Oak Knoll Hospital in Oakland. The response was overwhelming. He received enough blankets to fill two semi-truck trailers. Bates also led drives for harmonicas for military personnel, Kerr canning jars for home canning, and eyeglasses for the Lions Club to distribute to the needy.

After Bates died, Cal Purviance and Irv Vrh, a KTRB sponsor, teamed up to raise money for a Bill Bates' memorial. The drive was called "Pennies for Pines" and garnered $4,000 in donations that was matched with $4,000 of state funds. Pine seedlings were purchased and planted by some forty volunteers in the Sierra between Cold Springs and Pinecrest.  An appropriate plaque was placed at the site memorializing Bates and his contributions to the region. Cal commented that "Bill loved the mountains almost as much as he loved broadcasting."  Bates had a cabin at Dardanelle at the top of Sonora Pass, and on an occasion, when snowed in, he'd call in his report on his ham radio to Cal, who was live and on the air at KTRB. Cal was much like Bill at the microphone, casual, holding conversations with ham radio operators and sponsors, taking weather reports and providing news on the air. Both were at ease in their medium and highly regarded in the community for their sincerity and integrity.

Norwegian Avenue Location

In 1941, just a few days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, KTRB moved from its McHenry Avenue location to Norwegian Avenue. The station was located in a studio facility on Bates' 4O-acre pasture land in northeast Modesto. He raised cattle on the acreage which too had KTRB's three transmission antennas. His residence was on the property and could be accessed from a canal bank off Sunrise Avenue. The canal bank later became Briggsmore Avenue.

The Competition

KTRB's first competitor was KMOD, later changed to KFIV, and was owned by Jud Sturdevant. KBOX appeared next, which was owned by Congressman Ralph Brown and located in Modesto's Black Building. Modesto Bee's ownership, the McClatchy family, bought KBOX as the McClatchy Broadcasting Company and renamed it KBEE. When KTRB employees Milt Hibdon and Lee Roddy left, they worked briefly for KBEE. Roddy went on to a brilliant writing career, authoring among other treasures, the Grizzly Adam television series. Famed country music icon Chester Smith got his start at KTRB and aired his own local radio station KLOC in 1963.

Chester Smith

His western music program was wildly popular, opening with "This is Chester Smith, coming right at you!" and signing off with "Hang tough and play it cool." Bates liked Chester's work and bought the Riverbank Clubhouse so Chester could perform there along with other country music musicians. The visiting musicians were invited to be guests on Chester Smith's radio program and included Roy Acuff, Merle Haggard and many others who would go on to musical stardom. Upon being granted a radio license for his new station KLOC, Chester Smith had to be dismissed from KTRB because he now was a competitor. Cal Purviance as program director remembers the morning very well because it was his duty to terminate Chester's employment. The two men had become personal friends making his "firing" very difficult. Chester appeared for his morning program, and Cal asked him to come to his office. Chester smiled knowing the circumstance. Cal told him that he had to be terminated because he was now their competitor. The two promised to always remember their years together at KTRB and hugged affectionately concluding their KTRB relationship. Chester has been known to say at times that "Cal has the distinction of being the only person in the world that has ever fired me." Chester went on to music prominence and became a very successful businessman owning a number of television and radio stations.

Pappas Family

When Bill Bates died in 1969, the station was managed for a few months by Sam Horel of Wells Fargo Bank with the assistance of KTRB's Dick Brown and Cal Purviance. The Bob Hope Company seriously considered purchasing the station, but it was Harry Pappas of Visalia who bought it from the bank for $675,000, representing a seven-man corporation, Big Valley Broadcasting, that
included his brothers Pete and Mike and himself. The group sold a portion of the property and transferred the transmission antennas to Claribel Road. In 1981, Pete Pappas bought out the other investors for $1,110,000.

Interest in KTRB by the Pappas family began with a high school class visit to the station by Harry Pappas' brothers Pete and Mike. Cal provided the tours and showed the class around the station. The brothers were so impressed with the radio studio that they sought careers in the radio business. Shortly after their visit, they presented an idea to Cal for a possible radio program. It would feature rock 'n' roll. Cal explained to them that Bates played only music like Bing Crosby and would not allow their alternative style. Undaunted, the brothers were able to get their program aired at KFIV, then KSTN in Stockton, and finally in Las Vegas, becoming  quite successful. As members of the group that purchased KTRB in 1969, they became Cal's bosses, a relationship that worked well.
Change in Format

Over the years KTRB has changed its format, from variety programming to a station offering only country music or only rock 'n roll. It too has been an all-news station and then an all-Spanish station.  Cal commented that format change was the greatest revolution that he saw in the radio business.  Once it was possible to have a variety of programs, but as the population grew and more stations were licensed, stations had to go to one format to compete in the market.

Cal feels that today the area could use a station that features only local news, from board of supervisor's meetings to traffic accidents. When KTRB was concentrating on news, he recalled hiring Don Schneider who was an excellent reporter and was known as "Snoopy." The night he was hired he covered a major fire near his motel room for KTRB. He became quite an efficient reporter, sporting numerous antennas on his car, with direct links to local law enforcement agencies, who respected his work. Cal made sure that his reporters did not jeopardize law enforcement activities in their coverage. The station now serves as an all-news station with syndicated news coming from KMPH, a Pappas' station in Fresno.

By Robert LeRoy Santos

Courtesy of McHenry Museum & Historical Society Press and Publications Board.
Stanislaus Stepping Stones Journal Nov-Dec. 2005.
A copy of Stanislaus Stepping Stones can be purchased for $2.95 at the McHenry Museum Store,
1402 I Street Modesto, CA. 95354   209-491-4347 email blsantos@csustan.edu

Modesto's first radio station

Bimonthly Journal of the McHenry Museum & Historical Society