Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
Last summer, back when family trips were still a thing you could do, our family took a great one – starting with a family event in southern California, there was a day at Disneyland, some Los Angeles sightseeing, and then a Route 66 road trip all the way from San Bernardino to Albuquerque.
But in our family, even a family vacation ends up including some radio – and so while the kids went off to see the Peterson Automotive Museum, your editor took advantage of the chance to meet one of radio’s most interesting owners. Saul Levine, now in his nineties, put 105.1 FM on the air in Los Angeles back in 1959 as KBCA and has owned it ever since, now as one of the last independent big-market radio owners in the country.
After expanding his empire over the years with stations as far away as Hawaii and San Francisco, Levine’s Mount Wilson Broadcasters is back to his base here in Los Angeles, anchored in an office building hard by the side of the 405 freeway in West LA. (It’s visible mostly for the big billboard that advertises Saul’s stations to what’s usually a packed audience of rush-hour drivers a few yards away.)
Saul’s office on the top floor is filled with art and memorabilia from his long career, not to mention a pretty sweet-sounding stereo setup where he can listen to his beloved jazz music. That’s how KBCA started back in 1959, playing jazz – and it’s what the station kept playing later on as KKGO before going classical as “K-Mozart” KMZT, and then taking its present country format (again as KKGO, “Go Country”) after one of his bigger commercial competitors abandoned the format.
No elevator for this nonagenarian – after a visit to his storage closet to pull out a bottle of wine from one of the vineyards he owns, he’s beating me down the stairs to the studios on the floor below, all in a neat line just off a big office/bullpen area.
There are three stations operating from this space now, though Mount Wilson only owns two of them.
KKJZ (88.1 Long Beach) is the odd one out – it belongs to Long Beach State University, but it’s managed by Levine from here in West LA, programming the jazz music he’s always loved. He bought the station (formerly KLON) a new transmitter when he began running it, and now it boasts a full spread of HD Radio subchannels with still more jazz music to be heard from its Signal Hill site in Long Beach.
Levine’s current AM station here in the LA market, the former KGIL (1260 San Fernando), is now licensed to Beverly Hills, and after going through a whirlwind of calls and formats, it’s settled down with oldies as KSUR, “1260 K-Surf,” operating from a room here that doubles as a production studio.
(Why “current”? Because in the 1990s, Levine had another AM signal here, and a most unusual one – KKGO 540 was licensed to Costa Mesa, in Orange County south of LA, but it beamed its signal toward the coast from Hesperia, in the high desert 70 miles to the northeast. And for a while, it had a synchronous 540 simulcast down in the San Diego market, via the lease of a Tijuana-licensed station on the same frequency. You can hear Saul talk about that, and many other aspects of his fascinating radio history, on two episodes of our Top of the Tower podcast, here and here!)
KSUR is also heard on one of the HD subchannels of KKGO, which occupies the other big studio at the far end of the hall here. (Another subchannel keeps classical “K-Mozart” alive in the market.)
It’s far from your usual big-market operation, and we wish Saul many more years of health and success running it – with hopes that we can get back out to LA for another visit before long.
Thanks to Saul Levine for the tour!
We have a great lineup of podcasts here on our site. While you’re catching up with your summer reading, don’t forget about your summer listening. Now is the time to make sure you’re up to date with Top of the Tower.
Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
Don’t forget you can still visit our store to check out our other great products. We’ll be taking preorders for the 2021 calendar soon. Stay tuned!
And don’t miss a big batch of southern California IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: KTNN/KWRK, Navajo Nation