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The State

Hollywood, Radio Finally Part Waves

August 11, 2005|Bob Pool | 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."

*

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.

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