Los Gatos Radio Station KTAO Holds Reunion Party
SICK UNTO death of the Top 40-driven airwaves, a small Los Gatos station called KTAO tried to out eclectic eclecticism itself during a late-’70s, early-0’80s run. Los Gatos in those days was a woodsy, bohemian spot with some of the Merry Pranksters nearby. KTAO’s broadcasts are now some 40 light years from Earth. All that’s left are unreliable memories in the archives stashed at History San Jose.
The owner/operator had the Mediciean name Lorenzo, Lorenzo Milam. Now retired deep in Mexico, Milam is the author of a guide to starting a community radio station titled Sex and Broadcasting. On June 22, there will be a private 40th-anniversary reunion at which he may or may not materialize.
In its heyday, KTAO drew the likes of jazz great Chet Baker to its studio. Geoff Alexander, remembered as the Cine16 archivist who helped enliven downtown San Jose life with his archive of salvaged 16mm films, was once part of KTAO.
As a West Valley teenager, Alexander wandered into the station and ended up DJing for the next few years. Bill Ryan, a former Random House editor, was the frontman for then-silent partner Milam in those days.
Alexander recalls, “Everyone loved Bill. Bill was a great jazz guy, a fan of everything from post-bop to New Orleans jazz.”
On the air, during occasionally clothing-optional broadcasts (“I did live nude radio”), Alexander billed himself as “Geoff Manson.” “I didn’t want anyone at school to know I was doing this,” he says. “I wanted to remain an outcast. Nobody cared about pseudonyms, and a lot of the shows had no name. It wasn’t about ego, it was about doing programming that was different and outrageous. You’d get a musical education from the wealth of records there.”
Free bad records the station received from publicists could be swapped at the used record store for good obscure ones. Spinning for KTAO, or just listening, one could learn as much as a person could possibly learn about Bulgarian vocals without being Bulgarian.
Alexander’s eyes gleam with pride as he recalls KTAO’s 24-hour Flamenco marathon. Reinforcing ethnic stereotypes that we’d be better off without, KTAO’s Irish DJ—known to work up some ambience by murmuring, “Set ’em up again, me lads”—indeed passed out from too much whiskey on the air, leaving the remaining listeners to puzzle over the sound of a needle ticking against a paper LP label for an hour.
The one rule was that no one who had been to radio broadcasting school was allowed on the air; the mellow jazz DJ and the counterculture cool cat alike were banned. On one typical week, the Los Gatos station broadcast a Jean Shepherd program—Shepherd was the Chicago writer who later spun his reminiscences into the script for A Christmas Story; “Shep’s” word-jazz led into two well-deserved hours for “Great Chicago Piano Blues Players.”
But things got odd. In heavy rotation at KTAO was a therapists’ LP titled Speech After the Removal of the Larynx. More utterly indefensible: the syndicated hour-long show by Matt Kaoehl, spokes-swine of the American Nazi Party.
“We used to broadcast his tapes verbatim. We loved to get a rise out of people,” Alexander explains. He recalled a favorite Kaoehl broadcast, which, far from racist foaming, was more like folksy Midwestern chronicler Paul Harvey gone fascist: “Eighty years ago today, in a little town in Braunau, Austria, a great miracle happened … it was no ordinary birth, no, no ordinary birth …”
Early in the home-brewed computer era, a problem challenging the locals who would one day be called “hackers” was the question of how to get free telephone service from the monopoly Bell System.
KTAO hosted a program with the pre-Internet phone phreaks demonstrating their craft live. Guests included John “Captain Crunch” Draper and Joe Engressia, a blind student with perfect pitch. Known as the “Florida Whistler,” Engressia could actually whistle the tone that would unlock the long-distance switches at junctions worldwide.
Hackers prided themselves on being able to route a call through the most possible switches. Alexander recalls the day he heard “The Florida Whistler is on line 2. They called the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and asked them how things were going.” The tape has been lost unfortunately, but the most satisfactory part of the show was the sound of a stolen expensive phone call disconnecting, with the tandems unstacking around the world.
Alexander hands me vintage Xeroxed pamphlets that served as program guides for the station. In funeral-notice lettering, one reads: “The Awful Death of the San Jose Mercury News.” It’s author Milam making a forecast, not an obit. “This grotesquery must collapse, drowning our hopes in fifteen tons (daily) of newsprint ... this loathesome (sic) excuse for the fourth estate might well lull us into belief there is nothing in our future … but torpidity, drunkenness, and vacuous profit statements.”
“I think Lorenzo would have liked to have got some press,” Alexander suggested. “but then again, the Merc has never been a real big supporter of the unusual.”
Monetizing this all-volunteer (or near it) station was, as it might sound, impossible. For a while, KTAO sold morning air-time to hard-shell, hard-sell plastic-Jesus-hawking evangelists. KTAO made its own commercials that somehow made the sponsors unhappy. Two examples: a Ford dealership promo that used canned snippets of Bertold Brecht testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee as well as a Carmel luxury hotel ad done from the perspective of a hillbilly 18-wheeler driver.
“A lot of people came up and screamed into the microphone,” Alexander recalls. “We’d play two records at the same time, all kinds of weird shit, ascending to total cacophony. People loved it or hated it, and you could do it ad hoc.”
By 1984, the money ran out, and the station was sold. When KTAO listeners tuned in, they got all-Portuguese-all-the-time KRVE. Later, in 1988, one of the owners, Joaquin Esteves, made a Judge Crater–like disappearance that is still a mystery, but that’s another story.
For more on KTAO, click here.