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An Unofficial History of KMAX Radio

‘Informal Voice of the San Gabriel Valley’ went on the air 52 years ago

Business card for ‘Mary Ellen & Max’The author is known to many in our industry as president of equipment maker Henry Engineering, but in the early 1970s he was a DJ for an FM station in Sierra Madre, Calif., called KMAX (no relation to the current Colorado station of that name).

For this holiday issue of Radio World we excerpt some of Hank’s recollections of the station, which he remembers as “informal radio at its best.”

Max was a “radioaholic” almost since the day he was born in 1918. His first foray into broadcasting was as a kid of 13, playing records on the ham radio bands. This caught the attention of the local radio inspector, who made a visit to “W6MAX.”

“In a chair sat a badly frightened boy while his father paced the floor. Upon the table was a letter with the heading ‘Department of Commerce, Radio Division.’ It instructed Max to appear at the Supervisor’s Office to explain why he had been broadcasting music, operating without a station license, and using a fictitious call…”

The whole story appeared in an article entitled “Bootleg,” in the July 1932 edition of QST magazine.

Sometime later, Max did get his amateur radio license, with the somewhat prophetic call sign of W6DJJ. And years after that, he again was broadcasting music, but this time legally on KMAX, the FM radio station he put on the air in Sierra Madre, Calif.

It had been Max’s dream to put his own FM radio station on the air. He fought for three years against several parties who wanted the channel that was assigned to Sierra Madre. Eventually he prevailed; the FCC granted him the license. The call letters “KMAX” were in use by a U.S. Navy ship. Somehow, Max convinced the Navy to change the ship’s call sign, and make KMAX(FM) available for his station. The FCC agreed, and on Dec. 3, 1960, it signed on the air.

Collins gear

KMAX, “The Informal Voice of the San Gabriel Valley at 107.1 on your FM dial,” was located at the back of a hotel building in Sierra Madre.

The original studio consisted of a Collins 212G 10-pot mono console, two Collins turntables with 16-inch arms, and a few Craig and Sony consumer-type quarter-track tape decks. There were no cart machines. A Hewlett-Packard FM frequency and modulation monitor was used to track the signal, which was generated by a 250-watt ITA transmitter, which used a serasoid-type exciter. The audio was “limited” using a Teletronix LA-2 limiter, though plenty of peaks got through. A 100-foot tower was mounted atop the two-story hotel building.

KMAX’s audio always sounded clean and rather bright, with more “sizzle” than other stations across the FM dial. I discovered the reason why when I worked for “Max” in 1971.

The turntables didn’t have preamps but instead used passive equalizers made by Gray Research. The outputs of these equalizers were fed into mic channels on the console, not an unusual approach for the day. Each equalizer had a knob to select the equalization appropriate for the record being played: Flat, Roll-Off or 78

Max assumed that “Flat” was the way to go. In reality, the “Flat” position defeated the RIAA high-frequency rolloff (but kept the RIAA low-frequency boost). So for 15 years, KMAX was playing records with an extra 75 μs pre-emphasis, boosting highs at 10 kHz by an extra 10 dB or so. No wonder it sounded bright! Certain records, Les Elgart LPs in particular, would cause modulation peaks around 150 percent on a regular basis.

When Max started KMAX, FM was still “the new kid on the block.” Sierra Madre was a small community with a handful of mom-and-pop businesses. When he went on the air, Max couldn’t give away commercial time. He offered the local merchants free advertising: if they wrote the copy, he’d read the spots forfree for a few months to see if the ads produced any results. The merchants weren’t interested. They barely knew what FM radio was, let alone want to bother with advertising on it.

Max quickly got discouraged and practically gave up trying to sell spots. The few spots that ever ran on KMAX were usually trade-outs.

There was one GTE spot per day, a trade-out for the phone bill. There would be spots for a local tire company if Max got new tires on his car. And he actually traded a few spots for burgers at Tommy’s hamburger stand in Los Angeles.

The coverage provided by 250 watts atop the hotel was less than spectacular, so in the mid-’60s, Max moved the transmitter to the foothills of nearby Arcadia, and increased power by adding a Teletronix 3 kW amplifier built by Jim Lawrence. A Teletronix remote control system was added, and a 100-foot tower was installed, with four horizontal and three vertical bays. Somehow that added up to an ERP of “3 kW horizontal and 3 kW vertical watts, high in the foothills overlooking the entire San Gabriel Valley.”

The signal (still mono) was potent, with coverage of over 75 miles. There were regular listeners as far south as Rosarito Beach in Mexico.


Music programming consisted of easy-listening, big bands, top-40, polkas, old jazz, classical, Hawaiian, pipe organ, movie soundtracks … you name it, KMAX played it.

Max appears on the cover of a promotional folder about the station. Note the mixer, LPs and typewriter, and the use of ‘MC’ to describe the frequency.

KMAX probably was the first FM station in the metro Los Angeles area to play top-40 artists that were normally heard only on the area’s am stations. In addition to music, there were remote broadcasts from churches (paid), foreign language programs (paid), and live remotes of local schools football games.

Both and his wife Mary Ellen were daily DJs on KMAX. All music came from their record library. The records were kept in good condition and sounded clean. Occasionally Max would do a show called “Max’s Old 78s” during which he’d play his old jazz 78 rpm records from the 1920s and ’30s.

Sprinkled throughout the day were various PSAs, some read live and some recorded. There were news actualities provided by the armed forces (“Our Boys in the Service”) and a few recorded religious programs and vignettes. The Rosary was played daily at 6:45 p.m. Mary Ellen’s mother had prayed for Max to get the license for KMAX. He promised he’d play the Rosary every day as a tribute to her.

Max would often do morning music shows from nearby Santa Anita Racetrack. He had telco lines between the racetrack and the studio, with a turntable, mic and mixer set up in the press box. He’d play records from the racetrack, and comment on the pre-race sights and sounds of Santa Anita. Only from Santa Anita could Max play his Ann-Margret records.

Max had a “thing” about Ann-Margret … and Mary Ellen didn’t like it! She forbid him from playing Ann-Margret records, and would take the tone arm right off the record if she heard one on the air. So Max would hide Ann-Margret LPs in other artists’ record jackets so he could sneak them over to the Santa Anita racetrack studio. He’d play them from the racetrack, but as soon as Mary Ellen heard them she’d shut off his audio feed and play something else from the studio.

Leisurely pace

The show that was perhaps the most fun for listeners was “Operation Request,” hosted weekday afternoons by Mary Ellen.

“Operation Request” was an all-request record program, where listeners called in to make requests. Mary Ellen was the entire staff of the show. She answered the phones, took the requests, searched and founds the records, and got them on the air, announcing who made each request and to whom it was dedicated.

The show was two hours of daily chaos. Very often, a record would end (tick … tick … tick …) before the next one was ready to go. After a few second of silence, you’d hear Mary Ellen talking to a listener on the phone, cueing up the next 45 while she was announcing who called in to request it, then put the song on the air.

The program was ideal for someone who wanted to tape songs off the radio. If you made a request and told Mary Ellen that your were going to record the song off the air, she would say “… and this next song is going out to Hank, who is taping” … then she’d leave a few seconds of dead air before starting the turntable just so you’d have time to get your tape recorder rolling.

It was “informal radio” at its finest.

Another request program was the “Polka Party.” Max and Mary Ellen had a big collection of polka records, and each Saturday night he’d do a request show of polka music. This show had a large and loyal audience, since KMAX was the only L.A. station playing polka music. Another popular Saturday night show was “Request Dance Party,” where Max and Mary Ellen played music of the big band era, taking requests and playing the music they loved.

A program guide — perhaps written on the typewriter in the photo.

But it was the weekend religious and foreign language programming that paid the bills.

“If you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time” was Max’s favorite expression. There were dozens of church remotes, plus various foreign language programs in Spanish, German, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Croation, etc.

The foreign language shows varied greatly in quality. Nearly all were pre-recorded on consumer quarter-track tape recorders. The “Holland Hour” was polished and sounded very good. At the other end of the sound-quality spectrum was “Italian Words & Music,” hosted by Johnny Lauro. He recorded his show by holding a cheap crystal microphone in front of the speaker of a child’s record player. While music was playing, you could hear his kids making noise in the background. And to make his show audible by the largest audience, he would scream into the mic, producing distortion beyond belief. But his show was on for many years, with all its miserable fidelity.

George Rozos did a live weekly show called “The Athenian Voice Hour” each Wednesday at 9 p.m. George owned a Greek delicatessen in nearby Pasadena. He would arrive at the studio each Wednesday evening with records, Greek newspapers, and (best of all) a few sweets from the deli.

Needless to say, I was happy to engineer his show. I’d snack on baklava, trying my best to keep my sticky fingers from getting grease on his records. He’d do commentary and read the news from Greece, and I’d spin the records. It was a fun show.

Working there

To get a job as a KMAX DJ, you needed to have a “First Phone” FCC license, because Max, though he owned the station, had only a Third Class license. In those days FCC regulations required the “chief operator” to have a First Class license. All was kept legal by hiring only those who held a First Class license.

I worked as a KMAX DJ starting in 1971. Shortly after, my friend Dave Whited was hired. The combination of Dave and I would prove to be “entertaining” to Max and Mary Ellen, as we were both habitual practical jokers. In fact, before either of us joined the KMAX gang, we produced a 15 minute spoof of the station. We anonymously sent the tape to Max, who got quite a kick out of it. When Max hired us, we dared not confess that it was us who’d sent this recording. Only after several years did we admit to it.

One memorable Christmas Eve Dave and I decided to “redecorate” the studio. We built some badly needed shelves to hold tapes, records, etc. We strung hundreds of Christmas lights around the studio, and wired them into the console so when the mic was turned on, the place literally “lit up like a Christmas tree.”

After running KMAX for 15 years, Max decided to sell the station. On April 1, 1975, it was sold to Universal Broadcasting. The “Polka Party” broadcast of March 29, 1975, was the last time Max and Mary were heard on the air. By coincidence, that day was also Max’s 57th birthday. Mary Ellen gave him a special gift during the show: she played some Ann-Margret records.

For more historical (and hysterical!) information about KMAX, please visit Airchecks of the station are also welcome.