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Tom Donahue

San Francisco radio personality and innovator visiting London

[Photos © Phil Franks]

Friends Nº 21 January 1 1970

Extracts from "A rap with Tom Donahue" by Jonathon Green

The Payola ("you play my boy's record and who knows, there might just be a nice new Caddy on your doorstep tomorrow...") was stamped out and hearings really messed up the rock business over there in the early sixties. Suddenly America launched off into one of its periodical witch-hunts, a few years before it had been the Commies and now it seemed to be virtually everyone, and no-one inside the music business was feeling too safe. The consequent recession in American music bit deep, the emergence of the Beatles shoving another few nails in the coffin. Top 40 radio ground on, but without anything to offer, except a fast decaying formula. The emergence in 1965 of the "San Francisco Sound" began to change all that. The domination of the world by English sounds, from the Beatles onwards, had given England the pirate stations (Top 40 radio a decade too late), and bands like the Byrds, Lovin' Spoonful, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Grateful Dead, Quicksiler Messenger Service and others gave the West Coast, and later all America, the next, and better, stage in radio, "freeform" or "underground" stations, broadcast on stereo FM.

In 1965 the main San Francisco station was KYA (AM), a Top 40 station, whose main claim to fame was the activities of its main DJs, Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue and Bob Mitchell, who ran a series of rock shows at the Cow Palace, starring the major artists of the time, including a Rolling Stones gig.

The birth of "underground" radio didn't come until two years later, though Donahue had been trying to think up a way of changing the concept of rock radio broadcasting for some time. The necessary impetus came just after the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, when Mills College for Girls gave a symposium on rock.

Among those present, Bill Graham, the Airplane, Chet Helms, was Donahue, and his contribution was the concept of what he calls "freeform radio".

It was a little Spanish station, KMPX, and Larry Miller which gave Donahue the chance to get it on, and very quickly in 1967/68, KMPX became renowned for its exciting radio style.

Since the early days on KMPX (the staff of which went to KSAN in mid '68. after a strike against managerial encroachments on their freedom) in San Francisco, and KPPC in los Angeles, Donahue has left the radio world, though he still has an occasional spot on KSAN whenever he's in town. He's in the music business now, managing and producing, and it's in that capacity that he's in England, with his new band "Stoneground", formed for the recent Warner Bros Caravan tour from San Francisco to England. He digs business, would never even attempt to back out of his role "... you tell him the movie (of the Caravan) is a rip-off..." "But everyone always says that..." he replies, so deprecatingly. Donahue, with his experience in creating and managing what has been the hippest rock radio on the world comes off better than most managers as regards his musical integrity.

[Photos © Phil Franks]


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