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Kingdom KOME

[whitespace] KOME Less than two weeks remain until the letters fade away

By Michael Learmonth

KOME is gone, for good. The call letters that have defined innovative music radio in the South Bay for 28 years have vanished into the ether, perhaps to reappear in some other CBS/Infinity radio station in a market far, far away.

KOME's owner, CBS/Infinity, bought its strongest competitor, KITS (Live 105), and then performed a transplant, sending many of KOME's vital organs to Live 105, including Howard Stern, the Loveline and much of KOME's management. It was as if CBS/Infinity had Siamese twin stations and opted to sacrifice one to assure the health of the other.

When the operation was complete, Live 105 became the Bay Area's only modern rock station with Howard Stern in the morning. The KOME call letters were retired and the cannibalized shell of the old station, including the 98.5 frequency, transmitter and station on Tisch Way, was sold to Jacor Communications.

CBS/Infinity may decide to resurrect the KOME call letters in another market like Los Angeles, but by retiring them in the Bay Area they assure that no competitor will buy them and try to use them to compete against Live 105.

Jim Hardy, KOME's former general manager, is now GM and vice president of Live 105. He says that in deciding which station to close, KOME's frequency came up short.

"KOME had some trouble getting into S.F." By merging, Hardy says, "We pick up Contra Costa County, Napa and Sonoma. And our signal is still good in the South Bay. It made sense to take the legendary branded entity of Live 105, put Howard [Stern] on and take the best of two stations and put them in one gigantic station in the Bay Area."

The acquisition of Live 105 by CBS/Infinity came as it acquired Boston-based American Radio Systems for $1.6 billion, expanding its already formidable presence in Bay Area radio. As a result of the sale, CBS/Infinity's Bay Area radio stations are KLLC-FM (Alice), KCBS-AM (news), KYCY-AM/FM (country), KFRC-AM/FM (classic rock), KITS-FM (Live 105) and KEZR-FM (adult contemporary). CBS/Infinity also picked up KUFX-FM and KSJO-FM, which it is selling to Jacor Corporation, and KBAY-FM.

CBS/Infinity had to sell the stations to Jacor, or someone, because the 1996 Telecommunications Act limits to eight the number of stations a single entity can own in one market, with no more than five in one band. CBS/Infinity is currently maxed out at five FM and three AM stations in this market.

The 1996 act liberalized telecommunications law, allowing single owners to buy more stations in the same market. This has led to a corporate buying binge of radio stations around the country and in the Bay Area.

"Congress, in its infinite wisdom, changed the law and then it was a feeding frenzy," says Phillip Kane, attorney for the Redwood City-based Communications Law Center. In Kane's eyes the change in the law proved once again the time-tested axiom of corporate influence on politics: "If the law lets you do it, you do it. If the law doesn't, you get the law changed."

Since its 1994 switch to the alternative rock format, KOME and Live 105 had competed on a similar playing field. KOME distinguished itself by sticking more to guitar-based alternative rock while Live 105 delved into Brit-pop and techno. The new station's music programming will be some amalgam of both.

KOME started broadcasting in San Jose in 1970 and in a few years had established itself as one of the most innovative and creative popular music stations in the Bay Area. Infinity Corporation bought KOME in 1973, its first radio station, and began building a radio empire.

In 1976, Mikel Herrington burst on the scene as program director and started promising listeners "62 minutes of commercial-free music every hour."

"Mikel was the one who put this station on the map," says Don West, production director and 19-year employee of KOME, who is one of the station's refugees currently looking for a job.

Herrington was responsible for bringing Dennis Erectus out of college and onto the radio in 1977.

"Mikel was into energy," West says. "There were no ballsy, deep voices. Mikel would toss aside someone with a great voice for someone with a great personality."

The format at the time was free-form. There were walls of albums in the station color-coded by genre, and each had a sheet of paper attached that indicated which cuts were permitted for airplay. On classic albums like the Who's "Who's Next," every song was on the list.

"Roughly there were 5,000 songs at your fingertips at any time," West says. "Now you have stations with 300."

Don West swells with pride as he describes just a few of KOME's accomplishments in the 1970s.

"We played a lot of local music," he says. "We played Journey first."

The albums they couldn't get first, West says, they recorded off other stations and played them on the air.

KOME's heyday came to an end in 1982, when Infinity tried to bring in broadcasting consultants. Herrington left the station in protest and moved to KMET in Los Angeles. The protagonist of the movie FM, about a radio station's resistance to corporate takover, was based on Herrington. He died of leukemia at 57 last November in Fremont.

In 1983, Les Tracy took over the station, introduced a heavy metal format and was fired in a year. The station was resurrected by switching format again to what Don West calls "the right combination of rock."

"We brought in the Rolling Stones and the Who," he says.

The "combination" worked well until the late 1980s, when the success of college radio drew young listeners and radio programmers to the alternative rock genre.

The inevitable came on May 13, 1994, almost exactly four years ago. The station cast off its Chicago retreads, took Neil Young's advice and played Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Getting in late on grunge was better than not getting in at all.

In 1996, soon after the Telecommunications Act passed, CBS bought Mel Karmazin's Infinity Corporation.

In two weeks 98.5 will become another classic rock station as Jacor's KUFX-FM begins broadcasting on the venerable 98.5 frequency. Ultimately, West predicts, the office will be moved from Tisch Way to Jacor's other holdings on Koll Circle.

Yes, 98.5 will still have music, and 105.3 will have alternative rock and Howard Stern, but neither will be KOME.

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From the June 4-10, 1998 issue of Metro.

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