KTAO-FM was a free-form radio station in Los Gatos, California, that existed from approximately 1968 through the first half of 1974. Operating at 95.3 FM, it was run essentially as a "benevolent dictatorship" by Lorenzo W. Milam, a founder of KRAB in Seattle and KDNA in St. Louis, who had purchased, along with veteran literary editor William Harvey "Bill" Ryan III, radio station KLGS. By 1970, Milam had purchased Ryan's share, and turned the station into a freewheeling pastiche of ethnic, folk, Baroque, jazz, and freeform music, hosted by a number of disparate personalities that controlled their own playlists, said pretty much what they wanted to say, and in doing so, created a vibe that was essentially controlled anarchy in radio. Although operating in the commercial band at 95.3 FM, Milam cared more about producing quality freeform radio that in gathering advertisers. Many of the advertisements created by the KTAO staff were as entertaining as the programming, such as the "Bertolt Brecht for Ford" commercial, cobbled together by combining Ford's canned radio ad tape and the famed playwright's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (it's a safe bet Ford never heard the ad). The station never made money, even with two attempts to achieve some degree of financial viability. One of these attempts consisted of selling the station's AM hours to a religious broadcaster, an experiment that died after several months, and caused a bemused enmity between the station's freeform programmers (who were eventually banned from being at the station during the "religious hours") and the religious broadcasters.
KTAO was famous for 72 hour Flamenco and Indian music marathons, live avant-garde jazz shows, lengthy audio collage mixes, and festivals of Bulgarian music, but anything and everything was programmable, as long as it was non-commercial in nature, and "made good radio." Milam routinely bought entire catalogues of companies making ethnic records from around the world, which were immediately catalogued and played on the air. Lorenzo hated programming anything overtly commercial, refused to let anyone on the air that had gone to broadcasting school, and eschewed opera (he famously said that "You could fit all great opera on the head of a pin").
Milam's weekly program guides included insightful, nonsensical, and shocking essays, wrapped around the week's programming. Program guide covers had nothing to do with the programming, and many of the most compelling were created by artist Peter Blind. The first 100 program guides were printed in 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 format, and the remainder (estimated at 32) were printed in 17 1/4 x 11 1/4 size. Sizeable but incomplete collections of these guides are archived at the Prelinger Library and History San Jose., the latter of which is in the process of compiling a KTAO collection, which will include program guides, ephemera, and air checks.
Lorenzo Milam was a contentious interviewer, who loved tweaking local institutions such as the San Jose Mercury News (which never gave the station publicity), and the town of Los Gatos, never at ease with KTAO's programming and personnel, which clashed with the "brand" being promulgated by the leaders of this conservative, boutique-conscious hillside town. In protest, Milam and three other KTAO staffers ran for public office on what they called "The Clean Slate," aiming among other things, to put a lid on the noisy Highway 17 running through the town, and extending the narrow gauge steam Billy Jones loop railroad to become part of BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). While KTAO lasted barely 5 years, it set a standard for freeform radio that was never equaled and will never be replicated in the politically-correct world of today. Nothing at KTAO was politically correct. Several offshoot projects were associated with KTAO, including the Fessenden Review publication, and the avant-garde musical group The Roots of Madness. In 1973, Milam sold the station to commercial broadcasters, and sent the remarkable KTAO record collection to another noncommercial station.
Perhaps the final legacy of KTAO was Milam's 'Sex and Broadcasting: a Handbook on Starting a Radio Station for the Community,' published in 1975. In the book, much of the frivolity of KTAO is described, providing living proof that Milam's theories on what constituted interesting, important radio could indeed be put into practice. Milam's opinionated, tongue-in-cheek, and often politically incorrect writing was an essential part of the station's character. His liner notes for the Roots of Madness' LP 'The Girl in the Chair,' which he funded, are a classic. Milam went on to write a controversial and fascinating book on physical disabilities The Cripple Liberation Front Marching Band Blues, discussed in a wonderful interview with Barry Corbet of New Mobility magazine.
We are in the process of putting together a history of the radio station, in what will be a series of anecdotes (there could never be a straight-line history of the station, because there wasn't a straight line in the place). We're beginning with a roster of those that had radio programs at KTAO, because we're attempting to find anyone that had a program there. If you did, check the list. If your name isn't on it, send me an email with an anecdote about your time on the station, and we'll add your name to the list.
- Geoff Alexander, Director Academic Film Archive of North America, and broadcaster on KTAO