Mention that you live in Gilroy to an out-of-towner, and invariably one gets the comeback “isn’t that where the Garlic Festival is?” You’ve surely had this experience. But as the county’s fastest growing city, many new residents aren’t even aware of another claim to fame that helped put Gilroy on the map.
Imagine, if you will, a world before digital downloads, Spotify and Pandora. The commercial internet didn’t exist yet—and, it wasn’t that long ago! But just what did people do to listen to music? The 20th Century was a vibrant period for new music—jazz, rock, R&B, soul, hip hop, country—and huge advances were being made in popular music.
In particular, the ’60s and ’70s were vibrant times, remembered vividly by many of us who grew up during that era. So, how was this music disseminated to the public? Largely, it was radio that everyone turned to to hear the latest new song or album by their favorite groups, or to discover new music.
But back before the ’70s, there weren’t a lot of choices on the radio. Most cities only had “Top 40” stations that played the “hits”—the popular music of the era. So where to turn if one’s musical interests lay elsewhere?
The ’70s saw the emergence of “underground” radio. This largely occurred at university and listener-supported community stations that sprung up as the FM dial was opened up. In the Bay Area, Berkeley’s KPFA was a pioneering underground station, and closer to home, Santa Clara Valley’s KKUP began in 1972. But many locals are unaware that we had a pioneering station right in downtown Gilroy—the legendary KFAT. A commercial station, no less!
This past June, a book signing was held at the Gilroy Public Library. Author Gilbert Klein was in town to promote his book “Fat Chance” (MainFramePress.com), which tells the history of KFAT, along with a whole lot of tales about the various characters and personalities who made up the staff.
Quite a few of those DJs were present at the book signing, so it was a reunion of sorts. Some of the station’s old fans were there as well—signifying the passion that it still generates.
KFAT began broadcasting in 1975 from modest studio digs on Monterey Highway in downtown Gilroy. The studios were located above where the Vacuum Center used to be, in rooms that were originally designed to be dental offices. The equipment (board, transmitter, etc.), left over from a previous radio station, was antiquated. But the staff made the best of things, and created a musical mix that was unprecedented. Station founders and owners Lorenzo Milam, Jeremy Lansman and Laura Ellen Hopper, along with station managers/program directors Larry Yurdin and Chris Feder, were truly pioneers in FM underground radio—with experience setting up and programming stations around the country before converging upon Gilroy. And the DJs? Nothing short of a colorful bunch of characters. They were passionate about the music and that passion translated into a loyal audience.
Sister Tiny, Cousin Al, Terrell Lynn, Buffalo Bob, the Ozone Ranger and of course Unkle Sherman are just a few of the famous (and infamous) FAT jocks. “If we’d known what we were doing, it wouldn’t have turned out the way it turned out,” said Unkle Sherman in looking back at how KFAT transformed the music scene.
How to describe the music they played on the air? Well, there was mostly country (and western!) and bluegrass—but not the sort of country one would typically hear on commercial stations—these were artists that just weren’t heard elsewhere. Examples were Willie Nelson (before he became hugely famous), Delbert McClinton and Gilroy’s own bluesman, John Lee Hooker.
Keep in mind this was a freeform station—the DJs played what they chose to play. So there was rock, R&B, blues, country rock and folk all thrown into the mix. Some DJs tended more toward the country side of things, others were rockers.
There was nothing really like it on the air anywhere. As the story goes, Rob Bleetstein at The Gavin Report (the publication that compiled the radio airplay charts) invented the term “Americana” to describe what KFAT was doing, because it didn’t fit into any of the other formats.
Here’s just one short anecdote (and there are many in Klein’s book). Gilroy’s Dave Porcella, of Porcella Music on Monterey, recalls the bumper stickers on cars in the area that stated: “Free the Fat Four.” It was an attempt to raise money for legal fees, which pertained to an arrest that was made when some of the KFAT DJs tried to relocate station LPs they believed were going to be destroyed.
The officers making the arrest were a bit troubled by the stickers on the albums, which read: “Stolen from KFAT.”
“We never knew if it was a business or a commune,” said Klein of the atmosphere at the station. As with any family, there were times of joy, and times of conflict.
If you have an interest in radio and/or music history, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of “Fat Chance.” Or even if you’d just like to read some amusing stories about the escapades of the many characters that worked at this station—some of whom are still on the air at KPIG in Freedom/Watsonville—which sprung into existence upon the demise of KFAT.
After writing the first version of this article, I discovered in my research online that an article with a similar intent, introducing the South Valley audience to the KFAT story, appeared in the Gilroy Dispatch on March 24, 2011. The article, “Sensational Sonics,” was well written by Blair Tellers. I invite you to check it out to further explore the legend that was KFAT.
KFAT went dark in 1982. But the station had such an incredible history in such a short time span.
Sidenote 1: Gilbert Klein tells me he’s planning on a TV series based on KFAT. He has a treatment, and is looking for interested parties to whom to send it!
Sidenote 2: Some very preliminary discussions have begun in town about starting a community radio station based here in Gilroy. Certainly not to replace or attempt to duplicate KFAT, but a non-commercial station that would serve today’s community. Interested parties can contribute in various ways. Some of us have expertise in radio, others may be able to contribute financially to make this happen. If you have an interest in this, please feel free to contact me here at South Valley magazine.
Brad Stone grew up being exposed to progressive rock, jazz and blues on FM stations in Chicago, including WLS, WXRT and Triad. He began his radio career in 1978 at another legendary freeform station, WQAX in Bloomington, IN, during graduate school. After many years at KSJS and KKUP, he now records his jazz program, “The Creative Source,” at his home studios here in Gilroy for the UK-based SoulandJazz.com.