Charles “Doc” Herrold was certainly an innovator. After founding his College of Engineering and Wireless in 1909 inside the Garden City Bank building at 50 West San Fernando Street in San Jose, California, he launched the world’s first radio broadcasting station, which beamed music, news, and notably, advertising to listeners on a regular basis.
Herrold and his team at Station FN, which included his own wife, the world’s first female disc jockey, epitomized the mantra of many a Silicon Valley startup today: “move fast and break things.” His early transmitting devices burned out one after the other, and Herrold had to use a water-cooled microphone. He stole wattage from San Jose’s street car line to power his innovative “Arc Fone” transmitter, and cut a deal with a local store to play records on a Victrola that he would point at the microphone.
Station FN took requests for songs over the phone and would broadcast weather reports, news, and commercials on a regular basis to people with homemade radios throughout the Santa Clara Valley. Herrold would announce his broadcasts in local newspapers beforehand, and start them off with the words “This is San Jose calling.”
But during World War I, Herrold faced a ban on all non-governmental radio usage. Though Station FN relaunched after the war under the new callsign of KQW, new inventions soon outpaced their transmitting power. Herrold was forced to sell KQW in 1925, and sadly never regained his earlier momentum. He died nearly unknown.
Nevertheless, KQW lived on. On its 36th birthday on November 10, 1945, the then-San Francisco-based station proudly proclaimed itself the “the first in the world to broadcast regular programs.” Today, the station is known as KCBS. Though the Garden City Bank building is long gone, the current building at 50 West San Fernando street houses the local KQED station, and sports three plaques commemorating Herrold’s achievement: one set there by the state, one by the city, and one by the San Jose State University chapter of Sigma Delta Chi.