History of Radio on Catalina Island and
KFWO, Avalon

(May 16, 2007.) The recent Catalina Island fire conjured up a wave of memories and emotions. One local radio station currently has a transmitter on the Island, KBRT 740 AM. Once upon a time as a youngster growing up in Southern California I remember the afternoon broadcasts aboard the Great White Steamship with Carl Bailey on deck with the whistle that could be heard for miles as the ship went back and forth the 26 miles.

Apparently the recent fire was ignited at the KBRT transmitter site during construction and maintenance, states Robert F. Gonsett, editor of THE CGC COMMUNICATOR. The fire covered 4,200 acres and threatened Avalon, the resort’s main town.

“According to a published report supplemented by information from the island, a tower contractor hired by KBRT had been warned against using a cutting torch because of dry brush fire danger. While the station’s transmitter engineer, Bill Agresta, was inside the transmitter building and temporarily away from the work site, the contractor used a gasoline-powered circular saw to cut metal, and sparks from the blade apparently ignited the brush,” according to Gonsett.

His report continues: “Bill reportedly said he saw a small blaze when he went outside the transmitter building. Then he ran back inside to call 911. By the time he went outside again, the fire had moved several hundred feet downhill and engulfed the contractor’s tool truck—the blackened hulk of which remained at the site as of Saturday. Commercial power and telco lines feeding the ‘KBRT Ranch’ [as the transmitter site is known] were destroyed in the fire. The station resumed operations Sunday using its own power generator and CDs hand-carried to the island for programming. Meanwhile, Bill Agresta is nursing some fractured ribs suffered when one of the construction workers commandeered his tractor and accidentally ran into him during the fire melee.”

LARadio.com resident historian Jim Hilliker has prepared the early history of radio on Catalina.

By Jim Hilliker

With the national media attention recently coming from the wildfire on Catalina Island, and the fact that it began at the site of the radio transmission towers for KBRT-740AM, I thought it would be interesting for some of the readers to learn a little bit about how radio evolved on Catalina in the early 20th century.

Before there was any radio broadcasting in the United States, such as we know it today, the first regular daily wireless radio station in the USA to transmit and receive Morse code signals over the air was built on Catalina Island in 1902. That was 105 years ago! The antenna and transmitting shack were built on a hill above Sugar Loaf Rock. The wireless station sent and received messages between Catalina and the mainland of Los Angeles County. (Picture postcard from early 1900s of the Catalina wireless station)

Some 18 years later, in 1920, this wireless code radio station was taken over by the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company. Its new purpose was to send and receive regular telephone calls between Avalon and Long Beach. The telephone calls from Catalina were sent by radio to the mainland and then amplified and sent over the wires of the entire Bell Telephone System of the United States or vice versa. But, as radio grew in popularity by 1921 and 1922, the growing number of ham radio operators and broadcast radio listeners in Southern California and in some cases, hundreds of miles away, accidentally tuned into these telephone calls sent out by the Catalina radio transmitter! Many people making the phone calls had no idea that their “private” conversations were going out over a radio-telephone circuit and radio hobbyists looking for something amusing or unusual to listen to would tune into these phone calls from Catalina. The phone company tried to scramble the radiophone frequency with limited success. But the fun of listening-in to the Catalina phone-calls-by-radio soon came to an end! The phone company decided in 1923 to shut down its radio-phone link between Catalina and the mainland, and substituted two underwater phone cables to San Pedro and Long Beach, which gave phone callers more privacy and connected their calls much better to the rest of the Pacific Telephone system in the L.A. area than the radio link had provided.

The first real radio broadcasting station on Catalina Island was built by a pioneer ham radio operator (6BX) who worked as a U.S. Deputy Fish and Game Warden. Lawrence Mott had been a rich playboy on the east coast who graduated from Harvard University. He was also Major in the U.S. Signal Corps who operated experimental station 6XAD in the Spring of 1921 from his home at 352 Clarissa Avenue in Avalon. After conducting several local broadcasts, Major Mott used 6XAD to broadcast the Easter Sunrise Services with KHJ’s Uncle John Daggett at the microphone in Avalon. The 6XAD signal was instantly picked up from the island and rebroadcast over KHJ for three years in a row. He also got a special amateur license for 6ZW in 1922.

Mott’s ham radio skills also brought him fame during the winter of 1923-24. His amateur radio station sent and received messages from the MacMillan expedition at the North Pole. It was the only contact they had with the outside world for nearly 3 weeks, thanks to the ham radio skills of Lawrence Mott.

In July of 1925, Mott applied to the government to make 6XAD a regular broadcasting station. The July 8, 1925, Catalina Islander reported that the call letters would be KFLM. That call may have been unavailable, and KFWO was assigned, probably sequentially, although it matched the slogan “Katalina For Wonderful Outings.” KFWO would be used not only to entertain radio fans, but to promote Catalina Island as a tourist destination. The 250-watt KFWO operated at 1420-AM, 1370 and finally on 1000 kilocycles between 1925 and 1928.

KFWO ran one of the earliest radio contests for listeners in September of 1925. Mr. Mott got listeners and DXers to not only send in correct reception reports after hearing KFWO programs, but to the person sending in the most accurate guess of the number of visitors to Catalina that month, KFWO awarded an all-expenses paid trip to Catalina for 2 days. The next 3 accurate guesses were presented with one-day trips to the island.

Photo postcard sent to listeners and DXers in 1928 by KFWO radio. The photo shows the owner, Lawrence Mott sitting in a wicker chair outside his home posing with a carbon microphone from his station. In the left corner is a special KFWO stamp that shows a radio antenna in the background, and a swimmer apparently in the middle of a dive into the water.

The back of the card, partially blocked by the postmark, reads: "Thank you for your courtesy. We are happy that you enjoy KFWO. Come and see our lovely island."

The card is addressed to a DXer in New York State, and Mott wrote, "Your report is ok. Best wishes, L. Mott."

Major Mott and the love of his life, Miss Francis Hewitt, teamed up to broadcast 5 or 6 days a week to tell listeners about the beauty of Catalina, its fishing, the flowers in their garden and they presented programs of music and information. Miss Hewitt played piano and had her own musical program on the station. A remote line brought in the orchestra music from the Hotel St. Catherine, while visiting musical artists and personalities supplemented the "one man and woman" KFWO studio staff.

On January 15-16, 1927, Major Mott, with a shortwave portable set aboard the "Avalon", had KFWO broadcast the "Wrigley Ocean Marathon." (George Young, a 17-year-old from Toronto, Canada was the only person to complete the 22-mile swim from Catalina to Pointe Vicente near San Pedro. William Wrigley Jr. awarded him the $25,000 prize. His time was 15 hours 44 minutes and 30 seconds.)

KFWO’s broadcast of the swim was picked up and re-broadcast by KNX in Hollywood. Major Mott told Radio Doings magazine that KFWO had been on the air for the Catalina Channel Swim with only a few brief intermissions, between 8:30 a.m. on the 15th until 7 a.m. on the 16th of January, leaving the monitor board in the operating room of KFWO at his home only 3 times. Edward Albright of KNX was at the microphone for KFWO and KNX, with help from spotters and reporters from the L.A. Evening Express, painting word-pictures of the swim. KFON-Long Beach and KHJ also were on the air with reports from the channel swim, but the KFWO/KNX broadcast of this event seemed to be the most complete.

In 1928, Mott sponsored an around-the-island outboard motorboat race and broadcast its results. He believed that a winter sporting event on Catalina to draw tourists during the "slow season" should be held every year. But, a storm came up, which cancelled part of the race. Broadcasts of the Chicago Cubs games by Western Union ticker were also heard on KFWO in 1927-28.

The detailed story of how Mott and Hewitt settled on Catalina in 1918 and their around-the-world romance might make a good book or mini-series. In March of 1928, after their respective spouses granted them a divorce, Major Mott and Frances Hewitt were married. They closed down KFWO in July of 1928 and turned in the station license, moved off the island and bought a new home in Hollywoodland. Sadly, Mott’s health declined and he died while on a fishing trip in Oregon in 1930 at the age of 50.

Some oldtimers on Catalina can still recall the pioneer days of KFWO radio. Avalon/Catalina would not have another radio station until KBIG at 740-AM (now KBRT) went on the air in 1952.

My thanks to the staff of the Catalina Island Museum Society for their help over the years, in sending me articles on the history of radio on Catalina Island.

More History of Catalina’s KFWO

I wanted to add a few comments to the items I sent in a few weeks ago on the history of 1920s Catalina Island radio station KFWO. Someone caught the fact that the QSL card which owner Lawrence Mott sent out to DXers had no street address for that town in New York state. I've seen photocopies of other cards which Major Mott sent out to distant listeners in Washington state, British Columbia, Canada and Oxnard, CA which did have street addresses. Sometimes Mott would make a comment about trying to get a requested song on the air or give advice on a radio hobbyist’s antenna. Mott had two other photo QSL cards printed up, that I know of. In 1925, he featured one that was called “The Spirit of KFWO.” This featured a trick double-exposure picture of Lawrence Mott inside the living room KFWO studio inside his home, showing a microphone on a floor stand. Mott looked a bit like a ghost in the background. I own one of these cards, which has a typewritten message which Mott mailed to a ham radio friend in Hollywood. Mott commented, “BROADCAST keeps me jumping and, there is more fun to it than the old code stuff!!!”

A third QSL card featured a picture of William Wrigley Jr., owner of Catalina Island, Wrigley Gum and the Chicago Cubs baseball team. The photo showed Wrigley standing with Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first Commissioner of Baseball, inside the KFWO studio, at the microphone.

Some of the lower-powered radio stations at that time liked to exaggerate a bit about their signal coverage. For instance, in the September 19, 1925 issue of Radio Doings magazine, KFWO reported that the station “has been heard in every state and Canadian province since June 1.” But, in the Catalina Islander newspaper of November 18, 1925, an article on KFWO said, “In the last week, reports have come in from Wisconsin and Indiana, making a total of 24 states whose residents hear our Island Broadcasting Station and four Canadian Provinces. All report excellent reception and the hustling Major [Mott] is delighted at the large amount of people who get ‘The Silver Ore Station’ on 1 and 2 tubes from great distances. This speaks efficiently for the ‘kick’ the Major has put behind the comparatively-speaking low power of 250 watts.”

At that time, KFWO was sending out to DXers who wrote in with reception reports, a small bag of silver ore taken from Catalina’s Black Jack mine, as a souvenir. Some 300 requests came into KFWO after mentioning this on the air, and several volunteers in Avalon helped the station fulfill the requests. KFWO, besides using the Katalina For Wonderful Outings slogan, was also known as The Mott Station and The Island Station. The Catalina Islander at that time also offered a one-year subscription each month to the writer of the best letter about KFWO. The newspaper printed the winning letter for October from a listener in Cusick, Washington who wrote in great detail why he liked KFWO.

As Internet music stations wait to see what will happen regarding paying music publishing royalty fees, it is interesting to see how this played out in the early days of radio. In the 1920s, local radio stations like KHJ and KFWO, and others nationwide were also battling ASCAP over the “widely argued matter of the license fee required by ASCAP for the broadcasting of music controlled by them.” In October of 1925, the Los Angeles attorney Philip Cohen, representing the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers met with Lawrence Mott of KFWO to look at the station and discuss their license fee to ASCAP. After their meeting, KFWO was given a license to play ASCAP music over their station for free. This was done because of Mr. Mott giving ASCAP the facts of their case and showing that KFWO did not put on any paid programs and was a non-profit radio station.

As I mentioned, Catalina Island’s KFWO disappeared from the airwaves during 1928 after Major Mott got married. Apparently, the license was still active, because on November 11, 1928 the FRC assigned KFWO to move to 1500-AM and to share time with KWTC in Santa Ana. KFWO would've had to lower power from 250 to 100 watts. Without selling the station, Mott turned in the license and KFWO was deleted by the FRC on January 17, 1929.

Jim Hilliker

Monterey, CA

Jim Hilliker is a former radio broadcaster. He has researched and written about the early history of Los Angeles area radio for more than 20 years. Email: jimhilliker@sbcglobal.net.

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