I have no personal connection to anyone who works or worked at KFOG. I never even won a contest. But I want to attempt to explain what KFOG meant to us anonymous Fogheads for so many decades. Why, exactly, was 104.5 the first pre-set station we programmed into any car, and the last voice we heard whenever we drove away from Northern California?
Start with that name: KFOG. Has any radio station had a better title, either with its official call letters or without? Fog is by definition a denser, thicker, brewier version of air, which is exactly the way KFOG’s fans heard their station’s music in comparison to the tunes from other channels. Fog seeps and sometimes rolls into and out of our lives, changing our view of the horizon, unexpectedly transforming even the tactile nature of our surroundings. And of course, for true San Franciscans, fog is an acquired taste, sometimes to be defended against philistines. Not to make too much of this, but there’s also some consonance with an atmosphere of ganja-smoking, and it’s hard to imagine any major, non-college radio station before or after KFOG regularly playing The Toyes’ “I Smoke Two Joints” every Friday at 5:00pm.
Of course, KFOG shouldn’t be reduced to a stoner enclave or a destination only for reggae enthusiasts. In this time of segmented fragmentation, when reggae fans never need divert from their own satellite channel, it’s important to say that reggae was just one of many eclectic flavors available on your typical daily KFOG menu. It must be tempting for current teenagers to see KFOG as just another example of “classic rock,” but in the 1980s, “classic rock” never included Bob Marley or Jimmy Cliff or Peter Tosh. KFOG was one of the channels that changed that, in the same way that it gave equal playing time to “New Wave,” metal, and punk artists. “World Class Rock” was the station’s slogan and sobriquet, and while it must be admitted the programming missed most of the non-Anglophone world (like every other non-college station), the name otherwise fit perfectly: between Prince, Pearl Jam, the Pixies, and Percy Sledge (just to choose one letter), it felt like the determining criteria was simply taste in rock music, not over-reliance on any particular demographic.
Now, we know music is never that simple. KFOG might have embraced more hip-hop, more funk-soul, and more rock experimentation. When new bands came along, KFOG was a lot more likely to like and play them if they sounded like Dave Matthews, Arcade Fire, OK Go, or Alanis Morrisette. The bias toward guitars playing three-chord melodies led to some myopia, and more than a little prejudice toward white men. Nonetheless, I’ve heard other stations do “A-Z” of their entire catalog over a week, and I challenge any non-college station to match KFOG’s “A-Z” for quality and heterogeneity.
Does music made or inspired by the likes of B.B. King, Bob Dylan, James Brown, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Neil Young, Iggy and the Stooges, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Blondie, U2, The Eurythmics, Metallica, Nirvana, Bonnie Raitt, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beck, Los Lonely Boys, Susan Tedeschi, and Coldplay really need defending? In some quarters, perhaps. To some, that list is a lot of white noise, or mansplaining, or both. When I think of all the Acoustic Sunrises and Acoustic Sunsets, those regular features where we heard this sort of music tenderly stripped down to its essence, you may as well ask me to defend the sound of a rusty porch swing swaying at the end of a hot afternoon. Yes, it’s localized and privileged, and yes, I’m an old man who doesn’t “get” American Idol, but there’s some universally understandable, hard, heartening, honest truth about life there, somewhere.
KFOG was more than just a redoubt for people who never outgrew Journey and Foreigner – it was also a wry, yet utterly grown-up, approach to life, as evidenced in the DJs refusal to sound like bombastic pitchmen, as manifested in the little sound bites that filled in the spaces between songs in Dave Morey’s masterful “10 @ 10” feature, “ten great songs from one great year.” Before being purchased by Cumulus Media, KFOG was one of those havens that you could rely upon to utterly upend its format if one of its favored talents died – bringing you a weekend of, say, George Harrison music. We don’t really have that anymore. Pre-satellite radio, an outstanding radio station, far more than a TV channel or the equivalent in any other medium, was like a friend who’s always there for you, giving, without ever asking for much in return.
It’s worth mentioning in this eulogy that when KFOG switched to its more eclectic format in the 1980s, the Bay Area was deluged with AOR (“album-oriented rock”) stations like KMEL, KRQR, KSAN, KOME, and KSJO. KMEL thrived by changing formats, but only KFOG survived into the 21st century while drawing hundreds of thousands of rock fans to its annual concert, the KFOG Kaboom. Through this and its regular “Live from the Archives” limited pressings, KFOG raised millions of dollars over decades for local food banks. KFOG listeners may have been latte-sipping limousine liberals (uh, I don’t have a limousine), but we weren’t all lunkheads.
Did KFOG end because of corporate-driven changes in the radio industry, because of its demographic dying off, or because of gentrification? Perhaps a little bit of all three, but it’s the latter element that I have to linger on for a moment. San Francisco has been bleeding working-class renters and mom-and-pop stores for decades, and I do think some of the reactions, like defacing Google buses, are a little overwrought. What bothers me today is that KFOG was as beloved and influential a Bay Area institution as Apple or Jacuzzis or the Golden Gate Bridge, and if any of those were to be removed from our lives, the hue and cry would be a lot more pronounced. As with Jon Stewart, there’d be an extended, well-deserved farewell. In our atomized, media-curated lives, a radio station can simply disappear with no more remorse than you’d see given a non-famous, personal friend. In a way, that makes this loss more poignant, more emotional, than it would be to lose, say, Coit Tower. KFOG was a personal friend to millions of us, and she will be dearly missed.