Black and white promo photo of Tom Donahue

Tom Donahue

Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive

Tom “Big Daddy” Donahue has been called the father of progressive radio.

As a deejay and executive at San Francisco radio stations KMPX and KSAN in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Donahue pioneered “free-form” radio on the largely ignored FM band and revolutionized radio broadcasting in America. A Rolling Stone article that he wrote in 1967 bore the headline, “AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves.” As Rolling Stone noted in 1969, “Donahue was the moving force behind the transition of KMPX-FM [in 1967] from a foreign-language outlet into the country’s first full-time album-cut, hip-sounding station.”

Tom Donahue was born Thomas Coman on May 21, 1928, in South Bend, Indiana. He was raised in Washington DC. His first wife, Grace, recalled that he was trying to decide on a career when he was 19. “He wanted to think of a profession where he could make the greatest amount of money with the least amount of work,” she said. He decided to become a deejay, and he began his career in 1949 at WTIP in Charleston, West Virginia. His show was called “Uncle Tom’s Gabbin’.” He then worked at WIBG in Philadelphia and WINX in Rockville, Maryland, before moving to San Francisco in 1961. There, he began deejaying at Top Forty station KYA. Donahue took KYA to the top of the ratings, beginning each show with his trademark line, “Here to blow your mind and clean up your face.” He and Bobby Mitchell left the station in 1965. They set up a management and booking firm. They also started a record label, called Autumn Records. They scored some hits with the Beau Brummels, Bobby Freeman and the Great Society. They also presented the Rolling Stones at the Cow Palace and the Beatles at Candlestick Park. 

Then, in 1967, Donahue saw the need for stations that would play non-commercial music by album-oriented bands like the Doors, Blue Cheer and the rising lights on the San Francisco scene. He convinced the owners of KMPX to beginning playing album-oriented rock without playlists 24 hours a day, and thus did the underground-rock-radio revolution begin. A large man, he had a deep voice “that rolled from his throat like thick oil pouring from the can,” according to journalist Joel Selvin. His commanding, no-nonsense delivery and anti-establishment mindset endeared him to the San Francisco counterculture. In 1968, he moved from KMPX to KSAN, where he encouraged deejays to program their own shows with music from different eras and genres and to build sets around themes, interspersed with political commentary.

Donahue and his wife Raechel – herself a popular and influential disk jockey – founded four of the first free-form stations on the West Coast: KMPX and KSAN in San Francisco and KMET and KPPC in Los Angeles. The progressive format that the Donahues pioneered spread around the country. In the words of fellow deejay Jim Ladd, “He was the first to strike the tribal drum.” 

In 1972, Donahue became general manager of KSAN, where he remained until his death from a heart attack on April 28, 1975. He was a month shy of 47 years old.