by K.M. Richards
This is a story about an immigrant who had dreams and pursued them. It is also a story about a presumed rivalry on the part of a now-ubiquitous competitor. And it is a story about what was either naïvete about an employee's actions or getting away with blatant lies to the FCC. Finally, it is a story about a now-famous religious television ministry who made a few maneuvers that belied their public image.
The immigrant was Angel Lerma Maler, born in Argentina on March 24, 1919 and naturalized as a U.S. citizen around the same time as he was gaining fame as a pioneering Spanish-language disc jockey in Los Angeles in the 1950s (using only his first and middle names on the air). Building on his rising popularity, in 1958 he approached KCOP-TV/13 and brokered a half-hour Sunday morning block of time to air Panorama Latino, generally believed to be the first Spanish-language television program in the market. After only a few years, Maler was able to add a two-hour Saturday version to the original, and in the early 1960s the industry trade publication Sponsor identified his advertiser roster as including such well-known brands as Burgermeister Beer, Colgate-Palmolive, Kellogg's, MJB Coffee, J.J. Newberry and Philip Morris.
Maler's success did not go unnoticed, and Frank Fouce, owner of a chain of Spanish-language theatres in Los Angeles, put together a group of investors, including noted Mexican broadcaster Don Emilio Azcarrága Vidauretta (among his holdings was San Diego's XETV/6, the English-language ABC affiliate in Tijuana) and Edward J. Noble (not the Life Savers and ABC mogul -- he had died in 1958 -- but the majority stockholder in a Mexican advertising agency), and applied for channel 34 as Spanish International Broadcasting on August 30, 1961. They received the construction permit only two months later -- the first all-foreign language television station grant in history -- and KMEX-TV went on the air the afternoon of September 30, 1962. (The Los Angeles Times, in covering the launch in both its Sunday magazine and business news section, did not even once mention Maler's pioneering program.) Much of channel 34's schedule at the start came from Azcarrága's Telesistema Mexicano production facility, which already provided programming to his 18 stations and exported shows to other Latin American countries' television operations.
At the time of KMEX-TV's launch, it was estimated that there were only about 8,000 television receivers in the region capable of both VHF and UHF tuning, plus an approximate 20,000 converters in homes with VHF-only sets. (This becomes a major point in our story a bit later.) Television repairmen were reportedly overwhelmed with conversion requests in the weeks leading up to the inaugural broadcast and the Times reported that some of them had asked the station to delay its start so that they could continue to use the test patterns for converter installations.
Just under seven months later, on April 24, 1963, Maler filed for the channel 40 allocation in Riverside as "International Panorama TV", designating nearby Fontana as the city of license under the then-current FCC rule which allowed same to be anywhere within 15 miles of its allocated community. His sister Alma Clara Maler was identified in the application as being a 25% owner. This got KMEX's attention, although not quickly enough: On May 18, 1964 they filed a petition to deny based on Maler's proposed transmitter site on Mount Wilson, which they said proved his intent to create a Los Angeles market station instead of just serving the Riverside area. Channel 34 claimed that the new station would cause them to suffer financial injury by competing for advertising revenues, but Maler filed an objection, requesting that the petition be rejected because it was not filed within the requisite 30 days from the notice of the Commission's acceptance of his application.
It was subsequently revealed that in November 1963 KMEX had given the FCC information showing that Maler had sent letters the previous May under fictitious names to advertisers and government officials with disparaging remarks about the then-under construction channel 34. and also asserted that his production company subsequently circulated an altered January 1963 report on UHF conversion rates in Los Angeles claiming that conversion rates had declined since KMEX's debut. (The survey was originally commissioned by Spanish-language radio station KALI/1430 as part of its general demographic research and because, as KALI GM James Coyle later testified, he "couldn't believe the KMEX billboards claiming 100,000 conversions.") Channel 34's peition claimed Maler's existing relationship with KCOP made him a competitor and rival and that his proposal to program channel 40 "predominantly" in Spanish (30% of the schedule) was evidence of their perceived "larger market" focus since Fontana's Spanish-speaking population was only 4% of its total in 1960 (675 out of 14,659). The Commission, while denying the petition as untimely, nonetheless held hearings on the question of Maler's fitness as a potential licensee.
(There was always a presumption that a relative handful of UHF converters had been sold during the nine-month existence of KTHE/28 in 1953-54, but the arrival of KMEX did create a huge demand for same in Spanish-speaking households, just as KIIX/22 did in black households when it signed on one year later. By comparison, when Kaiser Broadcasting put KMTW/52 on the air in 1966 as an English-language independent, it languished with a daily 5:00pm to 9:00pm schedule consisting entirely of travelogues provided free of charge by various tourism proponents under umbrella titles such as Travel Time, Passport 52 and Discover America; it was not until 1970 that a kid-friendly afternoon programming format as KBSC-TV finally brought a minor degree of success, so it likely did not create high demand for converters or all-channel sets in the late 1960s.)
By the time the petition to deny was filed, Maler had already executed affidavits in response to FCC inquiries about the documents KMEX had provided them, saying that one of his employees, Alexander Golomb, acted without his knowledge in sending the falsfied report after he rejected Golomb's suggestion to take action against channel 34. For his part, Coyle said the header "UHF" was changed to "KMEX" in the mimeographed copies Golomb distributed. During the hearings, on January 25, 1965, Golomb refused to testify, pleading Fifth Amendment rights.
By August, the FCC's Broadcast Bureau was recommending denial of the channel 40 application, saying Maler had attempted to "deceive and mislead" the Commission in denying responsibility. Nevertheless, in December hearing officer Walther Guenther issued an initial decision clearing Maler of charges that he "attempted to deceive the commission" and looking toward granting the application. After three extensions of time to file exceptions, in February a review board dismissed KMEX's petition for leave to intervene and its motion to reopen the hearing record, and Lerma received his grant on March 3, 1966 ... making him the first foreign-born U.S. citizen to be issued a television construction permit. Those who criticized the grant using KMEX's foreign ownership for comparison were reminded that Don Azcarrága's interest was at the maximum 20% allowed for non-U.S. citizens.
And speaking of Spanish International Broadcasting ... they did not quietly go away, instead filing a request for a stay of the grant (which was denied on April 27) and a petition for reconsideration (dismissed on June 14), finally filing an appeal in the District of Columbia Circuit Court charging that the Commission acted improperly in "denying the petition to deny a request to become a party to the comparative hearings" and in refusing to allow KMEX to further intervene after the grant was approved. Maler, meanwhile, began construction in October at the Mount Wilson transmitter site and also issued a press release saying KLXA (said to have been chosen to resemble the call letters of KXLA/1110, the first radio station he worked at in Los Angeles) would have a schedule including programming "not only in Spanish, but also in Italian, German and Chinese." The Court held hearings in December and ultimately ruled against SIB, which by then also owned KWEX-TV/41 in San Antonio TX and was negotiating with the owners of dark KSJV-TV/21 in the Fresno area to convert that station to a satellite of KMEX. (They eventually purchased channel 21's permit for $113,000 and put it back on the air September 20, 1972.)
The court proceedings did not prevent KLXA from going on the air January 5, 1967, starting with a travelogue (Italy, Land of Enchanted Fountains). Programming initially originated entirely in black & white from their auxiliary studios in Hollywood -- where Maler had produced his channel 13 programs -- while color facilities were still under construction in Fontana on Foothill Blvd. (There were also reported technical issues with the studio-transmitter link from the "official" main studio location.) An article in the San Bernardino Sun reiterated channel 40's plans to air programs in Italian, German and Chinese, as well as in "French, Yiddish, Hebrew, Japanese and Swedish." The newspaper also reported that KLXA was operating a limited schedule at the outset, with programming "scheduled on an indefinite basis."
By the end of the second month of operation, half-hour weekly programs in German, French, Italian, and "Oriental" were airing under the umbrella title International Time, along with a weekly Jewish-oriented half-hour, international travelogues, reruns of the 1955-1959 Phil Silvers CBS sitcom Sgt. Bilko on Sunday afternoons, and a weeknight "action strip" at 7:00pm with short-lived series Hong Kong (which had aired on ABC in 1960-61), Five Fingers (NBC, 1959-60), Cimarron City (NBC, 1958-59) and Frontier Circus (CBS, 1961-62). The schedule was no longer "limited" as channel 40 was broadcasting from 4:00 to 11:00pm on weekdays, 9:00am to midnight on Saturdays, and 9:00am to 11:00pm on Sundays. The program that started it all, Panorama Latino, aired for two hours on Saturday mornings and for an additional hour on Sunday mornings.
UCLA graduate Dorothea Gordon was named station "foreign language program coordinator" in March. Gordon had gone on to graduate studies at Columbia University and the Sorbonne and had returned to the U.S. after many years in Paris and Rome as a scriptwriter for Italy's government-owned Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) network. Fluent in French, German and Italian, she immediately began negotations with her former employer RAI, France's Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, Japan's NHK and the West German Television Service for multiple "series of special programs". Almost simultaneously, International Time added a half-hour of Japanese programming to the schedule.
KLXA also hired former BBC news "presenter" Sally Ogle, who debuted April 10 alongside Aldo Aldi (whose previous "claim to fame" appeared to be as host of a local talk show on WATV/13 Newark NJ in 1955) on a new weekday afternoon half-hour entitled 40 For Fun. The show featured current events, fashions, and "games which home viewers can play via telephone." Her own weekly Sally Ogle's Hollywood debuted on May 21, her first guest being Hans Gudegast of Rat Patrol (not long before he changed his name to Eric Braeden, starring in the 1970 sci-fi movie Colossus: The Forbin Project and later playing the prominent character Victor Newman in the daytime soap opera The Young And The Restless). Among other weekly programs debuting in 1967 was Everybody Cook, featuring chefs from local restaurants and the British Half-Hour, featuring "award winning British films."
In September, KLXA announced that the opening of the Fontana studio, which had been under construction since before the station first signed on, had been delayed again, although Master Control was able to air color film and videotape from there (the Hollywood studio, while able to originate live programming, was limited to black-and-white operation). Station public relations director Judy Gale said the opening was being postponed to a later date but added "I just don't know now what that date will be." The schedule at that point included Spanish-language blocks on weekend mornings, as well as programming entirely in that language after 8:15pm weeknights. The adventure series Whirlybirds, which had originally aired in first-run syndication from 1957 to 1960, now aired at 5:30 weekday afternoons, pushing 40 For Fun to 7:00pm. The Bilko reruns moved to Wednesdays as filmed sports programming took over the Sunday late afternoon schedule. Channel 40 now aired 23¾ hours per week of Spanish language programming, including a 15-minute newscast on weeknights and movies on Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon. Curiously, KLXA was now signing off in the early evenings on weekends, for which no public explanation was ever offered. (Click here to see the entire schedule for the first week of September 1967.)
Come December, KLXA found itself involved with another research controversy, this time as the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Med-Mark, Inc., claiming they did not disclose that while working for channel 40 they were simultaneously doing work for KMEX. In filing the suit, Maler also claimed Med-Mark did not provide a "true and accurate" survey of viewership and that they had told ad agencies KLXA had changed some of the information. Med-Mark claimed the suit was retaliatory against one they claimed to had filed the month previous, but gave no details. In March, additional legal "hot water" arrived in an order from the National Labor Relations Board to collectively bargain with engineers that had joined NABET shortly after the station had begun operation. The trial examiner said Maler had offered incentives to employees if they didn't join the union and had fired a cameraman due to his union sympathies (he was ordered reinstated).
At the end of summer 1969, all non-Spanish language programming had been eliminated, including the International Time offerings and syndicated programs. Despite general manager Gary Greene having decried the overexposure of "novelas" on KMEX just two years earlier, the KLXA weeknight schedule now featured three of the same (Boda Diabólica, Simplemente Maria, and Virgen de Fatima) in the 6:00-8:00pm time period (all imported from Peru's Panamericana Televisión, Canal 5, which also provided Domingos Gigantes on Sunday evenings). Even with the focus on a single ethnic demographic, channel 40 was still signing off at 7:00pm on weekends ... and still offering no reason why they were doing so, even as KMEX maintained a Saturday and Sunday schedule from 9:00am to 11:00pm. (KLXA at least matched their sign-on time, continuing to air Panorama Latino both mornings.)
In October, in a move that may well have caused KMEX's management to cringe a little, the Los Angeles Times' "TV Times" section changed KLXA's channel bullet to white numbers on a black background, signifying a Los Angeles station (as opposed to out-of-town stations' black-on-white, which the Times had used since the 1967 sign-on).
The Fontana studio apparently never was completed, and in November 1970 the FCC authorized KLXA to move the main studio and control room to the "auxiliary studio" location, with a subsequent move to North Hollywood two years later. (The Fontana building was eventually torn down and replaced by a street-facing strip mall; the Hollywood studios are still used by a post-production video company, and an apartment building now stands at the North Hollywood location.) Through it all, Maler remained solidly in charge at the struggling UHF ... for the time being.
After only six years of operation, by the end of 1973 Maler appeared to be much less interested in KLXA. The station schedule had dwindled to a 5:00pm to midnight daily operation but once again included programs on weekend evenings in languages other than Spanish -- Armenian and German, to be specific -- and had brokered both a daily weekday hour to famed Los Angeles disc jockey Dick Hugg for what was listed only as "Huggie Boy Entertainment" in the Times and a nightly 90 minutes to Paul Crouch's Praise The Lord Club, which moved from crosstown KBSA/46. (Crouch apparently also brokered three Saturday evening hours to several local ministries as well.) By then, channel 40 had new competition as financial news station KWHY-TV/22 was now programming back-to-back telenovelas from 4:00 to 11:00pm on weekdays and Spanish-language movies on Saturday afternoons and evenings (Sunday evenings had been brokered to Korean and Japanese programmers). But the flagship program Panorama Latino was still on the air, now occupying two-hour 4:00pm slots on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Almost without warning, Maler sold channel 40 (actually, his stock in International Panorama TV) to Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network in a sale approved by the FCC on August 2, 1974. (Panorama Latino's last broadcast was on Sunday, October 20, after more than 15 years of weekly airings.) The purchase price was $1,266,419, but the sale almost did not consummate; a few years before his death, Crouch recalled in the ministry's monthly newsletter that a 10% down payment was made "five minutes before the bank closed" on the deadline date thanks to a last-minute $35,000 donation from a wealthy Lutheran. Within their first year as a station owner, TBN twice ran afoul of the Commission, refusing to pay the grant fee for the transfer (they finally had to ante up $17,428.75 by June 30, 1975 after losing in court) and also incurring a notice of violation for moving KLXA's studios to Dyer Rd. in Tustin without FCC approval (which earned them a $5,000 fine). As part of settling that NOV, Trinity was required to file a petition for the channel 40 allocation to be moved from Riverside to Santa Ana, which the Commission approved in February 1976 ... but refused to modify the KLXA license via the "show cause" method, instead requiring them to file a formal application two years later to change their city of license. Oddly, when in 1980 the FCC proposed adding a new channel 62 allocation to Riverside, TBN lobbied for channel 40 to be moved back there, with no other party allowed to file for it, and that Santa Ana get the new channel. No one, including the Commission, understood their logic and the original proposal was approved.
The KLXA call letters finally gave way to KTBN-TV at the end of 1977. Angel Lerma Maler died July 24, 1984 at age 65 (cause of death was not reported) and it was only then that the licensee name was changed to "Trinity Broadcasting Network". Some speculated that the sale agreement required the International Panorama name to remain as long as Maler was alive; however, FCC archives show the required assignment of license application was filed at the end of 1982 but was not approved until after the station's 1980 and 1983 renewal applications were, in 1985.
From that point forward, channel 40 became successful, if one defines success by becoming the flagship for a television ministry that at last count operated 35 full-power UHF stations (and for many years a mini-network of low-power translators that numbered 252 at its peak), as well as feeding several non-TBN owned affiliates, cable systems, and satellite video providers. According to a 2016 Los Angeles Times article, Trinity has posted surpluses averaging nearly $60 million a year since 1997 and its balance sheet for 2002 (the most recent available at the time) listed net assets of $583 million, including $238 million in Treasury bonds and other government securities and $31 million in cash. One can only imagine what Angel Lerma Maler could have achieved with that kind of revenue.
© World Radio History. Original site concept by Clarke Ingram. Site design and management by K.M. Richards.