Remembering Bob Kieve, a champion for San Jose

San Jose truly has lost one of its greatest community champions with the passing of Bob Kieve, who died Sunday morning at age 98 with his daughter, Lenoir, at his side.

If anyone could be described as “civic minded” it was Kieve. His career was in radio but his true calling seemed to be making San Jose a better place to live. It’s no wonder the San Jose City Council honored him in 2018, declaring December 9, his birthday, as Bob Kieve Day.

Bespectacled — he was one of the few people for whom bespectacled is a perfect description — and known for wearing bow ties with his suits, Kieve was never one to boast. And he had a life worth boasting about.

Born in Jersey City, N.J., he grew up in various parts of the state as his family moved around. He was accepted at Harvard, where he started working at the nascent college radio station started by the Crimson newspaper. By his junior year, he was running the station and knew he’d have a future in radio. After graduation in 1943, a heart murmur kept him from serving in the U.S. military. Instead he worked in the Office of War Information for the State Department in Madrid, Spain, and later got involved in radio there.

In the 1950s, Kieve was a speechwriter for President Dwight Eisenhower, but he often downplayed his role in the administration by pointing out he was just one member of a writing team. But his office had photographs and other mementos from that time, including typed speeches with changes — very few changes — that Ike himself made in red pen.

After running radio stations in Rochester, N.Y., Kieve arrived in San Jose in 1967. He bought AM radio station KLIV, which became a major Top 40 station in the Bay Area and launched several radio careers. Over the decades, Kieve’s Empire Broadcasting Company purchased easy listening station KARA — which he later sold — and country music favorite KRTY. General Manager Nate Deaton said had Kieve not rescued KRTY from a financial mess when he bought it in the early 1990s, it wouldn’t exist today.

“His leadership turned it around and it became a successful station,” said Deaton, who worked for Kieve for 27 years. “He was an innovator and loved to be in the forefront of the next thing.”

Indeed, Kieve’s curiosity and desire to know how things worked was a hallmark well into his 90s. He was an early adopter when it came to tech products and was always interested in questioning the status quo. I can’t remember how many times I made an observation to Kieve about something in the city only to have him reply, “Really? Why do you think that is?” He pushed me — and others — to dig deeper and perhaps question assumptions.

One of those assumptions might be that an East Coast transplant wouldn’t be open to new, diverse voices in our community. But that wasn’t Kieve, who was an early supporter of the political career of Madison Nguyen, the city’s first Vietnamese city council member. Nguyen considered Kieve a mentor and friend and said in an email she was “beyond heartbroken” about his death.

“He was so young and full of energy and passion for life,” said Nguyen, now executive vice president at the Silicon Valley Organization. “His love for people and for our city is immeasurable.”

A sports fan who grew up loving baseball in New York, Kieve quickly became a hockey fan when the Sharks came to town. He often traveled to see the team play on the road and even rode on the Zamboni at a game for his 90th birthday. And his commitment to civic life went far beyond rooting at SAP Center.

He served on several boards, including the San Jose Symphony, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Regional Medical Center and the Rotary Club of San Jose, where he was president and pushed for the inclusion of women to the club in the 1980s. In 2007, he was inducted to the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame, which also bestowed “legendary station” status to KLIV in 2017.

He kept KLIV an all-news station for years, adding community-oriented programs like “The CEO Show,” a business interview show hosted by Silicon Valley Leadership Group CEO Carl Guardino. When KLIV — then an oldies station — became too much of a financial drain on Kieve’s Empire Broadcasting Company, he reluctantly sold the station’s land and dismantled its antenna towers. But what he really wanted was to donate the signal to the city of San Jose to broadcast city meeting and important alerts.

“Bob reminds us that you can be civically engaged and still civility-minded,” Guardino said. “He held political views without ever demonizing anyone. He touched, in a positive way, hundreds of thousands of people and if each of those are seed plants, it’ll be much more than his memory that lives on.”

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Author: Sal Pizarro