KAYE 1450 AM (as of 2022 KSUH-Hankook) is a small, Puyallup-based radio station that has at times taken the national stage. From its start in 1951, it has attracted a string of owners, none from large media networks. This local focus has led to individualistic programming choices ranging from early Buck Owens recordings to high school basketball games to the Tacoma City Council, to Korean-language programming. Its highest profile came in the late 1960s and early '70s, when it was part of a national debate over free speech versus the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) Fairness Doctrine.
KAYE radio got its first license in 1951, granted to Phillip D. Jackson (b. 1908), an Oklahoma attorney, and Clarence E. Wilson (1912-2004), of Medford, Oregon. Jackson and Wilson were broadcasting entrepreneurs who established, bought, and sold stations in the West and Great Plains. KAYE started with 100 watts of power, soon boosted to 250 watts.
The next owners were Henry Perozzo (1916-2004) and Antonio Gomez, starting in 1953. Perozzo was the primary owner, and the person most involved with the station over the next 20 years. He established a format featuring religious programs and country music, including early broadcasts of Northwest country singer Nancy Claire (b. 1943). Claire got her start by winning a talent contest at age 14 in 1957. Her prize was a weekly 15-minute show on KAYE. Listenership was limited, but it led to bigger things. Within two years she was appearing on television and by 1962 she had recorded a West Coast hit, "Danny."
In 1958, Perozzo sold one-third ownership to Alvis Edgar Owens (1929-2006), much better known as Buck Owens, who had relocated to the Puyallup area from Bakersfield, California. Owens later said that "with a good radio, the station signal could be picked up in the parking lot" (Sisk, 32). By 1959, daytime power increased to 1000 watts, still small but well beyond the immediate neighborhood.
Owens had came north at the suggestion of Leonard "Dusty" Rhodes (1928-1991), another Bakersfield country musician who had gotten a job at KAYE and some gigs in Tacoma. Rhodes also became a co-owner at KAYE. He and Owens and their Bar K Gang band rehearsed in the station's cramped studio rooms after sign-off time and sometimes performed on-air. One of Owens's biographers, Eileen Sisk, wrote that the time at KAYE was valuable both for his music and his business training: "At KAYE, Buck learned the radio business hands-on; he served not only as a station owner but also as a drive-time disc jockey, a media buyer, and an ad salesman. He earned 40 percent commission on his ad sales, which brought in more money than he had ever made playing music" (Sisk, 32).
As his local reputation grew, Owens moved on to KTAC radio in Tacoma, and by 1960 back to Bakersfield. He sold his stake in KAYE back to Perozzo, who kept the country-and-western format, interspersed with religious broadcasts, and continued the string of short-term business partners. In 1966 Perozzo was fined $1,200 by the FCC as forfeiture for faulty ownership and management contracts with other parties. He kept the broadcasting license but soon sold the station to KAYE Broadcasters, owned by young Tacoman Hayden "Bud" Blair (1941-1978), and financed by his father, Tacoma Port Commissioner Archie E. Blair (1904-1969).
In 1968 Perozzo transferred the license to Blair and Jim Nicholls (1923-2013). They made an odd business couple. Blair was nearly 20 years younger and primarily interested in sports. He became a well-known broadcaster of Pacific Lutheran University football and basketball games, famous for his local references to "Holy Humptulips," and "covered like a Tukwila fog" ("Bud Blair"). He also covered high school sports and the summer hydroplane races. Nicholls, a native of Saskatchewan who started work at KAYE in 1965, was a pastor, a foster parent, and a conservative activist. He was an associate of Rev. Carl McIntire (1906-2002), another radio preacher who ran into trouble with the FCC.
Nicholls was the station manager, and he promptly made a name for himself in Puyallup and beyond. He planted a wooden statue of Uncle Sam in front of the KAYE building on at 1510 E Main Street and put up American flags on every available surface within. While his business methods were somewhat ad hoc, involving community donations, car washes, and a minimum of bookkeeping, his abilities in creating both fervent supporters and enraged detractors were considerable. In 1968, a former employee, Fletcher D. Harris, sued him for defamatory on-air comments during a June 23, 1967, broadcast. Harris asked for $103,000. The jury awarded him $17,000.
A passionate anticommunist and American military supporter as the Vietnam War ramped up, Nicholls found creeping socialism in everything from urban renewal to sensitivity training to interracial dating. He found it particularly in Tacoma's council-manager form of municipal government. Generally ignoring city government in Puyallup, he teamed up with A. L. "Slim" Rasmussen (1909-1993) -- a longtime state legislator who was elected Tacoma mayor in 1967 -- and began broadcasting city council meetings gavel to gavel, with acerbic (and sometimes slanderous) commentary.
On KAYE, Tacoma politics became a kind of proxy war for many of the conflicts of the 1960s -- civil rights, welfare programs, urban renewal, patriotism, socialism, and the antiwar movement all came in for discussion and diatribes on Nicholls's daily show and on the "Round Table Forum," a program started in 1968 by Nicholls's associate Fred Crisman (1919-1975), also known as Dr. Jon Gold. Crisman had gained notoriety with a 1947 claim of UFOs over Maury Island, and was soon to get more publicity when he was subpoenaed to testify before a New Orleans grand jury in prosecutor Jim Garrison's (1921-1992) investigation of JFK's assassination. He had also been a World War II fighter pilot, a high school teacher, and a "bishop" in the Universal Life Church.
In 1970, as Jon Gold, he wrote a book called Murder of a City...Tacoma, alleging all sorts of wrongdoing among Tacoma's business and political leaders and cowardice on the part of the press. He wrote that he and the rest of the KAYE staff were armed at all times while at the station, a precaution he said was necessary because he had been run off the road and shot at by persons unknown while driving near Puyallup.
"Round Table Forum" was set up as a call-in show, but any callers were used primarily as foils for Crisman/Gold's denunciations of the city manager form of government and anyone who supported it. He accused city officials of Nazi tactics and cast City Manager David Rowlands (1915-2012) as a tyrant, a dictator, and a field boss (or, sometimes, an errand boy) to the Black community.
When KAYE's federal broadcasting license came due in January 1969, the Puget Sound Committee for Good Broadcasting filed a petition to the FCC asking that it not be renewed. The 69 signers of the petition said that KAYE and its managers violated the Fairness Doctrine by failing to present both sides of controversial topics and failing to give people who were attacked on air a good-faith opportunity to respond. KAYE and its supporters, known collectively as KAYE Kountry, saw the disagreement as an attack on free speech and patriotism.
Free Speech versus Fairness
The FCC waited more than a year to begin local public hearings -- part of a cumbersome review process that could and did drag on for years. Radio journalist Murray Morgan outlined the initial hearing procedure: "... the station presents the case for renewal first, and with the burden of demonstrating ... the adequacy of its policies and procedures to assure compliance with the Fairness Doctrine." Nicholls and his attorneys were then responsible for explaining "the efforts it has made to ascertain the interests and needs of its service area, its past performance, and proposed future action" (Morgan broadcast script). The first day of hearings, on November 18, 1970, was held in Seattle at the Federal Building to avoid scheduling conflicts with the Seattle Seven conspiracy trial, which itself had been moved to Tacoma in hopes of minimizing courtroom disruptions.
The process was contentious from the start, with KAYE and PSC attorneys and the hearing examiner squabbling over location, scheduling, witnesses, the audience, and each other's behavior. The PSC rejoiced when, on June 3, 1971, FCC hearing examiner Ernest Nash recommended that the station not be relicensed. Their victory turned out to be premature. KAYE asked for more time to present evidence, and the FCC agreed, allowing it to continue broadcasting in the meantime.
The new hearings did not begin until August 16, 1972, and Nash ruled against KAYE again on December 4. The station filed another appeal, but that process was derailed by an ownership dispute between Nicholls and Perozzo, the previous owner. Suits and countersuits between the two men took up most of the next year, until an out-of-court settlement was reached on November 5, 1973. Nicholls, whose debts were mounting, agreed to leave the station. Perozzo renamed it KUPY and relaunched it on November 12. Bureaucratic wrangling continued over whether Nicholls's and Crisman's departures made the fairness issue moot, but they no longer affected the station's daily operation, still under extensions of the 1969 license. (The FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and President Ronald Reagan vetoed a Congressional vote to reinstate it. Perhaps not coincidentally, Rush Limbaugh launched his first national call-in radio program in 1988.)
Moving Back to the Country
By the time KAYE became KUPY, Tacoma's political landscape had changed substantially. Following a citizen campaign, a special election on September 15, 1970, led to the recall of councilmembers George Cvitanich (d. 1998), Becky Banfield (1921-2005), A. M. Zatkovich (1913-2004), Fred Dean, and John O'Leary, all supporters of Mayor Rasmussen and favorites in KAYE Kountry. The mayor himself had lost his run for reelection the previous year. He returned to the Washington State Senate in 1971 and served there until his death in 1993. Fred Crisman, who was appointed to the Tacoma Library Board in one of Rasmussen's final acts as mayor, ran for city council in 1975. He lost, and died a month later.
In 1974, Nicholls sold his remaining shares in KAYE to Bud Blair, who purchased the station from Perozzo. After running unsuccessfully for Congress in Washington's Sixth District in 1976, Nicholls left town and moved to the East Coast. He kept up his campaign against the Fairness Doctrine, which he eventually outlasted. Nicholls lived until 2012, continuing to advocate for unrestricted freedom in religious broadcasting. In his later years he was vocal in support of the Church of Scientology in its own battles with an inquisitive press.
Back in Puyallup, Blair operated KUPY, building his reputation as a sports broadcaster, until his sudden death in 1978. The station was sold by his estate to Ray Court -- a Seattle advertising executive and former KVI and KING employee -- and his wife Cherie Court, after the FCC transferred the license to his Shortsleeve Broadcasting Company, later to become 777 Broadcasting. Court renamed the station KRPM and relaunched it in 1981. In addition to country music, which included a station-sponsored square-dancing group, it aired a weekly German-language program, "Gisela's Original German Hour," and another on Native American issues. In 1984 Court sold it, for upwards of $600,000 on a $320,000 investment. Then in 1986, he bought it back and called it KJUN.
He sold the station a final time to Joy Broadcasting of Lynnwood in 1990. In August 1996, the new owners renamed it KKBY as part of their mainstream country branding as "The Cowboy." They transferred the name, the call sign, and the format to an FM station in Seattle when they sold it in 1998.
A Korean Voice
Since 1998, 1450 AM (and its sister station KWYZ 1230) has been the brainchild and passion project of Jean Suh, who came to Federal Way by way of Los Angeles and Seoul, Korea. She trained in broadcasting and worked at a Korean station in Los Angeles before coming to Washington, where she saw the opportunity to start the first Korean-language radio station in the state. "I wanted to be a pioneer. This is my dream," she told The Seattle Times (True).
When her rented offices in Federal Way became unaffordable, Suh moved the station into her home on South 330th Street, between I-5 and Pacific Highway South. This put her in violation of home-business codes, and a group of 38 neighbors petitioned to shut her down. Suh countered with more than 300 letters of support from listeners and friends and the plea that the station was "whole my life ... the radio station is like my life" (Robinson, "Rules Imperil...").
Suh belatedly applied for a variance. Deliberations were slow, in part because many of the letters and the more than 3,000 petition signatures sent during the public comment period, a record response in Federal Way's land-use history, had to be translated from Korean. "I was in a difficult position because the issue was so widely spread out in the Korean community," said Federal Way Mayor Michael Park, himself Korean American. "I was really concerned about that" (Robinson, "Koreans Gain Voice...").
The city ruled against KSUH on January 18, 2001, saying that despite its sympathy for the station and its estimated 130,000 Korean-speaking listeners, its location in a private home violated city code. Suh vowed to appeal, and to go to court. Instead, just before a scheduled appearance before a hearing examiner in February, Suh and the city agreed that she would be given until August 30 to move the station. "That's very good news for everybody," said Joseph Park, a Federal Way business owner. "We Koreans really don't like confrontation. ... We really wanted to have some type of peaceful resolution. (Robinson, "Radio Station...").
Suh resumed business from an office in Federal Way. Her broadcasting includes a range of Korean music plus some of Suh's personal western classical favorites, Korean-language news -- both national and international -- legal advice, and promotion for local businesses. Each year she picks six Korean merchants in the area and gives them free advertising. Her own daily show, a mix of conversation, her music, poetry, and stories, has been a boon to homesick elders. Her listenership has expanded along with the Korean population in the area, and has picked up more non-Korean listeners with the advent of K-pop music in the U.S. In 2011, for example, Radio Hankook sponsored the region's first Korean singing contest for non-Koreans and drew 60 initial contestants. Finals were held January 15 at the Knutzen Family Theater in Federal Way after the singers were winnowed down to 16. The winner, Tony Delgado, was Mexican American.
"The Korean-American communities of Federal Way, Tacoma, Lynnwood and Everett might not have a physical town square or a main drag," wrote Hugo Kugiya in 2014, "but they do have Jean Suh" (Kugiya).