On November 9, 1973, Jim Nicholls signs off the air with his last broadcast on KAYE radio in Puyallup. The controversial station has been fighting termination of its broadcasting license since 1969. It has continued on the air through a series of appeals and lawsuits, even after the Federal Communications Commission examiner twice determines it has violated the Fairness Doctrine. KAYE has been a player in a bitter and protracted political dispute over Tacoma's city governance. The station is also accused of bias against Jews and Blacks. Deliberations are inconclusive more than four years later, when Nicholls exits and the new (and previous) owner changes the locks.
KAYE 1450 was an AM station based in Puyallup, owned at the time of the license challenge by Hayden "Bud" Blair (1941-1978) and Jim Nicholls (1923-2014). Blair was beginning a career as a sportscaster. Nicholls, originally from Canada, was a conservative activist, a pastor, and a passionate anticommunist. He was the station manager, its main public face, and a daily on-air presence.
Nicholls clashed frequently with members of Tacoma's progressive element, both religious and political. He was an associate and supporter of A. L. "Slim" Rasmussen (1909-1993) and Fred Crisman -- aka Jon Gold -- (1919-1975), both fervent opponents of the council-manager form of government Tacoma had used since 1953. When Rasmussen was elected mayor in 1967, Nicholls began broadcasting the city council meetings, often raucous affairs that sometimes lasted past midnight, on his station.
Other programming comprised religious broadcasts, reports from the John Birch Society, some sports, "Oldies but Goodies," and Nicholls's daily political and religious commentary. In August 1968, Crisman, as Dr. Jon Gold, began a discussion show on KAYE called "Round Table Forum." As Gold, he also wrote a book, "Murder of a City...Tacoma," in which he explained that the forum "was designed and brought forth with the single purpose of defeating the aims and measures of City Manager government" (Gold, 73). As moderator, Crisman/Gold had little use for moderation. He and his guests disparaged Tacoma city officials, Black and Jewish leaders, business owners, and journalists, accusing them of conspiracies against free speech and Americanism.
A mix of more liberal and church and synagogue congregations, League of Women Voters members, and Rasmussen opponents began to voice opposition to assertions on KAYE. They organized officially in 1968 as the Puget Sound Committee for Good Broadcasting (PSC).
A License to Challenge
Nicholls and Blair filed for license renewal at the last minute on January 24, 1969; the license expired January 31. As the station continued on air under temporary extensions, 69 members of the PSC, joined by the Anti-Defamation League, asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to investigate the station's activities under the Fairness Doctrine. The doctrine, established in 1949, derived from the idea that a broadcasting license comes with an obligation to serve the public interest. It required that stations devote some programming to "controversial issues of public importance" (Ruane), a mandate KAYE had no trouble meeting. But it also required that stations provide a spectrum of opposing views, and that they gave people who are attacked a good-faith opportunity to respond. That was less evident.
Local stations were supposed to represent the interests of their community, and the petitioners noted that Nicholls gave no airtime to Puyallup city government on his Puyallup station. He did, however, promote a number of Puyallup Valley projects and events. Nicholls countered that his free-speech rights were under attack because he exposed communist sympathizers. He told Seattle Times radio columnist Victor Stredicke that "our trouble started when the station took a stand against the Russians" (Stredicke, "Controversy Continues ...") and he told the FCC that he was targeted for opposing ecumenical church initiatives.
Using techniques developed by the national Church of Christ for Fairness Doctrine cases, the committee taped and transcribed a week of KAYE's broadcasts for examination. On the "Round Table Forum," the transcripts showed Crisman/Gold saying that "the city council is doing exactly what Hitler did" ("Hearing Accepts ..."), and making a practice of playing the Nazi anthem "Horst Wessell Lied" after comments about Tacoma City Manager Dave Rowlands. Referring to community activists in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood he said, "You so-called leaders, Mr. Davis, Mr. Dixon, Mr. Brazill. Go ahead black man, pick up your spear, pick up your guns, pick up your Swahili cloths and then say to your master, 'Mr. Rowlands, which way we go, boss.'" Thomas Dixon (b. 1931) was executive director of the Tacoma Urban League. Rev. Earnest Brazill (1910-2000) was pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church.
Nicholls said the station had offered Black leaders airtime to respond. Dixon testified that the only contact he had with Nicholls beyond a couple of casual exchanges at city council meetings was a telephone call from him saying "Do you remember what happened to your friend Ed Pratt? Do you realize that could happen to you?" (Anderson, "Dixon Says ..."). Edwin Pratt (1930-1969), then executive director of the Seattle Urban League, was assassinated outside his home on January 26, 1969.
Nicholls defended the presentation of a discussion on the anti-Semitic hoax, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, as balanced because he "personally stated on the air, 'Are these protocols right or not?'" (Stredicke, "KAYE Shrugs ...") and offered rabbis a chance to respond. Tacoma Rabbi Richard Rosenthal (1929-1999) countered that the offer "was like having your mother called a prostitute and being given so-called equal time to deny it" ("'Protocols' on KAYE ...").
"An Almost Impossible Battle"
For KAYE's most passionate supporters, the station was a beacon in the fight against tyranny, and its statements protected under the First Amendment. In her introduction to Murder of a City, Virginia Shackelford described it as a welcome alternative in a news-media monopoly. Listeners donated to Bucks for Broadcast campaigns to support the city council programming and to a Truth and Justice fund to cover legal expenses. Calling themselves KAYE Kountry, fans also raised money with car washes, and at least one gas station donated a day's receipts.
The hearings began November 18, 1970. The public phase lasted a month, with testimony from a range of Tacoma office holders, activists, and businesspeople. One notable no-show was Crisman/Gold. Nash asked for his appearance. Cottone said he couldn't find him. "Crisman ... said he was retiring as a commentator rather than submit to censorship," Murray Morgan reported on his radio broadcast. "He tossed in a line that if the Examiner couldn't conduct a decent hearing he should be wiped out. In a post-retirement broadcast by tape-recording, he explained that of course he meant wiped out non-violently" (Morgan broadcast script).
Both sides then had the chance to supplement the testimony with written submissions and responses. After some months of study, Nash ruled on June 3, recommending the license not be renewed.
KAYE appealed to the full FCC, saying there had not been time to gather all relevant testimony. Over objections by the petitioners, the FCC concurred, and also granted additional preparation time. The two sides filed their final briefs in October 1971 and the FCC heard oral arguments, this time in Washington, D.C., on April 19, 1972. On May 2, The FCC told Nash to reopen the hearings and essentially start over. Meanwhile, the station continued to broadcast under temporary extensions. On August 16 the new hearings began, this time in Puyallup.
The War Goes On
Nash and Cottone soon resumed their verbal battles:
Cottone: "Your mind, sir, is a cesspool of filth, venom, venality, bias and prejudice. To call you savage would cast aspersion on innocent savages" (Broadcast License Renewal Act, 628).
Nash in turn accused Cottone of using "the cheapest shyster tricks in the book" (Wilkins, "Nash Evicts Cottone ...").
Meanwhile, in written testimony, petitioner Donna Gilman, who was president of the Tacoma League of Women Voters, said that, with the case dragging into its third year, KAYE supporters were harassing her by telephone: "... a petitioner's life in Tacoma hasn't been too serene. Phone calls at 3 a.m. talking about going to China or love it or leave it or do your children walk to school. I think I answered successively I hadn't been thinking of it particularly, I love it, and yes with a large dog" ("Broadcast License Renewal Act," 880).
On September 8, Nash ordered Cottone to leave the room, and then once again closed the hearing. On December 4 he again ruled against the station, saying that his decision was not based on the evidence but on his conclusion that KAYE representatives, and particularly Cottone, were never going to mount a good-faith case. "Our processes have been publicly demeaned and disgraced by willful zealots bent on destruction ... using tactics of ridicule, distraction and invective," Nash said (Anderson, "KAYE License ...").
KAYE filed still another appeal, and as that process moved along, a different controversy surfaced. Previous owner Henry Perozzo announced that he owned the only voting stock in the company and planned to repossess the station. Nicholls responded with a suit for $250,000 in damages against Perozzo in January 1973, and Perozzo sued Nichols two months later for $31,000 in back payments relating to a non-compete clause. On November 5, after a week of trial, the combatants announced an out-of-court settlement, with Nicholls agreeing to leave the station in return for a cash payment and cancellation of debt.
On November 8, Nicholls mourned "the death of free speech in Pierce County" ("Prayer, 'Taps' ...") in his final broadcast and asked God to "fill the vacuum that will be left in the hearts of so many people" ("Prayer, 'Taps' ..."). Then Perozzo changed the locks at 1520 E Main Street in Puyallup. He restarted the station, renamed KUPY, on November 12.