Radio broadcasting came to Washington in the early 1920s, and by the end of the Roaring Twenties radio stations had been launched in every major city in the state. Listeners flocked to their receivers during radio's Golden Age for entertainment and sports, and during World War II for news reports from the front lines. The advent of television after the war rocked the radio industry, which rallied with the introduction of Top 40 formats in the 1950s. When music fans gravitated to the FM band and its superior sound quality in the 1970s, AM pivoted to news and talk. By 2022 there were 383 licensed stations in Washington, offering programming running the gamut from Christian Contemporary to Regional Mexican to News Talk and Classic Rock.
An Emerging Technology
Like espresso, pianos, and parachutes, radio was very much an Italian invention. In 1899, Bologna-born electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), piggybacking on theories developed by physicists in England and Germany, "brought electromagnetic waves out of the laboratory and into the world" ("The Development of Radio"). Influential to Marconi's invention was Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894), a German physicist who in the 1880s had demonstrated that electromagnetic currents (discovered in 1820) could be perceived at a distance, and that such waves traveled at the speed of light. [Editor's note: A detailed report on how radio works can be found here.]
Marconi started small, tinkering with short-distance broadcasts in his backyard. But in September 1899 "he astounded the world by telegraphing the results of the America's Cup yacht races from a ship at sea to a land-based station in New York. By the end of 1901, Marconi had founded his own commercial wireless company and broadcast the first transatlantic signal" ("The Development of Radio"). These initial broadcasts were crude, limited to coded dots and dashes, but change came quickly. In 1906, Canadian-born physicist Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932) sent the first long-distance transmission of human voice and music from his station in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. "His signal was received as far away as Norfolk, Virginia. The stage for commercial voice and music broadcasts was set" ("The Development of Radio").
News traveled fast, even in the early twentieth century, and it wasn't long before the new technology began to stir in the Pacific Northwest. By 1922 -- just two years after the nation's first commercial radio station launched in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania -- a handful of stations had gone live in Washington, among them KFC, built by Carl Haymond (1897-1977) for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in a shack on the roof of the P-I building in downtown Seattle; KHQ, created by motorcycle enthusiast Louis Wasmer (1892-1967) in his apartment on Seattle's Capitol Hill; and KJR, which operated out of founder Vincent Kraft's (1893-1971) garage in the Ravenna neighborhood. "Kraft started with minimum accouterments," wrote historian Greg Lange. "On the garage walls he draped tapestries to muffle outside noise. Station equipment included a piano, a phonograph, a five-watt, one vacuum-tube transmitter, and a microphone. Kraft broadcast to the surrounding neighborhood. It was claimed that he was one of the first broadcasters in the area to use vacuum tubes. Kraft kept no regular schedule, but in the evenings and on weekends he played records with occasional interludes of live music by neighborhood kids and other people he knew" (Lange).
By 1925 KJR had moved into the Terminal Sales Building near downtown, installed a 1,000-watt transmitter, and began reaching listeners as far away as Alaska. KFC folded in short order and Haymond moved on to KFOA, a popular new station operated by the Rhodes Department Store. "As was typical at the time, broadcast content was created in the studio, where Haymond (and/or any guests) could speak (or sing or perform on a musical instrument) into a rudimentary carbon-button microphone. But soon, as microphone technology steadily advanced, along came the possibility that one might be able to pick up audio content generated outside of the studio: a 'remote broadcast'" (Blecha).
"These were the days of the Wild, Wild West of radio with little government regulation," wrote Spokane radio historian Bill Harms. "People, with a second- or first-class radio license, could receive a station license just by proving that they could put a signal on the air. Many radio stations operated out of people's homes, garages, shops, and other locations. It was easy for owners to pull up stakes in one town and move to another. All they had to do is notify the Department of Commerce" (Harms). And so, sensing financial opportunities in Eastern Washington, Wasmer packed up KHQ and moved it to Spokane, where on October 30, 1925, it began broadcasting as one of the Inland Empire's first stations.
Radio Broadens its Reach
The notion that broadcasting licenses were easy to obtain was confirmed during Prohibition when Roy Olmstead (1886-1996), a well-known Seattle rumrunner and bootlegger, hired inventor/con man Al Hubbard (1901-1982) to build a radio station in Olmstead's house in the Mount Baker neighborhood. In October 1924, KFQX hit the airwaves. "Powered by a 1,000-watt radio tower, Olmstead ran the station from an upstairs room in his house. The station would air nightly broadcasts consisting mostly of news and weather, followed by the popular 'Aunt Vivian' program, in which Olmstead's wife, Elsie, would read bedtime stories to a dedicated base of local children. Their radio venture was given a boost when Hubbard constructed an additional studio at the top of the Smith Tower, allowing them to further commercialize the station and add live jazz music to KFQX's programming lineup" (Holden).
The law caught up with Olmstead in 1927, and he was sent to prison. He sold his radio station, which was eventually purchased by Birt Fisher and continues to exist as KOMO. Meanwhile, Hubbard helped build one of Tacoma's first stations, KMO, and another new station, KXRO, which began in Aberdeen but was shut down after a few months when authorities suspected it was being used to assist rum-running activity in Grays Harbor. In 1927, Hubbard helped local personality Lou Kessler build another early Seattle radio station, KVOS.
By the end of the 1920s, radio stations were up and running in Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, Bellingham, Everett, Yakima, Olympia -- where a Benedictine monk at St. Martin's College began experimenting with radio and was granted one of the first licenses in Washington -- and even in remote Pullman, where KFAE, an educational station affiliated with Washington State College, first went live in 1922. In 1926, "special AT&T wires reached Seattle from New York, and KOMO became an affiliate of NBC, the National Broadcasting Company. It was then that radio became a serious nationwide business and took a decidedly commercial turn. Seattle listeners could now tune to a local station and hear the same national programs (and same national commercials) that people all over the U.S. could hear, like Bob Hope and his Pepsodent Toothpaste program" (Banel).
Washington's early radio listeners thrilled to groundbreaking news reports and sports broadcasts -- baseball was especially popular -- but it was entertainment -- music, comedy, variety, soap opera, drama -- that kept them glued to their receivers. In Puget Sounds: A Nostalgic Review of Radio and TV in the Great Northwest, author David Richardson writes of the pioneering entertainers and the entrepreneurs who helped make them famous. At Tacoma's first licensed station, for example:
"… a flamboyant promoter named Alvin Stenso had assembled a station at the Tacoma Ledger's newspaper office. Stenso was a charmer who had worked in a circus with 'Buffalo Bill' Cody, survived torpedoing by a German U-boat, [and] taught Morse code at the University (Later he helped build the Tacoma Narrows Bridge -- the one that collapsed). Stenso's station, KGB, was actually licensed the same day as the P-I's KFC; it apparently did not hit the airwaves, however, until early in 1922 … Tacomans hailed it as the eighth wonder of the world. The programs were remarkable. Senso, who was also KGB's manager and announcer, paraded everyone in Tacoma who could sing, play an instrument, or make a speech before his microphone. Vaudeville acts playing the town were hardly off the train before Stenso had jollied them into the Ledger Building's burlap-draped studio" (Richardson, 31).
In Spokane, Wasmer's KHQ featured 20 hours of entertainment each week, including concerts by the Davenport Hotel orchestra and other classical ensembles, along with poetry readings by Spokane poet Vachel Lindsey and songs by the Cowboy Band of Spokane. After KHQ became part of the national NBC Orange Network in 1927 (along with KOMO), its "daily programming schedule was more likely to feature the New York Symphony Orchestra (or later, the NBC Symphony Orchestra) than the Davenport Hotel's orchestra. By 1930, KHQ listeners were tuning into Amos 'n' Andy and other national comedy hits. They were also listening to live World Series broadcasts and other sports" (Kershner).
KJR and KOMO emerged as Seattle's entertainment leaders. KJR featured live performances by popular local dance bands, including the Recording Orchestra fronted by suave Vic Meyers (1897-1991), a future Washington lieutenant governor. By 1928 the station's staff included announcers, singers, a dance band, and a symphony orchestra. Among them were singer Sally Jo Walker; staff writer Tom Griffith (later a senior editor at Time magazine); and announcer Ken Niles, who hosted a drama series called Theater of the Mind before going to Hollywood and catching on as Bing Crosby's on-air foil.
At KOMO, manager Birt Fisher labored to create the region's finest station using the financial backing of Fisher Flouring Mills, whose owners were unrelated to Birt but shared his optimism for radio's future. By 1927 Fisher "had fairly scoured the Northwest for talent, signing up all the best singers, instrumentalists, actors and announcers. KOMO became the largest employer of musicians in the state" (Richardson, 43). KOMO further strengthened its programming in 1927 when it secured its national-network affiliation with NBC. Its local programming remained strong. In the early 1930s, ill-fated movie star Frances Farmer (1913-1970) was a regular performer on KOMO's drama series Pioneers.
Entertainment famously clashed with reality on October 30, 1938, when a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds on the CBS network caused a nationwide panic. Listeners in Western Washington heard the broadcast on CBS affiliates KVI and KIRO. "Probably the most terrified listeners were in the town of Concrete … By sheer coincidence, during the midpoint of the broadcast a power failure plunged almost the entire town of 1,000 into darkness. Some listeners fainted while others grabbed their families to head up into the mountains. Some of the men grabbed their guns, planning to blow away any bug-eyed monster or spaceship that got in their way" (Stein).
Radio's Heavy Hitters
Adolph Linden (1889-1969) was one of the state's first radio tycoons. He and business partner Edmund Campbell, both wealthy directors of Puget Sound Savings & Loan, founded the Northwest Radio Service in 1926 and bought KJR from Vincent Kraft, giving them a local anchor for an envisioned nationwide radio chain. Linden then created the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which by 1929 had grown to include stations in Portland, Spokane, San Francisco "and a half-dozen others from here to Chicago" ("Linden Records ..."). But Linden came by some of his wealth by stealing it from Puget Sound Savings & Loan, and in 1932 he was convicted of embezzlement and imprisoned for five years at the state penitentiary in Walla Walla.
In Spokane, Wasmer had built his own mini empire. By 1926 KHQ was established as one of Spokane's two main stations, and the only one powerful enough to be picked up in the larger West Coast cities. In 1926 he helped develop a regional network called the Northwest Triangle, in which KHQ shared programming with KGW in Portland and KFOA in Seattle. In the 1930s he also owned KGA, another station in his Spokane lineup. "By 1944, Wasmer had accumulated plenty of power with his broadcast empire and real estate holdings -- but then he decided to seek a different kind of power. He announced that he was running for governor of Washington as a Republican" (Kershner). Unfortunately for Wasmer, he wasn't terribly popular and was trounced by a 4-to-1 margin the primary.
Also powerful but not terribly popular was Saul Haas (1896-1972), the founder of KIRO in Seattle. "Haas was complex and contradictory, self-educated and variously described as brilliant, irascible, compassionate, and a benevolent despot -- or sometimes not so benevolent" (Chesley). Haas had hoped to acquire KJR in 1929 after Linden sent it spiraling into bankruptcy; those plans fizzled, but in 1934, at the bottom of the Great Depression, Haas purchased KPCB, a struggling, 100-watt station in Seattle. He then petitioned to have the call letters changed to KIRO and gradually increased its power to 1,000 watts. In 1937 he obtained Seattle's CBS network affiliation. "Hass engineered another power boost to the maximum 50,000 watts in June 1941. With a new transmitter on Maury Island, KIRO became the most powerful station west of Salt Lake City and north of San Francisco. KIRO further solidified its regional dominance by absorbing the CBS Tacoma affiliation from KVI" (Chesley). Following World War II, Haas purchased additional stations in Spokane and Boise, Idaho.
Carl Haymond, who had helped launch KFC on the roof of the P-I building and later worked at KFOA, also went on to own a string of stations. In 1926 he purchased KMO in Tacoma, and in 1929 he bought KFEC in Portland, changed the call letters to KIT, and moved the station to Yakima, where it debuted in April 1929 as the city's first radio station. After World War II, with Haymond's son joining the business, they acquired several more stations in California and Arizona.
The happy tenor of radio turned serious during World War II. Following the horrors of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the FCC froze all radio station construction and power increases, and thus the most influential stations before the war would remain so for the duration of the conflict. Meanwhile, many top radio personalities and technicians left to join the fighting. "Announcers were leaving right and left for the war," wrote David Richardson. "To fill the gap, stations like KXA began hiring inexperienced teen-agers right out of high school … It became an industry joke: read a spot, put on a record, and resume playing some kid game" (Richardson, 128). Richardson himself was hired as a teen by KXA in Seattle. "There were lots of shortages during the war," he wrote. "KXA decided to do a daily program from Bremerton, where business was booming at the Navy Yard. There was no studio space to be had, so arrangements were made to use the foyer of the women's lavatory at the Elks Club. After the first few programs were marred by embarrassing background noises, the station made up a neat little sign: Please Do Not Flush Toilet While Radio Station Is On" (Richardson, 139).
Naturally, news reports took on greater meaning. Some of the most riveting stories were told by actors doing on-air recreations of world events, while on the front lines, "Edward R. Murrow's 'This … is London' wartime broadcasts were carried nationwide over CBS, elevating news to new plateaus of impactful immediacy" (Richardson, 76). A Washington native who grew up near Mount Vernon and graduated from Washington State College, Murrow (1908-1965) was working for CBS in Europe when Germany's war machine began to rumble. By the end of the war, Murrow had accompanied Allied troops on a range of dangerous missions and become a broadcasting legend.
KIRO founder Saul Haas also was intent on reaching the front lines; he tried to obtain a war correspondent's ticket to the South Pacific but was turned down. "He made it to Europe in 1945, in time for VE Day and reported on postwar Europe for KIRO and the Portland Oregonian. In 1946, he covered the atom bomb test at Kwajalein" (Chesley). Also prominent during the war years was Tacoma native George Hicks, whose "running account of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, from the deck of a landing ship under aerial attack, is a classic of wartime reporting" (Richardson, 119).
When the war mercifully ended, Washingtonians heard about it on the radio. At 4 p.m. Pacific Time on August 14, 1945, President Harry Truman (1884-1972) told a national radio audience numbering in the millions, "I have received this afternoon a message from the Japanese government of the unconditional surrender of Japan."
The Coming of Television
Many new stations were launched in Washington after the war, yet the post-war years were generally tumultuous for radio broadcasters. Television was to blame. The new technology and consumer interest advanced quickly, and to keep pace some of the state's most powerful radio broadcasters soon became powerful television entities, among them KOMO and KIRO in Seattle, KTNT in Tacoma, and KVOS in Bellingham. Paradoxically, the region's first television station, KRSC-TV in Seattle, sputtered. Owned by former radio entrepreneurs Palmer Leberman and Robert Priebe, it went on the air in late 1948, and a year later Leberman and Priebe sold out to KING radio owner Dorothy Stimson Bullitt (1892-1989). She had the call letters changed to KING-TV and proceeded to build a broadcasting empire. "TV came along, and we all learned a new vocabulary," wrote David Richardson. "Video, test patterns, Yagi antenna, fine tuning. Uncle Miltie, Mr. Peepers, and Kukla, Fran and Ollie. The Slo-Mo's and No-Mo and rooster tail fever. 'Sheriff' Tex and Captain Puget. The Vast Wasteland. Not everyone approved of television. They thought it was bad for the eyes and might give everyone cancer" (Richardson, 11). Yet by the 1950s the rush to buy TV sets was on.
Radio stations responded to this existential threat with some belt-tightening and a range of new programming. The old dramas and comedies that had thrilled listeners before the war fell away, replaced by a broader array of music, including jazz, rhythm and blues, country, and by the late 1950s, rock and roll. A Nebraska disk jockey introduced the Top 40 format -- a rotation of the top hits of the day -- in the early 1950s, and by the end of the decade Seattle's KOL, an early Top 40 convert, had rocketed to No. 1 in the local ratings. While a certain segment of the population dismissed rock and roll as trash -- Jim French (1928-2017), a stalwart at KIRO, called it "generally objectionable and frequently vulgar" (Sonic Boom, 81) -- the stations that adopted Top 40 formats ruled their markets throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. In Seattle, KOL and KJR were ratings titans; in Spokane, KNEW; in Tacoma, KTAC; in Everett, KRKO; in Wenatchee, KMEL; in Bellingham, KENY. During an era in which young people toe-tapped to music in their cars and on transistor radios, Top 40 became the soundtrack of a generation.
The advent of frequency modulation (FM) technology further segmented audiences after 1950. Leberman and Priebe were the first in Washington to dip their toes into FM when their KRSC-FM aired its first broadcast in 1946. A year later, KTNT-FM, owned by the Tacoma News Tribune, went live. "In 1947 there probably weren't over a thousand FM sets in the whole Puget Sound country, but the new KTNT had a captive audience. The Trib put receivers in all the city buses, thus guaranteeing plenty of ears for its commercial messages" (Richardson, 125). In 1950, KISW-FM launched in North Seattle, and in 1952, University of Washington students began running KUOW-FM, an amateurish operation that was thrown a lifeline by KING's Dorothy Bullitt, who donated a 10,000-watt transmitter and antenna. Before long, "KUOW's coverage area included all of Western Washington and then some. For a time, it was the most powerful non-commercial FM station in the country" (Richardson, 146).
Television programming coalesced around three major networks, but radio offered a nearly endless menu of content beyond rock and roll. Founded in Spokane in 1956, KPEG billed itself as "the most unusual radio station on the West Coast" (Harms). The station had an all-female staff, played country and western music -- and all the announcers were named Peg. In Seattle, KRAB-FM signed on in 1962 as the fourth commercial-free, listener-supported radio station in the U.S. Founded by Lorenzo Milam (1933-2020), KRAB "aired a mix of programming that the word eclectic does not adequately encompass. Regular fare included esoteric music played on unfamiliar instruments; readings of poetry and literature, occasionally in Sanskrit and other tongues no longer widely spoken; free-wheeling panel discussions on practically any topic; often-brilliant commentaries on just about everything; and generous servings of jazz, bluegrass, Dixieland, and seldom-heard Western classical compositions … During a tumultuous two decades, it kept its listeners informed, entertained, and often bemused by things they had never heard before and would probably never hear again" (Caldbick).
FM's great advantage over AM was its sound quality. By the early 1970s, "FM radio offered sparkling clean stereo sound, hi-fi speakers were fixtures in many homes, tape and disc recordings were indistinguishable from live broadcasts. Never since the dawning of time had such treasures of music been so casually and universally available" (Richardson, 180). As audiophiles flocked to the FM dial, Top 40 AM radio began to wane, and by the end of the 1970s, the AM band had become a bastion for talking heads. When ratings plummeted in 1980 at KVI, for example, the Seattle station changed formats, "joining the ranks of news and information stations in the area," reported The Seattle Times. "Some evidence of the eventual change is underway -- on the Hardwick morning show, for instance, Hardwick plays no records. It's just him, and KVI newsmen, and information and opinion ... When the station becomes an affiliate of the Mutual Broadcasting System, it will carry Mutual news on the half hour and many network sports events. The Larry King Show, a national all-night call-in show, will move to KVI at that time, also" (Stredicke).
The Modern Landscape
According to historian Alex Cosper's look at Seattle broadcasting, "deregulation of the radio industry from the eighties through the 2000s led to frequent ownership changes and mergers. Inevitably, the Telecom Act of 1996 led to the formation of giant radio corporations such as Clear Channel and Infinity. Entercom became the first major player in the market, owning seven stations within a year of the new legislation. Those stations included the KIRO AM & FM news combo, which was still number one in the market" ("Seattle Radio History"). Yet even juggernauts such as KIRO and KVI were subject to the whims of consumer tastes and evolving trends. After adopting its all-news format in 1980, KVI switched to an Oldies format in the mid-1980s. By the early 1990s it had become one of the first Conservative Talk stations in the country. It returned to Oldies in 2010, and then reverted to Conservative Talk in 2013. In 2021 the station was sold to Los Angeles-based Lotus Communications, owner of 44 radio stations in the western U.S. KIRO also went through myriad changes. In 2007, Enteron sold the station back to Bonneville, its previous owner, and two years later KIRO settled on an all-sports format and moved its news talk to KIRO-FM.
By 2022 there were 383 licensed stations in the state, offering something for just about everyone. Programming ranged from Christian Contemporary and Regional Mexican to News Talk, Classical, Jazz, Business, Sports, Modern Rock, and much more. A handful of Spanish-speaking stations dotted the state; a scrappy Korean-language station operated out of a small office in Federal Way; and more than 20 stations were affiliated with National Public Radio. In the Seattle-Tacoma market, the top-rated station was KRWM-FM, which dubbed itself "Warm 106.9" and featured an Adult Contemporary format. Across the state in Spokane, Country music station KXLY-FM was the runaway No. 1.