Haas, Saul (1896-1972)

  • By Frank Chesley
  • Posted 1/07/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5632
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Saul Haas left the New York ghetto for the Pacific Northwest with ambitious dreams that he realized more than most in a full, occasionally controversial life as a journalist, political activist, and pioneering broadcaster. The founder of KIRO radio and a power in Washington Democratic politics, Haas was complex and contradictory, self-educated and variously described as brilliant, irascible, compassionate, and a benevolent despot -- or sometimes not so benevolent. Haas managed two successful campaigns for U. S. Senator Homer T. Bone (1883-1970), and spent 18 months in the senator's office before returning to Seattle as Collector of Customs, a post he held from 1933 until 1945. Haas and Bone together mentored another up-and-coming politician -- Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989). While building KIRO into a powerful station, Haas remained immersed in politics, serving as state director of the Democratic National Campaign Committee. He saw great promise in public television as an educational tool and in 1968 was appointed to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's first board of directors. He had a lifelong empathy for the underprivileged and with his wife formed the Saul and Dayee G. Haas Foundation to aid needy students.

A Young Reporter

Saul Haas was born in New York City's Lower East Side on June 12, 1896, to Albert and Lena Haas, Romanian-Jewish immigrants, and times were hard, especially for immigrants. Albert Haas, an upholsterer, fashioned enough of the American dream to move the family out to the Bronx, but Saul Haas returned to his old tenement regularly, to reaffirm his roots. After graduating from high school in 1912, he hoboed west with a buddy and alighted in Idaho. He attended Northern Idaho College of Education (Now Lewis-Clark State College) in Lewiston and taught school, both briefly.

Haas's facility with words landed a reporting job in 1918, with The Portland (Oregon) News, a member of the Scripps chain. He married Jesse Nores in 1919 and the couple briefly tried publishing a paper in Port Angeles. They returned to New York, where Haas worked for Hearst's International News Service until 1921, when he was transferred back to Seattle as INS bureau manager. But he left INS shortly thereafter to join the Seattle Labor Council's struggling Seattle Union Record as a reporter. In 1925 -- at age 29 -- Haas joined with Harry Ault to buy the paper, with Ault as publisher, Haas as editor and minority stockholder.

Their manifesto lambasted the mainstream press where, they charged, "The news itself is often distorted and it is by no means unusual that important developments are entirely suppressed. Misinformation has become a science on many of our metropolitan dailies." The paper's motto was "A newspaper for thinking people," but there weren't enough thinking people, even in Seattle, and the Record published its last issue on February 18, 1928.

When the Record failed, Haas moved to The Seattle Star, another Scripps paper. Haas found a progressive soulmate in Homer T. Bone, a zealous, sharp-tongued champion of public power and an advocate for the worker, the farmer, the "common man." Their empathy for the worker paralleled an abiding hatred of some of the buccaneer capitalism practiced at the time. A pragmatist, Bone had been politically active as a mainstream type of Socialist and as a Republican, but won his first election as a Farmer-Labor Party candidate to the state legislature in 1922. Public power became his cause and he was its most vociferous and articulate spokesman, "the father of public power."

Radio Enters Politics

Radio was the new communications craze. It was revolutionizing culture and politics, and Haas saw its potential. But radio crashed with everything else after October 29, 1929, the start of the Great Depression. Seattle radio station KJR declared bankruptcy, and Haas was appointed as receiver. He envisioned a regional radio network anchored by KJR, but the plan fizzled and the station was sold to National Broadcasting Company. But the experience hooked him.

Meanwhile, his rapport with Bone had flourished, and in 1932 at age 36 Haas managed Bone's campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. Bone swamped his opponent, Wesley L. Jones (1863-1932), in the Democratic sweep led by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). Haas served as Bone's secretary for 18 months, learning the ways of Congress, but he also found time to roam the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), further grounding himself for the future.

He was appointed Collector of Customs for the Pacific Northwest in July 1933, a patronage plum, and became a power in Washington state Democratic politics. He served as state director for the Democratic National Campaign Committee and was state manager for Roosevelt's 1936 campaign. Haas and Bone also had taken a rising Democratic star under their wings in the early 1930s -- Warren G. Magnuson (1905-1989) -- and Haas was active in Magnuson's early campaigns.

Haas and Magnuson also developed a lifelong friendship: Both men had a propensity for such associations. Broadcast executive Loren Stone, who was first manager for KCTS-TV and spent 17 years working with Haas, once marveled: "He had an amazing capability of attracting famous people, people of great competence and ability, as friends. His wall was covered with signed photographs of everybody, mostly politicians, from FDR on down" (Stone). As one of the most powerful Democrats in the state, he also was a major target of conservatives, who vilified him along with Roosevelt. The Seattle Guide, a throwaway entertainment flier, used a sketch of Haas for its October 1936 cover with the headline: "For U.S. Customs $6,000,000; for FDR's campaign $70,000." Haas remained close to Bone and managed his 1938 re-election campaign.

KIRO's Beginnings

The Depression was hitting bottom in 1934 and KPCB, a small, daytime-only 100-watter, was one of several Seattle stations struggling. It was owned by Moritz Thomsen, whose Centennial bakery business competed with the Fisher flour family. The Fishers, in turn, owned KOMO, Seattle's NBC affiliate at the time.

Louis K. Lear, president of Green Lake State Bank and another Haas friend, helped him bankroll the station and he was in business. Controversy and rumor dogged the station license transfer, but the volatile industry was fueled by controversy and rumor, and Haas was inured to it. His style occasionally ruffled Seattle's feathers and his Jewish heritage didn't help. Barred from establishment clubs, he refreshed himself at the more hospitable Harbor Club in the Norton Building. (Haas, like Magnuson, enjoyed his libations.)

He began operating KPCB in 1935, as Queen City Broadcasting Co. His first employees were Harold J. ("Tubby") Quilliam and Loren Stone, both formerly at KOMO, and Jim Hatfield (1911-1973), a recent Washington State College engineering graduate. Haas petitioned the FRC to change the call letters to KIRO, move the frequency from 650 to 710 on the AM dial and gradually step up power to 1,000 watts. KIRO obtained Seattle's CBS network affiliation from KOL in 1937 and the station climbed into the black.

Haas 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. A suburban Tacoma newspaper, The Lakewood Log, criticized the process in its June 13, 1941, issue and decried Haas as "the undisputed Master of Federal politics in the Northwest."

War Years

With America's entry into World War II, radio technology and license trafficking were frozen, but radio flourished as a news medium and war correspondents such as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Eric Sevareid became household names.

Saul and Jesse Haas had compatibly divorced earlier and in 1942 Saul married Dayee ("Dee") Grazia Jones, widow of a Spokane dentist and National Guard officer. "Victory Gardens" were popular during the war and Haas, as usual, didn't stint. Most of the Maury Island transmitter property was devoted to a large garden, chickens, cows, pigs, and a couple of sheep. Haas even joined the Vashon-Maury Island Grange No. 1105.

Haas's journalistic proclivities resurfaced during the war and he tried unsuccessfully to wangle a war correspondent's ticket to the South Pacific. He made it to Europe in 1945, in time for VE Day and reported on postwar Europe for KIRO and for The Portland Oregonian. In 1946, he covered the atom bomb test at Kwajalein. That year a daughter, Deesa, was born. She remembered her father as "a strong, dominant person" who also was "very compassionate."

Post-war Years

The political guard was changing as the war was ending. In 1944, Roosevelt appointed Homer Bone to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but Bone delayed resigning from the Senate to prevent Governor Arthur B. Langlie from appointing a Republican to replace him. Magnuson, after four terms in the House of Representatives, won the seat and Bone resigned on November 13, forcing Langlie to appoint Magnuson. Shortly after Magnuson took office in 1945, Haas left the Collector of Customs job and was replaced by Howard MacGowan, a longtime Magnuson associate.

With the war over, Haas refocused his energy on broadcasting. Technology broke loose, first with FM, which offered higher-quality reception. Haas obtained an FM license and experimented briefly with broadcasting on public buses but settled for simulcasting KIRO's AM programs. He also acquired AM stations in Spokane and in Boise, Idaho, still envisioning a Northwest network. Again it didn't materialize.

A broadcasting license at the time came with public-service obligations and Haas took them seriously, winning a prestigious Peabody Award in 1956 for KIRO's community series, "Democracy is You."

Television, however, was poised to further revolutionize broadcasting, popular culture, and politics. KRSC-TV aired Seattle's first TV broadcast on November 25, 1948, a West Seattle-Wenatchee high school football game. Dorothy Bullitt (1892-1989), widow of Scott Bullitt (1887-1932), bought the station in 1949, changed the call letters to KING-TV and built her KING properties into a Northwest broadcasting empire.

By the late 1950s, Channel 7 was the last available commercial VHF (very high frequency) channel in Western Washington. Haas battled Puget Sound Broadcasting (KVI) and KXA, Inc. for its license. The KVI group accused Haas of communist sympathies but he offered his old Union Record clippings that showed, in fact, that Haas had editorialized against "communist hostility to bona fide labor organizations." Haas was granted the license in 1957 and Channel 7 began broadcasting on February 8, 1958, anchored by CBS's powerful lineup that included Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton, Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, and Leave it to Beaver.

Haas sold KIRO, Inc. in 1964 to the Bonneville Broadcasting Corp., a subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He remained as chairman of the board until his death in 1972. 

Public Television

Haas saw public television's potential for education and became an advocate. It gained national significance when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was created in 1967 -- another of Magnuson's many public-interest successes. President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) appointed Haas to CPB's first board of directors, and in 1970 President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) reappointed him.

"We've got to find a way to teach people the language of their time," Haas once said. "I'm terrified at the lack of ability of some to express themselves. It opens the way for demagogues." He wanted help for the country's 70 million functional illiterates, "the people who can't understand or use the language" (Chesley interview).

Haas and his wife created the Saul and Dayee G. Haas Foundation in 1963, when he found that some students at Garfield High School were handicapped by lack of so-called extras -- eyeglasses, uniforms, testing or tutoring fees, field trips, or athletic shoes. The foundation, which now [2004] helps more than 12,000 students a year, has disbursed more than $7 million to public secondary schools in Washington.

Saul Haas died in 1972. He had moved from alternative journalism to mainstream media to become a powerful force in the world of politics and communications.


Saul Haas Papers, Manuscripts, Special Collections, University Archives, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle, Washington; Homer T. Bone Papers, Ibid.; Shelby Scates, Warren G. Magnuson and the Shaping of Twentieth-Century America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Terry Slatten, "Homer T. Bone, Public Power, and Washington State Progressive Politics in the Mid-1920s," Master's thesis, University of Washington, Seattle, 1980; Frank Chesley interviews with Saul Haas and Deesa Haas, Seattle, Washington, 1971, 1972; Loren Stone (Seattle broadcasting executive), Audio memoir, 1980s; Seattle Times archives; Seattle Post-Intelligencer archives.

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