He’s seen it all, and helped us see it, too, for half a century. He’s KOMO reporter Bryan Johnson, who today, Saturday, marks an almost unbelievable 50 years with the local TV and radio operation at Fourth & Broad. Fifty years is a long time in any business. It’s rare in broadcasting, and pretty much unheard of with the same station. I spoke with Johnson on the eve of this milestone about what he’s seen in the past five decades and about what may lie ahead.
It’s an understatement to say Johnson has seen vast changes in the broadcasting industry. The TV news business began changing, and not for the better, in the 1970s, says Johnson. He points to San Francisco station KGO’s wild ratings success back then with a bold and sensationalist approach — KGO, says Johnson, stands for “Kickers, Guts and Orgasms” — and the move everywhere toward “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism. Johnson remembers when media were “watchdogs, not lapdogs,” and he’s even more worried these days about the future of news, given the rise of social media.
Asked whether he blogs, Johnson says, “God, no!” You won’t find Johnson on Facebook, and he doesn’t Tweet (but he does use those websites to gather information). While he acknowledges that bloggers could be viewed as latter-day equivalents of Martin Luther tacking up theses or Thomas Payne publishing pamphlets, he says the “dittoheads” in the blogosphere are not engaged in a dialog, not exchanging ideas the way it was when discourse was face to face, but instead seeking out only those who share their views.
Johnson, who is 73 and lives in Shoreline, immigrated from the UK with his mother in 1948, and graduated early from Vashon High School. After a short stint at the University of Washington, he went to vocational school in Tacoma to become a radio engineer. He was hired at age 18 by Joe Chytil to work at radio station KAPA in Raymond in southwest Washington, then moved to sister station KELA in Centralia.
Chytil took a shine to Johnson and insisted that the young man get a bachelor’s degree in order to realize his full potential. Johnson told Chytil he couldn’t afford it on what Chytil paid him. A week later, Chytil showed up at the radio station with a new suit for Johnson, and told him that he’d enrolled Johnson at the UW. Johnson protested again about not being able to afford tuition. Chytil said not to worry, that he’d sent an audition tape to a station in Seattle and that Johnson had a part-time job waiting for him that paid enough cover his tuition. Johnson’s first day at KOMO was Oct. 10, 1959, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and three years before the Seattle World's Fair.
Johnson worked part-time at KOMO while studying Russian at the UW, with an eye toward becoming a codebreaker for the U.S. government. When Johnson realized that his language studies weren’t headed anywhere interesting and that his status as a naturalized citizen meant he likely couldn’t get a job as a cryptologist, he took a full-time news job offered to him by KOMO in 1962.
KOMO radio’s format in those days was different than its current news and talk. “It was weird, freakin’ weird,” in Johnson's description, and harked back to the “something for everybody” radio format more common in the 1930s and 1940s. Johnson says KOMO had music, local news and Paul Harvey in the mornings, then the syndicated national program “Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club” (which had been on the air since the 1930s), followed by household advice from “Katherine Wise” (a Betty Crocker-like local character of sorts played by Ruth Fratt). Next came more Paul Harvey at noon followed by local news, and then mostly music for the rest of the day, including “dinner music” at 6 p.m., “with Lester Lanin-type stuff and Lawrence Welk,” says Johnson, who worked the night shift in his early years at KOMO.
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