KOMO, via Wikipedia
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.
Johnson’s roles on the night shift were many — including deejay, as well as writer and anchor for the “Bedtimer’s Edition” of the news, which came on at 11 p.m. Because of KOMO’s powerful 50,000-watt signal which traveled hundreds of miles at night, the “Bedtimer’s Edition” included weather forecasts for most of the West Coast, from Northern California to Alaska.
Most challenging, says Johnson, was deejaying the program that came on after the news: a classical music program called “Album of Classics” that was scripted by local expert Dick Cornwell. All of this made for a busy night. “You had to be able read the news. You had no help, you were alone. You were spinning records up till then. You were ripping stuff from five different wires and stapling it onto sheets of paper. Meanwhile you were trying to pull the music for the “Album of Classics” and looking to see if you knew the names of the composers, and if you didn’t, how the hell did you pronounce them?”
One of Johnson’s most memorable occasions on the job came when he was working the day shift. “I heard, for the first and only time I have heard it, 15 bells [of alarm on the UPI teletype], meaning ‘FLASH.’ The 15 bells went off and everybody was chilled, thinking ‘what the devil has happened?’ I raced in there and it said 'DALLAS TEXAS SHOTS FIRED,’ that’s all it said. I went on the air and was trying to ad lib about the president being in Dallas, that shots had been fired apparently at the motorcade, and then somebody raced into the studio with the second part of it that was ‘PRESIDENT HIT.’ We were one of the first stations on because we ran with the ‘SHOTS FIRED.’”
Johnson initially was only on radio at KOMO, then started doing television news as well in the mid-1960s, working on special reports about pollution, the Port of Seattle and Boeing. He also was a rotating host (along with Jim Harriott) in the mid-1970s of the KOMO-TV weekend public affairs program “Viewpoint.”
Over the years, Johnson has interviewed pretty much anyone who was anybody, including Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, whom he met with at the senator’s Everett home just three hours before Jackson died in 1983. Among Johnson’s other favorite characters who are no longer around are Fremont activist Arman Stepanian; architect Victor Steinbrueck; restaurateur Ivar Haglund; former Gov. Dixie Lee Ray; and Washington’s other longtime senator, Warren G. Magnuson, who, Johnson says, always said, “Hi Byron.” Johnson says that though he was tempted, he never addressed Maggie the way crooner Perry Como once did on the air: “Hi Senator Mag-NEW-son!”
Johnson says there are several benefits to being in the news business in one market for 50 years. One is a sense of local history from having lived through it and reported it. When issues come up at City Hall, the Port of Seattle, or in Olympia, chances are Bryan Johnson was there the last time around 10 or 20 (or 30 or 40) years ago. Second is access — newsmakers know Johnson (many of them, personally) and take his calls. Johnson mentions familiarity with a variety of longtime local figures including former Gov. Dan Evans; gun rights activist Alan Gottlieb; defense attorney Tony Savage; and former Seattle Mayors Wes Uhlman and Charlie Royer.
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