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Bryan Johnson's golden anniversary

After 50 years of reporting for KOMO radio and TV, it seems the Seattle broadcast veteran has covered every story at least once ... and faked his way through "Album of Classics" too.
KOMO broadcast center, as it was when Bryan Johnson started there in 1959

KOMO broadcast center, as it was when Bryan Johnson started there in 1959 KOMO, via Wikipedia

Bryan Johnson, circa 1960s

Bryan Johnson, circa 1960s KOMO

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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Comments:

Posted Sat, Oct 10, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Feliks,
Thanks for doing this piece. Fifty years later, Bryan is still one of the best in town.

Casey Corr

Posted Sat, Oct 10, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Puff piece. Pretty much useless. No real information here. Having been around so long and seen so much what does he think of...(you name it)?

The current state of government
Tim Eyman
The Bush administration/The Obama administration, etc.

The piece does not get inside his mind at all.

CarlyBoaz

Posted Sun, Oct 11, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

It's a 50th anniversary profile, not an exposé. Perhaps we'll hear about Johnson's opinions once he retires from KOMO.

I caught the tail end of KOMO 1000's piece on Johnson last night, and remember thinking "Bryan Johnson? THAT Bryan Johnson? Not possible. 1959?" But then I Googled for him when I got home, and up popped this piece. Fifty years in broadcasting, at one station — in 2009, that is news in itself. And the bits about the Kennedy assassination, Johnson's having been born in Britain and studied Russian at the UW, and being engaged (congratulations! perhaps he should read Anthony Robinson's piece, http://crosscut.com/2009/10/07/lifestyle-leisure/19281/) were things I never knew. Anyone can have an opinion on Tim Eyman, but these historical and personal details are what help make broadcasters more human, I think.

Little did I know when I first started becoming aware of Johnson when I was a kid in the early '80s that he'd already been on KOMO for 20+ years! Amazing.

Posted Mon, Oct 12, 8:10 a.m. Inappropriate

An "old school" journalist in the very best sense. We all have biases, but Bryan has been one of the very best at presenting facts and analysis without letting an agenda creep in -- instark contrast to far too many in the news media today.

Posted Mon, Oct 12, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

I think the caption on your picture may be inaccurate. As I recall, KOMO lost their NBC affiliation to KING in 1958, the same year that KIRO won the CBS affiliation away from KTNT.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Oct 12, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Bryan is a "reporter's reporter": funny, smart, fearless and not so cynical. I loved being on the streets with him "back in the day" when we were both competitive and helpful to one another. And I had no idea it had been 50 years. Congrats, Bryan. Kathleen Warren

Posted Mon, Oct 12, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

CarlyBoaz: Johnson has always been a true professional, a reporter who doesn't let his own opinions interfere with reporting the news. There are plenty of loudmouths out there bloviating about Eyman, Obama, Bush, etc.; I want to read about the man himself.

bigyaz

Posted Mon, Oct 12, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Bryan has long been one of the grown-ups in the TV-radio biz -- serious, as unbiased as reporters can be, and a helluva good story-teller. And what a great milestone!

Ammons

Posted Wed, Oct 14, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Bryan also takes reporting seriously. Not as a vehicle for fame, but as a responsibility in being an informed citizen. Substance over Style.

Years ago (1972, 73 ish) as an intern in news, I worked at a station that was one of several that shared a radio frequency used by reporters in the field. Bryan had just "scooped" a good one at city hall and was radioing in to the city desk at KOMO that he had a great story, then remembered others were listening in... and said, I will be at the studio shortly, I will need an editing room, and make room in the next newscast for this. The newscaster at my station giggled, and picked up the mic and said, "Aw Comeon Bryan, Share!" to which he responded, "You can listen in like the rest of em..."...

From time to time he does offer opinions. If one takes time to listen to KOMO, you would know the answers to where he stands on a lot of issues.

A good reporter. Congrats on 50 years... and thanks Feliks.

Posted Mon, Oct 19, 3:53 p.m. Inappropriate

During my 28 years at King County Courthouse I always enjoyed chatting with Bryan when he was there on business; but never could understand how he could speak just like the locals, rather than his proper British accent.
Owen Clarke

Posted Fri, Oct 30, 4:21 p.m. Inappropriate

I received this tribute and comment from Barbara Spaeth:

Bryan’s intellectual and intestinal fortitude is legendary, as he clearly knew his own limits within the dynamics of a locally owned broadcasting company. Our region is lucky that Fisher Broadcasting and Bryan have maintained that balance for a half century. Bryan was news director at KOMO-AM when the famous billboard was posted asking the last person leaving Seattle to turn out the lights. Jobs were evaporating, but he hired me then to not only report, but to anchor newscasts when not another major station in the market would give a female voice such a chance, and his program director at the time (who shall remain nameless) was sure it would kill the ratings. It didn’t. Working with Bryan and for him was exciting and fulfilling for anyone serious about journalism’s mission to accurately report the workings of our government and economy. For all of his sometimes cynical away-from-the-microphone cracks, he was a compassionate colleague who overcame many challenges in early life. I will never forget his tales of training himself to speak with an American accent and doing mattress commercials in his early radio career. Bryan is surely one of the smartest people ever to fall prey to the calling of journalism – our good fortune. Barbara Stenson Spaeth

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