Ancil Payne, one of the most influential broadcasters in the Pacific Northwest, served as president and chief executive officer of King Broadcasting Company from 1971 to his retirement in 1987. The Great Depression and military service during World War II motivated him to work for a better society, and after graduating from the University of Washington he became involved in politics. He was top aide to the New Deal Democrat U.S. Representative Hugh B. Mitchell (1907-1996) for four years, then spent seven years in business ventures. In 1959, Dorothy Bullitt (1892-1989), board chairwoman of King Broadcasting, offered him a job at King. He relished his work in television and ultimately became president of King Broadcasting. He was a superb manager, reviving the financially troubled company, and shepherding it through a period of growth and expansion. Payne enjoyed politics, thrived on debate, and editorialized his progressive views on everything from the Vietnam War (he was opposed) to protecting the environment to red-baiting. Payne believed that airing opposing views was necessary in a democratic society. He also saw television as a powerful tool to inform and enlighten the citizenry as well as to entertain and sell goods. Ancil Payne died of cancer on October 2, 2004.
Growing Up In The Great Depression
Ancil Payne was born on September 5, 1921, in Mitchell, a central Oregon hamlet, to Leslie and Pearl Brown Payne. Leslie Payne worked as a handyman and painter, finding what jobs he could during the Great Depression, and Pearl taught in the one-room village school. The family moved to The Dalles, Oregon -- population about 3,500 at the time -- where Ancil and his older brother, Gleason, attended junior high and high school.
Payne remembered the hard times "very vividly."
His early promise as a leader was nurtured by his high school principal, Paul McCullough. "Beyond my immediate family, he was probably the most influential person in my life," Payne said. Young Ancil was bright, had a "capacity for work" (Duus), a facile tongue, and a way with words. He was a debater, yell leader, honor student, and student body president. He graduated from The Dalles High School in 1939 and spent two years at Willamette University on an academic scholarship, before transferring to the University of Oregon.
World War II interrupted his education after the 1941 fall quarter, when he joined the U.S. Navy. He served more than three years in the South Pacific theater, aboard an old destroyer and an attack transport, rising from gob to lieutenant. The war, especially the bloody invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, invigorated him and other altruistic-minded buddies and veterans to look for a better way. They had high hopes for "the possibility of building a better society," Payne said.
"The first necessity of political life is, you’ve got to be mad at something!" he said.
The World of Politics
He attended the University of Washington after the war, majoring in political science and graduating in 1946, Phi Beta Kappa. He had expected to teach, but accepted an offer to be regional director for the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). It was a new group, formed to thwart the influence of communists on the Democrat left, and among its prominent supporters was Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962). When Hugh B. Mitchell, a New Deal Democrat, ran for the 1st Congressional District seat in 1948, Payne joined his campaign. Mitchell wasn’t supposed to win, but he defeated Republican incumbent Homer R. Jones (1893-1970) by a sliver-thin margin.
Payne spent four years in Washington, D.C., as Mitchell’s top aide, and he "loved it." He said, "There was a genuine feeling of camaraderie. The members of Congress were respectful of each other’s positions. You didn’t see any of this real hatred you see today ... and you were in the capital of the world."
Eric Bremner, former president of King Broadcasting broadcast properties, said of Payne, "He loves politics … the power to do good things …. Governance, not partisanship and divisiveness."
Mitchell and Payne were a study in contrasts. Mitchell was a courteous, reserved, low-key, bespectacled Scotsman. Payne recalled: "I never saw such an unlikely political figure in my life." Payne, on the other hand, looked senatorial, was congenitally enthusiastic, opinionated, a compulsive storyteller, an "elegant mixture of sophisticated urbanite and comfortable homebody" (Haley) and "larger than life" (Chasen).
Also on Mitchell’s staff was Valerie Dorrance Davies, who had previously worked for her brother, Representative John C. Davies (b. 1920), for the one term he served as a rare Democrat from their upper New York state district. Payne and Valerie married in 1959, "after an eight-year romance," and have three daughters: Anne, Alison, and Lucinda.
Mitchell ran again in 1950, against Mildred Powell, a Seattle City Councilwoman, and Payne managed the campaign. In its midst, he discovered the mysterious power of television, and he never tired of recounting the story.
The Power of Television to Persuade
Payne’s "very conservative" brother Gleason called to say he had seen Helen Gahagan Douglas (1900-1980) on television and told Ancil, "I think I’m going to vote for her. She’s smart. She came off very well on the television." Gahagan Douglas -- beautiful ex-actress, three-term congresswoman, devoted liberal -- was seeking a Senate seat against U.S. Representative Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) in 1950, in one of the most scurrilous red-baiting campaigns of the era. Television was in its black-and-white, fuzzy, flickering infancy, but if it could persuade his conservative brother to support Gahagan Douglas, Payne figured it was worth a try.
He bought a half-hour on KING-TV, the only Seattle station on the air, and trotted out Mitchell, Mitchell's attractive wife Kathryn, and the children: a gap-toothed Bruce, 5, and cute Elizabeth (Lissa), 2½, for a family interview. Payne included the family because Mitchell "just didn’t carry" and he believes it was the first time a politician’s family was interviewed on television. But Lissa’s fanny itched, she had to scratch, she said so loudly, and she stole the show. Payne, watching from a tavern across the street, was aghast, until he realized the tavern patrons were captivated. So were other viewers, he learned later.
"Wasn’t that great?" he recalled. "I should have called every columnist in town."
Mitchell ran for governor in 1952, though his congressional seat was considered safe. Despite the fact that state Senate Majority Leader Al Rosellini (b. 1910) called him "left-wing," Mitchell won the primary. (Rosellini was a usually liberal fellow-Democrat who had himself been red-baited in the past.) Governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) picked up the "left-wing" theme in the general election and easily defeated Mitchell. Payne never forgave Rosellini.
Langlie was "the only politician I worked against who I had absolutely no use for," Payne said with characteristic bluntness. "He was a Bible thumper."
Mitchell had earlier invested in Martin Van Lines and he asked Payne to help launch a container program in Anchorage, Alaska. Payne spent three years in Alaska and while there, kept his hand in politics by working on the campaign to gain statehood for the territory.
He then worked in land development in the Portland, Oregon, area until 1959, when a friend from Seattle days, Stimson Bullitt (b. 1919), asked for some help on a book he was writing. Payne subsequently was introduced to Bullitt’s mother, Dorothy S. Bullitt (1892-1989), board chairwoman of King Broadcasting Co. She offered him a job as assistant to business division vice-president Henry Owen, who had helped her launch her first radio station in Seattle in 1947.
By 1959, King Broadcasting operated three television stations and five radio stations in Seattle, Portland, and Spokane. King was already an establishment-shaking presence in the Pacific Northwest and rapidly becoming a major player in the national broadcasting scene. Its flagship station, KING-TV in Seattle, was developing a "singular esprit" (Corr), rooted in the "immutable values" of Dorothy Bullitt (Bremner). Dorothy Stimson Bullitt was 67, strong-willed, "very, very shrewd" (Payne), Victorian-proper, adept at besting overconfident adversaries in the male-dominated business world, and well on her way to becoming a "living legend" (Haley). She may have manifested a noblesse oblige but, Payne said, "she did not like to lose" (Haley). Her immutable values included a strong obligation to public service, using her stations to serve the community -- her "home town" (Bremner).
Dorothy Bullitt's Eye for Talent
She hired like-minded, dedicated talent, who responded with some of the most provocative, innovative, award-winning programming in the country. The industry acknowledged Dorothy Bullitt’s accomplishments by naming her to the National Association of Broadcasters Code Board, its first woman. She continued to add awards and honorary degrees, and Governor Rosellini appointed her to membership on the University of Washington’s Board of Regents, on which she served from 1958 to 1965.
When Owen finally retired in 1963, Payne became vice president for business. Stimson Bullitt had been named president of King Broadcasting in 1961, but Dorothy Bullitt remained chairwoman of the board. In a 1965 reorganization, Stimson Bullitt sent Payne to Portland as corporate vice president and general manager of KGW-TV, KGW-AM, and KINK-FM.
Payne settled easily into the top executive’s role in Portland and his tenure was successful. Mrs. Bullitt “was no left-wing liberal,” Payne said, but she gave her managers free rein to explore progressive concerns. He enjoyed using his bully pulpit to editorialize on a range of issues, from the Vietnam War and the environment to racism and red-baiting. KGW-TV’s commentator was Tom McCall (1913-1983), who would go on to serve two terms as Oregon’s governor, from 1967 to 1975.
“That had to be the best period in the history of television,” Payne recalled. “We had freedom to do things. Networks didn’t control the entire operation. Money just came over the transom.”
The anti-war editorials coincided with Payne’s membership on the Oregon Board of Higher Education, and a time when students “were ripping places apart” (The Weekly).
Back in Seattle, Stimson Bullitt had brought a progressive agenda and some lofty ideals to King Broadcasting. KING-TV continued to make national news with its tough documentaries and frequent audacity. The news department, encouraged to pursue investigative journalism, exposed corruption in the county prosecutor’s office and police department. It brought Seattle’s racial troubles to viewers’ living rooms in 1969. The station had shocked the industry in 1952 by barring Senator Joseph McCarthy (1909-1957) from delivering an allegedly libelous attack on the air, despite threats from McCarthy that he would have the station’s license.
In December 1966, Stim Bullitt stunned the KING-TV audience, the industry, and the political establishment with an editorial calling for de-escalation of the Vietnam War. By the mid-1960s, television had overtaken newspapers as the major source of news for the majority of Americans, but television editorializing on subjects of consequence was rare, and unheard of on such a volatile issue. As Eric Bremner said, “It took courage.”
Stim, as he is known, began buying cable television systems, invested in downtown Seattle real estate, and launched Seattle magazine and King Screen, a film production company. Unfortunately, “he didn’t like broadcasters or broadcasting very much” (Bremner).
The Boeing Bust and Other Difficulties
By 1970, King’s glory days dimmed and red ink was projected for the upcoming ledger. The TV industry had recently lost millions of dollars in cigarette advertising, which depressed other advertising rates. Seattle was deep in a Boeing bust and unemployment was high, further eroding advertising income. KING-TV had lost its long-held No.1 news ranking. Personality conflicts had driven out several key executives. Morale was low.
Stim Bullitt asked Payne to take over King Broadcasting’s day-to-day management, as chief operating officer. Payne agreed, with some reluctance. While in Portland, he had fashioned a comfortable “fiefdom” (Bremner), insulating himself from the tensions in Seattle.
Strains soon developed between the old friends, however, and Stim resigned as president in December 1971. Nine months later, he sold his interest in King Broadcasting to his sisters, Harriett Bullitt and Patsy Bullitt Collins, and took the company’s real estate holdings. Payne became president and chief executive officer of King Broadcasting. Dorothy Bullitt remained chairwoman of the board.
It was a difficult period, for the Bullitt family, for King Broadcasting, and for Payne. Not the least of Payne’s problems was divining Mrs. Bullitt, who maintained a sharp eye on her properties. She never lectured Payne nor gave him a direct order, he often said, but he knew what she wanted. “Absolutely.”
It also was a difficult period for the country, including Seattle. Racial tensions had abated in the Central District, but the area’s economy remained depressed and the Vietnam War remained a contentious issue.
Nonetheless, Payne slowly restored King’s financial health, dumping the company’s money-losing entities, trimming staff, and upgrading equipment. He also reconnected with the downtown business establishment and continued to add broadcasting properties. By the 1980s, King owned stations in Seattle, Portland, Spokane, Boise, San Francisco, and Honolulu, several cable systems, and the largest mobile TV production company in the Pacific Northwest.
Accolades and Accomplishments
Payne continued to add minorities to the staff, as Stim Bullitt had done. Women were hired in key positions including news anchor, and KING-TV regained its No.1 news position. Dorothy Bullitt called him “the best manager in the business” (Haley). Bremner said: “Ancil saved King.”
The news department continued to make waves. A report on flammable children’s sleepwear prompted federal action. In 1975, KING-TV helped bring down August Mardesich (1920-2016), Senate majority leader and the most powerful member of the state Legislature. Mardesich had beaten an indictment for extortion and tax fraud, but KING-TV explored how money greased the legislative skids and Mardesich ultimately resigned the majority leader post. Riding herd on free-wheeling, strong personalities in the newsroom, however, was not easy because the “singular esprit” occasionally became “institutional arrogance” (Bremner).
Unlike Stim Bullitt, who tended to cloister himself, Payne was a schmoozer who regularly stopped by the news department to rally the troops and “take care of the conscience-tending” (Bremner). Payne was particularly proud of the newsroom “alumni” who went on to network careers, and of those who returned to KING-TV after network stints.
Payne also was a regular in the coffee shop, but so was Dorothy Bullitt, who used her daily visits to check the station’s pulse. “There were a lot of people in the coffee shop who thought they had her ear and thought they were shaping their own destiny and that of those around them. She hated that, by the way” (Bremner).
With King’s finances and morale improving, Payne returned to occasional editorials, with opinions rarely found anywhere in the mass media, much less television. He relished knowing that he addressed “500,000 people” each night. With resolute voice, colorful language, and a sharp tongue, he continued to rebuke the Vietnam War as well as the gun lobby, “Rambo” cops, nuclear testing, prayer in public schools, President Nixon, homophobia, and later, President Ronald Reagan’s (b. 1911) Iran-Contra scandal and general duplicity. He enjoyed robust debate and invited critics to respond on the air.
Such contentiousness was rare -- if not dangerous -- for television stations, whose valuable licenses (“licenses to steal,” some critics said at the time) were bestowed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). KING-TV’s editorials against the Vietnam War angered Presidents Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) and Nixon, as well as Senator Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson (1912-1983), an avowed hawk. Ominously, the Nixon administration’s anti-media war escalated in the early 1970s, and it included attempts to lift the licenses of two Washington Post stations and gut public television.
If Payne was a news junkie, he saw nothing wrong with enlightening audiences through entertainment, arguing that Bill Cosby and Archie Bunker did more for raising awareness of racism than a dozen documentaries. Nor did he deny the limitations of TV news. “Anybody who gets all their news from television is a goddamned idiot,” he said, in his usual blunt manner.
Troubles at NBC
In 1975, Payne was appointed chairman of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) Board of Affiliates, a prestigious post. Networks provide the national and international news and entertainment programming for their affiliated stations and the stations provide the audiences for the networks' advertisers. NBC had been running a comfortable second to the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), but had been overtaken in prime time by the upstart American Broadcasting Company (ABC), with its hipper, youth-oriented lineup. (In Seattle, there was an ironic back story to the network battle. Dorothy Bullitt had wrestled the NBC affiliation from the Fisher family’s KOMO in 1958, which left KOMO with ABC.)
“Ancil and a couple of previous chairmen held the affiliate body together,” Eric Bremner said, encouraging them to stick with NBC. But he also challenged the network to improve its entertainment programming, on behalf of the affiliates. “Ancil literally saved NBC from disintegration,” Bremner said.
Former NBC board chairman Grant Tinker said, “When times were bleakest, Ancil stood tallest” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
With the rise of media conglomerates in the 1990s, however, the affiliate boards lost some of their clout.
Life After Retirement
Ancil Payne retired on June 30, 1987, at age 65, as he insisted he would, after 28 years with King Broadcasting. Not long before his death he said, “I wouldn’t be in the business again for anything.” Dorothy Bullitt had relinquished her seat as chairwoman of the board to her daughter Patsy Collins in 1975, and Harriett Bullitt became chairwoman of the executive committee.
Dorothy Bullitt died on June 27, 1989, at 97, and her daughters, with no passion for broadcasting and a falling market for television properties, decided to sell.
Payne, still a member of the board, was asked to broker the sale and in 1991 King’s television and cable properties were sold to The Providence Journal Company.
Payne endowed the Ancil Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism at the University of Oregon, a scholarship at Willamette University, and scholarships at The Dalles High School. "Ancil is a real hero at The Dalles High School," said Paul Duus, guidance counselor supervisor. After retirement, he was active in several civic organizations, including Centrum, the Monday Club, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ancil Payne died of cancer in Seattle on October 2, 2004. He is survived by his wife, Valerie, of Seattle; daughters Alison Payne-Baader of London, Lucinda Payne Santiago of St. Louis, and Anne Barker of Bainbridge Island; as well as by four grandchildren.