KRSC: Seattle's Radio and TV Pioneers

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 3/06/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9342

Of Seattle's earliest telecommunications pioneers, the long-gone KRSC radio and television media outlets could claim a most significant corporate history. One of the Pacific Northwest's first AM radio stations, KRSC ultimately expanded to include a trail-blazing sister station on the FM dial. Then in 1948 the region's first television station, KRSC-TV, was launched. But aside from that primacy, it was the actual content aired by those stations that remains particularly important: some of the nation's very first broadcasts hosted by talented African American performers including future R&B, jazz, and pop star, Ray Charles. In addition, KRSC-TV would have a lasting impact in its final incarnation as Seattle's esteemed KING-TV.

Kelvinator Radio Sales Corp. and its Talent Roster

Founded by Palmer K. Leberman -- president of the town's Kelvinator electric refrigerator distributorship (1202 5th Avenue) -- and managing partner, Robert E. Priebe (d. 1998) – a Franklin High grad who had attained his wireless operator's license back in 1922 -- the tiny, 50-watt Kelvinator Radio Sales Corporation (KRSC) AM station began broadcasting from his lakeside home (251 40th Avenue N), on June 30, 1927. In time KRSC was relocated to the Henry Building (1318 4th Avenue), and then to a tiny rooftop room at the Washington Athletic Club (1325 6th Avenue). Eventually KRSC moved to Leberman's Kelvinator shop on 5th Avenue. 

KRSC was not one of Seattle's better financed stations (like KJR, KXA, or KOL) but it did hire some fine on-air talent.  Among the notable employees at KRSC was Ephrata's Baxter Ward Schwellenbach who, at the age of 16, was hired as a news announcer in 1935. After dropping his surname, Ward went on to radio work in Spokane and eventually in Los Angeles where he became a prominent television anchor and two-time mayoral candidate. Then there was Jim "Stay-Up Stan, the All-Night Record Man" Neidigh who had first caused a stir as early as 1939 over at KXA. KRSC also employed Seattle's legendary sports broadcaster, Leo Lassen, for a while and by the war years the station was ensconced at an all-new building (2939 4th Avenue S).

Meanwhile, as Priebe attended to his other businesses -- Electronic Communications Engineering Co. (1411 4th Avenue) and Robert E. Priebe & Sons Inc. (1203 Western Avenue) -- a new manager was brought aboard: University of Washington professor Ted Bell who in 1943 hired one of his students, Don McCune, as a DJ -- thereby launching the career of someone who locals would eventually come to be widely known as host of the KOMO-TV program, Captain Puget. KRSC also filled a good portion of its evening airtime by broadcasting from remote locations -- one particularly popular show was the regular broadcasting of Lois Apple and her Orchestra live in performance from Seattle's Crescent Ballroom (1512 Sixth Avenue).

Gearing Up for TV

It was around 1947 or so that a second station -- KRSC-FM -- was launched in an old corner grocery store building on Queen Anne Hill (301 Galer), and simultaneously the FCC began breathing down the necks of Leberman and Priebe. The duo had locked up the right to form Seattle's first television station but the government -- concerned that they'd taken too much time to launch it -- were threatening to withdraw the license. By that time newspapers had been hyping the promising new technology of TV enough that an estimated 600 sets had sold, well before anything at all was being broadcast! 

So, although they were concerned about start-up costs – and the little matter of exactly what content they might air -- Leberman took the step of hiring Lee Schulman, who had already worked for NBC-TV in New York. As Director of Programming Schulman kick-started the project, oversaw the erection of a $25,000 transmitter tower on Queen Anne Hill, de-bugged their new camera gear, and staffed up (including adding Neidigh as an advertising salesman). 

Testing: One. Two. Three ...

After months of delays, Schulman and Chief Engineer, George Freeman, figured KRSC-TV was ready to begin a few test broadcasts. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that one test (on November 10, 1948) saw a curious crowd gather downtown at Frederick & Nelson's department store to huddle around a tiny TV in order glimpse the odd broadcast images of people at KRSC studio: the "Men wore brown lipstick and women blue, while powder on the faces made them look like walking cadavers in the flesh, though they produced well on screens."

Two weeks later, on November 25, 1948, KRSC-TV made its inaugural broadcast -- a cost-free Thanksgiving Day airing of a championship high school football game between West Seattle and Wenatchee that was called by Bell on-air (AM, FM, and TV) in what has been credited as "one of the nation's first triple-casts" (Corr). The TV image that historic day may have been weak and grainy, but it impressed all viewers -- including the local Stimson lumber empire heiress Dorothy Bullitt (1892-1989),  who sent Leberman a bouquet of congratulatory flowers. 

Alone In The City 

Station management began scouring the town seeking out talents who could fill the hours with decent content. Like early radio around the nation, many broadcast hours would be booked with "block programming" -- 15-minute or half-hour or one-hour blocks of time purchased by sponsoring companies of other advertisers. These could range from bread bakeries, to breweries, to, well, the Kelvinator appliance shop. Another option that arose at KRSC was to have area musicians pay to play -- which is how the FM station began airing the live music of the Maxin Trio -- a popular jazzy African American group who coughed up their own $15 a week for a 15-minute weekly show on Saturdays at 4 p.m. -- mainly in order to get free advertising for their upcoming nightclub gigs.

KRSC-TV made history by airing some of the first ever TV shows hosted by African Americans.  For instance the Amana appliance company sponsored a show by Seattle's singing boogie-woogie pianist, Merceedees Welcker -- and she penned and regularly performed the sly ditty: "It's nice to have aman-a-round the house." 

Then too, the Maxin Trio shifted over to the TV station, once again to hype their money-making dance gigs. And the trio, of course, ended up recording Seattle's first R&B 78 rpm disc in 1948 -- "Confession Blues" (and soon after, "Alone In The City") -- and their singer/pianist, Ray Charles went on to global fame. 

All Hail the KING

Quality entertainment aside, the early TV business was shaky. With so few sets in family homes, it was difficult to get the advertising support a station needed and Leberman and Priebe grew edgy about their entire enterprise. Indeed, within months they sold KRSC to Dorothy Bullitt (who had already purchased KEVR in 1947 and recast it as KING radio) for more than $300,000.

KRSC was quickly converted to KING-TV and the struggling station wisely retained Schulman as Program Director, and Neidigh as General Sales Manager for two decades. Meanwhile, Priebe hung onto KRSC-AM radio until 1950 when he sold it and the station (at 2939 4th Avenue S) gained a new lease on life as KAYO -- and in 1981 his Electronic Communications Engineering Co. sold and morphed into the Redmond-based Priebe Electronics.

But the KRSC to KING evolution represented admirable beginnings to the ongoing story of the telecommunications industry in this region. With the launching of popular shows hosted by local talents including Art Barduhn and Stan Boreson, and "Sheriff Tex" Jim Lewis, the hearts of the community were quickly won over and TV sales would skyrocket. 


Sources:

"Chronology of call letters: KRSC -- TV Radio Broadcast History," wikia entertainment website accessed on February 23, 2009 (http://broadcasting.wikia.com/wiki/Chronology_of_call_letters_KRSC); Jon Hahn, "Don McCune Dead At 73 ...," obituary, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 29, 1993, p. B-1; Carole Beers, "Robert E. Priebe, Owned Seattle's First TV Station," obituary, The Seattle Times, August 21, 1998  (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Myrna Oliver," Baxter Ward, 82; Political Maverick," obituary, Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2002, p. B-10; Clayton Park, "History House director [Jim Neidigh] resigns to get hitched at age 80," Jet City Maven, January 2001; HistoryLink.org, The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Viewers watch Puget Sound's first wide-audience TV broadcast on November 25, 1948," (by Alan J. Stein), www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 17, 2009); O. Casey Corr, "The Day Seattle Got TV -- `It's Cute, But I Don't Think It'll Ever Amount To Much,' A Radio Broadcaster Concluded," The Seattle Times, October 6, 1996, (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Michael Lydon, Ray Charles: Man and Music (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 55-56; Ray Charles & David Ritz, Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story (New York: Warner Books, 1979), 112-113; Delphine Haley, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt: An Uncommon Life (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2001), 225-226.


Related Topics:   Media

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You