KRKO: Everett's Historic Radio Station

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 12/06/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9620

With roots dating back to the dawn of the radio industry around 1919, Everett's venerable KRKO (1380 AM) radio station has a rich history. Like numerous other American radio stations, Everett's first began as a tiny experimental 5-watt hobby project run by beginner radio buffs, grew in power and sophistication over many decades. In the 1920s its self-referential motto was "The Voice of Puget Sound" and decades later it fancied itself as "The Heartbeat of Snohomish County." In more recent times KRKO -- now with a sports talk format -- has marketed itself as "NorthSound 1380" and today, as a 50,000-watt giant, it serves the community as one of Washington's oldest continuously operating radio stations, and one of only a handful remaining as locally owned, independent commercial stations in the state.

Radio's Early Days

Among the pioneering first-generation radio stations in Washington state were Olympia's (ca. 1921) KGY, Seattle's (ca. 1921) KFC, Tacoma's (ca. 1922) KGB -- and Everett's KFBL, the precursor to today's KRKO. All of them emerged due to the efforts of amateur enthusiasts who had been captivated by the rapid evolution of the medium and the surprisingly simple electronic gear required to broadcast radio waves.

Early experiments trace back to the nineteenth century, and initial applications largely involved radio-telegraphy (the broadcasting of dot-dash type Morse Code messages originally sent via hard-wired telegraph systems), but by the early twentieth century the pace of development accelerated. In 1904 music was transmitted over the air in Austria, and in 1906 R. A. Fessenden broadcast the first known transmission of music and the human voice in the United States.

World War I disrupted all this progress a bit when, in 1917, the U. S. Navy -- fearful that external enemies and internal spies might use radio technology against America -- took over all development in the field while the government grabbed all U.S. patents related to the radio realm. At war's end in 1919 the government eased up, let loose those patents, and the floodgates opened: That year saw not only the emergence of one of America's great telecommunication companies, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), but also the emergence of legions of civilian radio buffs who began giving broadcasting a try. 

Amateur Hour

It was back on August 1, 1919, that an experimental radio station was founded in the town of Everett. The station was owned and operated by two brothers -- Otto Leese (2214 Colby Avenue) and Robert H. "Bob" Leese (1812 Wetmore Avenue) -- who had worked for years as automobile repairmen. The Leese brothers' mechanics garage (2818 Rucker Avenue) was adjacent to the Pioneer Building (2814-2816 Rucker Avenue) -- an historic downtown structure that was, when built back in 1892, credited as being the very first brick building erected "on the Bay side of the townsite" (The Everett Times).

There the brothers had begun manufacturing batteries for automobiles -- but as businessmen in a salty seaport town, they surely also knew that early ship-to-shore radios were powered by batteries and that the radio realm was centered around maritime industries and was mainly of interest to sailors, fishermen, and the Navy. When the radio phenomenon erupted in 1919 the duo were among the growing ranks of those who'd become fascinated with the new technology and its potential applications. Thus -- by using scrounged items including a car battery, a few vacuum tubes, and some copper wire (as an antenna) -- they had founded a tiny 5-watt land-based broadcasting station in their shop.

Unfortunately, the neighboring Pioneer Building was home to a rough and tumble workingman's abode, Mrs. Florence Young's Norway Hotel (2814 ½ Rucker Avenue), whose rooms surrounded the radio "studio" space and that adjacency made for some rather unpredictable broadcasting incidents. It seems that the lack of adequate soundproofing combined with the untamed Prohibition Era hotel clientele was an untenable mix: "the noises of wild drinking parties, furniture smashing and vigorous amorous emanating from this hell-raising establishment sometimes intermingled with the program being broadcast."

Early on the station welcomed visits from area amateurs who wished to sing or play their musical instrument over the airwaves -- but those innocents sometimes went away with their eyes opened just a bit. "Youthful ukulele twangers and aspiring female vocalists would come out the studio only to find themselves in the midst of a crowd of longshoremen aglow with moonshine and girls clad in gaudy kimonos being assembled for a ride to the hoosegow" [e.g. jail] (Friberg).

A License for Land Radio

Within but a few years the radio realm grew into a robust commercial industry -- one that necessarily drew the attentions of the government. Broadcasting activity had increased to the point that in September 1921, the feds stepped in to begin regulating radio communications. By 1922 operators -- hobbyists and budding commercial entrepreneurs alike – were required to apply to the U.S. Bureau of Navigation (Department of Commerce) for an operating license.

On August 17 the agency approved a provisional (three-month) "License For Land Radio" which allowed the Leese brothers to operate a "Limited Commercial" station. The station would be limited to "Broadcasting entertainment and like matter only, but their hours were noted as "unlimited," though they were required to employ a second class (or higher) operator (engineer). Assigned the call letters of KFBL (1340 kilohertz) the tiny station made its first legit broadcasts on August 25, 1922.

In early 1925 the station was placed into temporary hibernation while its studio was moved to a nearby building (2814 Rucker Avenue) which offered more space. Based on top of that two-story building, the station multiplied its broadcast power to 50-watts, and sent their signal via two new 40-foot wooden towers which held the 72-foot long wire cage "L"-type antenna. In late-February KFBL reemerged as a 100-watt station, but in late 1926 it was forced to dial back to 50-watts.

The Voice of Puget Sound

KFBL, which had begun marketing itself as "The Voice of Puget Sound" in 1927,  soon hired support staff including two operators, A. R. Tingstad and C. A. Hampton; an advertising and promotion director, Leon W. Hammond; and a program director and chief announcer, Clarence M. "Doc" Miller. The station prided itself on quality -- their slogan was "Programs only of a high grade and distinctive character are permitted" (KBFL brochure). A vintage promotional brochure touted their facility's amenities:

"From a small beginning has developed a condition which has warranted the installation of this modern broadcasting studio. ... The Studio is modern in every respect. The acoustics are augmented by draped walls and ceilings, thus helping produce perfect modulation. …The Aeolian Organ is a recent addition of which few stations can boast.  When this station was moved to its present quarters it was planned to make it modern and convenient for patrons and entertainers who have occasion to use the studio" (KBFL brochure).

Perhaps even more impressive than all that was the fact that the entire station was run off a Leese Brothers-made "storage battery" -- one with "very high voltage, more than three times sufficient for an electric chair."

KFBL to KRKO

On November 11, 1928, the government reallocated the frequency position for most of America's broadcasters and KFBL was assigned 1370 kHz. At that time the station manager and chief operator was Lee E. Mudgett. On May 15, 1934, the appropriately named Leese brothers agreed to lease KFBL to Mudgett who hired C. Leslie Harris as manager. Soon after, papers were filed with the brand new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to change the call-sign -- and on July 12 KFBL became KRKO. In September KRKO's studio and transmitter were moved to 1804 Hewitt Avenue.

In 1935 Mudgett became station manager and he developed ambitious plans for his station. In late 1936 he acquired a long-term lease for a new studio site at the old Little Theatre -- in the Clark Building, which had once housed Clark & Company's store (SE corner of Wetmore Avenue and Hewitt Avenue) -- though the transmitter towers remained at the Rucker Street site. This 300 Clark Building venue was remodeled into an excellent broadcast facility including soundproofed walls and a floor buffeted with rubber. A public Open House event was held on January 30, 1937. The former staff of three was expanded to a dozen and it now included announcer Cliff Hansen, musical director Roy Mack, publicist Mary Kocher, technician Roy Mason, and news editor and salesman William F. "Bill" Knehr.

Though KRKO was the proud owner of a record library consisting of 1,700 discs -- with additional storage space for 3,300 more -- much of the programming content in 1937 was live. It included such things as news briefs, a religious talk show hosted by a preacher, farm bulletins, classical records, Scandinavian records, a poetry recital, Hawaiian records, society news, "Doodlebug" (a local talent revue), the Cascade Hill Billies (a local band), and sports news. In addition, KRKO allowed airtime for members of the Everett High School Radio Guild -- one of whom, Wally Nelskog, went on to a great radio career, advancing from announcer to eventual founder of an entire chain of stations all across the Northwest.

Networking

As one writer noted in 1937: "KRKO, the only radio broadcasting station in Snohomish County, is naturally the Mecca for most of the aspiring air-wave artists living in the district. from the lad who can play a swing tune on his harmonica to the young lady who sings an aria from La Boheme" (Friberg). The station also took pride in helping along the careers of a few locals who went on to considerable success including Bob D'Aoust who rose to a gig with NBC in Washington D.C., and Mary "Maureen" O'Conner who later worked at KNX in Hollywood and signed with Warner Brothers.

In early 1938 Mudgett inked a deal that made KRKO both an affiliate of the region's Don Lee Network and the giant Mutual Broadcasting System which provided national and international news coverage. That same year the station's motto became: "The Voice of Everett and Snohomish County." 1938 also saw Knehr advanced to the general manager slot, and in mid-1939 a new Blau-Knox brand 179-foot vertical radiator was installed at the corner of Wetmore and Wall Streets behind the Everett First Presbyterian Church and  replaced the old towers at Rucker Street. That year Knehr moved to the commercial manager slot and Mudgett once again became general manager.

The Taft Dynasty

In 1937 Mudgett helped form the Everett Broadcasting Company -- and his equal financial partners were an Everett-based attorney, Fred Clanton, and a Seattle businessman named Archie Taft Jr. The latter was a member of a Northwest family who already had a deep background in the regional radio business. Archie Taft Sr., a proprietor of Seattle's Piper and Taft Sporting Goods shop (1107-1109 2nd Avenue), an early purveyor of crystal radio receiving sets, was the well-known operator of a few pioneering Northwest radio stations, including: KOL (1300 AM) and KGY (1240 AM), and his sons William R. "Bill" Taft (d. 1983) and Archie Jr. had been steeped in the radio biz. Archie Jr. was working as a salesman at KOL and in 1930 Bill began serving as manager of KGY in Olympia -- the town where he'd met a local girl, Thelma (1921-2009), who he married in 1938.

At the time KRKO was not that impressive. As Archie Jr. once recalled: "It was in an old loft on the top of a building. You wouldn’t want to have a customer come up there, it was such a rotten looking radio station. The equipment was put together with baling wire. It was just barely on the air, you might say" (Rundell, P.523). Still, in 1939 the Everett Broadcasting Co. was able to acquire the station simply by agreeing to take over its debts, and the following year brother Bill joined Archie Jr. as a fellow KOL salesman.

In 1940 KRKO was allowed to upgrade to 250-watts in the daytime and 100-watts at night. Then on March 29, 1941, the station endured another government-mandated shift of broadcast frequency, from 1370 to 1400 AM. That year the Tafts invested in the construction of the station's first vertical radiator antenna on a lot located a bit south of the Clark Building (on the northeast corner of Wetmore Avenue and Wall Street). Months later, after Japan's December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor, America was thrust into World War II and Archie was the first brother to answer the call to military service. In 1942 he bought out Mudgett and Clanton's interests and gave Bill a 51 percent controlling ownership of KRKO. He maintained that "It wasn’t really a gift since I hadn’t really paid anything for it either" (Rundell, p. 539). 

War Years and After

Thus in 1942 Bill took Thelma up to Everett and took charge: "I came up to KRKO as manager," Bill recalled, "because, frankly, they had no manager. Lee Mudgett ... was an engineer and made no pretense of being a manager. He couldn’t sell -- he couldn’t do anything except engineering. It was a desperate situation at that time. When I got to the station the first thing I noticed about Lee Mudgett was he had a stack of records about three feet high setting on the floor beside him. He just reached over and put one on the turntable; made no attempt to program at all. He was a complete dud on the air" (Rundell, p. 538).

Meanwhile, Thelma pitched in by doing the accounting, occasionally announcing the news, and -- in a years-long tradition -- playing an on-air fairy queen who read children's letters to Santa Claus. Elaine Towne -- wife of engineer Roy Towne -- was hired in the 1940s to work as an announcer and commercial scheduler. In addition, Earle Gerdon was hired as an announcer, David S. Foley was hired as an engineer but went on to also serve as an announcer, Warren Johnson -- Bill Taft's former colleague at KGY -- came aboard as a copywriter.

During those war years KRKO featured, among its programming, Mrs. Pat Mudgett hosting a special daily "Women in Wartime" program. Its goal was to "classify and clarify for women listeners war time facts regarding diet, health, foods, clothing and housing" in such a time of "fast moving change  and ... confusion, unfounded rumor and misunderstanding" (Radio At War).

In 1946 the station applied to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeking a boost in power that would allow it to reach more listeners in a broader area. In 1949 it received permission to move its frequency from 1400 to 1380 kHz, quadruple its power from 250 watts to 1,000 watts, and add a second vertical antenna.

The following year KRKO celebrated by purchasing KEVE radio's studios and transmission tower which were located at a rural site in north Everett. But that location proved to be inadequate and in time the Tafts donated the land -- near 9th Street and Broadway, on today's aptly named Tower Road -- to the City of Everett. This allowed access to a collection of parcels that in 1958 became the home of the new campus of  Everett Community College.

Independence Day

In the 1950s Archie Taft Jr. sold out his share of KRKO to Bill, who by 1957 had purchased a rural site along the Lowell-Larimer Road in Southeast Everett where they soon began building an all-new facility for KRKO.  Eight acres of farmland were cleared and the construction of a studio and two 225-foot steel antennas, was begun. Thelma Taft designed the state-of-the-art studios, which included four turntables and a top-of-the-line RCA console. The the new transmitter was a Gates model, the best of its day.

In the meantime, on August 1, 1957, KRKO celebrated its years of broadcasting with an Open House event for the public.  In addition to marking that milestone, Bill Taft also announced that the station would now be free from its former Mutual Broadcasting System affiliation. Instead it would be operated solely by his Everett Broadcasting Co.

Staffing changes were revealed: Johnson would be the station's new manager, Foley moved up from chief engineer to account executive, Tom Stedman was hired to head the station's new Merchandizing and Promotions Department, and two new disc jockeys -- Leon Zornes (a broadcasting student at Everett Community College) and Nat Brook (formerly with Seattle's KOMO) were added. And lastly, the KRKO News Bureau expanded its daily on-air coverage from dawn until midnight. Then, in December 1958, the FCC granted KRKO permission to increase their power to 5,000 watts -- a level that would suffice for several subsequent decades.

KRoKO Dial Rock

In the 1950s KRKO made efforts to appeal to local teens who liked rock 'n' roll music like Bill Haley and His Comet's trail-blazing hit, "Rock Around the Clock." The station began airing some of this new music via their Top-40 format, adopted a cartoon crocodile as a mascot, hyped themselves as broadcasting in "KRoK-O-phonic sound!" on your radio's "KRoKO Dial 1380" and even aired the antics of a talent named "Crocky." Teammates of Crocky included popular DJ's Duke Demiglio, Dale Good, Nat Brook, and Glenn Brooke

In early 1959 Glenn Brooke struck up a friendship with some local teenaged fans who had formed their own rock 'n' roll band. The Shades were a multi-racial doo-wop vocal group sometimes backed by various early local instrumental combos including the El Trey Trio. A very ambitious group, they managed to get themselves recorded in Seattle, and then signed to a hard-core rhythm & blues-based label, Aladdin Records, in California.

When that 45 disc was released, the Shades had difficulty persuading the big Seattle radio stations to support it with airplay, but Brooke jumped in and broke the song “Dear Lori” as KRKO's “Pick of the Week" -- a move that helped turn the tune into a notable West Coast hit. Brooke also booked the Shades as opening act for a local skating rink dance headlined by the national teen star, Bobby Darin. Incidentally, one of the Shades, Larry Nelson (1937-2007) went on to establish himself as one of the Northwest's premiere radio personalities in a multi-decade career.

The Heartbeat of Snohomish County

In 1960 KRKO's studios were moved to their new facilities (7115 Larimer Road), and by mid-decade the station expanded into a 24/7 broadcaster -- and also took on a sister station, KALE in Pasco. By that time KRKO's staffers included Bill and Thelma's son, Norman F. "Sparky" Taft, as local sales manager, manager Dale Watson, associate news editor Dale Good, and on-air DJ and announcer Robin Sherwood. The station prided itself on its " listenable blend of contemporary hits, sophisticated Country-Western and unforgettable favorites and standards" and adopted a new slogan: "Think Big. Think KRKO, The Happiest Sound around" (Image Northwest).

 In 1967 Everett Broadcasting System management revealed plans to expand the network by adding five additional stations – and perhaps even a television station -- in coming years. In the early 1970s KRKO's News Director was Shirley Bartholomew, in 1972 "Sparky" Taft was elevated to station manager, and Bill Taft remained President and general manager until the family sold the enterprise in 1976 to a Washington D.C.-based attorney.

Changing Times

In the 1980s KRKO saw many changes: Amidst various buyouts and turnovers of ownership, the station's studio was moved back downtown (2826 Colby Avenue), its call-sign altered twice – to KBAE ("Best Around Everett") and then KFRE ("Radio Free Everett") -- and its studios moved back once again to the Larimer Road facility. By the mid-1980s "Sparky" Taft reacquired, but lost control of the station in 1986 due to bankruptcy. In 1987 a local family – whose patriarch, Almer Skotdal, had been the founder of the historic West Coast Dairy Company -- acquired and reestablished KRKO which they manage as part of their S-R Broadcasting Co. enterprise. In 1997 the station moved to the 14th floor of the Key Bank Tower (2707 Colby Avenue).

Under Skotdal's leadership the station prospered, changed formats a few times, marketed itself as "The Heartbeat of Snohomish County," and brought aboard such popular air personalities as "Moose" Moran. By the 1990s KRKO -- which benefited from the skills of operations manager / air personality Mike "The Early Birdie" Purdy, news director Renae O'Keefe, and account manager Colleen Good -- continued flirting with various formats that ranged from Oldies music to Adult Contemporary sounds, to conservative talk ("Too Hot For Seattle"), to entertainment talk. KRKO finally settled on sports in 2002 and is now an affiliate with Fox Sports Radio.

The Skotdal Era

KRKO management began pondering the need for expanding its power level again as the population of surrounding Snohomish County exploded, and the solution was to apply for the required FCC permits (and local building code approvals) to build a radio transmitter facility composed of four antennas at a site (13400 block of Short School Road) outside the town of Snohomish. Although nearly 100 local non-profit agencies, schools, emergency services organizations, and elected officials wrote letters in support for expanded coverage for KRKO, certain other locals voiced various objections.

Those concerns ranged from visual blight, to potentially negative wildlife impacts, to fears about the theory that AM radio-waves may cause childhood leukemia. The controversy raged ahead for a decade with convoluted appeals and litigation, but finally the towers were approved and in 2007 the Herald noted that "After years of rancor and debate, construction has begun on four KRKO radio towers ... with plans to begin broadcasting in January," and once "operational, the station will increase its broadcasting power tenfold, from 5,000 watts to 50,000 watts." The opposition wasn't pleased, but S-R Broadcasting Co owner/manager, Andy Skotdal, was relieved to have finally plowed through so much land-use red tape: "This thing's been going on for 10 years and it's time for it to be over," he said. (Switzer).

Meanwhile, as that permit battle had proceeded, the Skotdal family also pursued the last available AM spot in the Puget Sound basin: 1520 AM. That frequency had long been held in reserve by the FCC and they were now opening it up for usage. Thirteen parties submitted competitive applications, but the Skotdal family's application prevailed and the first all-new AM frequency to be activated in the Puget Sound region in 50 years was brought to Snohomish.

Twin Towers: Their Rise, Fall, and Rise

Good news also came to S-R Broadcasting when the FCC finally gave its final approval to the KRKO application and those long-sought four towers were built and activated. In February 2009, the station's power was boosted but only months later -- after construction began on the additional two towers needed for 1520 AM -- unknown entities took the law into their own hands.

On the morning of September 4, 2009, news broke that the two towers had been toppled by vandals. Furthermore, the apparent culprits -- members of the radicalized eco-activist group, the North American Earth Liberation Front -- claimed responsibility for the attack. That same morning the ELF headlined their piece: "Breaking news: Earth Liberation Front Topples Two Radio Station Towers in Snohomish County, WA." The mainstream media had long labeled the ELF as an "ecoterrorist" group and a $25,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the culprits remains outstanding. The Skotdals maintain that the attack was orchestrated by a local opponent.

Meanwhile, S-R Broadcasting moved ahead with rebuilding their fallen towers and KRKO continues airing popular programming which includes local high school football and  basketball games, Everett Aquasox baseball games, Everett Silvertips hockey games, WSU Cougar football games, NASCAR races, and Fox Sports Radio programming.

In February 2009, KRKO finally achieved its dream of joining the ranks of other Northwest AM giants -- KIRO (710 AM), KOMO (1000 AM), KPTK (1090 AM), and KJR (950 AM) -- broadcasting at a mighty 50,000-watts.


Sources: KFBL -- Puget Sound Station, promotional brochure, undated ca. 1926, courtesy Everett Public Library; "The First Brick Building," The Everett Times, March 3, 1890, newspaper clipping, courtesy Everett Public Library; License For Land Radio, U.S. Department of Commerce, August 25, 1922, copy courtesy Everett Public Library; Edward Friberg, "Radio Station KRKO," unpublished WPA essay, March 26, 1937, copy courtesy Everett Public Library; Radio At War: KRKO, booklet, 1942, courtesy Everett Public Library; Radio At War: KOL, booklet, 1942, Peter Blecha Collection; "KRKO Is On New Wave Length With More Power," Everett Herald, October 19, 1950, courtesy Everett Public Library; "KRKO Marks 38th Year: Announces Promotions," Everett Herald, July 31, 1957, courtesy Everett Public Library; "Broadcast Pro-File: KRKO," undated report to William R. Taft, courtesy Everett Public Library; Hugh Rundell, They Took To The Air: An Oral History of Broadcasting in Washington, Narrated by the Men and Women Who Built the State's Radio and Television Stations (Pullman: Washington State Association of Broadcasters, 1990), 523, 539, copy in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle; "The Voice From Boomsville," Image Northwest, July 1967, pp. 22-25; Julie Muhlstein, "Thelma Taft Played a Big Role in Everett Radio," Everett Herald, March 15, 2009, p. 84; David Richardson, " Puget Sounds: A Nostalgic Review of Radio and TV in the Great Northwest (Seattle: Superior Publishers, 1981), 142, 162, 187; KRKO.com website accessed on September 18, 2010 (http://www.krko.com/stationinfo/historicalmemorabilia/); Jeff Switzer, "KRKO begins work on new radio towers: Neighbors are asking the FCC not to grant the station permits it needs," Daily Herald, Sept 1, 2007, Daily Herald  website accessed September 18, 2010 (http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20070901/NEWS01/109010033); Debra Smith, Jackson Holtz, and Andy Rathbun, "Ecoterrorists claim toppling of KRKO radio towers," Daily Herald, Sept 4, 2009, website accessed  September 18, 2010 (http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20090904/NEWS01/709049802); Andrew Skotdal, email to Peter Blecha, September 23, 2010, copy in author's possession.

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