A pioneer of Seattle public television and legendary figure in radio history, Milo Ryan was responsible for discovering and preserving a forgotten cache of some of the most important radio news broadcasts of the twentieth century. A University of Washington communications professor, Ryan was a founder of KCTS Channel 9 in 1954 and served as the station's first program director. While searching for World War II broadcasts for a television series, Ryan learned that KIRO radio had stored old acetate-disc recordings made during that time. Not labeled or indexed, the recordings were of little use, so the station transferred crates of them to the university. Ryan soon discovered that the university was now holding the only complete set of recordings of the CBS news broadcasts from the war years. Beginning with a 1939 speech by Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), the recordings encompassed the groundbreaking reports of journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965), as well as speeches by Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), and others. Ryan eventually published a catalog detailing the collection, which is now named in his honor and overseen by the UW Libraries Media Archives.
A Man of Many Talents
A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Milo Ryan graduated from the University of Michigan and taught at Wayne State University before coming to Seattle in 1942, bringing with him an instinct for public relations and seemingly boundless energy to pursue it. He had been hired for a temporary position in the UW journalism school and within weeks began making news himself. The Seattle Times noted him hosting a night-school class in magazine writing for aspiring journalists, spotted him attending a special preview of a Noel Coward play and other theatrical events around town, and cited him for providing choice tidbits to newspaper columnists. The following year UW hired Ryan on a tenure track. He also began working in public relations for the federal Office of Price Administration.
Ryan focused his promotional skills on public service and the arts. He served as executive secretary for the Arboretum Foundation and helped with publicity for Seattle Opera. With a lifelong interest in theater instilled by his father, Ryan had been involved in writing and producing plays while at the University of Michigan. In 1948 he pursued that passion by cofounding the Surrey Playbarn on an 80-acre farm in Bellevue.
Described as a "picturesque summer theater on the east shore of Lake Washington" ("Surrey Playbarn ..."), the Playbarn featured blockbusters of the day, including Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller's All My Sons, and also Ryan's own comedy, Live and Breathe. Ryan served as "carpenter, electrician, painter, stage hand, box-office manager, decorator, landscape gardener, property man, seamster and a few things like that" ("Barn Actors ...").
Ryan also loved to play the piano. His friend and UW colleague Pat Cranston (b. 1925) would sometimes spend evenings at his house, singing songs from Broadway musicals while Ryan accompanied on the piano.
Teaching, Talking, and Television
But Ryan found his true calling as an educator and broadcast journalist. He was "a demanding professor but also a very understanding person," recalled Cranston, who was the journalism school's first tenure-track woman professor. "Good students liked him. Ones who slacked off did not, because he would always trip them up" (Cranston interview). Cranston remembered Ryan as a proud Irishman and devout Catholic, with a brother who was a priest, someone who didn't mind teaching 8 a.m. classes because he was up early every morning to go to Mass.
In addition to his duties at UW, Ryan hosted a regular Friday-evening program on radio station KJR (following Ozzie and Harriet) and in 1952 was chosen by NBC as a radio and television reporter for the Republican and Democratic conventions.
Ryan wasn't movie-star handsome, but with his radio-friendly voice, dapper bowtie, and slicked-back hair, he embodied the newly minted adjective "telegenic." In May 1954 Washington Governor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) selected Ryan to serve on a 34-member committee to organize a Seattle educational television station. Soon after, Ryan was appointed program director of the new KCTS-TV Channel 9 -- a joint venture of UW, Seattle University, Seattle Pacific College, Seattle Public Schools, and The Seattle Public Library.
Loren Stone was general manager of the new station, Gordon Tuell was production manager, and John Boor chief engineer. Norman Jensen and George Mall served as producer directors. Also among the original staff members were Leslie D. Mangiantini, in charge of film; Robert Collins, head of stage and graphics; and Leon "Bill" Hevly (1930-2004), a former student of Ryan, assistant producer of public-school programming.
As the station -- operating from a studio at UW -- prepared for its debut, Ryan not only planned programming but also taught his students how to operate cameras and do the behind-the-scenes production at a television station. As was typical at the time, men assumed much of the technical work. In the beginning, only one "co-ed" radio-TV major, Paty Eiffe, bucked gender stereotypes to study camera operation.
Meanwhile Nick Foster, head of the radio-television department at Edison Technical School, trained his students to operate the transmitter, donated by KING-TV and installed at the school. A new 210-foot steel tower stood on the rooftop to support the 3,800-pound antenna. Funding for the new station included a $150,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, as well as community donations.
On the Air
KCTS first took to the air at 7 p.m., December 7, 1954, with a five-minute presentation by Ryan, its program director. He outlined programs planned for January, when the station would begin regular transmissions. The following day Channel 9 tested its equipment with a half hour music show by the UW's resident Orchesis.
Television was in its infancy and ideas about what could be done with this astonishing new medium bounced all over the map. A sampling of other programs coming up that week on the commercial stations included Seattle Times columnist Lou Guzzo and critic John Voorhees (1925-2014), a former student of Ryan, talking with conductor Milton Katims; Stan Boreson's (1925-2017) show for children; the Benedictine Schola choir of St. Martin's College singing a thirteenth-century musical play; and Claire Trevor in the film Ladies in Retirement.
By August 1955 Ryan could report that the first year of KCTS was a success, with the station operating well within its budget. Channel 9 viewers were exposed to philosopher Mortimer Adler's (1902-2001) Great Ideas telecasts and to Modern Approaches to Mathematics, hosted by a Seattle University professor. The UW German department was preparing the university's first for-credit television course (in spoken German); Governor Langlie had slated a 12-week driver-safety course; and the station was producing Road to Survival, a 15-week series concerning the state's civil-defense program. Ryan and journalism professor Vernon McKenzie (1887-1963) produced a series called Re-writing History that would soon be rebroadcast nationally. Ryan told a reporter:
"We haven't tried to entertain, nor have we tried to compete with commercial television ...We have found beyond question that the closer we came to doing a direct teaching job the better our viewers like us and the better the response has been" ("Educational TV ...").
At that time Ryan also announced his resignation as program director, saying he wanted to devote more time to teaching.
On to Other Things
In fact, Ryan was already deep into other projects. He and McKenzie -- head of the journalism school from 1928 to 1941 and a former propaganda advisor for the British government -- were preparing a 10-part television series called Channels of Propaganda, slated to air in 1956. While seeking audio clips of wartime broadcasts for that series, Ryan heard about a cache of old CBS news recordings held by KIRO. Loren Stone, previously a manager at KIRO, remembered the recordings, and the station was able to locate them stored at its Vashon-Maury Island transmitter. KIRO had no use for the unlabeled disks and no way of finding specific broadcasts that might be useful to Ryan, so it transferred a truckload of 52 packing cases to UW.
The first segment of Channels of Propaganda aired in April 1956. In May, a few days before the final program aired, Ryan announced that he would be taking a one-year leave from UW in the fall: He had been appointed as program associate for the Educational Television and Radio Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His task would be to help the nation's 20 young educational stations develop shows that could be distributed nationally.
Then, in early July 1956, the UW communications department announced a lecture series that would include Ryan, along with speakers and representatives from the Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, and Time-Life-Fortune magazines, as well as Sig Mickelson (1913-2000) of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
After that, Ryan's near-constant stream of press announcements went strangely silent, but behind the scenes he was in high gear. In contact with CBS, Ryan had discovered that the crates of discs transferred to UW by KIRO held a precious cargo -- the only complete set of recordings of the network's wartime daily news broadcasts known to exist.
A Treasure on Acetate
That the recordings were made at all was a fluke of broadcast history. It's amazing to think about now, when the most casual tweet is digitally archived, but in those days CBS and other networks did not routinely preserve daily broadcasts. News reports were normally carried live and considered ephemeral. But that posed a problem for radio stations on the West Coast with their three-hour time difference for network broadcasts originating in New York. With war looming in Europe and the news increasingly urgent, KIRO decided it could best serve its audience by recording the early newscasts and airing them later, at an hour when most local listeners would be up. Recording technology was primitive and the best option was to transfer the sound to acetate discs. The discs were bulky and couldn't be erased and reused, so eventually station managers had a choice -- either throw them away or store them somewhere. Fortunately, they chose the latter.
The discovery of the recordings threw CBS, KIRO, and UW into uncharted waters. Who had rights to the broadcasts and how would they be used? Ryan worked behind the scenes as a diplomat, while tackling urgent archival issues with the collection. He oversaw a team of students as they initiated the years-long process of cataloging and transferring the discs to tape. At the same time, he prepared to leave for Ann Arbor to take on that challenging new job for a year.
There were no public announcements about the recordings initially as the parties worked through their concerns. In February 1957, KIRO made the gift to UW official and the School of Communications (formerly the School of Journalism) quietly proceeded with cataloging the discs. Ryan, in Ann Arbor, published an article in the Journal of Broadcasting at the University of Southern California in which he detailed the donation to UW of wartime recordings and the work being done to transfer them to tape. The article concluded, "It is the intention of the School of Communications at the University of Washington to open up the collection for study by all interested scholars, wherever they may come from. It is not intended that the discs will be made available for rebroadcast" (Ryan, "A Treasure House," 78)
The Seattle Times noted that Ryan had published the article, but did not report on its newsworthy contents. In September 1957, the CBS Foundation gave UW a $10,000 grant to help finance transcribing the collection from disc to tape. Still nearly two more years would pass before existence of the newly dubbed Phonoarchive was announced in The Seattle Times, in June 1959.
"Completion of the first phase of a monumental project, a tape-recorded, cataloged library of every network newscast aired from August, 1939 through April, 1945, was announced today by KIRO, Seattle affiliate of the Columbia Broadcasting System.
"The 'living history' project, conducted under the sponsorship of KIRO and C.B.S. began three years ago when the station's collection of acetate recordings of wartime newscasts was turned over to the University of Washington School of Communications by Saul Haas, KIRO president.
"The project assumed historical significance when it was learned the KIRO collection -- covering broadcasts recorded each day of the six-year war period -- is the only complete series in existence" (Skreen, "KIRO Compiles ...")
The announcement coincided with the airing of D-Day Plus 15 on Seattle's KIRO, the first radio program to make use of the newly catalogued archive. The broadcast marked the fifteenth anniversary of the Allied forces' 1944 landing at Normandy, and copies of the taped broadcast were to be given to President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and the Library of Congress.
It wasn't until 1960 that a news story revealed how Ryan had come to discover the recordings. Working with KIRO and CBS, Ryan had filtered the news releases to shine the best light on all parties and keep his own role in the background.
November 1960 found Ryan in London at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), researching how that institution managed its archives and hoping to find recordings he thought might be missing from the UW collection. He sent back several reports from Europe to The Seattle Times, and in one he informed readers that some of the most famous lines we associate with Winston Churchill were in fact never broadcast, because the BBC was not permitted to record or broadcast from the House of Commons where the speeches were given. The line "We will fight him in the air and on the sea, on the beaches" was actually recorded in a speech by Neville Chamberlain, who was paraphrasing Churchill (Ryan, "Churchill Oratory ...").
And Ryan learned that the great Churchill line, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, sweat and tears" was not recorded at the time he first spoke it in Parliament. Only later, when Churchill was no longer in office, was he persuaded to record a portion of the speech for posterity (Ryan, "Churchill Oratory ...").
Ryan had a knack for juicy details. In a report from Ireland the following week, he described being at a live theater performance and watching as three quarters of the audience left during an intermission. When he inquired why, he was told that people were going home to watch the Kennedy-Nixon debates on television!
Back in Seattle, Ryan kept up his usual pace of teaching, television and radio appearances, and sending news tips and commentary to local media outlets. In 1961 he was named second vice president of the Seattle chapter of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Lee Schulman, program director at KING-TV, was reelected president and Bob Gordon of KIRO-TV was chosen first vice president.
In May 1963 Ryan launched his new book, a catalog of the archive titled History in Sound: A Descriptive Listing of the KIRO-CBS Collection of Broadcasts of the World War II Years and After, in the Phonoarchive of the University of Washington. Then, with the Phonoarchive (Ryan had coined the term) finally cataloged and in use, he turned some of his attention back to television. In 1965 he and Julie Hungar started a program for Channel 9 called The Artist Among Us, featuring interviews with visual and performing artists working in Seattle. Among their subjects were actors Archie Smith (1918-2004) and Marjorie Nelson (1923 -2010), visual artists Robert Sperry (1927-1998) and Bill Cumming (1917-2010), modern-dance instructor Martha Nishitani (1920-2014), and Seattle architect Ibsen Nelsen (1919-2001).
Ryan also continued to add new material to the Phonoarchive until his retirement from UW in 1970. Two years later he was honored for his discovery and long stewardship of the collection when it was renamed in his honor: the Milo Ryan Phonoarchive.
An Active Retirement
Ryan was also recognized nationally, and he was asked to serve on a presidential task force to choose a record library for the White House. On March 20, 1973, he attended a ceremony there to celebrate the new collection, which included classical and popular music, poetry, drama, speeches, and commentary.
Even in retirement Ryan stayed tuned to the news and outspoken about his journalistic principles. In one letter to the editor he praised a story in which a politician called out an untrustworthy remark by President Richard M. Nixon (1919-1994) as "balderdash," concluding "As usual, the best way to counter an attempted political ploy is with the facts" ("Nixon's 'Balderdash'").
But Ryan's influence was perhaps most apparent in the stellar careers of his former students. His three decades of teaching imprinted generations of journalists in Seattle and beyond. When renowned White House correspondent Helen Thomas (1920-2013) flew to Seattle in 1976 to participate in a reporting seminar, she found time for dinner with Ryan. He had been her first journalism professor at Wayne State University, where she graduated in 1942. Ryan took Thomas to Ivar's Salmon House and also gave her a quick tour of the city. He quipped that Thomas had been impressed with how clean Seattle was, noting, "Of course after Watergate, anything looks clean" (Hinterberger).
Also among Ryan's students were Dolores Sibonga (b. 1931), who worked in radio and television before becoming the first Filipina American lawyer in Washington state and the first minority woman to serve on the Seattle City Council; Frank Chesley (1929-2010), who reported for The San Francisco Chronicle and served as television critic and reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (and later wrote for HistoryLink.org); Victor B. Olason (1930-2014), who worked for The Seattle Times as a reporter and assistant editor before joining the United States Information Agency, eventually becoming its Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs. Pioneering Seattle documentarian and television host Jean Walkinshaw (b. 1926) remembered Ryan's classes as transformative: "I was inspired," she later said, "he helped give me the philosophical base of what television could be -- the dream" (Farr interview).
The Milo Ryan Phonoarchive's contents continued to be put to countless uses in media and movies over the years. Among them, fittingly, since the first radio broadcast using audio clips from the archive commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of D-Day, was the the CBS broadcast D-Day Plus Forty Years in 1984.
A master of communication skills, Milo Ryan had spent decades behind a microphone, in front of cameras, and channeling information and ideas into print. Yet when he died in Capistrano Beach, California, in 1986 -- where he had moved to be near his brothers -- his obituary in The Seattle Times was modest. Considering his many years of prominence as a public figure, Ryan left behind little information about his life. He never married, and the cause of death was not mentioned. He was survived by his brothers, Tim and Bob in California, and Frank, in Detroit.