Washington's state capital Olympia was home to one of the first licensed commercial radio stations in the United States. It was there in 1914 that a Catholic monk affiliated with Saint Martin's College began experimenting with radio. Father Sebastian Ruth soon began operating a wireless station with the call sign of 7CM, later changed to 7YS. Because there were so few stations on the air, his little operation could be heard in 23 states, Canada, and Hawaii. In 1922, the federal government assigned the call letters KGY, and a decade later, Father Sebastian sold the station to Seattle businessman Archie Taft. In 1939, Taft sold out to Tom Olsen of Olympia. The Olsen family would continue to own and operate KGY for more than 80 years.
In the summer of 1921, Father Sebastian Ruth (1876?-1958) began experimenting with voice broadcasting. His equipment was patched together with the remains of other transmitters, homemade condensers made of tinfoil, and paper or sheet copper with cold-cream jar rectifiers. His first studio was in an 8-by-10-foot shack on the Saint Martin's College campus. By January 1922, listeners could look forward to regular programs on Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday evenings from 8:30 to 9:30.
The Federal Radio Inspector in Seattle got wind of what was happening and ordered Father Sebastian to go off the air until he obtained a proper license. That license, with the call sign KGY, was granted on April 4, 1922. According to some records, KGY was among the first 40 stations to be licensed in the United States. Others say it was number 110. Whatever the case, the little station was one of the nation's first.
KGY’s limited programming consisted of recorded operas and live local performers by people such as vocalist Ralph Kater of the Olympia Fire Department, a Tacoma harpist, and a "native" Hawaiian performer from nearby Fort Lewis. The station also experimented with live play-by-play sports. In November 1922, KGY broadcast an Olympia High School football game from Stevens Field, relaying information through a telephone connection. Listeners tuned in on their homemade crystal sets and even specially wired bedspring coils.
In 1925 Father Sebastian moved KGY’s studio into a nearby and more spacious log cabin, nestled in a wooded area but still on the Saint Martin’s campus. The new studio had a fireplace and room to accommodate larger performing groups. These included Father Flanagan’s Boystown singers, the Wickwire Orchestra, and the Ethiopia Knights. The station attracted nearly 4,000 visitors during the seven years it was in the log cabin.
New Owner, New Location
With the help of a few students and his friend Phil Fryer, Father Sebastian ran virtually everything at KGY, but eventually the demands for expanded programming became too much to handle and he sold the station to Seattle businessman Archie Taft in 1932. Taft, who owned KOL in Seattle, moved KGY from the Saint Martin’s campus to the new Capital Park Building adjacent to the State Capitol campus in Olympia.
During this time, newspaperman Sam Crawford, who had roots in Alaska, was hired to do local news, which was something unique at the time. Crawford was quoted in an interview with the Fairbanks News-Miner on August 26, 1972, as saying, "There wasn’t any local news on the radio in those days. I had to nuke a job for myself and did at KGY in Olympia, the state capital ... I guess I had about the first local news program in the state." Seattle stations ran news, but according to Crawford, their news came from networks without any local reporting.
Besides local news, KGY programming in the 1930s included a variety of local programming. Station announcers were able to broadcast the Fourth of July parade as it moved down Capitol Way by simply looking out their studio windows. The Easter Sunrise Service on the Capitol steps was broadcast to a national audience. The Mickey Mouse Club was broadcast for kids every Saturday from the downtown Olympia Liberty Theater, emceed by theater manager Harold Murphy, while Sam Totten played the Wurlitzer organ. Local churches brought choral groups into the studio to perform. One of the vocalists was Margaret Dodds, a young woman who frequently mentioned KGY in her diaries.
In 1935, KGY joined the Mutual Don Lee network, which gave it access to national programming. The station updated its transmitter in 1936 and operated on a frequency of 1210. In 1937, the Christian Science Monitor cited KGY as being one of the oldest radio stations in the U.S. and commended it for making sure no hard-liquor advertisements were accepted.
Tom Olsen Takes Over
In 1939 the station was sold to Tom Olsen, a native Olympian who had a background as a sports reporter for the Seattle Star and a manager of several theaters. He had been manager of the Warner Brothers Theater in Aberdeen before purchasing KGY. Olsen believed in service to the community and was active in Rotary, the Elks, and many other organizations. He encouraged his staff members to do the same.
In 1941, KGY moved its studios to the second floor of the new Rockway Leland Building at State and Washington streets in downtown Olympia. The station was now broadcasting on the frequency of 1240 kc with a power of 250 watts. Its tower was situated on the roof of the building.
Soon after the move, the U.S. entered World War II and an air-raid siren was installed on the roof next to KGY’s tower. The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, Washington Governor Arthur Langlie came to the station for an interview with KGY news reporter Sam Crawford. As more and more men joined the war effort, women often filled their positions on the home front. One of them was Evie Salathe, who assumed engineering and announcing duties at KGY. She recalled that KGY sometimes remained on the air for 24 hours to keep local residents informed about the war effort. After the war ended, the air-raid siren on the station’s rooftop sounded the joyous all-clear signal on August 15, 1945, on what became known as VJ Day.
Although war news was important during the 1940s, KGY provided plenty of local and network programming for entertainment. KGY’s affiliation with the Mutual Don Lee Network allowed the station to carry such programs as Superman, Green Hornet, Captain Midnight, and Queen for a Day. The station’s studio had a baby grand piano, which was used by church groups and others for live programming. The studio was the site of a popular Saturday morning children’s program featuring Winifred Olsen – better known as Mother Goose. President Harry Truman, while on a campaign visit to Olympia in 1948, used KGY’s studio and facilities to relay an address to San Francisco.
Not everything happened inside the Rockway Leland building. Organist Phil Raboin closed out the evening with his "Out of the Night" program, which featured organ music from the Capitol Rotunda. Station announcer Dyer Downing read poetry between the musical selections. Governor Mon Wallgren dropped by to visit from time to time. KGY set up what became known as a drive-in studio at a car dealership on Martin Way in 1948. People listening to KGY on their car radios could drive up to the dealership, park, and watch a variety of local talent perform on a glassed-in stage. Among the performers were local country and western groups Oakie Armstrong and the U. E. Chamberlain Carboys, and a young Don Rich, who went on to play with country legend Buck Owens.
When a 6.7 magnitude earthquake rattled Olympia on April 13, 1949, KGY sent reporters Larry Dossett and Dyer Downing on a tour of the city with a heavy battery-operated tape recorder. Among other things, they described kids being evacuated from Lincoln Elementary School and the damage to Mottman’s Department Store and the Governor’s Mansion.
A License to Print Money
In the summer of 1960, KGY moved its studio again. This time it was to a location on a pier at the north end of the Port of Olympia. At the same time, its daytime power was increased to 1,000 watts. Nighttime authorization remained 250 watts. Not everyone was happy with KGY’s fancy new digs. In an editorial run on the air on August 10, 1960, Don Whitman, who owned Olympia’s only other radio station, KITN, complained bitterly that Tom Olsen had not only failed to invite him to KGY’s grand opening, but had repeatedly shown bitterness toward his station. Whitman said it was because of competition from KITN that KGY was making improvements.
By early 1961 it became obvious that it would take more than a fancy new building to grow the station’s listenership, so Olsen brought in a consultant, who recommended tighter control over what the announcers could say, and a modernized music playlist. With only one other radio station in town and little other competition other than the local newspaper, KGY had virtually a license to print money. Sponsors had to get on the waiting list to buy time on the 7 a.m. local news. Announcers had to be careful not to run more than 18 minutes of commercials per hour, which was the maximum allowed by the FCC at the time.
The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were very good times at KGY. Sometimes it seemed like the whole town was listening. Station promotions brought out big crowds. Hundreds of people took part in KGY’s annual Key Hunt, which ran between 1969 and 1978. A wooden key was hidden somewhere in Olympia, Lacey, or Tumwater. It might be under a bridge in Priest Point Park or virtually anyplace else. Clues were given over the air as to its location. The person who found the key would receive a treasure chest of jewelry during Olympia’s Lakefair celebration in July. The hugely popular event was eventually canceled after participants began trespassing on private property or putting themselves in danger as they looked for the key. Even simple events like a homemaker’s show brought out the crowds. On April 19, 1977, an estimated 2,000 people showed up to watch a traveling home economist share cooking tips on a stage set up on the Saint Martin’s College Pavilion floor.
Deaths, Disasters, Changes
After Olsen died on February 29, 1977, his wife Theresa took over and made a few changes, such as keeping the station on the air all night. (Tom Olsen had believed there was no money to be made during the late-night hours, so KGY signed off at 11 p.m. most nights.) On November 15, 1978, Margo Vann became the first overnight announcer. On November 9 of that same year, KGY learned that, after 43 years, it was losing its affiliation with the Mutual Broadcasting System. The station had become increasingly unhappy with the network’s quality of service anyway, but losing it to cross-town competitor KITN was a psychological blow. KGY replaced the Mutual Broadcasting network with the AP Radio Network.
The 1980s arrived with a bang – literally! Mount St. Helens blew its top on May 18, 1980. It was a Sunday morning and Tom Trotzer was on the air. He relayed the basic information to listeners, but ash from the initial eruption traveled mainly into Eastern Washington, and Olympia was not especially affected. KGY announcer Mike Hudson, who was a member of the National Guard, was called to duty. Other staff members filled in for him while he was gone. Another eruption occurred the following Sunday, May 25. This time the wind was expected to send the ash to the Olympia area. Again, it was Trotzer who sounded the first alarm.
An inside joke among KGY staffers was that natural disasters were the station’s most effective promotions. KGY had earned the reputation for being the station to turn to when there was a crisis. This was especially true during snowstorms and windstorms. KGY was always there to keep its listeners informed. There were many such events; one that was especially memorable was the Thanksgiving Day windstorm of 1983. Wind gusts of around 60 mph knocked the lights out for thousands of Thurston County residents, leaving countless uncooked turkeys in the oven.
Two deaths in the mid-1980s brought about more change at KGY. Long-time station manager Herb Anderson died suddenly on May 14, 1984. Station owner Theresa Olsen appointed her daughter Barbara Kerry as station manager. A few months later, on the day after Christmas, Theresa Olsen died, leaving the station to Kerry, who became the sole owner. Kerry almost immediately began making changes. She installed new carpeting, and the station was painted inside and out. Rotted boards on the deck were replaced. Everyone on the staff received new jackets and tee shirts with the station logo. Kerry also took on a statewide leadership role when she was appointed to the Washington State Association of Broadcasters Board of Directors on September 30, 1985.
The Station Struggles
KGY’s "license to print money" began to fade in the mid- to late-80s and early 1990s. There were many factors, most of which were outside the station’s control. After being a separate market for many years, Olympia was merged into the Seattle Metro market. KGY barely showed up in the Seattle ratings, and advertisers, who looked at market share, were no longer interested in buying time on KGY. There were many other challenges as well. Local retailers were being replaced by major chain operations whose advertising decisions were made many miles from Olympia with buyers who had no knowledge of KGY. Direct mail was also becoming a factor. More and more radio stations were going on the air with FM becoming the dominant platform. Thurston County’s population was experiencing rapid growth, with more and more of those newcomers living farther out of town – many beyond KGY’s 1,000-watt signal, especially during the hours of darkness. People just couldn’t hear the station anymore.
The biggest competitor of all was the Olympian newspaper. It could charge high rates and scoop up most of the advertising dollars, leaving scraps for the rest. While the radio audience was being fragmented as more and more stations came on the air, there was only one daily newspaper, and it was growing by leaps and bounds. In the late-1990s, it claimed to have over 100,000 readers each day. KGY had only a small fraction of that in terms of daily listeners. In 1999, the Olympian opened its remodeled building on Fourth Avenue and boasted a staff of nearly 240. KGY, meanwhile, had roughly 15 fulltime employees and 10 part-timers.
Battling the Competition
In 1990, KXXO-FM went on the air. Even though its transmitter was in Lewis County, its powerful signal covered not only Thurston County but most of Western Washington. Its mix of skillfully programmed contemporary music made it the most listened-to station in Olympia — except when it came to local news. KGY was the only station that maintained a fulltime news department, although it gradually diminished from a three and a half person staff to only one person.
KGY owner Barbara Kerry knew her low-powered AM station could no longer compete against the better-sounding and more powerful FM stations. After years of searching, KGY’s Washington, D.C., attorney Mike Bader located an available FM frequency, but the station had to be licensed to McCleary, a town about 20 miles to the west. KGY got the license and 96.9 went on the air on September 2, 1992. Its tower and transmitter were located on Simpson Timber Company property on Maxwell Hill in Grays Harbor County, near the border with Mason County. There was no commercial power available at the site, so the station operated for several years on generator power.
Instead of simulcasting the AM station on 96.9 FM, station management decided to program something different — classic rock. It was hoped that a heavy sound would counter criticism that KGY was for old people and that, "every time you saw a name in the obituaries, you were seeing one less KGY listener." The station’s sales staff, accustomed to selling KGY’s soft rock and news programming, now had to figure out how to sell a new sound. Some of the staff liked the hard rock sound while others loathed it.
Things changed on December 27, 1996, when an ice storm moved through the area. An Olympian newspaper headline called it "The Night of Breaking Trees." KGY-AM managed to remain on the air, but KGY-FM did not. KGY engineer Tom Trotzer couldn’t even get close to the transmitter site. He said in some places, trees had pancaked one on top of another to a height of 20 or 30 feet over the narrow logging-road access. Trotzer was good at using his chainsaw, but there was no way he could clear access to the tower site without help. Fortunately for KGY, a Simpson Timber crew made themselves available a few days later.
By January 2, 1997, Trotzer was able to reach the FM transmitter site, but he found one of the guy wires supporting the tower had been torn loose and he feared some of the relay equipment might have been damaged as well. After a few days he was able to get the FM transmitter functioning, but soon other problems, possibly related to the storm, cropped up and the station went off the air until the end of January.
After the extended outages, whatever audience KGY-FM had managed to build with its Classic Rock format was mostly gone, and so were the advertisers. KGY-FM had to essentially start over. After much discussion, it was decided to switch formats to something called Real Country. It featured a lot of older country hits and appealed to many of the same people who enjoyed the AM’s soft rock format. The format change took place on April 1, 1997. Some of the few remaining Classic Rock fans thought it was a cruel April Fool’s joke and were irate.
Despite its limitations, KGY remained an important voice for local news and could provide a sense of immediacy. One of the most significant examples was the station’s importance after the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake on February 28, 2001. Although KGY had never rehearsed a formal disaster response plan, everyone on duty that day seemed to intuitively know what they had to do. Not a single staff member went home to check on personal matters. All commercial and music programming was suspended to devote full time to gathering earthquake information. The AM 1240 signal was simulcast on the more powerful 96.9 FM frequency. The local community cable channel TCTV also carried KGY’s programming. Listeners were put on the air to provide eyewitness accounts. One of the first callers was Secretary of State Sam Reed, who described the scene at the State Capitol. Listeners were invited to visit the station to give their personal accounts on the air.
Facing Tough Times
KGY’s existence faced a triple challenge in the first decade of the 2000s. On February 26th, 2006, station owner Barbara Kerry died after a long battle with cancer. Dick Pust [author of this essay], then the station’s general manager, took the reins until Kerry's estate could be settled. At about the same time, the Port of Olympia made it clear it wanted KGY to leave when its 50-year lease expired at the end of 2009. Then along came the Great Recession. The full effects weren’t felt until January 2009. Sales dropped dramatically. The station collected only about half the amount needed to make payroll and pay bills. Shortly before the station’s 50-year lease was to expire, the Port of Olympia did an about-face and agreed to a lease extension. The tower had to go, but the building could stay for a while.
The station continued to struggle financially. Staff reductions had to be made, and every expense possible was eliminated. Pust, who had spent 51 years at the station, left KGY on January 5, 2011, leaving Kerry’s daughter Jennifer Kerry, who resided in Florida, in charge. Not long after that, management was turned over to Jackson Dell Weaver, whose specialty was returning failing radio stations to profitability.
Is There Still a KGY?
On November 19, 2013, shortly after Weaver took control, KGY’s FM station changed its call letters to KYYO. The following year KGY’s AM 1240 license was sold to Sacred Heart Radio of Seattle. For a few days after the Catholic broadcaster took over, the call sign remained KGY, but it was soon changed to KBUP. Sacred Heart representative Ron Belter indicated the call letter change was part of the agreement when they bought the station. "We were aware of the KGY call letters' significance, but didn’t want the issue to be a deal-breaker," he said. Ninety-two years after the station had been founded by a Catholic priest at Saint Martin’s College, the station had gone full circle and returned to its Catholic roots.
Former KGY-AM and KGY-FM General Manager, Jackson Dell Weaver provided some background on these changes during an interview on March 16, 2017. Weaver said fewer and fewer people were listening to AM radio, and selling the station was a quick way to bring in an extra $250,000 in cash. But why change the FM’s 96.9 call letters? Weaver said they were changed to KYYO because that was the closest they could come to KAYO, which is how they wanted to identify the station. For many years the KAYO call letters had been known in the Seattle/Olympia area for country music. The actual FCC-assigned call letters were owned by a station in Wasilla, Alaska. Once a three-letter call sign like KGY is relinquished, it can never be returned. Was that ever a consideration? "I just didn’t think of it," Weaver said (author interview).
In the ears of the listener, KGY continues to exist. It’s just that the call letters are now a slogan. KGY’s programming is now heard on 95.3. One has to listen carefully at the top of the hour for a rapidly announced station identification. It’s KYYO-FM’s HD channel 2 rebroadcast over K337FR, a translator station in Tumwater. The station, still operated by the Olsen/Kerry family, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2022. Tom and Theresa Olsen’s great-grandson, Nick Kerry, is the general manager. The station’s format consists mostly of oldies from the 1970s and 1980s. Rather than emphasizing the news and information format of the old KGY, Kerry says the focus is on providing entertainment – an "escape into something positive."