Iconic KING Broadcasting Sold to Hedge Fund: News Alums Recall the Glory Years

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King Broadcasting

Editor’s Note: King Broadcasting has a storied place in the annals of Seattle journalism. Now comes news of its sale to the Hedge Fund Standard General, assuming the $4.5 billion sale goes through regulatory review. To honor King’s illustrious history, we thought we’d publish some memories by our writers who once worked at King. The selling party is Tegna, Inc., one of a long list of owners since the Bullitt Family sold in 1991 the multi-city broadcast and cable company. Tegna is a Virginia-based company that was created when Gannett split off its broadcast properties from its newspaper division. 

The pioneering broadcast company was started in Seattle by the fabled Dorothy Bullitt, an indomitable business leader who ran the company, as did her three children, with panache, high standards, and idealism. Seattle used to have several family-owned media companies, King, The Seattle Times (still run by the fourth generation of the Blethen family), and KOMO ( formerly owned by the Fisher family). Now most Seattle media companies are owned by large, distant corporations, better known for attention to the bottom line than for great journalism. King is still a leading television station in Seattle, having spun off its radio stations and the cable company but still in charge of KING-5, as well as broadcast stations in Portland, Spokane, and Boise.

Barbara Spaeth, reporter for radio and television

I was the AFTRA shop steward and remember the unpleasant experience at the bargaining table on behalf of my colleagues with Henry Owen and other King brass.  I remember how Stim Bullitt’s costly adventures in Seattle Magazine and KING Screen Productions savaged the KING employee “profit sharing” plan for the little guys (mostly guys) who’d worked at the station when it was a startup.  I remember Irving Clark, famous for his acerbic call-in show on KING-AM, crossing our picket line when Mike James and Herb Altschul were loading bananas when we were on strike. I remember my then-husband Al Stenson, the chief cameraman, also crossing our picket line, because IATSE did not honor the IBEW strike.  I remember how hard we worked to get Rod Belcher, a good union man, back on the job after he refused to cross a picket line.

King’s early crusading journalist was Bob Schulman, who did some of its early investigative/documentary reporting, joining the news department after coming to Seattle as a Time/Life correspondent. Bob’s “Lost Cargo” put a spotlight on the mismanaged Port of Seattle just as one example.  However, under Stim Bullitt’s regime, Bob, a print journalist, was being harassed and moved on in the mid -1960s to the Louisville Courier-Journal and did great work there. As was the case in those days, his personal life was “somewhat unstable,” you might say, but he was a tough, ebullient journalist who made a difference with his reporting. 

It is time for someone with very deep pockets who respects good journalism and the people who do it to step up and buy KING in Seattle, giving it back for this community. My guess is that the new owner/hedge fund will be flogging its bits and pieces of the King companies to the highest bidder. I fear that KING has no other value to them but $$.  One of the post-Bullitt King owners, the giant media company Gannett, from what I saw in this region in the bad old days exploited its journalists, and thus, the communities its media served.  

Lori Matsukawa, Mike James, Tony Ventrella, Jean Enerson, Jeff Renner, Don Porter

Mike James, television reporter and anchor

I vividly recall my interview with Stim Bullitt for a job in radio news.  I was just a guy with little experience save for rip-and-read work in Moscow and Everett, but he never asked about any of it, just focused on what I had read, what I thought about the politics of the time, and what was the point of journalism.  Somehow I got the job.

Another time, with many of us gathered in Bullitt’s office as he shared his views on the importance of our work.  He said life may be fleeting, but reporting the news is not, adding a quote I’ve never forgotten: “Remember, you reach more people in a single night than Mr. Chips [the teacher in Goodbye Mr. Chips] reached in a lifetime.”

Some of us would meet with KING’s next CEO, Ancil Payne, to hear him talk about journalism, its significance, its crucial value to democratic life. I always remember, and quote often, one of Ancil’s remarks: “The essential foundation of a democracy is an informed citizenry.” 

A number marks the drift from Bullitt’s and Payne’s era to now.  I remember postings on the wall of our newscast ratings some 50 years ago, with dominating shares in the upper 40 range — one week was a 48.  I asked Lori Matsukawa during her retirement as anchor what shares had been recently.  The answer: 3. 

Gordon Bowker, writer, KING Screen, Seattle Magazine

Although I grew up as a Sheriff Tex fan, I knew nothing about King Broadcasting’s business and civic aspects.  When I was 11 years old, I won a Wright and McGill rod and reel and a toaster oven on a daytime tv show called “KING’s Ransom.”

To be hired at KING Broadcasting, you had to have a college degree (preferably Ivy League), and it helped if you had two last names.  As a kid from Sunset Hill and Burien, Catholic-educated, and no degree, I felt effectively disqualified.

It turned out differently.  In the death days of King Screen Productions, they were desperately hiring local freelancers to write screenplays for educational movies, and I got my foot in the door.  Very slow pay.  Frank Chin befriended me, and introduced me to Charles Michener, then managing editor of Seattle Magazine, who became my mentor.  After a few freelance pieces I was awarded a staff position.  I was there for the last year of the magazine’s life. 

It was a dream job: one magazine-length story a month, expense account, flexible hours, low pay.  And I got to meet some very interesting people:  fellow writers Ardie Ivie and David Brewster, art director Terry Heckler, commentator Charlie Royer, photographer Frank Denman, and many others.  Of course the magazine was doomed to failure.  The cover of the last issue had a tombstone that read “Seattle Magazine, 1964-1970,” which image was insisted on by its only publisher, Peter Bunzel.  Inside was a staff photo with all of us surrounding a closed coffin.

The workplace on Dexter Avenue was swimming with executives whose jobs appeared to be mysterious and interchangeable.  Many did have two last names.  I could never be quite certain what they actually did.  Right in the middle was the mysterious Stimson Bullitt.  He had launched King Screen and Seattle Magazine.  Mr. Bullitt seemed to have a vague but well-financed dream for the company that would somehow turn it into a regional cultural empire. 

He had a drawing of a new headquarters building in his office to be designed by Mies van der Rohe (never built).  He was shy and evasive, and also imperious and sometimes disdainful.  I can’t say I knew him or liked him.  But I had a true admiration for his unusual spirit. Despite his shortcomings as an executive, his efforts planted seeds that grew years and even decades later.  Sometime during my short tenure at KING, he was ousted.  It mattered little to me until the magazine folded in 1970.

David Brewster, magazine writer, TV assignment editor

KING in those days was the inspiration for my later life, including starting media companies, and making me want to understand and stay in Seattle. The magazine fancied itself as a New Yorker, where Bunzel had worked, and we would type up stories in quadruplicate so many editors would get their hands on the story, editing them to death. It was way ahead of the times for Seattle, and advertisers pulled out under pressure from stuffy pooh-bahs of the day. Stim would hire people very eccentrically and whimsically, and I used to think he was looking not for journalists but for college literature teachers. A thrilling place to be, like a really good bar.

When the magazine suddenly got its death sentence, I was offered a job as an editor in the television newsroom. I knew a bit about Seattle stories by then but absolutely nothing about film and live TV. The station was then riding high in ratings and acclaim, and Bullitt won our hearts with a moving, in-person, way-early editorial opposing the Vietnam War. But it was a zany roller coaster the company was on, which led to Stim being booted out by his mother and his sisters. The wealthy and socially prominent Bullitts were revered as the Dorothy Grahams of Seattle, but I don’t think any of them really liked the vulgarity of commercial television. Mrs. Bullitt, whose mother had helped found the Seattle Symphony, created the classical music radio station, KING-FM, now spun off to nonprofit ownership.

Fortunately, Stim’s successor as CEO was the inspiring and business-savvy Ancil Payne, brought up like the Royer brothers and others from the farm team in Portland. Eventually, the sisters grew weary of owning a television empire and there were thought to be no suitable next-generation children to inherit the company, and so it was put up for sale. (Successive owners were Providence, R.I. Journal, Belo Corporation of Dallas, Gannett, and Tegna.) As in many cities, the absentee owners took a station that was distinct and idealistic and quirky, and made it into a standard broadcast operation.

Somebody once told me that the most important job you’ll ever have is the first one, shaping one for good or bad. For me, working at the exhilerating, fractious King was the best first job ever. Later I left to do other things, in a way always trying to live up to Stim and to recreate the editorial culture of Seattle Magazine. Later, I became Stim’s friend, but I never really figured out his tragically conflicted life.

Jeff Renner, science reporter and meteorologist

Mrs. Bullitt and Friend

I never expected that mountain climbing would be part of my job at KING Television. Just months after arriving, management directed me to take a glacier climbing course with photographer Bill Fenster. The motivation was that Mount Baker was becoming increasingly active, seemed likely to erupt, and the station wanted us to accompany geologists into the crater. It was a hellish place but one offering important evidence of the volcano’s potential for eruption. The assignment was proof that when the station covered a story, it did so with imagination, thoroughness, and commitment.

Mount Baker didn’t erupt, but when Mount St. Helens rumbled to life just 18 months later in March of 1980, the station convened a crowded huddle in the newsroom. The objective was to develop a comprehensive plan to monitor the volcano’s reawakening and to offer viewers coverage providing the necessary context to understand the risks it did and did not pose. Photographer Mark Anderson, Engineer Mike Carter and I were sent with a camper to a remote ridge overlooking Mount St. Helens. We’d stay there for up to ten days at a time, provided with a helicopter, live broadcast and field gear, plus essentially complete journalistic freedom — all to a very young crew.

No other local television station committed that degree of resources or accepted that level of risk to its hard-earned reputation. Those risks included approval of our requests to push beyond the barricades into the Red Zone-before, during, and after the eruption. Such was the benefit of local ownership with a strong sense of responsibility to the community. 

Joel Connelly, Journalist and viewer

What we’ve lost from the old KING, a story.The Seahawks’ first coach, Jack Patera, had a show on KING. Jack controlled the content, There came an infamous wipeout in which Hawks netted minus 17 yards of offense.

The Jack Patera Show featured exclusively defensive plays, with almost no mention of how offense stank up the field.Don McGaffin did blistering commentary, using Jack Show as model of what was wrong and awful with highlight shows. He blistered KING management which was furious.

Hearing reports of his imminent demise, McGaffin rang up Dorothy Bullitt and moaned about facing dismissal.He was interrupted by her East-of-Nantucket voice: “Mr. McGaffin, would you meet me in the cafeteria at 9:45 tomorrow?”McGaffin started in again. Mrs. B repeated same message, curtly ended conversation.

The two sat down over coffee. As each station nabob came through, Mrs. Bullitt repeated message, “Mr. —-, I’m sure you know Mr. McGaffin here. Don’t you (feel, agree) he is doing a splendid job?”McGaffin went back to work. Patera ended up, sometime later, being the one who was fired.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. I can only say that “we” of the former KING family can be proud of what the station was and what we did to make it what it was. Blessings to all.
    Larry Cali (1967-1999)

  2. My dad was Milt Hughs, he worked for KING from the mid 60’s through the 70’s producing Seattle Today, and Seafair coverage, among other things. Anyone remember those times?

  3. KING was wonderful, the kind of operation where regular folks with a plausible case for stopping something bad could pick up the phone and have a good chance of getting through to someone who would actually listen, and send out a crew to cover whatever it was.

    Many a good cause was helped on to the local map by the good folks there.

  4. Nice to read these stories, as I have been a fan of KING for decades. I must say that the current incarnation is much preferable to all the other local stations, which seem to be heavy on crime and other right-wing fascinations, to the detriment of anything else. The crop of field reporters is also top-notch. I dread to see what will become of the station when the hedge fund takes over.

  5. Nice trip down memory lane. Grew up on KING-TV (late 40’s to 1970’s) watching and listening from Bellingham, up North on I-5. Great TV station – they were all great back then. Still remember the station fondly, though times have changed. Was a favorite with all our family. Sorry to see her go the way of the “hedge fund.” The old KING will live on in my memories.

  6. Gannett stripped it down and pretty much destroyed what was left of KING when they bought it from BELO. Not much left for a hedge fund to pick over. Tegna (Gannett) sold the old building, got rid of as much staff as they could when they started doing all the graphics etc. elsewhere, pushed out as much of the union staff as they could, pushed out all the “old” talent for kids who they could pay less, made up the job “multimedia journalist” which was just a fancy title for making a kid with an iPhone be their own cameraperson. No different than any other station now.

  7. Excellent coverage, Post Alley — thank you for this.

    I grew up and lived in Seattle, 1960s-1980s, and always followed the news closely. Gotta admit making wisecracks about TV news, and I’ve been gone from the city for 30 years, but I distinctly remember that Channel 5 was the news to watch. These recollections, from journalists who obviously gave/give a damn, shows why.

    Sorry to hear that the station has become like every other station in America. A hedge fund, indeed.

    Tip o’ the hat to the real KING5 crew, all these years later.

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